Drawing a Line

2021, Dec 08    

Gilbert and I were talking about two big Big History ideas. One is the Heihe-Tengchong line: a line from the city of Heihe in the northeast to Tengchong in the south that divides China into drastically different areas - one with incredible population density, holding nearly 95% of China’s population and only 40% of the land area. The other is flipped. Historically many of the ruling dynasties of China came however, not from the population dense area but from the borderlands. Why?

The other Big History idea is the connection between the two heartlands of economic commerce of the world - India and China. The story of the Journey To The West involves a real-life Chinese monk coming to India for Buddhist sacred texts and bringing them back to China to be recorded. They do get recorded - almost word for word in Sanskrit/Pali but transcribed in Chinese, which I hear is a bewildering experience for many Chinese speakers.

If you were to try to draw a line for India similar to Heihe-Tengchong, it would be impossible. There are many different ways to subdivide India - rice vs. wheat is a good one. Wheat roughly correlates with vegetarian percentage, with the protein-deficient rice regions supplementing with meat.

I think you can try to create something like this line, where there’s an incredible amount of population and not much land area, in comparison to a place with incredible land area and not much population, and that peripheral area keeps on coming to rule the dense one. We would just need to expand the borders of India for it to make sense. If we draw a line from Misgar, Pakistan to Gwadar, Pakistan, and treat all of Central Asia Northwest of that line as the other half, then you can see some very similar dynamics. Historical Khorasan included much of what is now Central Asia, the pivot of history, and in some Persian texts is used to refer to India as well. It is not just in the imagination of the BJP that India is a massive entity, it is a recognition of historical trade and cultural ties with Central Asia.

India’s Mughal dynasty were Persians originally descended from the Chagatay line of the Mongols, the same Mongols who became the Yuan dynasty of China. While the Chagatay Khan-descended Mughals Indianized, the Yuans and Kublai’s line Sinicized. While the Yuans were challenged most often in their rule by rebellion from the South, the Mughals and their predecessors mostly faced challengers from the North. During and before the time of the Mughals, many of the conquerors of Delhi were from the northwest of the Hindu Kush - Timur, Mahmud of Ghazni, the Ghurids. They were from the other side of the Misgar-Gwadar line.

It’s not unreasonable to ask…if India was so great, why didn’t it ever conquer and pacify the northwest areas the way the Chinese did and build a great wall? There are several reasons for this. Geography, incentives, trade, lack of political unity (what is China anyway?) It has taken many shapes in the past 1000 years, some of them with Vietnam and Korea in it, some of them without even Nanjiang. In fact, it was only the Manchu Qin dynasty that finally added Xinjiang to China’s map.

The Heihe-Tengchong line helps us tell a version of China’s history - one that is centered on its powerful economic core - the southeast of the country. When that economic engine is functioning well, trade surpluses make their way to the hinterlands - to the Mongols, Uyghurs, Manchus, Kyrgyz and other periphery folks. When that economic engine grinds to a halt due to political, demographic or economic disaster, the hinterlands are the ones that are hit first. Unable to maintain their lifestyle, the nomadic peoples begin to attack each other or cooperate for mutual survival. Either way, a political union forms in the hinterland and begins to raid other areas to maintain their survival. Eventually, these raids bring them all the way to the powerful economic core, where their raids decimate an already depredated land. Sensing opportunity in the now-defunct economic infrastructure, the nomadic peoples restart the economic engine and over many years come to become de facto rulers of the powerful economic core. They eventually become complacent or blindsided by some larger factor and their order topples and it all goes around again.

I love this telling of history. Theories are supposed to give you information for free, and good theories occasionally let you peek into the Book of Reality - elegant, compact explanations for wide-ranging phenomenon. This particular Big History captures everything from the Mughals to the Yuan dynasty to the Manchus to the Delhi Sultanate to the British Empire. Each successive invader from outside brought new ideas to the economic core and built upon the models left behind by the previous dynasties, whether native or nativized. Each of these periphery forces also extracted wealth to build up their own centers of power. London profited from Indian money as did Tashkent.

Islamic rulers took skilled laborers and money from India to build the mosques of Uzbekistan. The ruler of Hyderabad used his tax revenues to help build a shrine to the Ajmeri Khwaja. Yesterday’s tolerance and belief in a multi-faith society leads to today’s imperial ambitions.

The gold and silver of Indian farmers stolen from them by the extractive taxes of the East India Company fattened up shareholders in England, which was then used to invest and industrialize using the large influx of commodities also making their way from India. I would argue that the modern policies of laissez-faire capitalism were successful only because the environmental and human cost of treating food as a commodity was externalized. Indians could not participate in the stock market, and had no legislative control over it but the fruit of their labors and the value of it was controlled by people far away who were supposed to know better, because of their skull shape. This is the type of injustice which would be corrected in the past through extreme punitive measures - a sacking and burning of London, a skinning and dragging of the royal family of the UK. If you think that’s disproportionate, I would recommend reading up on what the British authorities did to Tilkha Maanji.

It is hard for me to remain even-handed or “objective” about this, and I don’t see why I should be. The world is shaped by those with burning desire, not cool tempers. I would rather make a world where a hundred years from now, a British child starves while cringing at the state of their country rather than an Indian one. And yes, there are far more than two options here, at the moment, life doesn’t have positive-sum outcomes. Sometimes, I don’t want mutually beneficial trade, I want the elimination of threats and those who think themselves better than me. I will of course feel horrible about it all after the fact, so it’ll be fine.

And if you’re appaled at my words, be appalled! That is your right.

“If you cannot bear these stories then the society is unbearable. Who am I to remove the clothes of this society, which itself is naked. I don’t even try to cover it, because it is not my job, that’s the job of dressmakers.” Manto

But we live in a world where people who make the statements I did above have already had their will executed. If you feel repulsion at my words, then how do you feel about the world, which is the book I simply quoted from?

This is my other big theory - that much has been taken from India. And conquerors, rather than being humble and thankful, or being penitent for their avarice, instead seek to diminish the accomplishments and ingenuity of the people native to India and the land itself. In this respect, I find little difference between Churchill and Iqbal. Both would be nothing without India, both saw India as a possession. One as belonging to the British empire, and who supposedly feared that the loss of Britain’s grip would result in robbers and incompetents taking control (imagine that!). The other who became a globalist Islamist imperialist, who later saw the Ghazwa-e-Hind as an inevitability.

The truth is, for India’s survival, Akhand Bharat (undivided India stretching from Bukhara to Rangoon) is necessary and certainly an impossibility. Without taming the border regions - without taming the imperial force pregnant within secular Western neoliberalism, resurgent Islamic modernism and a traditionalist Western Christianity, India has scarce chance to survive the next 100 years. Our tolerance and acceptance of other cultures has only led to narratives of our inferiority, a deep psychological wound that renders our government institutions devoid of talent and our people unable to conceptualise a pride in our own crafts.

This is where the BJP stems from. The symbols of India’s historical acceptance of people from all walks of life - Muslims from Persia, Turkmenistan, Arabia and Ethiopia became rulers and scholars and nobility in India. They built monuments to their own faith and those monuments are seen as the greatness of Islam, co-opted by imperialists like Iqbal. The BJP wants to destroy these out of a misguided notion that ridding India of Islamic symbols will somehow make it safe from Islamic imperialism. This is the tired and smooth-brained thinking of reactionaries. They understand little beyond their own context and have few ambitions beyond commerce. I want something deeper. A relocation of the Kaaba to Pragyaraj/Allahabad. A capture of the British parliament and Royal family, relocating them to Jalianwala Bagh the site of the British empire’s most public massacre of Indians. If we want to re-form the world, we have to understand why it is the way it is - why people yearn for what they yearn. If we want people to remember history we must encode it in space, not just in words. All of reality must sing the song - “This too was taken from elsewhere!”.