ICWA International Conference on KM Panikkar and the Growth of a Maritime Consciousness in India
23-24 March 2021
Dr TCA Raghavan, Director General, ICWA
Sardar K M Panikkar’s life and works form a fascinating narrative encompassing a wide diversity of roles, positions and interests. His contributions in different capacities: as a diplomat, historian, statesman, educationist and a journalist are of immense significance and merits closer study for any clear understanding of the diplomatic and intellectual history of modern India. This seminar, unfortunately virtual, is a small step in that direction. By way of declaration of interest I should also say that KM Panikkar was also closely associated with the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Panikkar was one of the early writers on the history of India’s connections with the Indian Ocean. His seminal historical and literary works have influenced contemporary thought and perceptions and played a formative role in orienting independent India’s maritime consciousness.
Pannikkar’s major works which left an imprint on independent India’s maritime strategy are Asia and Western Dominance: A Survey of the Vasco Da Gama Epoch of Asian History, 1498-1945 (1953), India and the Indian Ocean: An Essay on the Influence of Sea Power on Indian History (1945) and The Strategic Problems of the Indian Ocean (1944) . His works focus on tracing the influence of the Indian Ocean, which he considers as ‘the first centre of oceanic activity’, on shaping Indian history and on discussing the vital importance of oceanic control on the future of India. Panikkar argued that “the peninsular character of India and dependence for its trade on maritime traffic give the sea a preponderant influence on its destiny”. He criticizes the one-sided view of India’s security with an exclusive focus on north-west frontiers, overlooking the maritime despite the oceans having an important place in Indian thinking and oceanic navigation being common to the coastal inhabitants of peninsular India for several millennia.
He argues that the period of 450 years from the arrival of Vasco Da Gama in Calicut in 1498, comprises the ‘Vasco Da Gama epoch’ in his classic "Asia and Western Dominance". This was marked by singular unity in its fundamental aspect which is the dominance of European maritime power over the landmasses of Asia. The Battle of Diu and Battle of Cochin were thus significant in changing the course of history in the region and heralding an era of Atlantic dominance over the Indian Ocean. For Panikkar Diu and Cochin outweighed Buxar and Plassey in significance. His Malabar and the Portuguese particularly focuses on history of Portuguese interactions in the region and their social economic and political influences. The different phases and geographies of the European power balance-Portuguese, Dutch, French and British had deeply interested Panikkar and remains of interest to this day in view of its impact on subsequent Asian geopolitics.
From the “Atlantic phase” Panikkar saw in his own times a shift to the ‘Pacific phase’, in the history of the Indian Ocean. Panikkar described the growth of two powerful naval powers in the Pacific i.e. Japan and United Sates and how this revolutionised naval competition in the Indian Ocean. From an analytical perspective, his description of competition among the extra regional powers, also provides a backdrop to analyse the intense contemporary geopolitical churn in the Indian Ocean as also the wider Indo-Pacific region. There is therefore, need to engage in the re-reading of his writings today as the wider geopolitics of the Pacific and the Indian Oceans change with rapidly rising inter-connectedness and inter-dependence between two oceanic spaces.
Alongside his literary contribution with books on wide range of topics, his role as an official in representing the princely states of Bikaner, Kashmir and Patiala, his active participation in the Constituent Assembly and post-independence as India’s Ambassador to China, Egypt and France, and later his short but significant role in a political capacity as a nominated member the Rajya Sabha and of the States Reorganisation Commission in 1956 have left significant a legacy which merits revisiting and recall.
Panikkar emphasized the need for a well considered and effective naval policy as pertinent to India’s security. He wrote “India never lost her independence till she lost the command of the sea in the first decade of the sixteenth century”. Panikkar’s own thought processes need to be given due credit. From an earlier pre-occupation with a continental mindset in the country’s strategic calculus, there is now a gradually growing equibalance in the country’s strategic circles between the continental and the maritime as Indian Ocean becomes one of the primary priorities in India’s foreign policy.
This two day virtual Conference aims at bringing together foreign and Indian experts and scholars to ponder on issues including on the relevance of Panikkar’s works to facilitate a better understanding of India’s maritime past, evolution of India’s maritime strategy and emerging geopolitical equations in the Indian Ocean region in the context of the expanded maritime geography of a wider Indo-Pacific region and its implications for India.
A number of scholars greatly helped us in framing this conference: Prof. Himanshu Prabha Ray, previously of JNU and a former chair of the National Monuments Authority, Prof. Pius Mal ekandathil of JNU, Dr. K.M. Seethi of Calicut, Dr. Vijay Sakhuja, Dr. Sanjaya Baru, Chair of the Programme Committee of the ICWA and Prof. Gyanesh Kudaysia, NUS, Singapore.
One of Panikkar’s lasting contributions to the ICWA was the idea of creating interdisciplinary platforms to study specific themes. This seminar by bringing together ancient and modern historians, naval and geopolitical analysts and others seeks to build on that impulse.