A rich temporal tapestry of US presence and role in south Asia since the 17th century
The engagement of the United States with south Asia in popular perception is often reduced to certain historical experiences derived from the Cold War. The abiding associations are of the ‘ugly American’ in Vietnam; and in later decades, the US support to the Afghan mujahedin in the Reagan years (1980-88) that marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.
In the Indian case, the image of the USS Enterprise steaming into the Bay of Bengal to ostensibly intimidate Delhi during the 1971 war and the deep estrangement with America over the nuclear issue are dominant in historical recall. However, as Srinath Raghavan argues persuasively in this comprehensive review of the subject, “treating the history of American involvement in the region primarily as a subset of its antagonism with the former Soviet Union seems decidedly inadequate”.
The word ‘comprehensive’ in relation to this 453-page book is more than appropriate, and in keeping with the rigour of the diligent historian that he is, Raghavan has included an index of 25 pages and a total of 859 end notes and citations spread over 49 pages to buttress his formulation .
South Asia in the book focuses exclusively on India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the author avers that contrary to the focus on shorter periods of time (the Cold War years), on specific themes (high politics) or on relationships with individual countries of the region (India), “there is a centuries-long history of myriad forms of (US) involvement in South Asia”.
To his credit, Raghavan delves deep, reeling back to the late 17th century and the first contact between a north American landmass that was yet to become the USA. Identifying Elihu Yale, the “twenty-four-year old from Connecticut”, who came to India in 1672 to work with the East India Company on a clerkship at 10 pounds a year and later became governor of Madras (1687-92), the first section of the book is rich in historical and sociological detail.
The Raghavan tome is distinctive and covers a wide spectrum, both temporally and thematically, and the corresponding volume on the American side that comes to mind is Estranged Democracies (1994) by veteran US diplomat-author Dennis Kux. In the latter survey, which dwelt exclusively on the bilateral relationship between India and the USA , the central proposition was that a deep dissonance/divergence over security interests and related perceptions led to the long estrangement between the USA and India.
Raghavan’s canvas is wider and the formulation more nuanced. The author identifies ‘power, ideology and culture’ as the “warp and weft of the (US-South Asia) story told in this book”. The 375-page narrative “pays attention to high politics and the concerns of policymakers as well as perspectives from below—from traders and missionaries, economists and musicians, architects and agronomists”. And the main authorial concern is “to show how the past has shaped the present and help us make better sense of both”.
Raghavan is to be commended for the rich temporal tapestry he has woven and it is a complex yet rewarding trapeze. His nimble pen points to stimulating linkages. For example, the Boston Tea Party of December 1773 (that later became the American Revolution) was triggered by London’s inequitable taxation policies that favoured the East India Company. This ‘diagonal slice’ from history is a reiteration of the Raghavan proposition that: “As the long history recovered in this book suggests, the sub-continent has always been a useful vantage point from which to view the transformation of the United States from ‘colony to superpower.’ And it will remain so.”
Fast forward to the current period, and the book points to the manner in which the US sweeps Britain aside to become the ‘predominant external player in the region’ and the degree to which “the destiny of nations and peoples turned on the policies and choices of American leaders”. The Bangladesh crisis of 1971 is a case in point and now it is Afghanistan where “a region once deemed peripheral to US global interests is now the site of the most prolonged application of American military power in the republic’s history”.
This is a book that is ambitious in scope and has set itself a wide spectrum—the overlap of power (national interest), ideology (the US as the beacon of liberal democracy—though for how long?) and culture that darts into religion, caste, racism, et al. Raghavan is to be commended for authoring a splendid volume that distills more than 15 years of his research.
But my quibble is that certain punctuations in the history of the US and the sub-continent remain under-explored. For instance, in the security and strategic narrative, the contribution of then British India and the much disparaged ‘native’ to both the world wars of the 20th century remains as colossal as it is un-illuminated. In like fashion, the very complex nuclear trajectory of not just south Asia—but southern Asia that brings China into the picture could have been detailed and analysed in greater detail. Specific to the Pressler amendment, the internal debates and the salience of the phrase ‘nuclear explosive device’ warranted more exploration—to connect with Raghavan’s power-ideology-culture tripod.
And if the past helps to locate the rhythms that may be embedded in the present and the future, as Raghavan posits, will the contemporary contour of US engagement in south Asia herald the end of ‘empire/superpower’ as it has in the past? Ask the US veterans who have lost a limb or a friend in the unending Afghan war, or the families of those who have borne the brunt of American military power since October 2001. And the Trump tale is yet to unfold in its tempestuous entirety.
C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi