Dr Medha Bisht – A Riverine Understanding
For a Maritime South Asia

Dr Medha Bisht LE Mag V1 Dec 2022

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Live Encounters Magazine Volume One December 2022.

Rivers meet the Ocean: A Riverine Understanding for a Maritime South Asia.
by Dr Medha Bisht.

Ganga photograph©Sourav Jourdar
Ganga photograph ©Sourav Jourdar

The Indian Ocean region is a space for competing narratives and perspectives. While much academic and policy work has been undertaken on ways through which the Ocean can be employed to open up multiple pathways to knowledge production, practices and perspectives towards understanding spatial, temporal, civilizational and strategic histories, in this short article, I explore the value that riverine narratives can offer to understand the framings for a maritime South Asia. Significantly, this focus on the river-ocean interface, not only helps us to visiblise a South Asian perspective, but also liberate ways of thinking from Curzonian vocabularies such as frontiers and buffers, which has shaped much of the terrestrial understanding of South Asia. A move to riverine narratives of the region, which help us to see clearly the idea of Maritime South Asia is also a significant reminder to riverine ways of thinking.

This essay proceeds in three parts. First, it examines the interface between the rivers and ocean in order to emphasise the deltaic identity of South Asia. The second section brings upfront some recent patterns and discourses related to which pre-empt the idea of maritime South Asia. The third section foregrounds this understanding in discussions around Maritime Domain Awareness, a normative concept introduced by International Maritime Organization, and the implication this has for rivers and oceans- aspects which are intrinsic to the idea of maritime South Asia.

Rivers Meet the Ocean

Juxtaposing rivers and oceans can be significant as it makes us familiar with research around connected/ circular histories, ocean people, maritime networks, cosmopolitan port cities and the story of lost civilizations of Indian Ocean with respect to South Asia. Focusing on the literature on oceans and rivers also brings forth the distinct cultural and economic webs of layered connections which had both human and non-human dimensions. For instance, Sugata Bos describes the Indian Ocean region an inter-regional arena of human interaction, highlighting the importance of economic and cultural geographies which were a part of Indian Ocean region. Similarly, the non-human dimension, underlining the role of rivers, ports and the Ocean has also been emphasized by some scholars in making of a region.

Take for example, an interesting work done by Andre Wink[2], who offers distinct insights on the geography of the rivers and changed river landscapes. By emphasizing geographical and connected dimension associated with ocean and rivets, Wink highlights how most of the ports were dependent on caravan and river traffic. He also compares some of the challenges mentioned apropos river geographies in Asia as against that of Mediterranean and Europe where he notes the role that rivers played in the rise and fall of civilisations in South Asia. In his words, “the silting –up of deep-water channels of rivers and the retreat of the sea was one form of environmental change affecting the historical development of Indian Ocean civilizations through out history. Of even more pervasive impact was the general instability of rivers everywhere, particularly because the changes resulting from river shifts were abrupt[3].”

Wink notes that one of the major sources of change affecting the river plains and delta lands surrounding the Indian Ocean are not found in urban institutions but in the desert, arid zones and the maritime world of Indian Ocean, as the rich production areas of agricultural river plains in South Asia were affected by the movements of nomadic and sea-faring people.[4] Similarly Sunil Amrith notes the connectedness between the rivers and the deltaic identity of South Asian cities and countries, where the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Meghna, Godavari, Kaveri and Krishna merge into the sea, carrying rich accumulation of silt[5]. Commenting on the continuum between the Himalayas and the Bay, William Schendel has noted, ‘Bangladesh is the Himalayas flattened out[6]”.

Infact, tracing the earlier narratives around rivers, there are many hymns devoted to water. Mythically, Varuna is the god of the water and texts reveals that he is considered the great superintendent of the cosmic moral order[7] (rita). Thus, water inevitably has been considered the source of human life and cradle of rise and fall for civilization—the source behind forces of creation and forces of destruction. Similarly, the Puranas underline the link between ocean and the sky, and highlights the import of myths which suggests the wise channelization of river systems through human efforts.

For instance, the story of Bhagiratha, who had to undertake great austerities to bring Ganga to the Earth is not unknown to us. Shiva’s intervention in the descent of Ganga to Earth is also insightful as Vatsyayan points out meticulously, “Shiva’s matted hair or the jatas piled high, delaying the cascading current which then in meandering through the labyrinths of the forest of his jatas lost its force, was tamed and channeled. Its water descended gently to the Himalayas and then majestically to the Indian planes, and thus the earth and its creatures were rejuvenated for she was the life-giving boon”[8]. These myths not only imply the value of water but also succinctly reveal the wisdom which is needed for maintain the balance of the eco-system as a whole, and also brings upfront the unique ecological cartography of South Asia.

The uniqueness of the Himalayas and the Ocean is not just confined to narratives, myths and parables with India’s eastern neighbours. The Indus Basin, which covers an area of roughly 11,65,500 square kilometre reveal the significance of major and minor river systems, giving plural meanings to a unique deltaic identity of South Asia. Significantly, all the rivers flowing through the Basin, have distinct political, social, cultural narrative. For instance, while it was on the banks of River Ravi that the pledge of Purna Swaraj (complete self-rule in colonial India was undertaken), the River also bears a symbolic significance as Sikhism was founded in the Majha region (the area between River Beas and Ravi), and continues to hold spiritual and political relevance to the sentiments across the border.[9] River Chenab on its part has been an abode for Sufi poets and saints.

Often remembered as the River of lovers, which narrated stories having a tragic ending, the Chenab has also inspired poets like Iqbal, Shiv Kumar Batalvi and Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who were born and bought up in villages located near the river[10] . While River Jhelum is often reminisced with tales related to the chivalry of Porus and generosity of Alexander the Great, as the great battle of Hydapus would tell us, these stories are often linked to the rise and fall of empires.

Christened with multiple names such as the Nilab, Sher Dariya, Purali, Samundar, Senge Tsangpo, Indus has been a signifier of plurality of identity and thought systems[11]. With these civilisational and cultural narratives going back to a recorded past of almost 8000-9000 years, the post-colonial strategic narratives of India and Pakistan are dwarfed given their unidimensional focus towards rationalisation of water war thesis where rivers are often presented as a bargaining chip in diplomatic engagement. While these approaches serve the purpose of distributive bargaining strategies often freezing diplomatic engagements into a non-zero sum framework, they ignorethe identity of rivers as dynamic systems, which need dynamic/innovative solutions.

Thus, the changing ecological and social variables determining the flows, spatial identity, and needs of the river and its eco-system, which might need scalar interventions often get obfuscated in macro discourses. This as this article argues is a reflection of strategic and civilizations myopia, and perhaps revisiting the idea of maritime South Asia would help resuscitate alternate ways of dealing with the gap that exists between the macro and the micro narratives.

The riverine narratives are significant because they offer a relational yet holistic perspective. Defying simplistic linear solutions, which talk about partitioning and rationalisation of waters, they are often defined as complex systems and the reason for this is the dendritic structure of rivers which resembles the branching of trees which has posed a challenge to both scholars and practitioners alike.

However, when one starts establishing a conversation between rivers as dynamic political, social and ecological systems, political scientists, ecologists and culturalists often end up in a shouting match. While IR scholars talk about competitive riparian behaviour, with states as key actors enjoying the privilege of political representation, the ecologists are committed towards integrating the independent agency of nature, foregrounding an autonomous place for nature in history. The culturalists on the other hand highlight the cultural construction of the environment. For them meaning is determined by the linguistic and social contexts associated with them. Michael Thompson[12] explains this through the cultural theory, and points out that different forces at work which represent dissimilar, incommensurable interests, can only be resolved by embracing ‘plural rationalities framework.

Riverine South Asia: From Terrestrial to a Maritime Centric Understanding.

The term South Asia was a negotiated compromise which goes back to the 1980s, when the idea of SARC was formalised. The idea of institutionalising South Asia did materialise, but hinged on a compromise formula of not bringing divisive issues sensitive to the national security and sovereignty of state to the multilateral forum. The voting pattern, which SAARC followed, was based on consensus rather than majority voting further delayed development projects due to existing trust deficit and is therefore significant in this respect. Scholars have offered multiple reasons why South Asians states have privileged territoriality (geo-political reasoning) over its overlapping relational – cultural and civilizational pasts (non-geo-political reasoning).

Sanjay Chaturvedi, makes an appealing argument in this regard, when he notes , “the moment of territorial partition finally arrived on the subcontinent when non-geopolitical reasoning and various forms of resistance either succumbed to or were subsumed within the overall geopolitical reasoning and representations deployed by hegemonic group(s)”[13] The argument offered by Chaturvedi is an attempt to forward the logic of excessive geopolitics, which he admits, was sustained by the territorial logic of a “reflexive otherness”[14]. This ‘reflexive otherness’ has been captured by Ashis Nandy, who notes, “South Asia is the only region in the world where most states define themselves not by what they are, but by what they are not. Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal try desperately not to be India; Bangladesh has taken up the more onerous responsibility of avoiding being both India and Pakistan”[15].

This fear and the distrust of the other, as a common syndrome in shaping the nature of South Asian collective, has also found its resonance in the writings of scholars like Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who argues that the fear of the other has been manufactured to consolidate the internal unity of nation states in South Asia.[16] Mehta notes only “when states in the region [would reach] a state of maturity where they do not need to fear the other to secure their sense of self and identity”, would South Asian states move forward from a restrictive geo-strategic construct to a more progressive geo-cultural/civilizational or relational frame[17]. The logic of South Asia identity creation, thus has found a fractured meaning for most of the South Asian states, and over the years has fossilized its understanding as a geo-strategic construct, giving direction to a distinct security diplomacy.[18]

Against this backdrop, the sub-regional turn in South Asia merits attention, which has been emerging in a gradualistic manner in the last few decades and offers a dawn of hope for a promising shift. There are three broad approaches, which can identify a shift in pattern. The Top-Bottom Approach (TBA), which one say was also a minimalist approach to regional cooperation. The second is the Building Block Approach (BBA), which comes across as gradualistic approach to regional cooperation and a more integrationist approach which can be termed as a relational approach.

The Top-Bottom Approach is ideationally closer to the SARC initiative of the 1980s, which focussed on regionalism and picked up pace because it was successful in arriving at an overlapping consensus on some key, non-confrontational development issues in South Asia.[19] The Building Block Approach, picked up in the 1990s. It was introduced in the Ninth Male Summit of SAARC, when the SAARC member countries agreed to focus on specific projects for ‘meeting the needs of three or more member states’.[20] The assumption behind the BBA was that that it would be based on a pragmatic approach and collaborate with countries willing to cooperate, which could be building blocks for cooperation.

This was taken forward through the vision of South Asia Growth Quadrangle (SAGQ) and in 2000, the South Asian Sub-Regional Economic Cooperation (SASEC)was launched with assistance from ADB, with six priority sectors that included transport, energy and power, tourism, environment, trade, investment and private sector cooperation and communication and information technology.[21,22] This vision was extended to South East Asia, through India’s Act East Policy, where it was argued that “India is Acting East through its sub-regions”[23]. In 2000, India along with five of the Mekong nations (Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) established the Mekong Ganga Cooperation (MGC), which emphasised cooperation in the field of tourism, culture, education and transport linkages.

In many ways these approaches gave credence to emerging multi-modal connectivity projects, which consolidated thinking towards Asian sub-regionalism. However, it is only in last five years that these approaches appear to have gained traction in policy debates and analysis, and can be now termed as an integrationist approach.

The Integrationist Approach

The Integrationist Approach can be said to have gained momentum in 2014, when Modi announced his neighbourhood first policy. It is interesting to note that BBIN cooperation while drawing from Article 7 of SAARC [24] Charter, has not been constituted as part of SAARC, with India emerging as a bridge between Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, analysts have revisited this term as ‘new regionalism’ and ‘development regionalism’ For instance Yhome and Maini write that, ‘sustainable development and management has been at the core of India’s cooperation at the regional and sub-regional groupings and this will have implications on regional resources such as water and energy[25].

A similar emphasis underlining sustainable development was seen in the SAGAR vision, articulated in 2015.Acronymed as the SAGAR speech, Security and Growth for All was delivered by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, in Mauritius on March 12,2015. Inaugurating the commissioning of the customised Open Patrol Vessel, Barracuda, the speech highlighted the importance of collaborative power for securing the freedom, safety and prosperity of the Indo- Pacific. Further Modi highlighted, “our more recent history has focussed our attention on continental neighbourhood. But India has been shaped in more ways by the sea around us.” He further added, “Our vision for the Indian Ocean region is rooted in advancing cooperation in our region , and to use our capabilities for the benefit of all, in our common maritime home[26]”

This shift in India’s maritime neighbourhood, not only brought into centre-stage the role of India’s island neighbours, but also littoral states such as Bangladesh. Further, there is fair emphasis (see point four of the SAGAR speech) on ‘sustainable development for all’. He notes, “we also seek a more integrated and cooperative future in the region that enhances the prospects for sustainable development for all. We must promote greater collaboration in trade, tourism and investment; infrastructure development; marine science and technology; sustainable fisheries; protection of marine environment; and, overall development of Ocean or Blue Economy. For those who live by the ocean, climate change is not an issue of debate but a serious threat to existence. We must assume leadership in our region and call for a more concerted and fair global action to address the challenge of climate change.”

While much has been written on India’s sub-regional turn and the Sagar speech, little attention has been paid to how it could offer us an integrationist vision for a maritime South Asia. The framework, which needs deliberation in this backdrop is the nature of maritime South Asia, which hinges on the exercise of collaborative power built around both the terrestrial (riverine) and maritime

space. Revisiting this vision conveyed through SAGAR speech from the lens of SDG-14 becomes fundamental as it entails responsibilities towards protecting the marine ecological environment, strengthening communication, sharing development achievements and promoting global blue partnerships. [27] Two primary pillars which offer effective facilitation of SDG -14 are fisheries and disaster management. These two specific issue areas also reveal the interconnections between ocean and rivers thus reinforcing the vision of SDG -14, but also give a new identity to South Asia, which is composed of three littoral states (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh), three landlocked states (Afghanistan, Bhutan and Nepal) and two island states (Maldives and Sri Lanka).

The two issue areas that can give meaning to this strategic vision as mentioned before are climate action and two sustainable development goals – SDG- 13 and 14, i.e. Climate Action and Life Below Water respectively. The following pages focuses on of these goals, SDG 14, and argues ways through which it can endow a strategic vision to maritime South Asia, elaborating on the specific approach of Underwater Domain Awareness.

Maritime South Asia and Under Water Domain Awareness

Underwater domain Awareness is a initiative which has been taken up by the Maritime Research Centre in Pune. The focus is on pooling of resources and synergising the efforts across stakeholders, namely maritime security, blue economy, marine environment and disaster management and science and technology. While much has been written on this subject[28], the interface of rivers and sea has not been explored enough[29]. A good example[30] of this was the growing realisation by India and Bangladesh over the depleting stocks of Hilsa fish (which migrates between fresh water and sea water) after the construction of Farakkha Barrage.

The cooperative approaches led by civil society not only conveyed the social and environmental consequences of the disruptions undertaken on rivers impacting the Hilsa fish but also suggested multi-scale responses to address the problem. Similarly, disaster management, which emphasises the resilience of rivers and ocean becomes a key goal for actors to achieve the twin goal of green and blue economy. Enhancing resilience of rivers and ocean means that a holistic framework which privileges an eco-systems perspective, is emphasised, as the meaning of river is not just restricted to the flowing water but also the protection of biodiversity, sediment, wetlands, marine resources which sustain the health of the rivers per se.

Similarly the ocean is known to “deliver essential public goods and services such as protection from natural hazards for the coastal population and carbon-storage in the form of blue carbon sinks, such as mangrove forests, sea grass beds, and vegetated ocean habitats which can sequester five times the amounts of carbon absorbed by tropical forests”. Enhancing resilience of rivers and oceans thus become important building blocks for achieving sustainable development of ocean and rivers.

While a short reflection on ocean- rivers interface, such ideas need further deliberation and research by scholars. Common Futures, Connectivity and Community are tied to the larger discourses around sub-regional and Indo-Pacific turn in discourses around India’s Foreign Policy. The first step for India’s Neighbourhood First Policy is to start conceptualising the vision of a Maritime South Asia.

Indus and Zanskar rivers photograph©Sourav Jourdar
Indus and Zanskar rivers photograph©Sourav Jourdar

End Notes

1. Medha Bisht, Senior Assistant Professor, South Asian University, New Delhi.

2. Andre Wink, Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean: Medieveal History in Geographic Perspective, Comparitive Studies in Society and History,2002.

3. Andre Wink, Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean: Medieveal History in Geographic Perspective, Comparitive Studies in Society and History,2002, p.5

4. Andre Wink, Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean: Medieveal History in Geographic Perspective, Comparitive Studies in Society and History,2002, p.18

5. Sunil Amrith,Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Future of Nature and the Fortune of Migrants, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013, p. 9.

6. Cited in Amrith, p.9.

7. Kapila Vatsyayan, “Introduction: The Ecology and the Myth of Water”, in Water: Culture, Politics and Management, New Delhi: Dorling Kindersley, 2010.

8. Kapila Vatsyayan, “Introduction: The Ecology and the Myth of Water”, in Water: Culture, Politics and Management, New Delhi: Dorling Kindersley, 2010.

9. Sohaib Anwar, etal.,Hydro-diplomacy and Local Narratives: Case study of River Ravi in Indian and Pakistan Punjab, Lahore: WWF-Pakistan, 2017

10. https://www.dawn.com/news/1446979

11. For more details, see, Alice Albinia, The Empires of the Indus, London, John Murray, 2008.

12. Michael Thompson, Policy Making in the face of Uncertainty: The Himalayas as the Unknowns, in Chapman and Thompson ed, Water and the Quest for Sustainable Development in the Ganges valley, London: Mansell Publishing, 1995

13. Sanjay Chaturvedi, Excessive of Geopolitics: Partition of British India, in Partitions: Reshaping Minds and States, London, Samaddar) 2015, 107.

14. Sanjay Chaturvedi, Excessive of Geopolitics: Partition of British India, in Partitions: Reshaping Minds and States, London, Samaddar) 2015, 107.

15. Ashis ,Nandy, “ The Idea of South Asia: A personal note on post-Bandung Blue”, InterAsia Cultural Studies, 6:4, 2007, p. 541.

16. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, “Still Under Nehru’s Shadow? The Absence of Foreign Policy Frameworks in India”, India Review , 8(3), July, 2009, pp. 266-267

17. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, “Still Under Nehru’s Shadow? The Absence of Foreign Policy Frameworks in India”, India Review , 8(3), July, 2009, pp. 266-267

18. C Raja Mohan, “India’s Regional Security Cooperation: The Nehru-Raj Legacy”, Institute for South Asian Studies, Singapore. 2013

19. S.D. Muni, Building regionalism from below, Asian Survey, 25 (4), 1985,pp. .391-404.

20. G. Padmaja, “BBIN Agreement: Building Sub-regional Corridors of Trust”, 2015

21. Yhome and Maini (2017),Regionalism: SAARC and Beyond, Observer Research Foundation

22. Yhome and Maini (2017),Regionalism: SAARC and Beyond, Observer Research Foundation23. Yhome and Maini (2017),Regionalism: SAARC and Beyond, Observer Research Foundation

24. Smruti S. Pattanaik (2016) Sub-regionalism as New Regionalism in South Asia: India’s Role, Strategic Analysis, 40:3, , p.211.

25. Yhome and Maini (2017),Regionalism: SAARC and Beyond, Observer Research Foundation, p.159

26. Ministry of External Affairs. (2015). Prime Minister’s Remarks at the Commissioning of Offshore Patrol Vessel (OPV), Barracuda, Mauritius, March 12.

27. Wenhai Lu etal.Successful Blue Economy Examples With an Emphasis on International Perspectives, Frontiers in Maritime Science, June, 2019.

28. https://indiafoundation.in/articles-and-commentaries/the-underwater-domain-awareness-framework-infinite-possibilities-in-the-new-global-era/

29. The issue of fresh water dolphins has been bought to light, given the development interventions which will be taken on account of activities of Inland water way transportation, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pd32SSce1ds

30. Cited in Medha Bisht, Towards a Networked Strategy: A Framework for Maritime South Asia, Journal of Indian Ocean Region, 16(2), 2020

© Dr Medha Bisht

Dr Bisht is a PhD from Diplomatic Studies Division, Jawaharlal Nehru University, where she wrote her thesis on multi-stakeholder negotiations on security and development. She works at the intersection of strategy and philosophy and is particularly interested in non-western meanings and sources of diplomatic, dialogic practices in Asia. Her book, ‘Kautilya’s Arthashastra: Philosophy of Strategy’ has been published by Routledge (London and NewYork 2020). Interested in the concept of water governance and diplomacy, her research engagement has highlighted the micro and macro narratives related to crafting and implementation of water diplomacy and governance.

She has conducted stakeholder engagements and dialogues in South Asia to identify the political, cultural and ecological perspectives pertaining to rivers and riparian communities. She works on transnational relations has done consultancies with UNIFEM, ICIMOD, UNDP, IUCN, OXFAM, DFID/Asia Foundation, and Mine Action Canada, with a focus on civil society, water diplomacy, women and governance.

Dr Bisht also co-led a Winter School on Inclusive Water Governance jointly organised by South Asian University (SAU), TROSA OXFAM, and UNESCO Chair of International Cooperation, Uppsala University supported by the Government of Sweden. She also co-authored and co-led a course on ‘Hydro-diplomacy in South Asia’ in collaboration with Dhaka University. Dr Bisht has also given lectures on water diplomacy, strategic and diplomatic thought, in various Universities including the Sushma Swaraj Foreign Services Institute in New Delhi.  She has also participated in Track 2 and 1.5 dialogues on climate change.

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