Prospects for a Bay of Bengal community


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AT the beginning of the 21st century, two contradictory tendencies can be seen in the international system. At one end is the reassertion of national identities. The Soviet Union, which was bound together by a single ideology and centralised party dictatorship, has disintegrated paving the way for new state formations. At the other end, free and independent states are voluntarily coming together to form larger associations, in the process ceding some of their sovereign rights. One classic example is the European Union. These two contradictory tendencies of disintegration and unification have to be kept in mind in any analysis of success or failure of regional cooperation in different parts of the world.

Equally relevant are the legacies of the colonial era. The inter state boundaries in the developing world are a consequence of colonial domination. Instead of uniting people who belong to the same ethnic group, speak the same language and follow the same religion, these states have tended to divide them. Thus there are Nagas and Mizos in India and Myanmar, both communities sharing a feeling of alienation; Malays in Malaysia and Southern Thailand. One part of Timor came under the control of Portugal and the other under Holland. One part of Kalimatanan was under British rule and, therefore, became part of Malaysia; the other was under Dutch rule and, therefore, became a province of Indonesia.

What is more, the concept of ‘area’ – South Asia, Southeast Asia, and West Asia – which gained currency after the Second World War, was an offshoot of our intellectual dependence on western scholarship. In fact, the Cold War and colonial legacies in the university system have done incalculable harm to Indian scholarship and thought processes. More than four decades ago, as a postgraduate student in the Department of History in Bombay University, I had to study a paper on the history of the Far East, covering China and Japan. How China, our northern neighbour, became Far East was a riddle I was unable to solve at that time.

The last four decades have not seen much improvement in the Indian academic scene. The University of Madras offers a course on India and its neighbours to the postgraduate students of history. The countries covered in that course include Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Maldives. My repeated attempts to include Thailand and Indonesia, our maritime neighbours, in the course have so far not succeeded. Despite our maritime heritage, few people in India are conscious of the fact that the island of Pu Breush, located in the North West of Sumatra, is only 92 nautical miles away from Indira Point, which is less than the distance between Chennai and Tirupati. Similarly, Phuket in Thailand is only 273 nautical miles away from Indira Point, which is less than the distance between Chennai and Madurai.



The United States was the first to realize that knowledge is power. American universities recognised the salience between scholarship and foreign policy. Bruce Cumings of the Northwestern University has rightly pointed out that the Area Studies Programmes, initiated during the height of the Cold War, were the ‘creation of the national security state.’ These programmes were structured and financed, and their research agendas and methodologies set, by the ‘state/intelligence/foundation nexus.’ Those who held dissenting views had to face difficult times. ‘Henry Kissinger at Harvard, William Buckley at Yale or President Raymond Allen at the University of Washington, regularly spied for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, providing information concerning "subversive activities" at these institutions.’

The research agenda set by U.S. academicians was aped by many universities in the developing countries. As Cumings vividly illustrates, the position of the U.S. in the global scene, and rivalry with communist countries determined what should be studied and researched. For example, missing from the literature extolling the South Korean miracle ‘was the fact that thousands of its workers and students were being beaten and professors tortured and jailed by their governments.’ Equally important, ‘Japan got favoured treatment as a success story of development, and China got obsessive attention as a pathological example of abortive development.’



The Indian universities blindly accepted the American terms of reference, especially those relating to division of the world into different areas. The artificial division between South and Southeast Asia is a clear illustration of our intellectual dependence.

India has land and maritime boundaries with Myanmar and maritime boundaries with Thailand and Indonesia. These countries are not only our next door neighbours, Indian political ideas, institutions, religion, art and language have in the past profoundly influenced them. In his book, The Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru quotes from a letter that he received from a Thai student who studied at Shantiniketan: ‘I always consider myself exceptionally fortunate in being able to come to this great and ancient land of Aryavarta and pay my humble homage at the feet of grandmother India in whose affectionate arms my mother country was so lovingly brought up and taught to appreciate and love what was sublime and beautiful in culture and religion.’

Nehru further added: ‘There was a time when India was a mother country to them and nourished them with rich fare from her own treasure house. Just as Hellenism spread from Greece to the countries of the Mediterranean and in Western Asia, India’s cultural influences spread to many countries and left its powerful impress upon them.’



The Indonesian nationalist leader Sukarno echoed the same sentiments. In a special article in The Hindu on 4 January 1946, Sukarno wrote: ‘In the veins of every one of my people flows the blood of Indian ancestors and the culture that we possess is steeped through and through with Indian influences. Two thousand years ago people from your country came to Jawadvipa and Suvarnadvipa in the spirit of brotherly love. They gave the initiative to found powerful kingdoms such as those of Sri Vijaya, Mataram and Majapahit. We then learnt to worship the very Gods that you now worship still and we fashioned a culture that even today is largely identical with your own. Later, we turned to Islam: but that religion too was brought by people coming from both sides of India.’

Indian contacts with Southeast Asia did not snap in the 13th century. Recent research in maritime history clearly proves that Keralites, Tamils and Gujaratis had extensive contacts with Southeast Asia in the medieval period. In fact, in the Islamisation of Indonesia, the Muslims from Gujarat and Malabar, Tamil Nadu and Bengal played a decisive role.

It is necessary to highlight the fact that historians like K.M. Panikkar, Nilakanta Shastri and R.C. Majumdar used the term Southeast Asia to cover both present day South Asia and Southeast Asia. By accepting the American concept that Southeast Asia – countries stretching from Myanmar to the Philippines – is a different entity, we intellectually distanced ourselves from our immediate neighbours. Another fallout was that Southeast Asian Studies never received adequate encouragement from the University Grants Commission and other funding agencies.



The concept of the ocean as a unifying force and focus of regional cooperation has not yet been fully grasped. Take Southeast Asia as an example. Except Laos, which is landlocked, all others are maritime countries. Singapore is an island state and Indonesia and the Philippines are archipelagic states. Even within ASEAN, issues relating to maritime cooperation have not received adequate attention.

Throughout history, sailing was an important means of communication between South India and distant lands. As Arasaratnam has pointed out, India acted as a bridge between the East and West. Hence the Arab name for the Southwestern coast of India – Ma’abar – is the Arabic word for ‘bridge’ or ‘crossway’.

We in India should redefine the concept of ‘area’ taking into consideration both historical realities and geopolitical imperatives. In recent years, I have advocated the concept of a ‘Bay of Bengal community’. In a wider sense, the Bay of Bengal community would also include the littoral states of the Andaman Sea and the Malacca Strait. The underlying idea is not to replace SAARC or ASEAN, but to have an additional organisation, which will bring together India and its southern and eastern neighbours.

The Bay of Bengal occupies an area of 2,172,000 sq kms. It is bordered by India and Sri Lanka to the West, Bangladesh to the North, and Myanmar and the southern part of Thailand to the East. Its southern boundary extends as an imaginary line from Dondra Head at the southern end of Sri Lanka to the northern tip of Sumatra. A number of large rivers – Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Godavari, Mahanadi, Krishna and Cauvery – flow into the Bay of Bengal. Among the important ports are Calcutta, Cuddalore, Kakinada, Machlipatnam, Madras, Paradip and Vishakapatnam.

The Andaman Sea is a part of the northeastern Indian Ocean and occupies an area of 798,000 sq kms. It is bounded to the North by the Irrawaddy delta of Myanmar; to the East by peninsular Myamnar, Thailand and Malaysia; to the West by the Andaman and Nicobar Islands; to the South by the island of Sumatra in Indonesia and the Malacca Strait. Its important ports are Bassein, Tavoy, Mergui and Rangoon. The Andaman Sea is Myanmar’s major sea link with the outside world.



The Strait of Malacca connects the Andaman Sea and the South China Sea. It has an area of 65,000 sq kms. It runs between the Indonesian island of Sumatra and West Malaysia. It derives its name from Malacca, the headquarters of an important maritime empire. The Strait of Malacca is one of the most important shipping channels in the world. The Indians, Chinese, Arabs, Portugese, Dutch and the British successfully controlled the maritime trade in different periods and shaped the history of the region.

Historically, all members of the Bay of Bengal community – India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Sri Lanka have witnessed dynamic interaction between maritime trade and cultural evolution. What Kenneth Mcpherson wrote about the Indian Ocean in general applies with greater validity to the Bay of Bengal. ‘The Indian Ocean region was the home of the world’s first urban civilization, and the centre of the first sophisticated commercial and maritime activities. The ocean – as a great highway and source of food and raw materials was a vital force moulding the many societies on its shores long before people maintained written records.’



One out of five people in the world is a part of the Bay of Bengal community. The region is rich in natural and mineral sources. A recent publication of the FAO financed Bay of Bengal Programme points out: ‘It encompasses the continental shelf off the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, where tuna are abundant; the nutrient rich upland riverine basins and the unique Sunderbans mangrove eco-systems of India and Bangladesh that support a host of fin and shell fish species of commercial significance; and the valuable coral reefs of Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar.’

The Bay of Bengal is a gift of ‘Mother Nature’ and the littoral states can cooperate with one another for common wellbeing. Recently, cyclonic storms lashed Bangladesh and the Orissa coast. If the littoral states had agreed to cooperate in the crucial area of weather forecasting, preventive measures could have been adopted and the population evacuated from the coastal areas well in advance of nature’s fury. Similarly, the Bay of Bengal is used by the insurgents in the North East and the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in Sri Lanka to illegally smuggle weapons. This maritime terrorism could easily be contained were the littoral states to share intelligence and coordinate their anti-terrorist activities. The list could be multiplied.

In short, exploitation of living and non-living maritime resources; development of maritime communications; ship building and ship repair; weather forecasting; prevention of pollution and combating maritime terrorism – these tasks, which are the exclusive responsibilities of individual countries at present, can best be accomplished through regional cooperation.



Unlike the South China Sea, where conflicting territorial claims threaten peace and stability, the Bay of Bengal region is an area of relative tranquility. India has settled its maritime boundaries with all its Southeast Asian neighbours. Agreements were signed with Indonesia in 1974 and 1977, with Thailand in 1978, with Myanmar in 1987, and the trijunction among India, Thailand and Indonesia in 1978. As far as South Asia is concerned, the maritime boundaries with Sri Lanka were demarcated by maritime agreements in 1974 and 1976. The agreements were based on the principle of equidistance, though in the case of Sri Lanka and Myanmar, New Delhi made some concessions in the interest of good neighbourly relations. Currently, the only unsettled maritime border is with Bangladesh. India’s keeness to settle the border has not been reciprocated. What is more, the New Moore island is a subject matter of territorial dispute between the two countries.

Cooperation among the Bay of Bengal community would pave the way for confidence building in security related issues as well. It may be recalled that the modest expansion of the Indian Navy near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the 1970s and 1980s, led to adverse reactions in Australia and some Southeast Asian capitals. However, welcome initiatives taken by India in the ’80s and the ’90s have gone a long way in removing apprehensions from Southeast Asian countries about the Indian Navy’s intentions and capabilities. Prime Minister Goh Chok Thong of Singapore expressed fears about the accelerated growth of the Indian Navy. It was only after the situation was explained that he was appeased. ASEAN concerns regarding naval expansion in the region have been allayed after visits by senior officials from these countries to the naval facilities in the Andaman archipelago. What is more, joint naval exercises with the United States, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia (and also with ASEAN collectively, appropriately called MILAN) have contributed to a better appreciation of India’s security needs.



The increased cooperation, however, suffered a temporary setback following Pokhran II in May 1998. I have used the term temporary because there is considerable sympathy and understanding of India’s nuclear policy in the region. It is necessary to highlight the fact that at the Manila Summit, despite strong pressure from the United States, Japan and the European Community, ASEAN leaders sidestepped the issue of condemning India and Pakistan for their nuclear tests. The Chairman’s statement only expressed ‘grave concern and strongly deplored the recent nuclear tests in South Asia.’ Naturally, India dissociated itself from the statement.

In this connection, New Delhi should seriously consider one policy option. Over the years, India has consistently opposed the concept of ‘nuclear free zones’ in different areas. In the context of the changed strategic environment in Southeast Asia and the imperatives of improving relations with countries in the region, India should seriously consider endorsing the Treaty of Southeast Asian Nuclear Free Zone (SEANWFZ). The five nuclear powers have taken an ambiguous stand on this proposal. Should India support the concept of SEANWFZ, the gesture would be welcomed by all Southeast Asian countries.

The Bay of Bengal community as a specific area of regional cooperation, deserves greater attention from academicians and policy planners. The first step in this direction was the establishment of BIMSTEC (Bangladesh-India-Myanmar-Sri Lanka-Thailand Economic Cooperation) in June 1998. This is the first organisation of its kind in which two ASEAN members have come together with three countries in South Asia for economic cooperation. The areas identified for cooperation include communication, infrastructure, energy, trade, investment, tourism and fisheries. It is high time New Delhi took the initiative and opened a dialogue with Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to form a wider Bay of Bengal community. By forming such an organization, the ‘extended neighbourhood’, as the Ministry of External Affairs refers to these countries, would rightly become a part of the ‘immediate neighbourhood’. The concept of a Bay of a Bengal community would become the common agenda of all littoral states.



The idea of a Bay of Bengal community deserves serious consideration for two additional reasons. First, it would enable India to come out of the India-Pakistan deadlock, which has been the curse of South Asian cooperation. Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to Lahore and the inauguration of the Delhi-Lahore-Delhi bus service in February 1999 were illustrations of New Delhi’s sincere desire to build bridges with Pakistan to pave the way for a secure and peaceful South Asia. However, the recent Kargil crisis and Pakistan’s blatant involvement in the violation of the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir have set the clock back as far as the peace process is concerned.

What is more, international response has been very favourable to India. Washington, in particular, and Beijing, to an extent, played a decisive role in persuading Pakistan to end its misadventure. The two countries are of the view that India-Pakistan differences should be resolved through mutual dialogue. The ASEAN also echoed similar sentiments. In a joint communiquŽ issued at the end of the meeting of foreign ministers in August 1999, ASEAN had urged India and Pakistan to adhere to the process of dialogue to resolve the ‘dispute’.

Second, and equally important, is the China factor. Southeast Asian countries are today engaged in constructive interaction with China; at the same time they have, in varying degrees, apprehensions and misgivings about China’s long term intentions and capabilities. The Sino-Vietnam conflict in March 1988 near the Spratlys is a grim reminder that China could take advantage of the vulnerability of its southern neighbours and even resort to force to buttress its territorial claims. Both Hanoi and Beijing have rendered the problem complex by granting oil exploration licenses in the same area.

In February 1995, China and the Philippines clashed over territorial claims in the Mischief Reef. In December 1998, the Filipino and the Chinese navies had another altercation in the same area; in July 1999, tensions again erupted following the sinking of a Chinese boat by the Filipino navy. Despite Beijing’s attempts to shelve the territorial claims, discerning observers continue to look at the South China Sea as a likely flashpoint. The fact that China and Pakistan do not belong to the Bay of Bengal community are plus factors; it would definitely reduce strategic dissonance in the region.