Lawrence Freedman, the leading British strategic thinker and Head of Department of War Studies at King’s College London, once mentioned to this reviewer that Srinath Raghavan was the best student he ever had. He was his doctoral student and later a colleague at the department. He has written some of the best books on military cum diplomatic history on South Asia; to name a couple: War and Peace in Modern India: A Strategic History of the Nehru years (Palgrave 2010) and India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-45 (Penguin 2017). Formerly a short service commissioned officer of the infantry, he went on to complete his higher studies under Freedman as an Inlaks scholar. In deference to his guru as ‘a mark of lasting gratitude, affection and esteem’, he dedicates the book under review to him.
In the words of Raghavan, the book is, ‘in many ways a culmination of my research over the past fifteen years on international history of modern South Asia. It is also a product of my close engagement with the international politics of the region during the same period’ (p. 378). He has over the period worked at the Center for Policy Research and has also been a member of the National Security Advisory Board. From the perch of a leading member of Delhi’s strategic and academic communities, Raghavan had a ring-side view of the period that witnessed the simultaneous drawing closer of India and the United States (US) and the US’s intimate involvement in Af-Pak in the aftermath of 9/11. The latter part of the book—laid out chronologically–deals with these years.
Raghavan covers the new century in a mere 35 pages, somewhat sparse when compared with some 65 pages of the preceding two decades beginning with the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan. The two periods are separated by the intervening one of the end of the Cold War and the US’s relative distancing from events in the region in the Clinton years. It is perhaps this distancing that led up to its return yet again and this time in full strength.
There are two conjoined themes which kept the US to the till in the region and that permeate the narrative of the years. The first is the events—dating back to the early seventies–of incremental gravity and portents that prompted the US’s continuing engagement with South Asia, that by themselves would not have otherwise attracted the US. The second is its co-extensive nuclearization of the rivalry of the South Asian protagonists, India and Pakistan, again dating back to the early seventies and picking up pace through the eighties.
The eighties witnessed Pakistan as a ‘frontline’ state, even as the US looked the other way when its key partner forced the pace of nuclearization in the eighties. Rajiv Gandhi, left with little choice, with his disarmament initiative failing to gain traction, ordered the last screws to be turned on India’s nuclear capability. With the departure of the Soviets, the US, stepping back from the region, alongside brought its nonproliferation lobby to bear. While in Afghanistan, it looked to access Central Asia and its oil by seemingly backing the Pakistan-supported Taliban, alongside its squeezing of India’s nuclear hand forced the nuclear break out of South Asia by the end of the decade. Needing to change tack from a cap-and-roll-back policy to accommodation, a major shift was forced on the US as it embarked on its ‘global war on terror’. Developments in the period—that included the nuclear tests, two crises and the US intervention in Afghanistan—lent the region the ‘most dangerous place on earth’ tag and the book its name.
In the Cold War years, the US has been implicated—almost to the levels of a participant—in the strategic history of South Asia, the highwater mark being the 1971 War in which it threw in its lot with its Cold War partner, Pakistan. Raghavan is particularly lucid in bringing this out, highlighting the Nixon-Kissinger attitudes to India and its leadership in their references to ‘witch’ and ‘bitch’ caught on White House tapes. Even the famous ‘(Archer) Blood telegram’(a message from its Consul General giving the collective position of the consulate) from Dacca, calling the developments in East Pakistan ‘a selective genocide’ did not draw attention. The implicit dissent was instead ignored since the US was then using Pakistan as a springboard for an outreach to China. The US followed up the sending in of USS Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal with trying to box in India’s nuclear quest soon thereafter. The framework of two estranged democracies’ was set in the early Cold War as India embarked on nonalignment, while Pakistan used its proximity with the US as a Cold War partner for external balancing in relation to India and its revisionist garb for Kashmir.
The book uses more than a hundred pages to cover a less known ground, on the relations of the US with British India prior to Independence. Raghavan has elsewhere, in his monumental history of World War II as it engulfed the region, covered the US’s military presence and role in South Asia then. He assays an economic history in his coverage of the lend-lease relationship and the American war aim of displacing colonial empires, including that of their British ally, with an open capitalist international order. In this part of the book he enlightens by showing up how racism formed early opinions within the US of the region and shaped the US’s engagement. The influential role of missionaries in purveying to Americans that the subcontinent was a heathen land is well brought out. Swami Vivekananda in his famous address at Chicago dispelled the notion, besides imparting a sense of high Hindu philosophy to the American audience. To Raghavan, the missionaries appeared better disposed to the Muslims.
The book is well laid out, covering the notable junctures in a political, diplomatic and strategic history, even while not neglecting the economic and social interface between the superpower and the region. Its forty-nine pages of notes would prove useful for late entrants into the story. Though titled South Asia, it mainly concentrates on the US’s relations with India, Pakistan (that once included East Pakistan) and Afghanistan. He covers US interventions—its earlier proxy war and its current and ongoing longest war—as also the US’s role in defusing regional crises. Raghavan resists the temptation to dwell overly on the crises and distract from his overview of the relations, perhaps since these junctures have been mostly been dissected threadbare elsewhere. In doing so, he justifies his aim of not only dwelling on South Asia, but also showing US’s role as a global power from a South Asian prism. A vantage point in South Asia covers a gap in regarding the US as it has thus far been, mostly through the more strategically critical regions of the Cold War: Europe, West Asia and East Asia.
Lately, China has increasingly become a presence in South Asia and has come to define the US’s approach to South Asia. This has made India more relevant to the US, with the US giving voice early this century to its aim of making India a great power. Pakistan for its part has displaced the US with China as an evergreen benefactor. How the future pans out would no longer be a triadic story but will feature China more prominently. It appears that an additional layer of potential rivalry—that of a global hegemon and its challenger—shall make the region continue as the most dangerous place.
Ali Ahmed is the author of India’s Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia.