Concluding Remarks at Across the Indian Ocean Workshop

November 07, 2018

Concluding Remarks at Across the Indian Ocean: Trans-Regional Studies and the Un/Making of Boundaries workshop

October 19-20, 2018, Simon Fraser University

Neilesh Bose
University of Victoria

        As an historian of modern South Asia, and also holding a research chair in global and comparative history, with a commitment to and interest in Islam in South Asia, one cannot help but note an oceanic turn in the discipline of History. This is not just the well-known Atlantic-centric layer of the modern historical discipline, but the way that oceanic histories, and particularly Indian Ocean histories, pose challenges for those who care about the history of globalization, in terms of the methods and models we may use to understand the making of the modern world.

        As an historian with a commitment to Bengal as a region within the territorial confines of South Asia, my coordinates are usually bound by the node where the Ganga splits to form the Hooghly running down West Bengal and the Padma river spilling into what is now Bangladesh. Inside that space is the city of Kolkata where we now find the Nakhoda mosque, built in 1926, which inspired a generation of Bengali Muslim intellectuals in the inter-war India to write about aspects of the Islamic world, from Egypt to Turkey to Iran. Although parts of the city figured as a prominent site from which ships transported laborers of all types from the Bay of Bengal in the late nineteenth century, the movement of these migrant laborers is rarely seen through this oceanic lens.

        This discussion has led to a reflection on the nature of Indian Ocean studies. As Sugata Bose writes in A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (2006), the Indian Ocean is an “inter-regional” arena, somewhere between the generalities of a world system and the specificities of particular regions. Here, the Indian Ocean speaks to a European modern world historiography. Though Bose’s work, and Sunil Amrith’s Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants, by no means represent the field,  their outsized presence and visibility, along with Amitav Ghosh’s English language novels, including his Ibis Trilogy: Sea of PoppiesRiver of Smoke, and Flood of Fire, comprise the usual starting points for many in the non-oceanic world. .

        These works, which are targets of Nile Green’s critique in the AHR earlier this year, prompt many of the questions taken up by Fahad Ahmad Bishara in his piece, “History at Sea: Route and World on an Indian Ocean Dhow”, especially in his ending, where he suggests that viewing the Nakhodas as a “long scroll of historical time that unfolds across routes punctuated by coastal landmarks might open up the gates to a different view on world history at sea.” Fahad’s call to reimagine the field of study is a challenge to the discipline of history as we know it - if maritime history’s contribution to the field is determined by the usual suspects of imperialism, the commercial revolution, and the industrial revolution. Following Sebastian Conrad’s work on global history, Fahad speculates that maritime history may become a crucial building block for generating a global history that “open[s] up the possibility of stringing together local histories into a global narrative.”

        Here is where I would like to offer a few reflections on the nature of the papers in line with what I see as main arcs of the conversations on the table. These conversations relate to Indian Ocean history within three areas: one features ongoing debates in global history, another about the status and role of Islam in the Indian Ocean, possibly as a foil to the nation and perhaps a source long gone whose absence could be lamented, and finally the dreaded role of cosmopolitanism, as either aspiration or social historical context to the various empirical sites on offer within the Indian Ocean.

        In highlighting the ongoing debates in global history, I would first like to mention a few relevant histories of globalization: C.A. Bayly’s 2004 Making of the Modern World to Jurgen Osterhammel’s Transformation of the World about a decade later, to Emily Rosenberg’s A World Connecting, or even Burton and Ballantyne’s World Histories from Below, and to Conrad’s What is Global History?. I would also like to add Pamela Crossley’s What is Global History (2008) to argue that the Indian Ocean may engage with the various models of world history, which at some level offer a diffusionist model of historical convergence. Fahad, who cites these papers, argues that the Indian Ocean may engage with both these diffusionist models of historical convergence and the various models of world history I listed, but Conrad, and Crossley, the scholar of Qing China, whose guidebook of global history, in her words, offers a history without a centre, provide sections of divergence, convergence, contagion, and systems.  One crucial point for her, and even for Lynn Hunt, the European historian of Writing History in a Global Erafixates on asking global historical questions, alive in this workshop’s papers.

        Roy Bar Sadeh’s work, “Transcending Minoritization through Daily Practices: The Aligarh Movement, Travel and the Question of Zabiha, 1857-1905”, also engages with questions of global history through the presence of minorities in maritime history. In the context of colonial South Asia, his account of Muslim men arguing over proper dietary restrictions on steamships in the Indian Ocean brings the role of Islam in the transformation of colonies to nations into focus.

        An enduring issue for the reframing of global historical questions outside of Atlantic models is the periodization of key markers in the making of the modern. Janice Jeong’s paper, “Routes and Re-Routes: Making New Homes in Hijaz”, reframes the arrival of Chinese migrants in the Hijaz by taking 1949 as a focal point. Interpreting this mass migration before and after 1949 challenges the normative ways that time is understood in most Chinese histories and global historical narratives. Kelsey Utne’s paper on al-Afghani, “Corpse Politics & the Traveling Bones of Jamaluddin al-Afghani”, also offers a look at the late World War II period that historians of particular regions often see from within their own timelines.

        Another global historical question is the role of performance and positionality in a global system. This is taken up by Mostafa Minawi in “Ottoman-European-Ethiopian relations & Imperial Sovereignty in the Horn of Africa” and Esmat Elhalaby in “Politics, Poetry, and Philology” who see an unwillingness to integrate these themes within the borders defined by traditional area studies scholarship.

        The relationships between empire and nation is brought to life in Indian Ocean histories in ways that provoke new questions, as we see through Mandana’s paper and watan, or Johan’s paper which offers assemblages as the broader container in which trust is a difficult to track but yet an unmistakable part of the contractual process. Moreover, Zozan Pehlivan’s  paper, “An Accountable Empire? Tanzimat Policies and Environmental Crises”, sheds light on the inter-imperial, or comparative imperial, perspectives. In Chris Low’s paper “Passports and Tickets: The Failure of Inter-Imperial Pilgrimage Regulation”, the Indian Ocean approach to histories of social and political-economic processes offers a means of reevaluating perspectives that are often misread as merely Ottomanist or South Asianist. In a similar vein, Thomas Kuehn’s point that Indian Ocean history is not older than European imperial history is most definitely sustained. It prompts the question: what kind of imperial history is most appropriate to understand the Indian Ocean?

        The kind of empire, and definition of the form of empire, for many of us revolves around the question of Islam in the post-1858 world. As Wilson mentioned, a large part of the field revolves around locating Islam in an Indian Ocean context. On this note, Sebastian Prange’s Monsoon Islam: Trade and Faith on the Medieval Malabar Coast is one of the most recent, and offers a look at the port, the mosque, the palace, and the sea. This is monsoon Islam, based on merchants, not state elites, nor state supported religious classes, and in that regard, may stand in for a large part, but perhaps not all parts, of the Indian Ocean, and also at that, for the medieval world.

        As the rhythms and waves of the marketplace and the merchant emerge as central to this Islam on the Indian Ocean, the peasants of Bengal on the other side of the Indian ocean, or the workers on various parts of the industrializing and modernizing coastlines of the early twentieth century Southern Asia in the east, may find an uneasy place in this Islam.

        Though I resist the temptation to cite a poet, I will cite the work of the great Bengali writer and musician Kazi Nazrul Islam. Active just before and after the Great War, Nazrul trained for service in the Great War, but never went west of the Khyber Pass. He wrote about the world of Islam outside of the local in his poems Shatt Il ArabKhaled, and Kamal Pasha. He wrote in Bengali, a language as Muslim as any other language that counts over 150 million adherents. In these poems, he recounts the sacrifices of Muslims and the physical geography of a world known through the trans-regional life force of Islam in South Asia, where the Arabian dates were consumed on Eid, but enjoyed amongst those who eat rice, dal, riverine fish, and whose rivers connect the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. In Shatt Il Arab, he mentions the bones of “Arab, Egyptian, Turk, Greek, and Bedouin,” and the “crimson flame-like roses of Basra,” to him “radiant emblems of war and glory… they flourish on soil where heads have tumbled, forever glorious, forever holy.”

        Like Esmat’s Bustani, Nazrul held a worldly imagination that crossed the predictable bounds of religion and region, though he never crossed the so-called black waters, or Kala Pani. In the inter-war period studied by John, or the 1930s – 50s period uncovered by Janice, the role of Islam in the Indian Ocean seems to hold the potential to break out of national frameworks. As Janice puts it, the Indian Ocean sits between the “homogenizing impulse of the newly founded Saudi nation-state” and the “cosmopolitan potentials inherent in its pasts defined by overlapping diasporas in the Hijaz.” Referring back to Sebastian’s Monsoon Islam, Nazrul ends his book by recounting the story of Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, who gave a gold-plated miniature replica of the Cheraman Juma Masjid to the King of Saudi Arabia in the “monsoon” mosque style. This despite the fact that the Islam of the people and the four domed minarets adorning the mosque today more closely resemble the grand domes of Middle Eastern mosques, hiding the traditional monsoon mosque that no longer exists in the region.

       This brings me to the third and final point about “cosmopolitanism” in Nile Green’s recent article in the American Historical Review, “Waves of Heterotopia: Towards a Vernacular Intellectual History of the Indian Ocean.” As Green articulates, the invocation of a cosmopolitan Indian Ocean informs the dominant historical view of this space. This can be seen in Amitav Ghosh’s popular Ibis Trilogy, and a strand of Indian Ocean historiography from Sugata Bose, Seema Alavi, and several others. According to Green, these writers promote the assumption that “ethnic and linguistic pluralism is inherently equivalent to positive forms of social capital and beliefs that formally celebrate such pluralism.” This is a dreamscape not fit for historians, as it avoids engaging with difference. Rather than see it only as a “cosmopolitan” space, Green argues that the Indian Ocean “should be conceived as a more pluralistic and protean intellectual space,” in which “very large sections of the vernacular public sphere “broadcast” along a “bandwidth” in which the Enlightenment episteme, or even European ideas in general, had little to no traction, or else were incorporated into pre-existing mental frameworks. To explore the vernacular is thereby to chart the epistemic limits of empire as both emic fact and etic framework.” Does keeping the vernacular in view help or hinder productive work in and of the Indian Ocean? I suspect there would be multiple approaches to this question from members of this group.

        I would say, however, that the bar set by Fahad in his paper, and the various approaches to the subject offered at the conference – through key questions in global history, a consideration of Islam in the Indian Ocean, and an implicit but not outward focus on cosmopolitanism – has raised the critical standards for Indian Ocean studies to reach ever wider horizons.

Neilesh Bose

Canada Research Chair

Department of History
University of Victoria

Published on November 7, 2018