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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 38 New Delhi September 10, 2016

The Unloved South Asian

Friday 9 September 2016

by Apratim Mukarji

Can India get beyond firefighting as a foreign policy goal in South Asia, asks a scintillating analysis of India’s neighbourhood policy.1 Despite occasional prime ministerial announce-ments of henceforth paying special attention to nurture neighbourly relations, New Delhi lapses—almost as if involuntarily—into prolonged periods of neglecting South Asian capitals until some “firefighting” becomes absolutely necessary.

This ad hocism is of course most pronounced in the case of its most important neighbour, Pakistan, giving rise to an impression that India would probably have been happy if this particular neighbour could be wished away. “Let us see how long it (Pakistan) lasts,” India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, once remarked.2 That not being the case, there is wonderment around the world that even after three wars and one undeclared war, innume-rable armed and diplomatic confrontations, a very difficult neighbour—proving increasingly to be risky not only for India but also for the neighbourhood and elsewhere for nurturing and exporting jihadis—New Delhi continues to betray an obvious absence of long-term strategy.

A direct outcome of this singular inadequacy on India’s part is the following editorial, “Another missed opportunity”,3 a comment that is being used and re-used many times over throughout the parallel histories of the two countries and will probably continue to be used till eternity. It would be quite honest to admit that this particular lament sounds all too familiar to us. “This week’s meeting between the Indian and Pakistani Foreign Secretaries in Delhi served as a reality check on the stalemate in the bilateral dialogue... Both countries have now officially confirmed that the talks bore no results. In a world where the US and Cuba have restored ties, Russia and China have formed a close partnership, and Iran has emerged from isolation, it is not too much to hope that India and Pakistan can at least discuss key issues.”

Many a time India’s Pakistan policy has been identified as constantly oscillating between hauteur and appeasement, in all probability an indication of weakness. This is something which till the other day appeared to be incompre-hensible to the international community since India was considered far more powerful than Pakistan. As former diplomat, academic and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Prof M.L. Sondhi observed in the early 1970s, this obvious imbalance between the two giving rise to an acerbic relationship could only be remedied if both countries went nuclear. With this becoming a reality, Islamabad has no reason any longer to feel inferior, and should respond more confidently to India’s peace overtures. But somehow the old sense of rivalry between the two neighbours appears to have remained intact, and an uneasiness at the best and an outright hostility at the worst times continue to be the norm.

But surely New Delhi should have enjoyed normal relations with the other neighbours where the terrible baggage of partition does not colour views and policies. Yet, the same prevarication, alternation between warmth and coldness, tendency to self-glorify and impose one’s own interest on a neighbour many times over poorer and less powerful than this country continue to guide India’s policy..

Let us review our relations with Sri Lanka, an island-nation always independent of India, as an example of New Delhi’s uneven and unpredictable policy formulation. On my second night in Colombo in 1990, I had an unforgettable experience. “Sometimes I wonder if I shall see Sri Lanka annexed by India before I die,” the lady I was sharing the table with sighed, startling me considerably. While in India, I had never come across any such intention on the part of the government. It was also a few months after the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) had left Sri Lanka in mid-1990, totally unloved and under a huge cloud of “good riddance” exclamations.

This reward came India’s way after it had sacrificed 1165 soldiers in about three years’ time (1987-90) in fighting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the north while the J.R. Jeyawardene Government was left free to fight the second Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurgency in the south. There was little doubt that had India not come to its rescue at the time, the government would have collapsed under the twin burden of fighting two deadly insurrections at the same time.

For months afterwards, society ladies in Colombo’s party circles would reminisce about their morning outings in front of the Indian High Commission on the Galle Road, throwing pebbles at the building and chanting “Go back IPKF”. “When the Little Viceroy would drive out, our chanting would get an additional boosting,” the ladies explained. The “Little Viceroy” was, of course, the redoubtable Indian High Commissioner, J.N. Dixit, who seemed to be completely unmoved by the outpourings of protest against his government.

Fortunately our relations with Bangladesh have been quite satisfactory lately as the Sheikh Hasina Government has been friendly to us. But India’s relations with Begum Zia-led main Opposition party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), remains substantially frozen, and it is anybody’s guess that once the Opposition returns to power, bilateral relations may well hit rock-bottom. Even Sheikh Hasina’s friendship once dried up; on April 20, 2001, India was shocked by the horror of seeing repeatedly on the TV screen the bodies of sixteen Border Security Force jawans slung across poles like carcasses and being handed over to the Indian side. Cut to April 20, 2001 when a terribly shocked India came face to face with the pictures of sixteen Border Security Force (BSF) personnel killed, mutilated and slung across poles like animal carcasses and being borne by Bangladeshis to be handed over to the BSF. The shock was two-fold: India had been dealt an “unacceptable” treatment by Bangladesh which owed its very birth to this country’s all-out military help in 1971 and this atrocity had occurred under the watch of the “friendly” Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League Government.

What had gone so horribly wrong with India-Bangladesh relations? The A.B. Vajpayee Govern-ment was virtually clueless. So desperate was its need to learn the truth that the Prime Minister’ Office in its wisdom chose this writer to make an urgent clandestine visit to Dhaka in the guise of a scholar to ferret out the truth. A visa was obtained within a day and I was instructed to leave Delhi within a few hours. My visit, however, did not come to pass as second thoughts prevailed and the PMO had begun to learn the truth bit by bit.

That truth was ugly, establishing that the initial fault lay with the BSF. Since the liberation of East Pakistan, a simmering dispute had been brewing over some of the enclaves in adversarial possession. The Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) captured the Pyrdiwah village on the border of Meghalaya in a surprising show of strength on April 15 and surrounded the 31-strong BSF post there. Bangladesh claimed that the village was its part while India insisted otherwise. It was in fact an Indian enclave within Bangladesh.

As tension between the two countries soared and the usual dispute-redressal mechanism was put into operation, the BSF perpetrated a blunder. In order to put pressure on the BDR, it sought to capture a BDR post in the Boraibari village on the border of Assam (though the official position was that the operation was the local commander’s responsibility and that there was no such order from the higher-ups). This village was very much part of Bangladesh, and the sixty-odd-strong BSF patrol party was soon discovered and captured by villagers and handed over to the BDR. The Bangladeshis living in the village had long-held grievances against the BSF which had often fired at and killed them for illegal entry into India; so this was their chance for revenge.

While diplomacy came into play and the two neighbouring countries talked to each other back and forth, sixteen mutilated bodies of the BSF men came back to India causing extreme outrage, and Parliament was in tumult for several days. The setback for the Vajpayee Government was all the more galling because the incident occurred right at the moment when New Delhi was setting out to win Dhaka’s friendship for achieving several objectives. One of these was negotiating for a sizeable slice of natural gas supply from Bangladesh; another was promoting security and economic interests not only in that country but also beyond; yet, a third objective was to secure transit rights for Indian goods through Bangladesh for quicker access to the North-Eastern States. Above all else, New Delhi was keen to settle the land border between the two countries including the vexing issue of enclaves in adverse possession. It was another matter that almost all these issues were finally dealt with successfully a full fourteen years later.

India-Nepal relations were becoming increa-singly strained in early 1989 over what New Delhi perceived as Kathmandu’s and, more specifically, its royalty’s “penchant” for raising “irritating” demands. Negotiations were on at the time over agreeing on a new trade treaty; and in New Delhi’s perception, Kathmandu was seeking to place itself on an equal footing with India which was not realistic and, therefore, not acceptable. While India was pressing for a single treaty to cover all aspects of economic relations, Nepal demanded that two separate trade treaties should be agreed upon. As negotiations stumbled on tricky points, the Indian Govern-ment all of a sudden imposed an economic blockade on Nepal. As many as 19 out of the total 21 border crossings between the two countries were blocked and supplies of all essential commodities from India to Nepal ceased. The Kolkata Port, the only sea route available to Nepal, and all the land routes connecting various North Indian cities to Nepal became inaccessible overnight. The blockade, which was apparently an Indian Government device to teach the aspiring Nepal (suspected to have been instigated by anti-Indian and pro-Chinese elements in the country) a bitter lesson, lasted from March 1989 to April 1990, forcing the landlocked Himalayan country into unending and unprecedented hardship affecting every segment of its society. In hindsight, after the blockade was lifted and the bilateral relations returned to an even keel, it was revealed that behind the surprising and condemnable Indian measure lay its desire to warn Nepal about seeking closer relations with China without its consent. The Rajiv Gandhi Government sought to establish that while Nepal was an indepen-dent and sovereign state, it must respect India’s pre-eminent position in South Asia and act accordingly.

But what happened in 2013 between India and Bhutan was all the more unexpected and difficult to explain. Under the existing trade agreement, the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) was selling LPG cooking gas and kerosene at special subsidised rates to Bhutan and was compensated by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in quarterly instalments of fund releases. It so happened that the instalment for the last quarter of October-December 2012 did not reach the IOC during January 2013. The IOC continued its supplies till June and then stopped, and for the month of July Bhutan was suddenly starved of the cooking gas and kerosene. Diesel supplies were fortunately not interrupted, but as every household in the Himalayan kingdom suffered terrible hardships, India’s only unwavering friend in the benighted neighbourhood, Bhutan, knocked at the regional superpower’s door in sheer desperation. While the problem was eventually sorted out, it was never clear why this unpleasant episode happened at all. There was no answer to the question whether it was a diplomatic overkill or simply a bureaucratic bungling. Some doubts persisted because over the years and despite the excellent bilateral relations, there are a plenty of examples to show that Bhutan has gradually sought to ease out India’s overwhelming presence over its destiny.

In the meantime, New Delhi was forced to partake of a serial unpleasantness in its relations with the Maldives, a sphere of prickly neigh-bourly experiences. On February 6, 2012 the India-friendly President Mohamed Nasheed was toppled in a coup and was succeeded by an equally unfriendly Mohamed Waheed. While the event exposed a surprising development in a country which was considered to have been on a democratic path after many decades of authoritarian rule by Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, it also showed once more the failure of Indian diplomacy not only to hold on to its sphere of influence but also to expand and build on it. Perhaps a complete analysis of the developments since then was provided by Nasheed himself.

“I was sad when the coup took place,” Nasheed said, “because it seemed to me that India did not understand the seriousness of events in the Maldives. I do understand India has complex issues to deal with when engaging with its neighbours. I think India could have secured an election date much earlier though, had its diplomacy been a bit more forceful. Please don’t get me wrong... In my years in prison, I read a great deal about the vision of Jawaharlal Nehru. I think that vision should inform India’s actions.”4

Since then, the Maldives has successfully maintained its distance from India; Islamism has been growing steadily, and the country defied India repeatedly by establishing closer relations with China which led in turn to the emboldening of Sri Lanka under the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime to follow suit.

In 2015, Nepal revisited the sins of not listening to Indian reprimands. This time, the economic blockade remained undeclared, but the fact of an Indian hand in choking Nepal by the stalling of supply of essential commodities in the name of a Madhesi movement was too palpable. Ever since the Indian Government literally cold-shouldered what Nepal rightfully considered an achievement—the completion of the prolonged and often jinxed exercise over the new Constitution—and advised, quite publicly, to allow space for inclusiveness by providing adequate representation to the Madhesis, the main minority community considered close to India, the public mood was turning anti-Indian, and the blockade and resultant hardship in Nepal since then vitiated the bilateral relations a good deal.

Let us listen to the sane advice from a seasoned former Indian diplomat, Nirupama Rao. “Nobody denies India’s immense power in Nepal,” Rao and Atul Pokharel write. “With power comes responsibility. As long as the people of Nepal perceive the outcomes of the special relationships to be unfair, it will be difficult to secure their cooperation. It is up to Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi to change that. South Asia and the world are watching.”5 It is important to note that in each of these countries except Bhutan, China has emerged in the last few years as India’s main rival and is expanding its sphere of influence consistently. It speaks little good about the regional superpower’s omnipotency that with the fall of the pro-Beijing K.P. Oli Government in Nepal, a major Indian newspaper headlined its story as “Oli’s fall good news for India, blow to China”.6

Juxtapose the experiences of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives and Sri Lanka with Indian diplomacy over the years, and one begins to understand why the Indian is the Unloved South Asian.


1. Indrani Bagchi, “Playing Yesterday’s Game”, The Times of India, July 27, 2016.

2. Nehru quoted in B.K. Nehru’s memoirs, Nice Guys Finish Second, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 1997.

3. The Hindu, April 29, 2016.

4. Interview to The Hindu, April 20, 2012.

5. The Hindu, October 17, 2015.

6. TheTimes of India, July 25, 2016.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of Central and South Asian affairs.