THE MOST DANGEROUS Place: A History of the United States in South Asia (Allen Lane; Rs 799; 472 pages) is a history of the engagement of the United States with South Asia—more precisely with India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Much like the author’s earlier works, this book is readable and follows an accessible chronological approach. While the narrative is densely packed with historical detail, the author also stands back frequently and focuses on larger trends and processes so the end product is a history which explains and enlightens and is simultaneously enormously informative. Its scope is also vast, beginning in the 1780s, with the first ship from the US docking in India, down to President Trump’s AfPak policy. This ‘long history’ also passes through points and places other than the political and the strategic but no less important in the shaping of attitudes over the longer term. From Mark Twain and Henry Thoreau to American Jazz and the hippy trail, the book provides a cross section of the intellectual and cultural impact of the US on South Asia. Subsequently as television and the internet transformed the world, it reminds us that the US was ‘a crucial aspect of South Asians’ encounter with modernity’.
The story passes through both well and lesser-known facets of the relationship. Over the 19th-century, with most of South Asia a colony, the US footprint was largely commercial but also focused on the religious with a growing number of American missionaries in India. On the economic side, the US came up against the East India Company’s monopolistic hold on Indian trade—and if this monopoly is progressively diluted over the years, access to the Indian market for the US remained contested and controlled by the British. In the 1850s and 1860s, India and the US separately contributed to what are regarded as fundamental global transformations that took place in the mid-19th century through the Indian Revolt of 1857 and the US Civil War of the 1860s. The latter led to a cotton boom in India as it emerged as an alternative source for British mills to US cotton, whose supply the Civil War interrupted. We see here also the workings of the 19th- century globalised economy and its longer term political impact. The cotton boom spurred urbanisation in western India and also the emergence of the Indian textile industry. Its collapse was followed by widespread rural distress and agrarian and urban protest movements. The ingredients of the national movement were falling in place, and for the author ‘the American Civil War had also helped set India on the road to its own freedom’.
Through the late 19th century and first half of the 20th, US missionary activity in India rapidly expanded. It was, the author notes, ‘saturated by the same Anglo Saxonism and racial condescension that permeated the quest for overseas empire’. Thus, the missionary enterprise in India was also part of the story of American cultural and ideological expansion and it was resisted by both Hindu revivalism and Indian nationalism. Nevertheless, the presence of missionaries at independence was considerable, especially in their capacity to deliver quality education. Finally, through the 19th century there were also influences in the other direction— from Ram Mohan Roy to Vivekananda to Gandhi—and many Americans cutting across several generations found in Hinduism or were sufficiently intrigued by its metaphysics to try and find in it answers for their own society.
As one reflects on the position of the US today, we cannot but be astonished at the gap which exists between its influence in political terms and its social and cultural hegemonic force
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Over the 20th century, these themes do not disappear, but strategic and political matters come centrestage. Decolonisation, the Cold War, India-Pakistan and Afghanistan-Pakistan foundational differences, the 1962 India China conflict, the breakup of Pakistan in 1971, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and its withdrawal a decade later, India- Pakistan tensions and crisis post-1989, the emergence of two nuclear weapon states in South Asia in 1998, 9/11 and the Global War on Terror have therefore their well-known place in this magisterial survey. Raghavan’s treatment is sure footed and his narrative animates the interplay of personalities, interests and power as the presidencies of Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon and others rub up against Nehru, Ayub Khan, Indira Gandhi, Daud Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to the 1990s and upto today, with President Trump’s new Af-Pak policy and the India tilt.
Raghavan is too careful a historian to generalise excessively, but what is unusual and most illuminating in his treatment is also the laying bare of general trends and subterranean processes which characterise this long interface. Firstly, that US strategic and economic interests in South Asia were and are intertwined. Secondly, that ideology has played a big role in this interface and to a large extent has been underwritten by American notions of ‘manifest destiny’ in providing moral leadership as the world’s indispensable nation. The US has interpreted this role both narrowly and very widely. On the one hand, for instance, Secretary of State Dulles and many others in the 1950s saw Indian neutrality in the Cold War as a ‘profound moral and spiritual failing’. On the other, the US also provided generous and at the time essential economic assistance on the grounds that ‘if we ourselves did not aid countries like India, we could be sure that Soviet Russia would do so’. If US policy towards South Asia has been far from linear, ‘the wider interest of upholding capitalism as a global system’ has nevertheless been a central element of it. Thirdly, the opening up of the Indian economy since 1991 coincided not just with its recognition of US primacy in global affairs but also with changes in US cultural attitudes towards India owing to the remarkable success story of Indian immigrants in the US. This has tempered, to an extent at least, long held and deeply ingrained notions of racial and political hierarchy and in turn it has also thrown up strange paradoxes. One of these is that Pakistan, long seen as the better bet from the 1950s to the 1980s, is among those ‘who take the dimmest view of the United States in global surveys of attitude’ while India ranks among those who view America most favourably. ‘Anti Americanism’ has however had more profound consequences for the United States itself, and the other great paradox is that a ‘region once deemed peripheral to US global interests is now the site of the most prolonged application of US military power in the republic’s history’.
Srinath Raghavan’s treatment is sure footed and his narrative animates the interplay of personalities, interests and power, as US presidencies rub up against Indian and Pakistan leaders
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This study of the US in South Asia also provides a vantage point to study the evolution of American power. In the author’s view, the broader context of this history is that the exercise of US power cannot be understood only by focusing on its core terrain, but that the margins—meaning South Asia— ‘provide an oblique yet indispensable view of it’. His conclusion is that the ‘United States is yet to establish a stable hegemony in the region’ despite its enormous devotion of resources and attention. In part, this is ascribed to policy failures such as the US military alliance with Pakistan in the 1950s or support for Islamists in the 1980s, but he also identifies more fundamental factors and in particular the persistence of ideas of race in the form of paternalistic and hierarchical attitudes. Raghavan finds the persistence of these ‘remarkable’ and prevalent even among those opposed to racism or having a contrarian perspective on the working of US power in the region. Possibly American hubris had its heyday in the 1990s as it emerged as the world’s sole hyper power since the Romans and simultaneously its technology leader. The errors of Iraq and Libya that followed are wider than those of the incumbent presidency and derive also from deeply engrained notions of the US’s place in the world which have at their core the unmentionables of race and hierarchy. To my mind, the great merit in Raghavan’s work is that he has taken these themes out of the domain of social and ideological critique and brought them into the radar screen in a study of power and mainstream diplomatic history.
The book ends with a question of how the rise of China will impact the US in South Asia. Certainly, as a growing number in South Asia see China as an alternative vista to modernity, these two different perceptions will influence the region in the decades to come. As one reflects on the position of the US today, we cannot but be astonished at the gap which exists between its influence in political terms and its social and cultural hegemonic force. In diverse fields—in fact, in virtually every field—it is the US that has set standards, and even where it has not lived upto them itself, those standards have been accepted as such. Thus, even the strongest critiques of the US in South Asia are cast and drawn from a US vocabulary. Was American power a necessary adjunct to this hegemonic influence? Or could it be that US soft power would have influenced South Asia even otherwise through television, universities, technology, fashion, etcetera, and also as a destination of choice for emigrants. Has the US exercised its hard power without being fully aware of the enormous weight of its other influences? Or is it that the complexities of the US governance system prevent a synthesis of hard and soft power or a ‘whole of government approach’ except possibly in extreme cases such as Iran or Cuba? Possibly there is no single answer and the answers from Afghanistan may well be different from that in India or Pakistan. But the limitations on US hard power and the virtually limitless influence of its society and culture certainly give us food for thought as we witness and ponder the consequences of the emergence of China in India’s neighbourhood. This richly textured book will certainly assist and better inform such reflections.
TCA Raghavan is a former diplomat and currently Director General, Indian Council of World Affairs. His latest book, History Men: Jadunath Sarkar, G.S. Sardesai, Raghubir Sinh and Their Quest for India’s Past, was published earlier this year. Views are personal