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Seeing ghosts

Can India’s Afghanistan policy be guided by history? Ashok Malik (Great Gaming 2009, October 13) seems to think so. Malik has suggested that India follows the principles set forth in the 1838 ‘Simla Manifesto’ of Lord Auckland, which he believes provides a “timeless exposition of the goals of Indian near-neighbourhood policy”.

india Updated: Oct 15, 2009 22:12 IST

Can India’s Afghanistan policy be guided by history? Ashok Malik (Great Gaming 2009, October 13) seems to think so. Malik has suggested that India follows the principles set forth in the 1838 ‘Simla Manifesto’ of Lord Auckland, which he believes provides a “timeless exposition of the goals of Indian near-neighbourhood policy”. The objective of Auckland, the then Governor-General of India, was to prevent the continuance of a government in Afghanistan that was a threat to the security and peace of the frontiers of India.

Of course, the frontiers of India that Lord Auckland ‘lorded’ over in the early 19th century, are dissimilar to those that circumscribe it today. The present day borders make India’s current interests qualitatively different from what Auckland prescribed in 1838. But, more importantly, is Malik’s perspective the only one which can be derived from history to serve as a guide for present policy?

How would Pakistan, for instance, use history to bolster its hostility to India’s presence in Afghanistan? For one, Pakistan can quite easily demonstrate that till the 19th century, from a geo-political perspective, the southern part of the Oxus basin, the eastern part of Iran, Afghanistan and the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent (now in Pakistan), constitute an area which has had highly significant political and economic interactions. In this sense, if not in any other, that area as a whole may be visualised as a sphere that belongs neither to the Iranian heartland on the west nor to Gangetic India on the east.

As for Afghanistan, if anything, its composite character has had elements of Iran, the Oxus and the Indus plains. Herat belonged to Persia — culturally and, through most if its history, politically too. Balkh in the Oxus valley connected up with Central Asia and China. Kabul itself lay within the cultural ambit of the area that extends from the Peshawar area to the Indus basin. Whether it was a Harappan outpost or the presence of Buddhism in Afghanistan, those links were likely to have been mediated through Peshawar that has been described the ‘transformer station’ in the transmission of cultural currents from Western and Central Asia.

The engagement of Pakistan, therefore, with Afghanistan, in the light of history, would appear to be both logical and desirable. India’s present borders, on the other hand, simply do not justify the same kind of engagement. Like Malik, Pakistan would also cite the views of distinguished experts to underline that Hindustan in the real sense should be the concern of India. ‘True India’ as a geo-cultural entity, according to the geographer O.H.K. Spate, “does not begin before the temples of Mathura”.

Since history can be (ab)used to sanction all kinds of policies, is it perhaps more politic for realpolitik to look elsewhere for justifications?

Nayanjot Lahiri teaches at the Department of History, University of Delhi

The views expressed by the author are personal