Redefining history and geography

Redefining history and geography

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Redefining history and geography

Everyone has a tainted history. The erstwhile colonial powers — the British, French, Portuguese, Dutch — have it. The Turks, the Mongols, the Mughals — who invaded, pillaged or ruled India — do. Even the assorted bunch of local emperors and Sultans and chieftains cannot escape the blame. The ‘taint’ has infected human race too. It’s easier today to look for a needle in a haystack than to find a purebred. From the time early humans evolved and began exploring far-off lands in search of livelihood and territorial dominance, to the modern era when the world had become a global village, the purity of race has been reduced to a non-issue, except among fringe groups. The barbaric attempts during the Nazi rule to impose race supremacy by eliminating the ‘gene-corrupted’ humans, stand out in history as among the worst examples of human depravity. A more benevolent method had been attempted earlier, sometime in the12th century by a ruler in Bengal, when he ‘imported’ five Brahmins and five Kayasthas from Kanyakubj (now Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh). They were given full polygamy rights in a bid to create what came to be called the ‘Kulin’ community. But even as racial purism played havoc across the world; colonial powers subjugated foreign people and stripped them of their natural resources and sought to destroy their cultures; travellers and explorers imposed their religions on native populations, mankind in general also registered rapid advances. From hunter-gatherers to farmers to traders to inventors, they began to slowly shape the human narrative in ways that would seek to push back, if not purge, the taints. That so much of this action, decisive and impacting the world at large, should have happened in the immediate or near neighbourhood of India, as it was geographically and historically then identified, should make us sit up and take note. Sanjeev Sanyal’s book, The Ocean of Churn, is a good enough trigger for us to fire up our interest. But why should it be the ‘ocean of churn’ and not, for instance, the ‘land of turbulence’? It’s because Sanyal shows that nearly all of the action that shaped human history has happened in and around the Indian Ocean rim. It’s also because the waters played a critical role in the shaping of human history — through the movement of both goods and men and women. The author had a story waiting to be told, but he needed an overarching theme for an anchor. The elements of his discourse had to be moored to a spot, since they were so disparate that they had the potential to fire in random directions without purpose or target. Sanyal digs into archaeology, plunges into the sea, forages the land, and explores oral and written histories, to structure a story that is both compelling and original. He questions established beliefs, counters biased mindsets, pays tribute to great cities of Angkor and Hampi, draws cultural linkages between distant peoples that in symbolic ways survive to this day. The Indian Ocean rim tale includes the Arabs, the Persians and the Chinese, besides, of course, the Western powers and the Indians. On the Indian side, Sanyal traces the progress from the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation to the later years of kings and their kingdoms. He gives particular attention to emperor Ashoka (though others have not been dealt with casually) perhaps because Ashoka’s legacy has lived on for longer in the country’s socio-political consciousness, and has even been institutionalised through a positive spin. But the author shows courage in re-visiting the impression of a one-time ruthless ruler who had a change of heart after witnessing the horrors of war he had waged, and turned spiritual after embracing Buddhism. Sanyal will have none of this, and so his passage on the emperor is titled, ‘Ashoka, the Not so Great’. The mainstream narrative has been that Ashoka, shocked by the devastation in the Kalinga battle which he won, converted to Buddhism and became a pacifist. To this day, he is revered for that. Sanyal writes, “The reader will be surprised to discover that the popular narrative about this conversion is based on little evidence. Ashoka would invade Kalinga in 262 BC whereas we know from minor rock edicts that Ashoka had converted to Buddhism more than two years earlier.” The author notes that no Buddhist text links his conversion to the Kalinga battle. He adds, “The evidence suggests that his conversion to Buddhism was more to do with the politics of succession than with any regret he felt for the sufferings of war.” It is more likely, he says, that Ashoka adopted Buddhism to stave off challenges from family members who were opposed to him and had connections with the powerful Jains and Ajivikas. By doing so, he had gained the support of the equally influential Buddhist community. Sanyal takes his argument a step further. He points out that nearly all of his inscriptions that have been discovered and which relate the story of his repentance, are located far from Kalinga — as far away as what is now north-western Pakistan. The author wonders whether the regret was actually genuine: “If Ashoka was genuinely remorseful, he would have surely bothered to apologise to people whom he had wronged… Even the supposedly regretful inscriptions include a clear threat of further violence against other groups…” On this point, Sanyal refers to Upinder Singh’s A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India (2003). The author is certain that “Ashoka was using his inscriptions as a tool of political propaganda to counter his reputation for cruelty”. Further, he argues that the emperor had engaged in more acts of genocide “many years after he turned pacifist’. The author refers to a study and translation of the Buddhist text, Ashokavadana, by John Strong to underline this contention. And, in another twist to the tale, Sanyal concludes that the larger-than-life emperor wasn’t a competent administrator, either. “While he was alive, the empire had probably lost he north-western territories that had been acquired from Seleucus”, he says, adding that after Ashoka’s death, the empire disintegrated soon enough. These are explosive claims and his contention is certain to be challenged by entrenched interests within the country. The Indian Ocean story has, however, more to offer than emperor Ashoka, dazzling and controversial as he remains. Sanyal’s book is not just about Ashoka or even those who ruled over India. Ashoka is merely one element in the events that shaped human history. He is about as important as diamonds and opium were, or the Khmers and the Hindu king Jadi Rana (who allowed the first batch of Parsis to settle in India) were. Of special interest, given the tense relations the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Tamils share, is Sanyal’s journey into the history of the island-nation, tracing it from the southern rulers — the Cholas, the Cheras and the Pandyas. He tells us that some Tamil groups began to settle in northern Sri Lanka by the fourth century BC; that two Tamil adventurers in 177 BC established a kingdom in Anuradhapura. Stepping back to a distance from the present conflicts, Sanyal underlines that far from being perennially in conflict, “there seems to have been a long-term alliance between the Sinhalese and the Tamil Pandyas of Madurai against other Tamil clans like the Cholas”. From Asia to Europe to Africa, the churn of the Indian Ocean has given us both nectar and poison. A few brave men in the course of history swallowed part of the poison to contain the damage; many others spread it to fell their enemies. But it’s the nectar that has kept humankind going. If Sanjeev Sanyal, an economist by training, can feel the close cultural linkages, there’s no reason why the rest of us cannot at least appreciate those bonds.Source

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