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The Revenge of Geography

The border tensions of countries in South Asia carry historical precedent due to their geographical connections

by Khaled Ahmed

Robert D. Kaplan, writing in The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle against Fate, notes the role played by geography in determining the fate of nations—and has special insight on the countries that comprise the Indian subcontinent.

According to Kaplan, Islam entered India from the 7th through 16th centuries, with Arabs arriving first by land along the coast, and then by sea along the shores. They were followed by Turks from 1000 A.D. onward, over the plateau of Iran and through Afghanistan. Within 100 years, largely due to disputes between Hindu rulers, the northern plain had acknowledged Mohammedan rule, while Balochistan and Sindh in the south were part of a “desert girdle” that extended unto Mesopotamia.

Through these incursions, the Indian subcontinent was grafted to the Greater Middle East, with Iraqi Arabs in the early 8th century occupying parts of Sindh, Punjab, Rajasthan, and Gujarat. The Turkic Mamluk warrior Mahmud of Ghazni, headquartered in eastern Afghanistan, united in his early-11th century empire the present-day Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northeastern India as far as Delhi, and raided Gujarat to the south along the Arabian Sea. From the 13th to the early 16th centuries, the Delhi Sultanate ruled over northern India and parts of the south through the Turkic Tughluq, the Afghan Lodhi, and other dynasties from Central Asia.

Delhi as the capital

Kaplan notes that Delhi’s positioning as the capital of India was also a result of geography, as it stood at the exit of a comparatively narrow, 150 miles wide, passage to Sindh and the Indus Valley, including Punjab. At Delhi’s back was the Islamic world, while its front featured the Hindu world. Geography has determined that the subcontinent in its northwest is less a fixed frontier than an interminable series of gradations, beginning in Iran and Afghanistan, and ending in Delhi.

The Mughal Empire, spanning the early 1500s to 1720 when it rapidly declined, was a cultural and political expression of this trend. Zahirud Din Muhammad Babur, a Chaghtai Turk born in 1483 in the Fergana valley in today’s Uzbekistan, founded it and spent his early adulthood trying to capture Tamerlane’s (Timur’s) old capital of Samarkand.

Sweeping down from Kabul

After being decisively defeated by Muhammad Shaybani Khan, a descendant of Gengis Khan, Babur and his followers headed south and captured Kabul, eventually sweeping down from the high plateau of Afghanistan into Punjab. Thus, he was able to begin the conquest of the Indian Subcontinent. The Mughal or Timurid Empire that took form under Akbar the Great, Babur’s grandson, ruled over people composed of Rajputs, Afghans, Arabs, Persians, Uzbeks, and Chaghtai Turks, as well as Indian Sunnis, Shias and other overlapping groups. The ethnic and religious melting pot began in southern Russia to the northwest and the Mediterranean to the west.

Kabul and Kandahar were thus a natural extension of the Delhi-based dynasty, ruling the majority Hindu area in southern India of present-day Bangalore. Aurangzeb, the “world-seizer,” under whose rule in the late 17th century the Mughal Empire reached its zenith, was an old man in his eighties still fighting Maratha insurgents in India’s south and west. He died in 1707 at his camp on Deccan plateau, unable to subdue them. The Deccan has, in Pannikar’s words, “always formed the great middle rampart of India unable to be subdued by the peoples of the Gangetic valley. Moreover, the west-east flow of rivers in a subcontinent oriented from birth to south had, as Aurangzeb’s experience demonstrates, made it difficult for the north to govern the south until relatively late in history.

Aurangzeb strikes back at ‘soft kings’

Put simply, there are relatively few geographical links between northern and southern India. In fact, it was this long-running and intractable insurgency in southern India that sapped the cohesion and morale of the northern Mughal elite. Aurangzeb’s preoccupation with the great Maratha warriors—to the exclusion of imperial problems elsewhere—made it easier for the Dutch, French, and British East India companies to gain footholds on the coast, which eventually led to British rule in India.

To emphasize the point: Aurangzeb’s situation was that of Delhi-based rulers going back hundreds of years, as well as of even older rulers in the subcontinent stretching back to antiquity. That is, the vast region that today encompasses northern India along with Pakistan and much of Afghanistan was commonly under a single polity. Sovereignty over southern India was always in doubt. Thus, for Indian elites, to think of not only Pakistan but Afghanistan, too, as part India’s home turf is not only natural, but historically justified. The tomb of Babur is in Kabul, not Delhi. This does not mean that India has territorial designs on Afghanistan, but it does mean that New Delhi cares profoundly about who rules Afghanistan, and wishes to ensure that those who do rule there are friendly to India.

British unite India?

The British may have united the Indian Subcontinent with bureaucracy and a rail system in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but their exit in 1947 helped re-divide it in a way that was both profound and more formalized than any previous imperial sundering in the past. The places where, for example, the Indo-Greeks’ Gupta Empire, or where the Mughal Empire met the Maratha Confederacy, did not signify—as such borders do today—barbed wire and minefields and different passports and war-by-media, which all belong to a later phase of technology. The divide now is a hardened legal and partly civilizational one, and became thus less due to geography than because of the decisions of men.

In short, from the historical perspective of India, Pakistan constitutes much more than even a nuclear-armed adversary, a state sponsor of terrorism, and a large, conventional army breathing down its neck on the border. Pakistan, lying to India’s northwest, where the mountains meet the plain, is the very geographical and national embodiment of all the Muslim invasions that have swept down into India throughout its history. Pakistan looms to the northwest of India, just as the great Muslim invasion forces of yore once did. “Pakistan,” writes George Friedman, the founder of Stratfor, a global intelligence firm, “is the modern-day remnant of Muslim rule over medieval India,” even as Pakistan’s southwest is the sub-continental region first occupied by Arab Muslims invading from Iran and southern Afghanistan

States fearing each other

India’s fear of Pakistan—and vice versa—is existential, which should not surprise anyone. India could arguably defeat Pakistan in a conventional war, but a potential nuclear exchange or war by terrorism could grant it parity of sorts. Even beyond Pakistan, Afghanistan also suggests the threat of another Mughal onslaught, especially as the border separating Pakistan from Afghanistan is largely mirage, both today and in history.

“Of all the times I crossed the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, I never did so legally,” writes Kaplan. “Even at the official Khyber border post, tens of thousands of ethnic Pashtuns pass through weekly without showing identity papers, while hundreds of trucks pass daily uninspected. The lack of procedures attests that only to the same tribes on both sides of the frontier, but to the tenuous nature of the Afghan and Pakistani states themselves, the ultimate cause of which is their lack of geographical coherence as heart of Indo-Islamic and Indo-Persianate continuums through which it is nearly impossible to draw lines. The Achaemenid, Kushan, Indo-Greek, Ghaznavid, Mughal, and other empires all took in both Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of their dominions, which either threatened India or also included portions of it. Then there is Central Asian Timur and the Turkmen Nader Shah the Great, who in 1398 and in 1739 respectively both vanquished Delhi from imperial bases in present-day Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.”

Pakistan and “geographic logic”

According to Kaplan, India’s geographic logic is “not perfect,” but Pakistan’s has “no geographic logic at all, and Afghanistan far too little.” Describing Pakistan as an “artificial puzzle piece of a territory,” he notes it “straddles the frontier between the Iranian-Afghan plateau and the lowlands of the subcontinent, encompassing the western half of the Punjab, but not eastern half, crazily uniting the Karakoram in the north the highest mountains in the world with the Makran Desert almost 1,000 miles away to the south by the Arabian Sea.” The Indus, he continues, could serve as a border, but Pakistan sits on both its banks, and, he contends, it is home to four major ethnic groups who each harbor hostility to the others.

In Pakistan, he writes, Islam was supposed to have served as unifying glue for the state but has mostly failed in this regard. Even as Islamic groups in Pakistan have become more radical, Baloch and Sindhis continue to view the country as a foreign entity overlorded by Punjabis, with the Pashtuns in the northwest drawn more into the Taliban-infected places of the Afghan-Pakistani border area. Without the Punjabi-dominated army, Pakistan might cease to exist—reduced to a rump of Islamic Greater Punjab, with semi-anarchic Balochistan and Sindh drawn closer into the orbit of India.

Pakistan and weak writ of the state

In 2022, as Pakistan suffers a weak writ of the state over more than half of its territory, Kaplan’s insight from 2012 is noteworthy. Geography in this case is subject to different interpretations. From another perspective, Pakistan makes impressive geographic case as a civilizational intermediary and conduit of trade routes connecting the subcontinent with Central Asia, the heart of the Indo-Islamic world. The Indo-Muslim concept is hard to define in terms of modern borders, one may note. Why is Pakistan any more artificial than India?

After all, Lahore in Pakistan was as much a motherlode of Mughal rule as Delhi in India. The real geographic heart of the northern subcontinental plain is Punjab, and that is split between the two countries, making neither whole from any historical or geographical view. Just as northern India grows out of the demographic core of the Ganges, Pakistan, it could be argued, grows out of that other vital demographic core, the Indus and its tributaries. In this telling, the Indus, is a “divider” rather than a “uniter.” This point is best expressed in Aitzaz Ahsan’s The Indus Saga and the Making of Pakistan. A member of the Pakistan Peoples Party, Ahsan asserts that the critical dividing line throughout history within the subcontinent is the “Gurdaspur-Kathiawar salient”: running southwest from Gurdaspur in eastern Punjab to Kathiawar in Gujarat on the Arabian Sea, a line that approximates the present India-Pakistan border.

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