`Indian Ocean has been the central theatre of human existence'

Economist, environmentalist, urban theorist, Sanjeev Sanyal wears many hats. He has written four bestselling books on Indian political history and geography. Sanyal speaks to Rajat Ghai about his latest book, The Ocean of Churn: how human history was shaped by the Indian Ocean. Sanyal says that the Indian Ocean has always been the fulcrum of human civilisation, and with the re-emergence of Asia, it will once again inherit that role. Excerpts

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Wednesday 15 March 2017

Photo: Vikas Choudhary

How different is the maritime history of the Indian Ocean as compared to that of the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Arctic? What similarities and dissimilarities attract you the most?

From a historical perspective, the Arctic hasn’t really played a big role. It is up there, frozen. It is not very important. The Atlantic became very important in the 19th century because of trade between North America and Europe, and it remained so for most of the 20th century. Before that, it was not that important. The Indian Ocean was. To give you an example, in the 17th century, when the Dutch exchanged the island of Manhattan for the tiny Indian Ocean isle of Palau Run (in today’s Indonesia) with the British, it was thought that the Dutch had got the better deal. And now, it is unthinkable that this tiny, almost unknown island would be more important than Manhattan.

The Pacific became important only in the second half of the 20th century, with the rise of Japan and China. Today, it is the centre of economic and other interactions. That is how history has shaped so far. There is a section of scholarly opinion which says that in the 21st century, the balance of power will once again shift to the Indian Ocean due to the rise of India, Indonesia and Africa among others.

What are the most striking aspects of the Indian Ocean that have, and will continue, to influence the world?

The interesting thing to remember about the Indian Ocean is that it has been the central theatre of human existence since the very beginning. As a species, we evolved on one side of it, in East Africa. Then, we migrated all across the globe. But even after that, many of the world’s greatest civilisations rose and fell in and around the Indian Ocean’s rim: the civilisations of Java and Sumatra, India, Persia and Arabia. These civilisations traded with each other for a long period of time, exchanged ideas, people and goods.

When you look at the Europeans and the Chinese, who were not traditionally a part of the Indian Ocean world, they were making great efforts to connect to it. In fact, the discovery of the Americas is an unintended consequence of trying to find a way to the Indian Ocean world. But when we look at studies in this area, we see that they are usually from the perspective of the West. The overall perception that one gets after going through such Western-oriented literature is that the Indian Ocean’s story started when the Europeans came, and ended when they left. What I have tried to do through my book is tell that the natives of the Indian Ocean rim had an existence before the arrival of Europeans, one that goes back to the very beginning of time, and it is not just about growing and trading in spices.

In your book, you have delved extensively into the civilisations of the subcontinent. Do you think there is a distinction between the Harappan and Vedic civilisations? What according to you are the most significant contributions of the Harappan and Vedic civilisations that matter in the contemporary world?

One of the things that I talk about in my book is that the Vedic people were a part of the Harappan world. The Vedic people were a subset of the broader Harappan landscape. If you read the Rig Veda for instance, it, by and large, deals with the landscape of what is now Haryana, Indian Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh. This is the core of the Harappan landscape, but it extends over a much larger area, which is hinted at in the Rig Veda.

The Harappan and Vedic civilisations’ importance lies in many things. Modern Indian civilisation is directly derived from them, mixed in with influences from other parts of the country and abroad over the centuries.

You have also hinted in the book that climate change could have played a part in the decline of the Indianised empires of Southeast Asia. Is it true?

Possibly. We cannot be sure. There are some signs in the archaeology that there was some possible breakdown in the hydraulic systems that regulated rice farming. It is not very clear, however, as to why that happened. It could be because of political reasons. The important thing to remember here is that all these kingdoms collapsed at the same time. So something did happen. But it remains in the realm of speculation as to what exactly happened.

On the other hand, we now have credible data to show that there are many instances where climate change caused big changes in human history. The Harappan-Vedic, Sumerian and Egyptian civilisations are examples of this. People have to take into account that the landscape we live in and see around us is not stable. Irrespective of humans, climatic change is a reality in human history. As far as climate change is concerned, that is something humankind has lived with throughout history.

How will the breaking away of East Africa from the rest of the continent due to tectonic movements (though not in our lifetime) influence the Indian Ocean?

What will happen in the very, very distant future is that the East African Rift would become deeper and deeper and, at some point, it would allow the sea to enter from either the Indian Ocean side or the Red Sea side. And remember the Red Sea is also a rift. So yes, at some point in time, East Africa will become a continent in its own right. But obviously, that is millions of years into the future.

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