The geographical region known historically as India and now by the more politically correct ‘South Asia’, is often referred to as a sub-continent. While it is not really very large in area compared to other continental countries, with its range of climates, topographies and physical insulation, South Asia has an exceptional geography. Surprisingly though, geography has been as ignored in the writing of Indian history as it has been in the understanding of its present.
Some historians of ancient India have been conscious of geographical factors in human history. D.D. Kosambi was the first to integrate geography closely into the explanation of pre-history and ancient history. Romila Thapar, D. N. Jha and Shireen Ratnagar are other names which come to mind of historians of this period who have woven the geographical aspect into their historical narratives. The location of Stone-Age societies were determined largely by geographical factors, while agricultural societies first developed in river valleys. Geography has also been difficult to ignore in ancient history since much of the period is marked by the ‘progress’ of agricultural societies from the west to the east, as their iron axes slowly subdued the forests of the Indo-Gangetic plains. In a sense, the ancient period deals with social formations where humans are still closely tied to nature and do not yet command the productive forces and technology which would enable them to ignore geographical bounds to their actions.
But geography gets reduced in its importance to historical explanation by the time historians start looking at the medieval world, specially for South Asia. Irfan Habib’s Atlas of the Mughal Empire stands as a sole exception to this trend, and even here geography is seperately acknowledged rather than being woven into the fabric of the historical interpretation. Recently there have been some studies which have tried to look at the Indian Ocean as a historical zone and are obviously inspired by Fernand Braudel’s way of looking at the Mediterranean.
This neglect of geography is most obvious in the works of modern historians and in the methodologies which social scientists have used to study India as it emerged under colonial rule. Geography is marked by its complete absence. This lack of geography in our academic understanding has also permeated into contemporary popular perceptions of what constitutes India. Geography and geographical features are like mere trophies of nationhood – the Himalayas often referred to as a crown of our nation, the rivers like arteries, etc. Our national anthem glorifies the mountains, rivers and seas within this geography as mere ornaments of an alluring woman. Contemporary ideas of nationhood expects all those born within the geographical space enclosed by the Indian state to be Indians, not merely in the form of citizens, but also culturally. But it is unwilling to give geography a say in constituting this nation.
Historically, India or ‘Hind’ referred to the area between the Himalayas and other mountains in the north, stretching from the west to the east, and bounded by the seas on three sides of its peninsula. But it has also referred to something more than merely a tract of multicoloured real estate. Call it culture, or a tradition of knowledge, or a civilisation, there has been something more than mere geography in the reference to India from Alexander to Columbus – a span of almost two millennia. Caste, both in its sense of Varna and Jati, has been the central organising structure of societies in all the river valleys of South Asia. While Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Sikhism and Christianity have been prevalent in this region, the amalgam of ideas and practices called ‘Hindu’ has influenced all of them and become another historical marker of the “Indian” identity. There have also been similarities in economic and political forms over the length and breadth of the land as well as economic and political linkages between the different regions of India. Together these provide a materially grounded historical unity to India.
Although this historical reality of India as a single civilisation is real, this civilisation was not evenly spread over the entire region of South Asia. This civilisation was confined to the river valleys and other fertile agricultural lands. In North India this civilisation was confined to the flood plains of the Indus and Ganges river systems. Similarly the agricultural zones along the Narmada, the Mahanadi, the Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery rivers, to name the most important, were the areas where this civilisation was rooted. Despite their distance from each other, historically the evolved as a single civilisational unit.
Large tracts of land within this sub-continent remained outside the domination/dominion of this Indian civilisation till well into the modern period of European expansion.The mountains stretching from Balochistan through the present day NWFP, Kashmir, Himachal, Uttarakhand, Nepal and on beyond Bhutan into where they merged with the mountains of Burma were such a zone. They provided the Northern border between India and the civilisation of China as well as that with Persia. This Northern mountainous ‘border’ zone — the abode of snow and divine beings — has been difficult for the people of the riverine plains to access but has been central to the geographical imagination of India for millennia. But the difficulty in accessing them has meant that they have been largely insulated from the political, economic, social and cultural life of the plains. While some parts of these mountains (NWFP and Kashmir) were under the political and military control of ‘Indian’ empires at some points like under Ashoka, Harsha and the Mughals, this control was tenuous and unstable. Most of these mountains stretching from Kashmir till Burma were never ever under the political control of any ‘Indian’ entity till the British came along.
Sociologically too they were different as their populations were organised along lines of clan and tribe and not around hierarchical castes, families too were not organised along either the mitakshara or dayabhag legal codes. Economically they had only a very minor relationship with the civilisational centres of ‘India’, and even their religious practices were equally influenced by and equally distant from Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist traditions. The Himalayas can be seen as an extensive and difficult to control border zone between the civilisations of India and China. Similarly, the mountainous regions of Balochistan and NFPW were a border zone between India and Persia.
It is significant that historically, the only passage that was available through these northern mountains was through the Khyber Pass. Therefore, historically, South Asia has had regular contact with the cultures and militaries of Central Asia but none whatsoever with China. Even the contact with Persia was more at the level of ideas and cultural influences than political, economic or military. The function of the Khyber as a gateway for military marauders also led to a constant churning of social, economic and political structures in Punjab, which was denied the stability of social and political structures. Therefore Punjab remained the only riverine, agriculturally rich area of South Asia that did not develop ‘high’ culture of the sort associated with the river valleys of the Ganges, Narmada or Krishna and Cauvery.
Internally too, the river valleys where the Indian civilisation prospered were divided by hills and forests, where lived people whose social structures, economic practices, political institutions and ideological expressions were outside the domination/dominion of this civilisation, even though some cultural influences and economic linkages with the riverine cultures did emerge over time. These areas were not as insulated from Indian civilisational influences as were the mountain societies of the North. These stretched through the entire centre of the Indian peninsula starting from where the desert ended in Rajasthan till where the Ganges river flowed into the sea. Similarly large tracts spread over the forests and hills of present day Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. These zones can be considered internal borders of the Indian civilisation. While the mountains of the north and the west separated the Indian civilisation from China and Persia, these hills and forests separated the river valleys from each other. But these internal borders did not block all contact, these allowed passage of men, materials and ideas through them but themselves remained outside the pale of Indian civilisation.
In terms of sheer area, these border zones, both internal and external, constituted as much as half the area of what eventually became the British Indian Empire and the territorial template for the modern nation-States of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. Even though these were sparsely populated, in total they also hosted millions of people with diverse social and economic conditions.
The modern nation of India (and for that matter Pakistan or Bangladesh) has defined the culture and history of the river valleys as truly Indian (or Pakistani or Bengali). And it is also an evident truth of our conflicted existence over the past six decades that the people living in these borderlands have not accepted these definitions of Indian, Pakistani or Bengali that have been defined as normative for these new nation-States.
In Pakistan, it appears to me that an amalgam of Punjabi and the Urdu-Muslim cultures of north India have been defined as Pakistan. From available evidence, the Pakhtuns, the Baloch, the Sindhis and Kashmiris have, at best, a conflictual relationship with this identity. In India, it is interesting that other than in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand (which constitute the Western Himalayas), all the areas that I have defined as borderlands have a conflictual relationship with the Indian nation-State, whether it is Kashmir, the north-eastern states, the ‘tribal’ belts of central India, etc. Perhaps one of the explanations for the greater fragility of the Pakistani State lies in the fact that in terms of sheer size its borderzones overwhelm the riverine area of irrigated Punjab and commercial Karachi which are more or less surrounded by a contiguous border zone. On the other hand, in India these borderzones are scattered and surrounded by the riverine areas. Moreover, in Pakistan there is only one riverine zone, Punjab (and that too not the entire historical province), which has to single-handedly deal with three and more distinct borderzones, whereas in India there are at least three very large riverine zones which are economic, political and cultural/ideological powersources of their own. In this sense, India stands on three legs while Pakistan stands on one, partitioned leg.
It is also an interesting point to note that while the expression of unease with the nation-State generally takes the form of ‘national self-determination’ in the northern mountains (whether it is Balochistan, NWFP, Kashmir or north-east India), in the internal borderlands this takes the form of peasant rebellions expressed in the idiom of Maoist armed movements. Nepal seems an obvious exception to this pattern, but one must remember that much of Nepal’s politics is defined by the need to resist what they call Indian Imperialism. This the Maoists share with almost all political players in that country.
While I do not think that geography provides all the answers, but the above illustrations hopefully have indicated the importance of integrating geographical factors into our larger understanding of history and contemporary life.
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A shorter version of this article was published in my weekly column in The Post, on 6 June, 2007.
Much of the idea developed here is part of my forthcoming book, Becoming India: Western Himalayas under British Rule, Cambridge University Press, New Delhi. You can read the preface of this book here.