Crossing the frontiers

Geographical dimension of power is quite different from the human dimension of power


Dr Muhammad Ali Ehsan August 01, 2021
The writer is Dean Social Sciences at Garrison University Lahore and tweets @Dr M Ali Ehsan

Lord Curzon was the viceroy of India from 1898 to 1905. On his return to England, he delivered a lecture titled ‘Frontiers’ at Oxford University in 1907. The theme of the lecture was how the natural (seas, mountains, rivers, forests, deserts) and man-made (walls, fences) frontiers affect the lives of the people that are bounded by them. Let’s first discuss the natural frontiers – the deserts and the seas and what they do to the lives of the people.

For centuries the four deserts – Gobi, Kara Kum, Sahara and Arabian – positively contributed to the physical protection of China, Samarkand, South African states and Middle Eastern states respectively from outside invasions. But negatively, the same deserts deprived the people of these geographical spaces progressive and enlightened connectivity with the outside world.

Robert D Kaplan, an American traveler and author of a number of books on geo-politics, explains this by writing that the deeper and broader the desert, potentially the more unstable and violent the states (Middle East, Africa and Central Asia). He further explains that “from the sea comes diversity, liberalism and cosmopolitanism while from the desert comes isolation and conflict”. Reflecting on Robert D Kaplan’s thesis, I could not stop myself from asking: Why did Karachi, as a port city, become a cosmopolitan city and why did the rest of the Sindh stay behind?

Was it the exposure to the outside world and the absorption of outside world’s influence that stood out as a major factor in making Karachi a city of diverse values, culture and ideals? What about the rest of the physical geography of Sindh dominated by the widespread desert terrain spread over 68,000 kilometers? Is it the distance from the coastal city or is it the desert terrain that has over the years prevented the liberalising influences to penetrate the lives of these people? Why are the people of interior Sind so underprivileged and uneducated and suffer from all kinds of social deprivations? Not only Karachi, but Mumbai, Gujarat, Dhaka, Kolkata and Oman speak of influences that have ushered more enlightened, progressive and liberal lives for the people of these coastal cities as compared to those living in the hinterlands of these countries.

Geographical dimension of power is quite different from the human dimension of power: the former is permanent while the later keeps evolving. That is why it is important to understand the interplay between geography and politics – popularly known as geopolitics. It is interesting to debate which dimension of geopolitics adversely affects the lives of the people – geographic dimension or political? An interesting example to showcase this effect is the evolution and progression of Oman and its entire hinterland as compared to Sindh which has, in the same period, stayed behind and regressed.

The road to statehood for Oman began when Sultan Saadi was overthrown by his 29 years’ old son Sultan Qaboos in a 1970 coup. His vision of overcoming the natural frontier and connecting coastline with the interior was dominated by his urge to overcome the desert frontier of his hinterland by building wells, roads, bridges and schools. He thus laid down the foundation of the modern Oman state which was, in 2020, declared by the United Nations Development Programme as the most improved nation in the world in terms of development during the last 40 years.

What this example shows is that there are no natural frontiers that can stand up and confront a human will. It is this lack of will – the political will that has stood up as a great man-made frontier which countries like Pakistan could never cross. But despite the ever-growing pessimism that our electronic media spreads, there is hope because Pakistan is part of the developing world and is bound to rise.

This rise of the developing world will be the growing trend in the 21st century and the most critical component of this trend will not be how rich the individual developing states can become but how many people of these states are added to the middle class. Not the individual nation states but regional states will become more and more important – states that are fully integrated in the regional economies, states that respect each other’s spheres of influence, each other’s natural and artificial frontiers and yet join together in economic zones to extract joint economic benefits at the regional level.

The Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is an example of one such economic union within the defined zone of which new trading partners can trade and people of the member countries can work without any work permit. West considers this as a Russian attempt to reintegrate the former Soviet Republics but this is the classic example of how regional states with shared purpose and destiny will overcome frontiers to redefine their futures. Pakistan appreciates the strategic significance of its own western frontier and therefore it is no surprise that it’s PM very categorically and with utmost conviction says that his country’s interests will now be guided more by geo-economics than by geopolitics.

The 21st Century interstate frontiers will no more be the classic frontiers as we see them. Frontiers will no longer limit the expansion and projection of power as is already being demonstrated by China. Some of them will soon become great jump-off places for greater advances like the Pakistan-Afghanistan western frontier and also the frontier between the CAS’s Trans Caucasus borders and the Russian mainland.

A very well-read person who is a follower of my writings recently complained that I write a lot on ‘whats’ but give little time to the ‘hows’ of the issues that I raise in my articles. So let me give some time to the hows. I think we need to do something on very urgent basis to address the social depravity that is being witnessed across the province of Sindh.

Liberty and equality are the twin principles of democracy. We need to create a level playing field for both in Sindh. Education is referred to as the great equaliser. Only when people get educated they can apply the acquired knowledge wisely to their lives, thus not only improving their own lives but also of other people. Sindh can become a model province to create an incorruptible education ministry with a mandate of creating a network of schools all over the province. That’s the frontier that we need to plan and cross – not a natural frontier but a man-made frontier that has remained so far insurmountable because the political dimension of geopolitics has so far failed this province.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 1st, 2021.

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