Statehood in South Asia

By Embree, Ainslie | Journal of International Affairs, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Statehood in South Asia


Embree, Ainslie, Journal of International Affairs


In the vast region now known as South Asia at the beginning of 1997, most of the major states--including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka--have some form of democratic government for the first time since the formal British withdrawal in 1947. All of these nations are engaged in measures of economic liberalization, moving away from government control of resources toward a market economy. All are also seeking, however tentatively, to increase and strengthen interregional relationships.(1) Although democracy, economics and foreign policy have been important, the overarching concern in all the states and the one that shapes all the other issues is the quest for national unity. The process of decolonization that led to the formation of the separate states of South Asia meant that the externally imposed unity of the colonial state had to be replaced by policies that required the assent of the governed.

It is this theme of the search for national unity that will be analyzed in this article through brief examinations of three of the states, with a fourth, Bangladesh, being noted in relation to India and Pakistan. More attention will be given to India, since the same factors that give India a special prominence within the region make it an excellent starting place for considering the South Asia region in general.

The first factor that explains India's prominence in the region is its overwhelming dominance in population, industrial development and military power. Equally important is the geographical factor. Since the state of India comprises almost three-quarters of the subcontinent, which is bound by mountains and seas, it is an "intelligible isolate." A third factor is that the civilizations and cultures of India have made an impression on all the states of the region, despite the other states' own strong indigenous cultural and religious characteristics, such as Islam and Buddhism. A fourth factor giving India a special importance is that all the states in the region, especially the four largest ones, have experienced political trends rooted in what is now the state of India. Beginning with the Mauryan Empire in the fourth century B.C. and continuing into the modern era, political forces have emanated from India throughout the region.

India had a special importance for the British empire and had a legal and political status different from any of the other colonies. It was regarded as the dominating power in the region. Lord Curzon, as governor general, expressed a grandiose but widely held vision of India's hegemony in 1909 when he wrote:

   On the west, India must exercise a predominant influence over the destinies
   of Persia and Afghanistan; on the north, it can veto any rival in Tibet; on
   the north-east it can exert great pressure upon China, and it is one of the
   guardians of the autonomous existence of Siam.(2)

This was a dangerous legacy for the Government of India to leave to its successor state, the Republic of India, as the world discovered when India and China quarreled over the borders that had been left by the British. Upon British departure in 1947, India's influence in the area continued when it began to interact with the new border states of Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Sikhim.

The word "empire" is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the aggregate of many states under one common head." The British viewed their empire in these terms. Britain had conquered and brought under one rule what was a hackneyed congeries of states and kingdoms in the geographical area that Europeans had called "India" since ancient times. That the official and legal documents usually referred to the "Government of India" and not "India" reflects that the British perceived India as a government, but not a state and certainly not a nation.

Looking back over 50 years of independent statehood in South Asia, one can identify dominant issues and concerns in each of the states. …

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