India must be considered in the context of the Indian subcontinent, a self contained region that contains India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and, depending how you define it, Nepal and Bhutan. We call the sub-continent self-contained because it is a region that is isolated on all sides by impassable terrain and ocean. It is an island.
The island is formed in the west by mountains rising out of the Arabian Sea in Pakistan and Baluchistan, and rising higher and higher to the northwestern corner of Pakistan. There, at the Hindu Kush it swings east become the Himalayas, which sweep southeast about 1,500 hundred miles to the border of Myanmar, where a southern extension emerges, the Patkai mountains, moving south to India’s border with Bangladesh and to the Bay of Bengal. The Patkai Mountains are difficult terrain not because they are high, particularly in the south, but because they are covered in dense jungle.
Pakistan is the region first occupied by Muslims invading from Iraq. They occupied the Kingdoms of Sind and Multan (now Punjab). The descendent state, Pakistan, occupies this region in the western region of the subcontinent. Based around the Indus river valley, it is separated from India proper by swamps in the south and desert, leaving only the northern part of the Punjab and Kashmir as points of contact. The area to the south is fairly impassable.
The third major state in the subcontinent is Bangladesh. Originally part of Pakistan, during the original partition of the subcontinent between predominantly Hindu and Muslim parts, Bangladesh became independent following the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war. Predominantly Muslim, it is located in the Ganges river basin, particularly in the delta. Bangladesh occupies the area south of Nepal (with a small east west corridor between Nepal and Bangladesh for India to access Assam and its eastern border with Myanmar) and the Meghalaya highlands. Lying at sea level and barely rising as you move north, Bangladesh is constantly vulnerable to inundations from the Bay of Bengal. The Kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan to India’s rest on the heights of the Himalaya’s themselves, and therefore on the edge of the subcontinent.
The subcontinent divides into 4 parts:
1: The mountainous frame that stretches in an arc from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal.
2: The deserts in the west between the Indus Valley Pakistan is located and the North Indian plain.
3: The North Indian Plain stretching from Delhi southeast through the Ganges river delta to the Myanmar border, and from the Himalayas in the north to the south by hills.
4: the Indian Peninsula jutting south into the Indian Ocean, consisting of a variety of terrain, but primarily hilly.
The bulk of India’s population lives on the northern plain:
This is the Indian heartland, and as can be seen stretches into Bangladesh as well as northwest into Pakistan. It is not, however the only population center. Peninsular India also has an irregular pattern of intense population, with lightly settled areas intermingled with heavily settled areas. This pattern has primarily to do with the availability of water and the quality of soil. Wherever both are available in sufficient quantity, India’s population accumulates and grows.
India is frequently compared geographically to non-Russian Europe. Both are peninsulas jutting out of the Eurasian land mass. But they have had radically different patterns of development. The Europeans have developed long standing and highly differentiated populations and cultures, which evolved into nation-states, such as Spain, France, Germany and Poland. Their precise frontiers and even independence have varied over time, but the distinctions have been present in many cases pre-dating the Roman Empire.
The Indian sub-continent has developed in a very different way. Historically, except when conquered from the outside, the subcontinent has been highly fragmented but also fluid. Over fairly short periods of time the internal political boundaries would shift dramatically. The reason is fairly simple. Europe is filled with internal geographic barriers. The Alps and Pyrenees and Carpathians are natural barriers and defensive lines. Rivers and forests supplement these. Europe is divided in very permanent ways, along defined political entities and clear areas of conflict. India lacks definitive internal features like this. There are no internal fortresses in the Indian subcontinent, except perhaps for the Thar dessert. Thus, the subcontinent has had a historical fluidity about it.
What is permanent is the frame, the mountains, and beyond these mountains, the wastelands. We can see this most clearly when looking at the regions population distribution:
The subcontinent is isolated as a population. It is not only a question of the mountains around it, although those are substantial barriers as well, but also the fac that the terrain beyond those mountains are lightly populated and in many ways, barely inhabitable.
The major band of population runs to Lahore, spreading intermittently to Kabul in Afghanistan, to the Myanmar border. The Indian Peninsula is heavily if intermittently settled, but beyond the frame of India’s subcontinent, there are at best trade routes to other population centers, but not critical regions for India to conquer. Therefore, the appetite for unification is rarely there. There is no urge to go beyond India.
India has been invaded and conquered. Between the 12th and 17th centuries India was ruled by Muslims. The first invasion occupied the area of what is today Pakistan. Over the centuries under various rulers and dynasties, particularly the Mughal, Muslims expanded their power until they dominated much of India. But that domination was peculiar. Except for the area west of the Thar Desert and the Ganges delta, the Muslims did not convert masses of Indians. They did not simply defeat the Hindus. What they did was enter the subcontinent from the West and take advantage of the underlying disunity of India to create coalitions of native powers prepared to cooperate with the rulers. For the Muslims, the urge to convert was secondary to the urge to exploit India’s wealth. Political and military power was a means toward this end, not conversion. And since the goal was not conversion, the Hindus were prepared to collaborate. In the end, their internal tensions were greater than their resentment of outsiders.
The Europeans followed the Muslims into India en masse. Unlike the Muslims, they arrived from the sea, but like the Muslims, their primary motive was economic, and they sought political power as a means toward economic ends. The British, the most permanent European fixture in India, used internal tensions to solidify their own position. They did not conquer India so much as they managed the internal conflicts to their advantage.
India’s internal geography did not create homogeneity. Nor did it create fixed and immutable realities. Rather, it created shifting political entities, constantly struggling with each other, allying with each other, amid an endless kaleidoscope of political entities and alliances. The Subcontinent was under foreign domination from the 12th century onward. This did not represent a sudden onslaught. Alexander never had the slightest chance of conquering the subcontinent, even as he entered through the same path—the Khyber Pass—as did the Muslims. But the Muslims and the British came in slowly, more drawn in by economic opportunity and local politics than by any hunger for conquest for its own sake. And they entered slowly.
What was left behind when the British left was the same complex and shifting divisions as defined India when they came in. The regions that were converted to Islam became Islamic entities—Pakistan which eventually divided between Pakistan and Bangladesh. The rest of India, was united under a single government, but in a sense, it governed in the same way the British did. While there were no fixed states and the principalities and royal holdings were abolished, India remained what it was—a series of shifting local realities, presided over by a central government, but ultimately not ruled by them.
The internal geopolitical reality dictates this. The lack of imposed boundaries, a vast population, a central government facing a vast region, creates highly localized systems that shift constantly, resist central authority, and ultimately can’t be organized into a coherent whole, either by foreign occupiers or a native government. India is a geographical expression more than a single or stable entity.
The historical threat to India comes from the passes along the Afghan-Pakistan border and from the sea. India’s solution to both threats is to accommodate them rather than resist directly, while using the complexity of Indian society to maintain a distance from the conqueror and preserve the cultural integrity of India. In a sense, Mahatma Ghandi’s strategy of non-violent resistance represents the foundations of India’s historic strategy, save that Indian non-violent resistance has has been more commercial than ethical historically.
Geopolitics of India
Modern India has its origins in the collapse of the British Empire. Indeed, it was the loss of India that ultimately doomed the British empire. The entire focus of Britain, from the Suez Canal, Gibraltar and Singapore, was to maintain the lines of supply to India. Many of the colonies and protectorates secured by Britain in the 19th century were designed to provide coaling stations to and from India. The architecture of the British Empire was built around India and once India was lost, the purpose of that architecture dissolved as well. The historic importance of India could not be underestimated. Lenin once referred to it as the supply depot of humanity, which overstated it perhaps, but did not overstate its importance to Britain.
The British gave up India for several reasons, the most important commercial. The cost of controlling India had outstripped the value extracted. This happened in two ways. The first was the cost of maintaining control of the sea lanes. After World War II, the Royal Navy was far from a global navy. That role had been taken by the United States, which did not have an interest in supporting British control of India. As was seen in the Suez crisis of 1956, when the British and French tried to block Egyptian nationalization of the canal, the United States was unprepared to support or underwrite British access to its colonies, and the United States had made this clear during World War II itself. Second, the cost of controlling India had soared. Indigenous political movements had increased friction in India, and that friction had increased the cost of exploiting India’s resources. As the economics shifted, the geopolitical reality did as well.
The independence of India resulted in the unification of India under an authentically Indian government. It also led to the political subdivision of the subcontinent. The area west of the Thar, in the Indus valley, were Muslim penetration first occurred, and the Ganges River basin, Bangladesh today, both seceded from India, forming a separate country. It was this separatism that framed Indian geopolitics.
India was secure in the north. There were two states, Nepal and Bhutan that posed no threat to India. Beyond the Himalayas was China. Theoretically, China was a threat to India, and simplistic models show them to be potential rivals. In fact, China and India might as well be on other planets. Their entire frontier runs through the highest elevations of the Himalayas. It is impossible for a substantial army to fight their way through what passes there are and utterly impossible for either to sustain an Army there. The major direct class between Indian and Chinese forces occurred in 1962 was an inconclusive battle that could lead nowhere. The two countries are walled off from each other.
One potential geopolitical shift would come if the status of Tibet changed. China surrounds its main population centers with buffer states—Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet. So long as all are in Chinese hands, China is invulnerable from land attack. If, however, Tibet were to become independent and allied with India, and if India was permitted to based substantial forces in Tibet and build major supply infrastructure, then India could be a threat to China.
This is why the Indians championed the Dalai Lama and Tibetan independence movements and why the Chinese regarded this as a major Indian threat. Had a pro-Indian, independent government been installed in Tibet, the threat to China would be significant. The fact that the Chinese held open the option of supporting Tibetan independence, the Chinese saw the Indians as engaged in developing a threat to China.
The Chinese tried to develop equivalent threats in India, particularly in the form of Maoist communist movements in India. Today’s Naxalite Maoists and Maoists in Nepal are the equivalent movements. The Chinese have lost interest in aggressive Maoism but installing a pro-Chinese government in Nepal or fomenting Maoist movements elsewhere remains the counter to India’s Nepal policy.
For both, this is merely fencing. Neither would be in a position militarily to exploit an opening. Stationing sufficient force in Tibet to challenge the Chinese PLA would outstrip Indian resources for little purpose. Using Nepal as a base from which to invade India would similarly be difficult and pointless. At the moment therefore, there is no Indo-Chinese rivalry. However, these would be points of friction if this was to occur in the distant future.
The most important strategic relationship that India had after independence was with the Soviet Union. There was some limited ideological affinity between them, but India’s fundamental national interest was not in Marxism, but in creating a state that was secure against a new round of imperialism. The Soviets and Americans were engaged in a massive global competition and India was inevitably a prize. It was a prize that the Soviets could not easily take. The Soviets had no overland route to India, nor a navy that could reach it.
The United States, however, did have a Navy and from the Indians point of view the United States might well want to replace Britain as a global maritime power, which might put India squarely in its sights. The fundamental Indian interest was to retain its internal cohesion and independence. The Indians viewed the Americans as geopolitical successors to Britain. It was now the global maritime power as we as a commercial power. It saw in the United States all the characteristics that drew Britain to India. They saw the United States acting elsewhere to both hurry the disintegration of the European Empires and toward filling the space it left. It did not want to replace the British with the Americans. Regardless of American intent—which the Indians saw as ambiguous—American capability was very much there and from the beginning, the Indians sought to block it.
For the Indians, the solution was a relationship, if not quite an alliance with the Soviet Union. The Soviets could provide economic aid and military hardware, as well as a potential nuclear umbrella. The relationship with the Soviet Union was perfect for the Indians, since they did not see the Soviets able to impose satellite status on India. From the American point of view, however, there was serious danger in the relationship. The United States saw the relationship as potential threatening its access to the Indian Ocean and its lines of supply to the Persian Gulf. If the Soviets were given naval bases in India, or if the Indians were able to construct an navy significant enough to threaten American interests—and acting in concert with the Soviets—it would represent a serious strategic challenge to the United States.
The United States was facing a series of challenges. The British were going to leave Singapore and the Indonesian independence movement was heavily influenced by the Soviets. The Egyptians, and therefore the Suez Canal, was moving in the Soviet camp. If India became a pro-Soviet maritime power, it would simply be one more element threatening U.S. interest. The U.S. has to act throughout the region, but it needed to deal with India fast.
The American solution was an alliance with Pakistan. This served two purposes. First it served as a Muslim counterweight to Nasserite Egypt in the Muslim world. Second, it posed a potential threat to India on land. This would force India to divert resources from Naval construction and focus on building ground and air forces able to deal with the Pakistanis. From the Pakistanis, isolated and facing India and a not-very-distant Russia, the relationship with the United States was a god send.
It also created a very complex geographical situation:
The Soviets did not directly abut Pakistan but were separated by a thin sliver of Afghanistan. They could not seriously threaten Pakistan from that direction, but the U.S. relationship with Pakistan made Afghanistan a permanent Soviet interest, with full encouragement of the Indians, who wanted India bracketed on both sides. The Soviets did not make a direct move until 1980, but well before then it tried to influence the direction of the Afghans—and after it posed a direct threat to Pakistan.
The Chinese, on the other hand, did border on Pakistan and developed an interest there. The clash in 1962 in the Himalayas did not involve only India and China. It involved the Soviets. India and China were both putatively allied with the Soviets. What was not well known at the time was the deterioration of Sino-Soviet relations. The Chinese were very suspicious of Soviet intentions and saw the relationship with India as potentially directed against China. China, like the Americans, was uneasy about the Indo-Soviet relationship. Therefore China also moved to aid Pakistan. It was a situation as tangled as the geography, with Maoist China and the United States backing Pakistan and the Soviets backing India.
From the Indian point of view, the borderland between Pakistan and China became a matter of fundamental national interest. Kashmir became strategically critical.
The further south you went, the less rugged the terrain and the more opportunity for Chinese aid to flow to Pakistan. Put another way, the more of Kashmir India held, the less viable was the Sino-Pakistani relationship. Whatever emotional attachment there was to Kashmir, Indian control of at least part of Kashmir controlled the axes of a Pakistani threat and limited Chinese assistance. Therefore Kashmir became an ideological and strategic issue for the Indians.
The Pakistani-Indian relationship remains frozen—save that Bangladesh became independent after a war in 1971 and has maintained non-hostile relations with India since then. However the rest of India’s strategic environment shifted dramatically twice. First in 1992, then again in 2001.
In 1992 the Soviet Union collapsed and India lost its counterweight to the United States. Uncomfortable in a world that had no balancing power to the United States, but lacking options of its own, India became inward and cautious. It observed the rise of the Taliban government in Afghanistan uneasily. It saw the alliance between the United States and Pakistan over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan uneasily, quietly sided with the Soviets. The collapse of Soviet power and the installation of a pro-Pakistan series of governments in Afghanistan, and in particular the Taliban, made the Indians uneasy but really without significant power to do anything significant. The indifference of the United States and continued relationship with Pakistan was particularly troubling.
2001 and one was a clarifying year. The attack on the United States by al Qaeda threw the United States into conflict with Tabliban. More important, it strained the American relationship with Pakistan almost to the breaking point. The threat posed to India by Kashmiri groups paralleled the threat to the United States by al Qaeda. It aligned American and Indian relations. Both wanted Pakistan to be more aggressive against radical Islamist groups. Neither wanted further development of Pakistani nuclear weapons. Both were happy to be confronting the Pakistanis with more and more aggressive demands.
The realignment of Indian relations with the United States does not represent a fundamental shift in Indian geopolitics. Its primary interest remains the unity of India, something that is always at risk due to the internal geography of the country. It wants to fragment or at least control Pakistan. It has no major strategic interests outside the area in Eurasia but would be happy to see a devolution of Tibet if it carried no risk to India. And it is always interested in the possibility of increasing its own naval power, but never at the cost of seriously reshaping its economy.
India continues to be an island contained in a ring of mountains. It has one enemy on the island with her but it is not a significant threat. There is no danger of a new generation of Muslim princes occupying the Indian plain. At the same time it must assure that Pakistan is controlled and limited. Toward this end it will work with any power that has a common interest and no interest in invading India. For the moment that it is the United States but it is an alliance of convenience.
India will go with the flow but given its mountains it will feel little of the flow. India’s problem is its endless, shift array of regional interests, ethnic groups and powers. Its fundamental interest will always come from within. Just as Muslim’s and British, India’s government governs India almost as a foreign occupying power: very gently, accepting regionalism. And that regionalism is the challenge to unity, to economic growth and to the future. And it is an irreduceable fact more important than any other fact in India.