INDIA’S neighbourhood is on the boil. Pakistan is struggling to resolve its self-imposed dilemma of balancing politically aroused religious extremism and calls for domestic stability and international civility. Bangladesh seems all set to follow the Pakistani model if the series of bomb blasts all over the country last month were any indication.
The Bangladeshi extremist forces make loud claims that their ideal is Taliban and they want to turn their country into an Afghanistan.
Nepal is caught between monarchical madness and popular aspirations for an inclusive democracy. Sri Lanka’s peace process is on the verge of collapse and its internal schism, not only between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, but also within each of these communities has become acrimonious. Even Maldives is facing an internal political turmoil of unprecedented dimensions.
Focus on peace
Obviously, India’s neighbourhood is witnessing the upsurge of the forces of change, and the direction of change sought may not be positive in every case. India’s responses to all these developments may be summed up as confused and stagnant. There surely is a sense of realism in India’s pursuance of peace process with Pakistan and the overall thrust of policy seems constructive. But this may be mainly due to the pressures on Gen Pervez Musharraf generated in the aftermath of 9/11 events and the exposure of the Pakistani state’s dirty role in nuclear proliferation through its erstwhile national nuclear hero, Dr A.Q. Khan.
India seems to have put most of its policy eggs in Gen. Musharraf’s basket, even while being fully conscious of the inherent fragility and unreliability of his regime. India’s response to the fast-changing situation in Nepal is trapped in the dilemma of saving an internally alienated and internationally isolated monarchy. In Sri Lanka, India’s policy is unable to either save the peace process or the island’s drift into the unfolding electoral instability.
In relation to Bangladesh, the policy establishment has no clue to the rise of extremist forces and the spillover of internal turmoil into bilateral tensions. In Maldives also, it is the imperative of a status quoist policy that prompts India to live with President Gayoom’s dictatorial governance.
During the early years as an independent nation, there was considerable initiative and activism in Nehru’s approach towards immediate neighbours. But under the onslaught of the Cold War, and growing differences with China and Pakistan, by the end of the 1950s, much of this initiative was lost. Often, the objectives of supporting smooth democratic evolution and creating structures of developmental inter-dependence in the neighbourhood have been compromised by shortsighted concerns for stability, security and economic vested interests.
There have been exceptions to this pattern such as in the case of emergence of Bangladesh (1971), Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict (1987-90) and Nepal’s struggle against the Panchayat System(1989-90). The Gujral Doctrine that raised the comfort levels of the neighbours in relation to India was an attempt to think out of the box in this respect. However, generally the Indian posture has been defensive, and lacking in self-confidence.
According to a retired Foreign Secretary, Indian policy towards neighbours has suffered from a sense of "superiority and neglect". Prime ministers and foreign ministers often feel shy and hesitant in visiting neighbouring capitals and senior diplomats falter on the count of being polite and courteous towards their neighbouring counterparts. There is a lingering shadow of the British imperial mindset on the Indian bureaucracy when it comes to dealing with neighbouring countries and their citizens.
Unsure of support
On a number of issues of vital concern to the neighbours, India’s national priorities get circumvented or subverted by its federal imperatives, i.e. by the powerful, sectional political and economic interests of the bordering provinces. Recall the role of Tamil Nadu in relation to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict and of West Bengal in relation to market access to and border demarcation with Bangladesh.
No wonder, India has no real friends in the neighbourhood. During any crisis, there are very few and feeble voices of sympathy and support in the neighbouring countries. Even those who stand by us do not feel confident about whether we would go to their help in the hour of need. We have no political or economic constituencies in the neighbouring countries because we never thought of cultivating such constituencies. Many of India’s security challenges, including those related to internal insurgency and terrorism are enhanced and complicated by the neighbours to score bargaining points.
There has never been any serious attempt to build South Asia as an economic or security community. The SAARC Convention on suppression of terrorism remains an ineffective instrument even after its post-9/11 recasting. Nepal and Bangladesh, even at the cost of their own development, have pursued consistent and deliberate policies of denial towards India in the areas of energy (hydropower and gas respectively) cooperation.
Pakistan continues to be reluctant in establishing normal trade and economic relations, and except for Bhutan and Sri Lanka, none of the neighbours seem to welcome the idea of integration or serious engagement with India’s huge market and economic resilience.
While India absorbs Bangladesh’s demographic pressures in the form of illegal immigrants, Bangladesh refuses to permit India access to its own North-East even for economic gains.
If India has to emerge as a constructive and decisive factor in Asian and world affairs, it has to carry its neighbours along by playing a helpful role in their political stability and economic prosperity. The challenge confronting India’s neighbourhood today is the popular upsurge of marginalised and suppressed social groups. This explosion of aspiration in significant ways has been triggered by the information revolution and identity consciousness. Some of this upsurge is violent and separatist, like in Nepal and Sri Lanka respectively.
Elsewhere, like Pakistan and Bangladesh, this upsurge is inspired by the global forces of religious extremism and terrorism. There are widespread demands for access to political power, economic opportunities, redefining of social structures and hierarchies and new constitutional arrangements, including in small countries like Bhutan and Maldives.
In addressing the challenge of political order and stability, India can, in no way, provide legitimacy to the methods of violence and destruction even from the forces that genuinely represent popular aspirations. But in disapproving violence and destruction, it is not always useful to follow the post-9/11, US-led framework of global war on terrorism. There are qualitative differences between the violence of the Maoists in Nepal, the LTTE in Sri Lanka and the jehadis in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The US approach glosses over these differences and makes untenable distinctions between global and regional terrorism. There is also an unstated bias in the US approach to terrorism in South Asia, dictated primarily by its perceived strategic interests. For instance, while the US treats the LTTE as a "foreign terrorist group", it approves of a negotiated approach towards them by the Sri Lankan government.
In the perception of many Sri Lankans, the US-led West is soft and sympathetic to the LTTE. On the other hand, in the case of Nepal, the Maoists have not been placed on the US list of terrorist organisations, and, until recently, the US has been totally opposed to any dialogue or political engagement with them by the King’s regime. The US is also taking a differentiated approach towards jehadi terrorism in Pakistan - between those active on the Afghanistan front and those in Kashmir.
It is not in India’s interest to follow this framework. In an important way, by accepting the US lead on terrorism, and by adopting only a half-hearted and reactive posture towards peace and conflict-resolution processes in Sri Lanka and Nepal, India has surrendered considerable strategic space to the so-called "international community" in its neighbourhood. While Norway is "facilitating" the fragile peace process in Sri Lanka, the UN is getting prepared to do so in Nepal. India must shrug off its hesitation and constructively engage with grassroot forces that stand for democratic and pluralistic social reconstruction.
While deterring the LTTE from any military adventure, India must encourage and support such other Tamil and Sinhala groups that are committed to a peaceful, negotiated and equitable resolution of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. In Nepal, India’s constructive engagement with the emerging popular front of the Maoists and the political parties will not only force the King to see reason, but also make the Maoists moderated.
There should be conscious attempts in India’s policy towards the neighbourhood in relating itself to popular, grassroot and constructive forces. Strengthening these forces is the best response to the rise of sectarian and extremist tendencies in the neighbourhood. In addition, India should deftly use all the levers and pressure points available to check undesirable forces. India’s policy, so far, has lacked a clearly defined perspective in dealing with political formations in neighbouring countries. New Delhi has switched its allies and "friends" as a matter of convenience, from one election to another and from one event to another, in the name of pragmatism, without factoring in the social character and historical evolution of the various political groups.
This approach may be fine anywhere else, but not in the immediate neighbourhood. That is why India does not have any real friends and allies in the neighbouring political realm. India’s backing to the King in Nepal, the UNP in Sri Lanka and the BNP in Bangladesh has hardly addressed its concerns in these countries.
In state-to-state relations, India has to be warm, considerate and responsive. India also has to perfect a nuanced and decisive use of its power and capabilities to invoke in the neighbours both awe and affection for its legitimate concerns. The frequency of high-level political as well as people-to-people exchanges can be easily enhanced at India’s initiative. India has also not really used its economic resilience effectively to lure the neighbours into beneficial relationships, either bilaterally or regionally. Pakistan has been a hurdle in this respect, but Indian policy has also lacked initiatives and accommodation. There are lessons to be learnt from China in the use of economic diplomacy for constructing a neighbourhood community.
Bangladesh is asking India for market access for some of its products. Such an access will in no way alter the prevailing pattern of trade and economic relations between the two countries, nor will it reduce Bangladesh’s trade deficit with India. But India has linked the issue of market access to its own demands like transit to the Northeast and security cooperation. De-linking of these issues may possibly induce a change of perspective on the part of Bangladesh, as it became evident during the time of the short-lived Gujral doctrine. India’s economy is robust and its capabilities are rising. It can easily afford to be generous with its neighbours in the interest of greater regional integration and political harmony.
Last but not the least, a great deal of India’s neighbourhood policy will also depend upon how it addresses three of its internal insurgencies, in Jammu and Kashmir, the Northeast and that of the Naxal groups. Heavy reliance on law and order methods and a free hand given to the intelligence and security agencies have more often than not complicated the insurgencies.
There is need for bold political initiatives in all these cases. A beginning was made with regard to the Naxalite groups in Andhra Pradesh but it could not be sustained politically. A welcome initiative has been taken in Kashmir, but it remains to be sustained in a balanced manner, without alienating the legitimate and elected political representatives. In the Northeast, New Delhi has to go beyond the ceasefire and talks for talks.
Political space needs to be created for bringing the marginalised groups into the mainstream through a sustained process of accommodation and economic reconstruction. Even a little progress in dealing with the internal insurgencies may contain their spillovers across the borders and provide India considerable bargaining space with neighbours.
— The writer is Professor, South Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi