Connectivity blues at Kantipur ConclaveWe should not entirely dismiss the heritage of freedom practised by countries who did not directly come under British rule.
Raja Mohan mentioned Bombay and Madras as the two key hinterland cities that became the gateway to Europe and the rest of the world. Hong Kong played a similar role in that process. By alluding to the Silk Road, he said China is making railroads to link Tibet with the rest of the mainland. The Karakorum railway is linking Pakistan to China. His syllogism was straight, pragmatic and evocative at the same time. It was evocative on one score. He said Nepal, Afghanistan and Tibet were not receptive to the British experiments; they kept their doors closed propelled by a psyche of anti-connectivity in order to preserve the old order and to secure sovereignty.
But new perceptions about connectivity in South Asia emerge when we treat this subject by going back to history itself. Afghanistan has a unique history that cannot be elaborated here, but Nepali oligarchs had developed a policy of keeping the British happy through the diplomacy of appeasement and cooperation. The Rana oligarchs came to power 30 years after the treaty of Sugauli that was signed following Nepal's defeat in the two-year war with the British Raj. The Ranas' concept of connectivity, as Raja Mohan rightly said, was one of preserving the traditional order. They kept Nepal cut off from the rest of the world. The case of Tibet is even more unique.
Younghusband's mission that mounted an attack on Lhasa in the summer of 1903 was prompted by the British concern about the Russians making inroads into Tibet. Prior to that, the British kept up all kinds of espionage operations including quaint spy work under the guidance of Captain Montgomerie who sent the Hindu Pundits disguised as Buddhist monks after training them in the use of the basic survey gadgets in 1862. Thomas Richards calls that ‘a data pilgrimage utilising a rapid deployment force of monks’. The British used a technique of ‘state nomadology’ that sounds strange when we are talking about Belt and Road policy. The next keynote speaker, after C Raja Mohan, was Bruno Maçães who has written a book entitled Belt and Road: A Chinese World Order (2019). His thesis statement in the book speaks volumes about connectivity today. He says, ‘China has called India its natural partner in the Belt Road, but views in India are decidedly cooler’. But Bruno's ideas were different. He said connectivity is not only about roads; it is about ideas and civilisation.
The discourses presented that afternoon foregrounded a few tantalising questions. Is the historicity of connectivity quite as linear as that? Can we say those traders or 'capitalists' who made railroads and docked ship in the big harbours were messiahs of prosperity in this region? Is coloniality explainable in such easy terms? If we valourise the subject of linking lands through different physical means in our times, we cannot get to the heart of the matter; the other questions about political systems, freedom and the amelioration of the people in the regions remain unanswered.
Reviewing the history of colonial times is a common academic practice, interestingly in the department of literature; postcolonial studies incorporated in the curricula at the graduate studies level serve as an example. As someone who is one of the architects of this line of studies, I often evoke a few debates that have happened between writers and scholars like Edward Said, Homi K Bhabha, Bill Ashcroft and others. I am especially reminded of the famous critic and interpreter Edward Said's observation in Reflections on Exile (2001) about the writings of the eminent author VS Naipaul whose brilliant writings and his style has drawn both his detractors and admirers alike. Said confesses ‘[Naipaul] is so gifted a writer—and I write of him with pain and admiration…’. Naipaul is critiqued for his Anglo savvy description of his ancestral country (though in his Nobel lecture he said he was descendent of Nepali immigrants) India, which would include all other countries of South Asia, anyway. Said considers that a result of his ‘devastating lack of historical preparation’ Naipaul looks at the South Asian countries as having 'no vitality, no creativity, no authenticity’ and so on. He thinks these countries suffer from ‘self-inflicting wounds’ that is for not being able to accept or follow the principles of the Western colonial countries' methods of development and education. Said says, according to Naipaul, ‘[these countries'] contemporary history is the direct result of seeking, but not finding, a suburban bourgeois therapy for their difficulties’.
When we say that countries like Nepal, Afghanistan, Tibet and Bhutan did not open themselves up to the opportunities that the British capitalist Raj offered by making railway lines, creating trade routes, or 'corridors' and trading in the Western clothes (Mahatma Gandhi had to choose to discard the same) and machineries, aren't we too saying that these countries failed to find 'a suburban bourgeois therapy'? We certainly are not saying that these countries 'inflicted the wounds' on themselves that are visible even today, and India became ‘a wounded civilisation’ for that very reason. But what is true as raised by the speakers is that we should overcome the heritage of regarding every link initiative as a bogie. Nepal's euphoria about the unbuilt railroads, not-sailing ship and fast connectivity involving roads is justified as a dream, as Prime Minister Oli in his speech that evening said by citing a famous poem of Laxmi Prasad Devkota—we should 'take high aim of touching the moon'.
The South Asian keynotes and panel discussions that afternoon expressed the selfsame euphoria of the connectivity. Keeping that in mind, we should not entirely dismiss the heritage of freedom practised by countries who did not directly come under the British rule or were connected by their railway networks. But time has come to create connectivity by learning from both historical errors and achievements.
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