“Fierce Enigmas: A History of the United States in South Asia” by Srinath Raghavan

Fierce enigmas

The prolific American geopolitical analyst Robert Kaplan in his book Monsoon wrote that the Indian Ocean region is the new “pivot” of global politics in the 21st century. China’s emergence as America’s peer competitor in East Asia and potentially beyond has magnified the importance of South Asia in global geopolitics.

In that context, Srinath Raghavan’s new book Fierce Enigmas could not be timelier. It is a detailed narrative of US relations with three key countries of the region: India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Raghavan, a senior fellow at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research, focuses on what he calls the “three key dimensions of US engagement with the region”: power, ideology, and culture. “Their interaction and transformation over time,” he explains, “are crucial to explaining the course of US involvement in South Asia.”

Raghavan’s sweeping history includes early efforts by US merchants and missionaries to foster trade and spread Christianity in South Asia. This led to increased intellectual interest in the region, including the founding of the American Oriental Society in Boston in 1842, which studied Indian languages and religions, and the emergence of “transcendentalist” writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau who encouraged American appreciation of Indian spiritualism. Raghavan notes that Americans who interacted with India at that time “were smug about their moral superiority” and “racial superiority” over the inhabitants of India. This is a criticism that he repeats throughout the book, and that he views as a factor underlying US relations with the region up to the present.

The “power” factor in US-Indian relations gained prominence as America’s geopolitical footprint expanded in the wake of the Spanish-American War and the First World War. But the power factor clashed with American notions of liberty contained in the Declaration of Independence and early 20th century progressive ideology that championed the self-determination of peoples. The latter presumably applied to Indians subject to the colonial rule of America’s ally Great Britain. This clash between geopolitics and ideology would color US-South Asian relations into the post-World War II period and beyond.

American progressive ideology coincided with the rise of Indian nationalists who demanded an end to British colonial rule. Raghavan notes that in December 1918, the Indian National Congress referenced President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points in calling for self-determination for India. Twelve years later, Mohandas Gandhi began his non-violent civil disobedience movement to protest continued British rule of India. Gandhi struck an emotional and intellectual chord with many Americans, resulting in the formation of the American League for Indian Independence and other pro-independence groups. Americans traveled to India to meet with Gandhi and learn about his movement. But geopolitics trumped ideals. Defeating Hitler and the Japanese militarists took precedence over India’s independence.

American policymakers, including President Franklin Roosevelt, favored gradual decolonization for India, but the demands of war and the US alliance with Great Britain pushed decolonization to the backburner. As Raghavan explains:


[T]he American stance on decolonization had to triangulate between the wartime imperatives of defeating Germany and Japan and the postwar objectives of creating a peaceful and prosperous international order buttressed by the United States’ unprecedented hegemony.


British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously remarked that he did not become the king’s first minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire. Gandhi and others were imprisoned. The Raj brutally suppressed the independence movement.


It used aircraft to gun down large crowds, lobbed mortars and gas shells at armed rebels and unarmed protestors, and introduced draconian legal provisions to suppress freedom of speech, expression, and congregation.


Churchill predicted a bloodbath if the British left India. That indeed happened when Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs battled each other in Bengal and the Punjab. Raghavan notes that the violence “left at least a million dead and many more displaced.” Muslims gained their own homeland, Pakistan, which separated from India “accompanied by one of the deadliest bouts of ethnic cleansing in the twentieth century.”


Fierce Enigmas: A History of the United States in South Asia, by Srinath Raghavan (Basic Books, October 2018)
Fierce Enigmas: A History of the United States in South Asia, Srinath Raghavan (Basic Books, October 2018)

India’s independence and partition occurred in the midst of the early Cold War struggle between the US and Soviet Union. Power, ideology and culture—but mostly power—determined US interaction with the countries of South Asia during the Cold War. Raghavan describes forty years of diplomacy, wars, and political intrigue that proved the truth of Lord Palmerston’s remark that nations have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.

“South Asia,” the author writes,


was not a key battleground in the Cold War. Nevertheless, the imperatives of America’s grand strategy impinged on the region.


But not just American grand strategy; Soviet, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, and Afghan national interests all impinged on the region.  Raghavan is quite critical of what he calls shortsighted US policies toward the region, but he also acknowledges the challenges that confronted US policymakers from


problems endemic to the region: deep-seated conflicts of identity, power balances, antagonistic political cultures, flawed institutional structures, and the absence of any impulse toward regional economic integration.


Those problems included territorial disputes over Kashmir, the ideology of the so-called non-aligned movement, Sino-Indian border clashes and wars, the India-Pakistan nuclear rivalry, Muslim terrorists, and economic difficulties. US policymakers alternated between tilting toward Pakistan and India, and aiding then fighting Muslim terrorists in Afghanistan. South Asia, unlike Western Europe, was not susceptible to consistent, sustained policies during the Cold War.

Raghavan blames US policies toward Pakistan for India’s alignment with the Soviets during much of the Cold War. But Pakistan, for all of its flaws, proved to be a reliable ally and was especially helpful in the crucial US opening to China during the early 1970s.

Yet, India’s Cold War policies did not prevent US policymakers from moving closer to India to counterbalance China in the post-Cold War world. India, having backed the loser in the Cold War, likewise had no difficulty developing better relations with the US after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, US-Pakistani relations suffered as a result of Pakistan’s complicity with the Taliban in sheltering Al Qaeda terrorists before and after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Lord Palmerston would understand.

Raghavan rightly believes that globalization and China’s rise have elevated South Asia to central importance in US foreign policy. He cautions, however, that Americans would do well to remember Walt Whitman’s descriptions in a “Passage to India” of the “fierce enigmas” and “strangling problems” of the region.

Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.