Greater South Asia as seen on maps today would have been unrecognisable to the European colonial powers which dominated the region from the 15th century up until decolonisation in the mid-20th century. Usually understood to be comprised of 9 states, including India, Myanmar, and Afghanistan, South Asia is a diverse and complex region made up of different cultures, languages and ethnicities. It is pertinent to consider why these 9 states have been grouped as a region; why should these countries, created relatively recently, go together? An obvious answer is geography—they are all situated in one geographical area of the world. But then, where should we draw the boundary for South Asia? Sometimes Afghanistan is included in South Asia and sometimes it is not. The answer lies in the shared regional colonial histories. Though each country has a unique character and story to tell, the impact of colonialism has touched the region as a whole and has left shared colonial legacies, though these vary in similarity between states. Despite the fact that Afghanistan was never directly colonised and thus was deemed a ‘Graveyard of Empires,’ Afghanistan has colonial legacies stemming from contested borders with the British Raj and thus should be included under the South Asian umbrella. In fact, the process of forming the regional idea of South Asia can be traced back to British rule and is itself a colonial legacy. The vast British empire in South Asia was made up of the Raj, now India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and their colony in Burma, now Myanmar, but this area was all administrated by one office and was one unit of governance. Therefore, it seems fitting to look back to the colonial history of South Asia to make some sense of the region as it is today.
Great Britain was undoubtedly the most significant colonial power shaping the region, though competition with other great powers including France and Russia also made an impact. Since the decolonisation of South Asia, government institutions left behind by the British, in varying states of effectiveness, have been consolidated or created entirely anew. Borders have shifted, with East Pakistan becoming the entirely new nation of Bangladesh following the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War. Furthermore, insurgencies and ethnic cleansing have become a familiar plague within some South Asian nations. The impacts of colonial legacies on the Greater South Asia region are deep and pervasive still.
Given the importance of India within the British Empire, the most distinctive and divisive colonial legacy is that of partition, whereby India and Pakistan were split along religious lines in 1947. This event brought unimaginable suffering and loss of life, with the resounding effects still felt today. Beyond this most obvious legacy of colonial rule, other remnants, including the English Language, the impacts of British ‘divide and conquer,’ and ‘othering’ policies, have been left behind, which still greatly influence South Asia today. Britain also ruled Burma, now Myanmar, until 1948, and made unsuccessful attempts to conquer Afghanistan. This series will focus especially upon these three nations to explore the ways in which this legacy of colonialism has impacted the politics and political institutions in Greater South Asia.
Gemma is currently studying for a MA in History of War at King’s College London having completed an undergraduate degree in History at Royal Holloway University of London. Her main research interests include Decolonisation and the Cold War with a special focus on the Vietnam War. Gemma is currently assisting Dr Susan Martin in her research on the non-use of nuclear weapons in the Vietnam War.