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Mainstream, VOL L No 48, November 17, 2012

Nehru’s Vision of Asia and Asian Identity: An Introspectional Foray

Wednesday 21 November 2012

by Muhammad Tajuddin

As a liberal intellectual, Nehru ‘discovered’ India not in the spirit of self-centricism but as a champion of internationalism. Indian nationa-lism is visible in all his three important works but nowhere he sounds xenophobic. India, as admitted by Nehru, is ‘present in his blood’ which he has explored and narrated in its neighbourhood that is Asia. Not only in Discovery of India but also in his Autobiobraphy and the Glimpses of World History he has presented a vivid account of India’s relations with its Asian neighbours from ancient times till the arrival of the British. In the Discovery Nehru states that British colonisation ‘barred all the doors and stopped the routes that connected us with our neighbours in Asia’. New routes through seas were opened up which connected India with England and Europe. In his opinion, ‘this sudden isolation from the rest of Asia has been one of the most remarkable and unfortunate consequences of British rule in India’. He showed concern for the issues of Asian countries and their peoples and he took the first modern initiative to revive the old and create new connections to strengthen Asian solidarity in the form of Asian Relations Conference organised in March-April 1947 at Delhi in which twentyeight countries participated. Pattabhi Sitaramayya, the historian of the Congress Party, has appropriately called him the ‘spokesman for Asia’.

The division of the landmass of Eurasia into two continents of Asia and Europe is an anomaly. This division is a vestige of Euro-centricism since classical antiquity which became more pronounced during the colonial era. Asia is a cultural concept incorporating diverse regions and peoples rather than a geographical concept denoting a homogenous physical entity. The toponomy of Asia dates back to classical antiquity. It has originated from the Ancient Greek word “óßá”, the name of a woman in Greek mythology. Etymologically it might have been derived from its root ‘asis’ which means muddy and silty that was a description of the eastern shores of the Aegean Sea. It might have been derived from a borrowed Akkadian-Semitic word ‘asu’ which means ‘rising’ or ‘light’—a directional reference to sunrise. In contrast to Asia, Europe is derived from Europa, a Phoenician princess in Greek mythology. Toponomists give two theories about the etymology of the word Europe. According to the first theory, it is derived from two Greek words ‘eurys’ (meaning broad) and ‘ops’ (meaning face). In second opinion it is derived from ‘erebu’ an Akkadian-Semitic word, which means sunset. Asia thus means eastern land or the land of the rising sun or orient and Europe is the land of setting sun or ‘occident’.

Herodotus, the father of history, in his classic, The Histories, which is an exploration of the origins of the Greco-Persian Wars, has used the term Asia for the first time in a written narrative for Anatolia or to the Persian Empire in contrast to Greece. The name had been stretched progressively further east until it came to encompass the much larger land area with which we associate it today. The idea of Asia has expanded eastward firstly through the expedition of Alexander and secondly as a result of the establishment of the overland Europe-Asia trade route which was named as Silk Road by the German explorer, Baron Ferdinand von Richtofen, in the nineteenth century when it had become non-existent. Initially the term, Europe, stood for mainland Greece only which was extended to lands to the north by 500 BC. Greece remained a defined country but its metaphors, Europe and occident, became ideas to be inherited by Rome along with other Hellenic legacies and carried to denote its present limits in the era of its imperial expansion. Latinisation and Christianisation of the core area of the empire excluding the non-Latinised and non-Christianised peripheral Asian and African territories consolidated the idea of Europe as a separate continent and a distinct cultural zone.

Asia and Europe became universally identified fixed concepts to represent two continents in the course of development of geography as a separate branch of knowledge. Their metonyms, orient and occident, further evolved to become structures to identify two contrast cultures and civilisations. Marco Polo was the most important and last noted overland traveller from Europe to Asia. The travels of Marco Polo inspired the epoch-making sea route discoveries by Spanish and Portuguese sailors. Portuguese were the first navigators to reach the ‘Spice Islands’ through the Indian Ocean. Columbus discovered the New World but failed to explore Indies. This failure inspired the Spanish quest to reach Indies through the Western Hemisphere. Magellan succeeded in reaching the Philippines after circumnavigation of the world and the crossing of what he called the ‘Peaceful Ocean’ in 1521. The Magellanian circumnavigation showed that the conception of orient and occident is geographically false because both are actually part of the Eastern Hemisphere and the New World in reality is located in the west of Europe.

Herodotus included Egypt in his conception of Asia. In Nehru’s vision too Egypt was part of Asia; so it was invited and it participated in the Asian Relations Conference. Asia or orient was neither perceived nor constructed as homogenous, it included the Mesopotamian-Egyptian and their successor the Arab/Islamic, Indian and Chinese cultures and civilisations. The idea of occident or the West went along with European migrants to the continents of Americas and Australia. The era of European colonialism in Asia and Africa added White racism as another feature of the idea of the West in addition to its classical attributes of Greco-Roman and Judaic-Christian.

The popular European name of Anatolia before the Ottoman Empire was Asia Minor. Pre-Islamic Iraq was occasionally called Asia Major by them. In the nineteenth century geo-political under-standing of colonialism, Asia was fragmented into three Easts—Near East, Middle East and Far East. The heartland of the Ottoman Empire became Near East in the jargon of Western imperialism. The territory outside the Ottoman Empire or on its periphery was identified as the Middle East. The contemporary East Asia is known as Far East in the vocabulary of colonialism. The Indian subcontinent or British Raj, the jewel amongst the British colonies, was not an eastern but a king-pin in the British colonial apparatus of control and hegemony through the India Office and its agents located in West Asia. The professional intellectuals of the colonial countries who worked as linguists, anthropologists, historians and experts in area studies made orient and its peoples the object of their studies to facilitate resistance-free colonial governance and exploitation of these regions.

The Asian nations along with the other post-colonial states of Africa and Latin America became the arena of neo-colonial power politics after the Second World War. The Cold War rivalry of the USA and Soviet Union gave a
new meaning to East and West. They were reduced to power blocs led by the USSR and USA respectively. This objectification of the developing countries, more particularly of India’s Asian neighbourhood, was not acceptable to Nehru. To expedite the process of decolonisation and to resist neo-colonisation, his first initiative as an organic intellectual of Asia was to educate the Asians about their general Asian identity and particular regional identities and to create their respective consciousnes. He rejected the names of different Asian regions given by the UK or USA and identified them on the basis of their geographical location in the Asian landmass as South Asia, Western Asia, Central Asia, South-East Asia and East Asia. (The UN for its purpose has also divided Asia into five regions with similar names.) He propagated these terms through his writings and speeches which were necessary to transform the Asian countries and peoples from their status as objects to subjects in their interaction with the Western hegemonic powers. His second initiative was to organise the Asian countries into solidarity for collective bargaining on common issues with the dominant powers. His first attempt in this regard was the Asian Relations Conference. At this conference Nehru declared:

... Asia is again finding of the notable consequences of the European domi-nation of Asia has been the isolation of the countries of Asia from one another. ... Today this isolation is breaking down because of many reasons, political and otherwise...This Conference is significant as an expression of that deeper urge of the mind and spirit of Asia which has persisted... In this Conference and in this work there are no leaders and no followers. All countries of Asia have to meet together in a common task.

The failure of the conference to convert itself into an organisation did not dishearten Nehru; the quest at a bigger level by including Africa along with Asia continued through the Bandung Conference of 1955 till the formation of NAM in 1961. The notable events in the post-Nehru Asia have been the Chinese joining the UN with veto power and emergence of Bangladesh in South Asia. The priorities of the post-Nehru generation of Asian leadership changed from politics to economics under the persuasion of the Bretton Woods organisations. The emergence of the Asian Tigers following the export promotion policy replacing the import substitution policy of the Nehruvian era created a conducive atmosphere for globalisation in the post-Cold War world. The historic region of Central Asia re-emerged on the world plane after the disintegration of the USSR.

The US has become the heartland of the occident after the Second World War. It defines Asia with US-centricism. Its definition of Asia excludes Western Asia which is Middle East for it as it was for the British. The first international institution organised on this US perspective was the Asian Development Bank (ADB) started in 1966. In the post-Cold War period China, a Pacific Ocean Asian country, has replaced the USSR in the security perception of Washington. In response to this situation the US is taking a gradual U-turn from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. This is visible from the creation of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 1989 and Asian Regional Forum (ARF) of the ASEAN in 1993 at the initiative of the US supported by its allies in South-East Asia. China shares this new idea of Asia with the US in which East Asia and South-East Asia, the areas of Chinese and American influences, are the core of Asia and the regions of South Asia and Central Asia are peripheries in which Western Asia is excluded.

In the dominant neo-liberal and neo-conservative US understanding expressed in Huntington’s clash of civilisation thesis, the Middle East has become the Greater Middle East including all Muslim countries of West, Central, and South Asia plus North Africa clubbed into one civilisation zone, the potential challenger of the West led by the US. Israel, a country physically located in Western Asia but constituted mainly by European migrant Jews under British colonial policy in Palestine, its mandated territory after the First World War, is not part of the Greater Middle East. In the US geo-politics in Western Asia it is treated for all practical purposes as the fiftyfirst state of the USA and the neo-colonial policeman of the West in the region.
Emerging India, the inheritor of the Nehruvian legacy, should not fall into this trap of neo-colonialism. It must protect and promote its national interest independently and not as one in bandwagan of the US. The weakening of NAM in the post-Cold War era and the US initiative to co-opt New Delhi in its design as a regional power and strategic ally should not engender an imitative spirit in New Delhi. Nehru correctly asserted again and again that leaders in every age have been guided by the spirit of creativity, not by the spirit of imitation. India should resist this fragmentation and domination of Asia and the world by any hegemon. Despotism, be it oriental or occidental, must be opposed. As the largest democracy of the world it must encourage democracy and human rights everywhere. India has a tryst with destiny to play its due role for constructing a humane, democratic, integrated and interdependent world order. This spirit is vividly depicted in the title of the third chapter of the Glimpses of World History, that is, ‘Inquilab Zindabad’—long live change.

Dr Muhammad Tajuddin is a Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Jammu, Jammu.

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