Breathing through Water: Power and agency in the post-colonial Indian Ocean

Greek mythology tells us that the day Zeus, to please his human lover Semele, revealed himself to her in all his glory, the sight of his divinity turned the young woman to ashes. Looking power in the face is dangerous indeed. And yet, exploring its sinews is sometimes more easily done from its margins. Geopolitical takes on the contemporary Indian Ocean routinely centre great powers and regional contenders’ competing ambitions over the region, but it is for those that can’t claim this status that the question of who has power in its waters, how that power is exerted, and with what consequences, presents itself with the most urgency, constancy, and complexity. Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was known until 1972, offers a stark manifestation of this. Whether under British rule, the Bandaranaike dynasty, or the post-Rajapaksa era, oceanic governance architecture has been a central concern for the island’s elites. The political and economic forces they contended with—Cold War superpowers, overbearing India, international shipping cartels, Japanese fishing fleets, oil prospectors—were largely exerted at sea and through the sea, after all. From the 1940s to the 1980s, efforts to affirm Ceylon-Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, agency and distinct identity therefore dovetailed, in recurring ways, with the issue of control and freedom in maritime spaces. The Indian Ocean, in this context, was always deeply political for Colombo—a horizon of decolonisation and national realisation that would determine the “breathing space” a small country could have in the international order.

Bérénice Guyot-Réchard is a historian of South Asia, international and transnational relations, and decolonisation whose work has pioneered new approaches to the subcontinent’s place in the world system. From the Himalayas, where borderlanders willy-nilly grapple with China and India’s rivalry, to budding diplomats striving to represent India abroad, her work explors South Asia’s day-to-day engagement with the world and the connections between state formation and international relations. Dr Guyot-Réchard has won multiple awards for her work, including a Leverhulme Prize 2024, Cambridge’s Prince Consort Prize, the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies’ Fisher Prize (for Shadow States: India, China and the Himalayas, 1910–1962), the British Association of South Asian Studies’ Annual Prize, and a British Academy Rising Star Award. Her next book, The Glass Giant: India and the Making of the World Order, retraces India’s centrality to international politics over the past two centuries.