NAM­ING THE SEAS Vikram Doc­tor

The Economic Times - - Saturday Feature -

In May 1988, the Times of In­dia (ToI) re­ported on an is­sue ril­ing read­ers of Pak­istan Times, a now de­funct news­pa­per that was then owned by the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment. This was the name of the In­dian Ocean which they felt was un­fairly linked to this coun­try sim­ply be­cause “by calling it­self In­dia the coun­try seemed to have be­come heir to the en­tire his­tory of the sub­con­ti­nent.”

One writer felt that the fairer ap­proach would be to limit the use of In­dia up to Au­gust 1947 and af­ter that “what re­mained out­side Pak­istan and Bangladesh should be called Bharat.” But since the In­dian gov­ern­ment had not been so oblig­ing, writ­ers felt Pak­istan should not go along with this his­tor­i­cal and ge­o­graphic ap­pro­pri­a­tion and should stop us­ing the term “In­dian Ocean’.

One writer pro­posed calling it the In­doPak Ocean as a fair so­lu­tion. A more diplo­matic cor­re­spon­dent felt this would an­noy other coun­tries in the re­gion, but sug­gested that, be­cause many of th­ese coun­tries were Is­lamic, the Mus­lim Ocean was the right term. “All Mus­lim coun­tries should agree to such a propo­si­tion and the mat­ter should be taken up at the Or­gan­i­sa­tion of Is­lamic Con­fer­ence,” he says.”

Pak­istan’s ir­ri­ta­tion with the In­dian Ocean name goes back even fur­ther. In March 1971, ToI re­ported on a pre­sen­ta­tion made by Latif Ahmed Sher­wani of the Pak­istani In­sti­tu­tion of In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs at a sem­i­nar in Ge­orge­town Univer­sity, Wash­ing­ton DC, on In­dian Ocean af­fairs.

S h e r wa n i p o i n t e d out that the Mediter­ranean wasn’t known as the Ital­ian Sea, de­spite Italy oc­cu­py­ing a prom­i­nent po­si­tion in it, just as In­dia did in the In­dian Ocean. So in the same way a name should be used that was more re­spect­ful of the many coun­tries around the In­dian Ocean’s rim. He sug­gested calling it “the eastern ocean or the Afro-Asian ocean.”

Even fur­ther back though, an ob­jec­tion to ‘In­dian Ocean’ came not from Pak­istan, but In­done­sia. In July, 1963 ToI re­ported the star­tling news that In­done­sia’s Pres­i­dent Sukarno wanted In­done­sia’s Navy to call the In­dian Ocean as the In­done­sian Ocean and his Chief of Staff of the Navy Eddy Mar­tad­i­nata had is­sued an order making the change. Mar­tad­i­nata later be­came am­bas­sador to Pak­istan where he may have en­joyed meet­ing others peeved about the per­sis­tence of ‘In­dian Ocean.’


Mat­ters of sea are im­por­tant to In­done­sia which is a na­tion of is­lands. This in­cludes the Natuna Is­lands, an ar­chi­pel­ago of 272 small is­lands that lie in a part of the sea where they rub up against China. That whole area is gen­er­ally known as the South China Sea but last week the In­done­sian gov­ern­ment said that the part near their is­lands would now be called the North Natuna Sea.

China’s re­sponse was pre­dictable. “Some coun­tries so-called re­nam­ing is mean­ing­less,” said a Chi­nese for­eign min­istry spokesman. Some idea of Chi­nese views about the re­gion can be seen in a state­ment made at an in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence in 2015 by Chi­nese Vice Ad­mi­ral Yuan Yubai, who stated bluntly, “the South China Sea, as the name in­di­cates, is a sea area that be­longs to China.”

The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment’s po­si­tion on the sea is in­her­ited from its pre­de­ces­sor, the Re­pub­lic of China (RoC). In the af­ter­math of World War II the RoC re­leased the Nine-Dash line, a map with nine dashes en­com­pass­ing nearly all of the sea be­tween the Chi­nese main­land and the coun­tries of South-East Asia, all claimed for China. Af­ter the RoC col­lapsed and moved to Tai­wan, its com­mu­nist suc­ces­sor con­tin­ued to main­tain the claim (though the RoC in Tai­wan has never of­fi­cially dropped it ei­ther).


An even more in­tensely felt mar­itime dis­pute in the re­gion has been run­ning for decades over the name for the sea be­tween Korea and Ja­pan. The gen­eral con­ven­tion is to call this the Sea of Ja­pan, but South and North Korea af­firm pas­sion­ately that they al­ways called this the East Sea and that its ap­pro­pri­a­tion by Ja­pan con­tin­ues the hu­mil­i­at­ing coloni­sa­tion of Korea by Ja­pan and atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted dur­ing WWII. The Koreas have pleaded in mul­ti­ple in­ter­na­tional meet­ings for at least par­ity, with both names be­ing recog­nised, but Ja­pan re­mains stonily un­re­spon­sive, in­flam­ing the mat­ter even more.

An­other dis­pute over mar­itime nam­ing, in a par­tic­u­larly volatile re­gion, is over the Per­sian Gulf. The an­cient Greeks re­ferred to this as the Si­nus Per­si­cus, with Si­nus Ara­bi­cus (Ara­bian Gulf) some­times used for what be­came more com­monly known as the Red Sea. The six Arab coun­tries who bor­der the Per­sian Gulf strongly feel that their con­trol of around 70% of the coast­line gives them the right to re­name it the Ara­bian Gulf now.

Iran re­fuses to coun­te­nance this even though, iron­i­cally, it has moved away from the term Per­sia in most other ways. The term Iran, which de­rives from Aryan, ap­plies for most of the coun­try, ex­cept in mat­ter con­cern­ing the Gulf. There is an of­fi­cial Na­tional Per­sian Gulf Day on April 30th, the top Ira­nian soc­cer teams play in the Per­sian Gulf Pro League and air­lines found to be us­ing any term other than Per­sian Gulf on their in-flight in­for­ma­tion sys­tems are banned from fly­ing in Ira­nian air-space.

Ac­cord­ing to a pa­per by Martin Levinson, fol­low­ing the Is­lamic Rev­o­lu­tion of 1979 there were moves to pro­mote the term Is­lamic Gulf – which pre­sum­ably the Pak­istani pro­po­nents of the Mus­lim Ocean would have ap­pre­ci­ated. This idea dis­ap­peared af­ter the start of the in­ter-Is­lamic Iran-Iraq war, but ap­par­ently was re­vived by Osama bin-Laden and used as a term to rally Is­lamic mil­i­tants.


This un­der­lines the larger dan­gers of mar­itime nam­ing dis­putes. Land based nam­ing dis­putes are nu­mer­ous, but they tend to set­tled by the brute prin­ci­ple of phys­i­cal pos­ses­sion. Lay­ing claim to the open sea is harder and it is partly why op­po­nents try and en­list more solid fea­tures like con­ti­nen­tal shelves, shoals and reefs as a way to but­tress their po­si­tion (China has been ac­cused of ac­tu­ally build­ing is­lands for this pur­pose).

The real prob­lems come with the eco­nomic ben­e­fits which, in­con­ve­niently tend to be less easy to pin down. Sea lanes for ships tend to be in the most open waters, sub­ma­rine oil and gas fields stretch in un­pre­dictable di­rec­tions and shoals of fish which, as they dwin­dle through over­fish­ing are in­creas­ingly des­per­ately sought af­ter by na­tional fish­ing fleets, and are the hard­est of all to de­mar­cate in na­tional ar­eas.


In all this In­dia is some­thing of an ex­cep­tion. Our name at­taches to one of the largest mar­itime ex­panses of all, but the coun­try has never seemed too con­cerned about de­fend­ing this. Pe­ri­od­i­cally our politi­cians boast about the blue-wa­ter am­bi­tions of the In­dian Navy and the po­ten­tial of In­dian Ocean com­merce, but they then go back to land based is­sues. Coastal is­sues are lit­er­ally mar­ginal in In­dia, with fish­ing com­mu­ni­ties strug­gling to re­ceive the same at­ten­tion paid to farm­ing ones.

This might ref lect the fact that our own­er­ship of the Ocean name is some­what ac­ci­den­tal. As with most things in­volv­ing the pre­dom­i­nantly Western de­vel­oped sys­tem of car­tog­ra­phy, it was first used by the Greeks track­ing the sources of the prized spices and tex­tiles from In­dia. As Martin W.Lewis ex­plains in his es­say ‘Di­vid­ing the Ocean Sea’ (1999), the Greeks be­gan the some­what ar­bi­trary divi­sion be­tween sea (tha­lassa) which meant the Mediter­ranean for them, and the wider Oceanos, the world of sea that lay at the edge of the world of land.

Travel and trade made them re­fine this view and from fairly early on the term Indikon pela­gos was used for the seas around In­dia. The Ro­man ge­og­ra­phers who built on their knowl­edge oc­ca­sion­ally made a dis­tinc­tion be­tween the waters closer to In­dia and the open sea they knew ex­isted be­yond Cey­lon, which they called Mare Proso­dum or the Green Sea. Other terms were used like Oceanus Ori­en­talis, Ethiopian Ocean (for the parts closer to Africa) and Mare Bar­bar­icum, but probably fol­low­ing the traders who ac­tu­ally sailed the seas, they al­ways came back to In­dian Ocean. This per­sisted through the 16th cen­tury as in­creas­ing knowl­edge from the global voy­ages of ex­plor­ers like Mag­el­lan lead to the cre­ation of the first at­lases. The At­lantic has re­ceived its name from the Greeks, who saw it as the edge of the world, held up by the gi­ant Atlas, but then ex­plor­ers broke through to the Pa­cific, af­ter sail­ing down south and sur­viv­ing the storms of Cape Horn at the tip of South Amer­ica, to come to the more peace­ful seas to its north.

Ex­plor­ers go­ing north and south added the Arctic and Antarc­tic Oceans, al­though ge­og­ra­phers have ar­gued about whether th­ese count or not. Dif­fer­ent di­vi­sions have given the seven oceans that, in num­ber at least, cor­re­spond to the seven seas of an­cient Ara­bic and In­dian leg­end, or four oceans, or even just one – as one ge­og­ra­pher pointed out, if you in­vert the globe and look from the South Pole there is just one vast sea with three great bays that are the At­lantic, Pa­cific and In­dian oceans.

Even in this the In­dian con­nec­tion re­mains, and oddly the only threat to it might come from ul­tra-na­tion­al­ists who be­lieve in el­e­vat­ing the term Bharat over In­dia. They ar­gue that this in­ter­nal name should be the ex­ter­nal one too, ig­nor­ing the long global his­tory of the use of In­dia. They might want to con­sider how im­pos­ing this change would de­light mar­itime minded Pak­ista­nis since the chances of get­ting the world to ac­cept the idea of a Bharatiya Ocean ac­cepted are nil.

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