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IMPERIAL ANDAMANS: Colonial Encounter and Island History by Aparna Vaidik. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2010.

Aparna Vaidik presents an in-depth history of the Andaman Islands from the late eighteenth century to its independence from colonial rule towards the end of the 1940s. While the islands have been greatly overlooked by administrations and historians alike, Vaidik’s monograph fills in the gaps to provide a comprehensive history of the islands, known as one of India’s most formidable penal settlement.

Imperial Andamans breaks away from the dominant narrative of the islands as a ‘natural prison’ and constructs an alternative narrative that provides a more holistic understanding of the strategic draw of the islands for European colonists. Vaidik focuses on two alternate discourses that have been largely overlooked by most post-colonial historians. The first involves analysing the strategic geographic location of the islands and their history before British annexation; the second focuses on the dynamic between the British Raj and Indian civilians and political prisoners.

The first vital aspect of the book lies in Vaidik highlighting the annexation of the islands as a part of the ‘strategic significance of the Andamans.’ She explains, ‘The colonization of the islands was part of a long-standing British strategy of controlling Indian Ocean waters dating back to the late eighteenth century.’ The author further argues that the British legitimized the annexation of the islands under the guise of uplifting the ‘deranged savages’ that inhabited the islands, thereby changing the history of the Andamans to largely focus on the islands as a penal settlement.

Consequently, the history of the Andamans has remained firmly rooted in the myths that were perpetuated by pre-colonial and colonial beliefs of the ‘tropical island infested by cannibal[s]’, and ‘ecological conditions that fostered malarial mosquitoes.’ Despite the inhospitable conditions, Vaidik argues that some of the earliest records show that ‘from the sixteenth century onwards, the Malays, Burmese and Chinese sailors, and European privateers’ were engaged in slave and commercial trade in the Bay of Bengal, including the Andamans. As the Bay of Bengal became a hotspot for commercial activity, the British were ‘anxious to clinch a foothold in the Bay’ given their dependence on the commerce that stemmed from the region.

Vaidik further ties the history of the Andamans to the larger narrative of ‘Imperial Oceanic history.’ Given the natural harbours and strategic location, the islands were a major source of attraction to the colonial administration. These geographical advantages were also witnessed in other Indian Ocean islands – such as Mauritius, Madagascar and Comoros – which became key strategic outposts for the British Empire. The colonization of the islands helped form an intricate global maritime network that contributed to a flourishing British Empire.

The second key narrative that Vaidik employs focuses on the dynamic created between the colonizers and the labourers through the lens of global migration. This discourse primarily highlights the colonial presumption that islands make natural prisons. The insularity and undeveloped nature of the Andamans emphasized the need for the British to establish the penal settlements through the migration of convicts and labourers, the highpoint being the establishment of the Cellular Jail which ‘is the defining aspect of the Andamans’ twentieth-century history.’

Imperial Andamans demonstrates that the history of the Andamans is not contingent upon the colonial history of the penal settlement, as with other British penal islands, like Devil’s Island, Norfolk Island, New Caledonia, Australia, St Helena, Alcatraz and Robben Island empirically authenticate these claims. The colonial historical construct that geography is a determining factor in establishing a prison comes into question. The isolation of the islands led ‘to a different system of surveillance and segregation’ which in turn gave rise to problems with hierarchy in the British administration. Vaidik explains, ‘The administrative isolation of the Andamans also left the convicts at the mercy of the local settlement officials’ and aims to bring the Andamans from the periphery to the central discourse of Indian history.

The monograph goes beyond the mainstream narrative and focuses on the uniqueness of the settlement as more than just a penal colony. The isolation of the Andamans from the rest of the British Empire gave rise to near complete administrative isolation and increased the colony’s financial burden, particularly given ‘the poor commercial performance of the Andamans’ and ‘the Settlement did not reap the expected dividends.’ This increased the administrative ‘dependence on vessels for their connection with the Indian mainland.’

The isolation of the islands has been a recurrent theme in dealing with the political and administrative control of the islands from the British Empire to the post-Independence India era. Vaidik claims that instead of attributing the geographical isolation of the islands as the greatest barrier to their development, ‘the Islands’ wild, uncivilized character’ has often been used as an excuse to prevent or hinder their ‘assimilation into larger political entities’ particularly with regard to British India and the British Indian Ocean.

Vaidik relies on a range of colonial archival records (produced between the 1780s and the 1940s) from various government departments of British India, anthropological sources and data, and native reports and writings in Hindi, Bengali and Urdu. The intensive fieldwork makes Vaidik’s book unlike any other due to her exhaustive and multifaceted research. The analytical narrative that Vaidik presents makes the monograph extremely unique and necessary for the study of island histories.

Imperial Andamans highlights that Indian Ocean historiography is intrinsically linked to the penal and commercial settlements of the Andamans, Mauritius, Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka. This discourse is extremely relevant in the current renewed interest in the Bay of Bengal region. The monograph exemplifies why the Bay of Bengal has always been a source of political, cultural and economic connections and why it will continue to maintain its position as one of the most engaging and transformational regions in the maritime world.

Rhea Menon

Carnegie India, Delhi


CROSSING THE BAY OF BENGAL: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants by Sunil S. Amrith. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2015.

EXTENDING from Sri Lanka up the Coromandel Coast of India, then bending under Bangladesh and Myanmar before crossing Thailand and Malaysia until it touches northern Sumatra, the Bay of Bengal was once at the heart of global trade and world history. Sunil Amrith in his book, Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants, highlights the complex historical evolution of the region. Amrith traces the changing patterns of human migration in the region from the sixth century to the present, thereby bringing to light the political, environmental and socio-economic factors that have essentially shaped the Bay of Bengal into the multicultural region we know today.

Throughout the book, Amrith focuses on multiple interlinked themes, with migration and climate change being a common thread. Beginning with the initial migrants, the traders, the author takes us back to the early commercial and cultural routes spanning the bay and their influence on the diversification of regional societies. During the sixth century Pallava dynasty, commercial activity across the Bay of Bengal flourished as Indian merchants travelled to Southeast Asia, trading in spices and textiles along with new ideas. Signs of constant cultural exchange are evident in countries present along the bay, as Amrith explains, citing the examples of ‘a large South Indian merchant community in the Chinese city of Quanzhou, in the form of a Hindu temple’ as well as ‘the ruins of a three-storey Chinese pagoda’ in Nagapatnam.

After a period of relative inactivity, the bay once again came into focus in the nineteenth century as the entry of European powers made it an arena for imperial competition and economic vitality. Amrith studies how the British dominance along the bay led to one of the greatest migrations in history as approximately 28 million people crossed the Bay of Bengal between 1840 and 1940. This mass movement – mostly composed of migrant labour – was instrumental not only for the British conquest of neighbouring regions, but also for exploiting the natural resources of the newly colonized Southeast Asian territories. Amrith also elaborates on the economic impact of the labour migration across the bay, which he notes wasn’t limited to regional gains, but had wide reaching global economic consequences. By establishing plantations of Burmese rice, Ceylon tea and Malayan rubber, the imperial powers created new markets which reaped high monetary gains. At the turn of the twentieth century, Malaya became the most ‘economically valuable tropical country in the whole of the British Empire’, as a consequence of its rubber plantations.

Towards the second half of the book, the author focuses on two main narratives. First, he illustrates the relationship between migration and the freedom movements that developed in the region during the early twentieth century. The 1920s marked a shift in regional political structures and ideologies as the relationship between India and its Southeast Asian neighbours started to show signs of strain. Amrith highlights the case of Burma, where Indian and Chinese diasporas ‘found themselves the target of a rising tide of local nationalism’, as rising inequality fuelled sentiments of ‘separation from India’ amongst the locals. The resulting disintegration of the region, as Amrith explains, was brought about as ‘the narrowness of postcolonial nationalism compounded the loss of connection across the region.’

Second, Amrith discusses climate change as a driving force of migration in the region. Speaking on the effects of global warming on the monsoon, he pessimistically notes that ‘if the future of the monsoons is unpredictable, the displacement of people by rising waters appears a virtual reality.’ The population inhabiting low-lying settlements along the bay are particularly vulnerable to the catastrophic effects of climate change as seen from recent cyclones and droughts. Moreover, while political discussions around the world focus on mitigating the effects of climate change and states wake up to the reality of climate refugees, Amrith looks back at history, noting that ‘when one looks at maps projecting population displacements along Asia’s coastal rim, there is little sense that there are regions connected in other ways: a deep history of movement.’ He draws parallels between the two major droughts in India in 1870 and 1890 due to the influence of the El Nino, a periodic warming of surface waters in the equatorial Pacific. The famines that ensued killed millions, forcing many to flee overseas.

‘At the turn of the twenty-first century, the Bay of Bengal is once again at the heart of international politics’, writes Amrith, and how ‘a history that seemed of little relevance in the heyday of post-colonial nation building now seems urgent again.’ With Asia’s rising powers competing over energy resources and cultural influence, the Bay of Bengal region has once again found itself in the midst of conflict.

Although forgotten over the past few decades, Amrith reminds us that the Bay of Bengal was once the site of trade, migration and conflict. Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants tells us how history just might be the key to understanding Asia’s future.

Deepakshi Rawat

Carnegie India, Delhi


INDIA AND CHINA AT SEA: Competition for Naval Dominance in the Indian Ocean edited by David Brewster. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2018.

India and China at Sea: Competition for Naval Dominance in the Indian Ocean is a compendium of short essays, each of which explores different aspects of the Sino-Indian maritime security relationship. While the essays vary in terms of writing style and content, David Brewster, the editor of the book, logically organizes them around four central themes: China’s and India’s perceptions and understanding of each other, their naval maritime strategies in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), interpretations of China’s growing economic presence in the IOR, and options for how India and its allies deal with China. In doing so this book allows readers to gain a thorough, albeit more Indo-centric, understanding of this great power politics game between India and China in the IOR.

The release of this book could not have been more timely or relevant. The February 2018 political crisis in the Maldives highlights the latest iteration of this tug of war between India and China for diplomatic influence and military supremacy in arguably the most strategic maritime region in the world. The IOR, which stretches roughly 75 million square kilometres from the Cape of Good Hope to Southeast Asia, has nearly 50 per cent of the world’s seaborne trade and 40 per cent of the world’s oil supply transit through its waters (40).

This backdrop, with the IOR as ‘one of the most vital arteries in global commerce and energy’, explains the history behind maritime competition here (41). Countries want to ensure their sea lines of communication remain undisturbed while also having the capability of denying others access to maritime routes should hostilities occur. Yet, while great imperial powers have fought for dominance and control of the IOR in the past, the Sino-Indo maritime security relationship is unique because it is an extension of the competition between the two countries over disputed territory in their respective backyards, the Himalayas. Thus, a book delving into this relationship offers insight into the larger, maritime and oceanic dimension of the protracted Sino-Indo rivalry. More importantly, understanding the perceptions that India and China hold for each other, the naval equipment deployed, and the maritime strategies developed will help ensure that ‘strategic blind spots’, as the book constantly refer to, do not lead to conflict.

India and China at Sea is divided into four sections. Chapters 1-4 examine underlying ideational and perception issues in the IOR regarding both countries’ security imperatives, the strategic roles they hold for themselves and those they perceive for their adversaries, and China’s inability to understand the world around it due to its historical beliefs. Chapters 5-10 analyse how Chinese and Indian naval strategies will affect their maritime interactions.

Chapters 11-12 juxtapose Indian and Chinese views on China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR) as part of a larger discussion about interpreting China’s growing economic presence in the IOR via the One Belt One Road Initiative. Whereas China claims its MSR initiative is solely for development and trade purposes, India sees MSR as a pretext for China to militarize its economic outposts, as it did in Djibouti. Lastly, Chapter 13 concludes this discussion by exploring the options available for India and its allies to respond to future Chinese actions or engage with China when necessary or appropriate.

Despite its comprehensive nature, the book does not dedicate substantial discussion on the role transnational security issues play in the Sino-Indo maritime relationship. The few scant references to transnational security issues basically focus on anti-piracy and terrorism, neglecting how disaster management or counter-narcotics trafficking and -contraband smuggling could bring India and China closer together. As Jabin T. Jacob, author of ‘China’s Evolving Strategy in Indian Ocean Region’ notes, ‘China prefers to highlight non-traditional security threats as the primary cause for budding Chinese naval activity in the Indian Ocean region’ (209). Unfortunately, readers are not provided with any insight into whether India has engaged China on these issues.

Furthermore, the impact of this rivalry on the cohesiveness of regional, multilateral institutions is not examined. The chapter ‘The China Factor in Indian Ocean Policy of the Modi and Singh Governments’ by Pramit Chaudhuri alludes to the fact that multiple regional forums, such as the Asian Regional Forum and East Asia Summit, have been used by India and China in the past to initiate a dialogue on maritime security and cooperation (60). In fact, a few authors touch upon how India needs to strengthen Indian Ocean’s multilateral structures, like the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), which currently offers weak interconnectedness among its members. However, none of these authors examine the causes for this weakness. Specifically, how have China’s bilateral relationships with other South Asian countries affected the abilities of the IORA to serve as a coordinating platform to increase institutional cooperation in the IOR? Future research on this topic should definitely explore both of these areas.

Apart from these quibbles, India and China at Sea offers a great introduction to the opening saga of what is sure to be an exciting and volatile relationship that will determine the security and stability of the IOR in the 21st century and beyond.

Neil Noronha

Carnegie India, Delhi


INDIA AND THE GLOBAL GAME OF GAS PIPELINES by Gulshan Dietl. Routledge, New York, 2017.

NATURAL gas pipelines are going to play an increasingly significant role in the realm of energy politics with the gradual shrinkage of oil as a major source of energy. At this juncture crucial Eurasian powers such as Russia, key Persian Gulf states such as Iran and the strategically located Central Asian state of Turkmenistan have already been playing an influential role through pipeline networks in the politics related to natural gas. The book under review is an in-depth study of natural gas pipelines that carry gas from production centres to consumer hubs and connect gas supplies with geopolitics. It also explores India’s abortive and yet ongoing quest related to the politics of gas pipelines since the dawn of this century.

Around the mid-2000s, India was simultaneously pursuing three interstate gas pipelines. As per these proposals, Iran and Turkmenistan would supply gas to India via Pakistan whereas Myanmar would supply gas via Bangladesh. Pakistan and Bangladesh would receive gas for their domestic consumption and transit fees for pipelines passing through their territory. These were projected as a win-win deal for all the states involved in the project in export, transit and import capacity. Iran, Turkmenistan and Myanmar would gain access to a growing market like India for their gas while India would be assured of long-term gas supplies. India’s quest for energy security prompted it to ensure energy supplies for uninterrupted economic growth. Gas supplies from central, west and Southeast Asia would be a part of India’s energy strategy. But a decade later, none of these pipelines have been built. Prospects for both the Myanmar-Bangladesh-India (MBI) and Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipelines now look extremely grim. Though the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline is still on the cards, it is yet to be built. In spite of gas rich suppliers and energy hungry markets, these gas pipeline projects thus far have not taken off.

Deitl analyses the role of the world’s three largest gas producers, famously known as ‘the Gas Troika’, i.e. Iran, Russia and Turkmenistan. The policies in these gas producing countries and their efforts to supply gas abroad, especially to Europe, have been laid out in great detail in three chapters. In the process, the book offers a closer scrutiny of India’s efforts at obtaining gas supplies by building pipelines. In essence, the book is an updated story of gas politics and the role of several states, non-state, regional and extra-regional actors involved in it.

The author grounds the study in the principles of ‘defensive realism’. Among the theories of International Relations (IR), ‘defensive realism’ argues that states basically seek security, refrain from excessively increasing their power and build strength internally and/or externally to protect their security interests. In the context of gas politics, interests of producer, transit and consumer states have to be understood in terms of their own search for energy and security. Building of gas pipelines is, however, a physical as also a long-term activity that entails complex negotiations over geography, politics, economics and technology. Such pipeline projects create a strategic geography, bind states in long-term deals and, in effect, shape and/or reshape their interests. Dietl shows how geopolitics and geo-economics intersect at these inter-state pipeline projects. Besides the author has taken into account the regional nature of gas markets, fixed routes of supply and creation of strategic geography that allow participating states to exert influence on gas supplies and thereby on regional politics. Ukraine is a case in point.

Ukraine is a transit state on the Russia-Europe gas supply route. Ukraine and Russia have experienced constant disputes over the transit fees of gas. Ukraine was also pilfering gas from pipelines running to Europe for its own domestic consumption. Regular disputes with Ukraine led to Russia seeking alternative routes bypassing Ukraine for gas markets in Europe. Russia first offered to build the pipeline via Bulgaria and, when Bulgaria refused to participate, then via Turkey even though Turkey-Russia relations had seen major deterioration in the aftermath of the downing of a Russian warplane by Turkey in 2015. But so enduring are the gas interests that both parties have not cancelled the pipeline project, they only suspended it.

The author argues that gas producing regions of West Asia and Eurasia are situated away from the gas consuming regions of Europe and Indo-Pacific. Hence, there is a need to build long gas pipelines for supplies. However, gas exporting states such as Russia, Iran and Turkmenistan face major difficulties imposed by geography for accessing gas markets. Russia is perhaps in the most advantageous position having a presence in Europe as well as Asia even as Iran and Turkmenistan face considerable regional and, in case of Iran, global challenges to export their gas. Iran has been reeling under American sanctions and is unable to attract large foreign investments for developing its gas sector. Turkmenistan is a landlocked Central Asian state without any access to the sea. It is situated on the Caspian Sea, but the Caspian Sea is also landlocked. Hence, Turkmenistan depends on its neighbours like Uzbekistan and regional powers like Russia for exporting gas.

Among the troika, Russia enjoys direct access to European and now, Chinese markets. It has sought to leverage its gas exports for furthering foreign policy objectives. Russia wields influence by supplying gas to countries in the former Soviet space like Belarus and Kyrgyzstan. But Russia faces a challenge from the United States of America in its neighbourhood. The constant struggle for influence between Russia and the USA in East Europe and Central Asia is an underlying theme of the game of gas pipelines. The construction of Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipelines can only be understood in the context of less than cordial relations between the USA, on the one hand, and Russia and Iran, on the other. It facilitated Azerbaijan’s energy exports by avoiding Russia and Iran. The role of smaller transit states like Georgia was crucial in the making of these pipelines. Consequently, the Russia-Georgia war of 2008 and Russian intervention in Ukraine in 2014 had an energy dimension. The author demonstrates how both Georgia and Ukraine experienced ‘colour revolutions’ in the early 2000s and are an inevitable part of the geopolitical and energy game involving the USA and Russia.

The emergence of China as a major consumer of gas has added a new dimension to the gas game being played by Russia, Iran, Turkey and the USA in Eurasia. The author discusses how for maintaining its control over European gas markets Russia would like to see Turkmenistan’s gas exports going to China instead of Europe. Russia itself has also emerged as a major supplier of gas to China. Chinese efforts to get hold of Central Asian energy would have to be looked at in the framework of the Chinese quest for energy security and excessive dependence on the South China Sea for energy supplies. The author demonstrates how China’s emerging role in Russian and Turkmen gas exports has assumed greater importance in the energy policies of these states.

The book, while drawing interconnections between energy and conflict, refers to Iranian efforts to export gas via Iraq, Syria and Turkey to Europe and the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Qatar, another major gas player and competitor of Iran, is also interested in supplying gas to European markets. The Syrian civil war and severe fighting along the route of the proposed Iran-Iraq-Syria-Turkey pipeline looks very different if seen in the context of the ensuing energy game. Dietl explains how energy interests of countries trump their other, perhaps less important, interests. For example, Turkey in spite of being an American ally purchases gas from Iran and hopes to become a transit state for Russian gas. Oman has also broken Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) solidarity to obtain gas from Iran.

The prospects of establishing cartels like Gas Supplier Countries’ and Gas Buyer Countries’ clubs are discussed in the book. The author analyses how the nature of the gas market, supply dynamics, contract arrangements and absence of a swing producer would lead to neither a gas supplier countries’ club nor a gas consumer countries’ club. In terms of challenges for the natural gas and pipelines, the recent shale gas revolution in the USA and possibilities of supplying Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) have been discussed in the book. The LNG is a useful idea for a country like India, unable to access gas via pipelines due to problems posed by Pakistan. The author notes that the shale gas revolution in the USA has not only made it self-sufficient but now also poses a significant challenge for Russian dominance over gas supplies to Europe. In that sense the impact of technological breakthroughs in extracting shale gas will be felt more in geopolitical terms as also in terms of USA’s energy strategy.

The book is written in an accessible style and contains useful maps of important pipeline routes. One would have expected a chapter on Qatar as well to complete the picture of the gas game and its major producers. It is the only major gas player out of focus in the book. Overall, the book is an excellent introduction to the gas politics underway and its global dimensions.

Sankalp Gurjar

PhD candidate, Department of International Relations,

South Asian University, Delhi