What started me off on this goose-hunt about India invading other countries? (The answer I was looking for was Ranjit Singh’s general Zorawar Singh’s invasion of Tibet. Sandeep got the answer correctly.)
Believe it or not, this was occasioned by me thinking about the question of who will lead the BJP after Vajpayee/Advani. Let me explain.
It is an article of faith among us Indians that disunity is the Indian disease. We were attacked and conquered time and again because our kings squabbled among themselves and failed to put up a united front when invaders attacked us.
But it occurs to me that this belief is not only mistaken, it is also counterproductive.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not claiming that we weren’t disunited, but that we were no more disunited than the others. Also I am claiming that our disunity was not a source of our weakness, instead when we were weak, we were disunited.
First, disunity has been depressingly common throughout the world. When the Romans invaded Britain in 55 BC, they found a bunch of squabbling tribes they could pit against one another. Throughout its history, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland have been fighting each other. Germans and Italians were a bunch of squabbling principalities before they were united in the 19th century. Name any country and you are sure to find the same story. India is not a unique case.
Likewise, those who successfully invaded us were not a particularly united bunch themselves. Mohammed Ghaznavi wasn’t leading a coalition of Afghan kings. He was just a lone marauder. Ditto with Babar. Even while the the British were expanding into India, they were fighting a civil war, fighting with the Scots and there were pitched battles going on between the Protestants and the Catholics.
So why were we attacked so often? Look up the physical map of undivided India and you will know why. Yes we are bounded on all sides by natural barriers, but beyond those barriers lies barren terrain.
The Himalayas protected us from invasion to a certain extent, but they were also a barrier for an Indian king looking to expand westwards. But then, India provided an Afghan with a much greater prize than Afhanistan provided an Indian. If you are an ambitious king in Kabul, which way would you look for an empire? Chances are, you would turn towards India. The fertile plains of the Sindhu would beckon you, and you would have an incentive to cross the barrier. But if you were an ambitious king in Lahore, which way would your sights turn? Towards the Gangetic plain or towards Kabul? Delhi would be as enticing as the Khyber was forbidding.
Even if you were an Indian king who did manage to reach Kabul (like Akbar or Ranjit Singh) how long would you be able to hold it? Remember that running an empire was difficult business in those times. If your local Governor rebelled and declared himself a king, or was threatened by an invader and asked for your help, you would have to send your troops across the Khyber pass. Half of them would die on the way and the remaining would be too exhausted to fight. Of course, the same problem would face anyone who tried to rule Lahore from Kabul. But then, it made sense for any king who was ambitious enough to simply move over to this side. Why would an Indian wish to move over to Kabul? That is why, till the colonial powers managed to do it, we were never ruled from outside India. Outsiders used to come for raids or come over and stay put, but they never ruled us from outside.
Okay, that explains why we were attacked repeatedly and why we never expanded outside, but why were those attacks successful? Wasn’t that because of disunity?
Not really. Remember that defenders have to be lucky every time, while an attacker has to be lucky only once. When we were lucky, we had a huge empire lead by a strong emperor leading a powerful and well-organised army waiting for the attackers. Alexander was one such unlucky attacker. Even if his exhausted army had marched on to Magadha, it would have been vanquished by waiting troops. When we were not so lucky, we would be a bunch of quarreling kingdoms unable to decide whether the attackers were allies or foes. Now when you are talking of a 5000 year period, there are bound to be lucky as well as unlucky times. When we were unlucky, the attackers came in. In difficult times, morale goes down and disunity surfaces. You are more likely to be betrayed if you are weak and the treason is more likely to be fatal. This is true of all societies. It is not as if Indians are particularly prone to this problem. Our history is explained by our geography, not by some failing in our national character.
But why am I spending time refuting the claim that we are particularly disunited? What has this got to do with the BJP’s succession problems? I think I’ll just postpone the answer for another post because I am feeling sleepy. Stay tuned and feel free to guess the connection in the comments. The title of this post, which I had written intending to actually get to the point is also a hint.