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The Indian Ocean and the Mughal Empire: a lesson for today

By unknown artist - Victoria and Albert Museum, Museum no. IS.37-1972, Public Domain,

The North Indian Mughal Empire ascended during the 16th century, deployed its splendour and might during the 17th century, descended during the 18th century and disappeared in the 19th century. It never ruled over the whole Indian Subcontinent but was, for some three centuries, the dominant empire of its region. Indian history over those three centuries was a history of competing land powers. Their relative neglect for the strategic dimension of the seas surrounding them illustrates their self-understanding of being a universe independent of seafaring nations from Europe reaching their shores and taking over sea trade on the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese were the first European sea-faring nation to enter the Indian Ocean with the goal of exploiting the sea trade lines between India and the world. Indian empires did not seem to worry, even, when the Portuguese started to settle on the Western coast of the Subcontinent and to run Indian ports as their merchant base from which they traded and transported pepper and other oriental spices and, thus, amassed immense wealth back home in Portugal. Theirs was the 16th century on the Indian Ocean. The Dutch replaced the Portuguese during the 17th century on the Indian Ocean. They strengthened their foothold on Indian shores, as the British did during the 18th century when fighting and ultimately replacing the Dutch and the French, who had also joined the European competition for influence and domination of the Indian Subcontinent. Throughout this European race for colonial world domination, Indian land powers remained concerned with their infighting for dominance over Indian masses and treasures. The vital strategic importance of the Indian Ocean, however, remained out of their sight and mind. Even when Portuguese armies and later armed troops under the command of the Dutch, English and French East India companies started to interfere in internal Indian power struggles, those interventions from outside were rather seen as marginal nuisances than as what they in reality were: early limited invasions with the purpose of establishing more and more strongholds for the defence of foreign commercial interests. This development culminated during the 19th century, with the creation of British India, when the Indian Subcontinent for the first time in its history was united under one rule, British colonial rule. Formally, hundreds of princely states continued to exist with the illusion of being relatively independent, or rather autonomous, under British rule, but the glorious Mughal Empire had ceased to exist in 1857, when the British successfully suppressed the Grand Mutiny (today remembered as the first battle for independence). Throughout all those centuries of growing European influence and interference leading to colonial conquest, the Indian empires fighting among themselves just ignored the importance of keeping under control the seas surrounding their land masses. India lost its sovereign independence by letting outside powers invade the Indian Ocean and take over maritime trade lines. We have argued before, in this column, that Prime Minister Modi’s views and deeds with regard to the deployment of maritime power means go in the right direction. Against the background of the Mughals’ strategic negligence over centuries costing the nation its independence, the analysis of current developments acquires all the more relevance. When observing China’s policies in the South China Sea one cannot overlook how another very large continental power seems to have understood the lesson of the Mughals’ historic negligence by actively occupying strategic positions offshore. China’s very aggressive and until now successful expansion of its territorial claims on sea should remind India that the Indian Ocean belongs to those who invest in the defence of strategic positions. There are different options of how to deal with legitimate rights and interests of states using Indian territorial waters. But ignoring moves by outside forces within your own strategic space, as the Mughals did during three centuries, is definitely not an option. Again, we assume that PM Modi’s views are clear. How successful his deeds will be, remains unclear.                                    

29th March 2016 / Philippe Welti

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