National and International Issues

India and its Smaller Neighbors: Geographical Compulsions and Challenges of Coexistence

If India desires respect in the neighborhood, it has to spurn its yearning to dominate its neighborhood and instead embrace the true spirit of coexistence and respecting the sovereignty, in which lies the salvation of the region.


Even a cursory glance at the Asian geographical map reflects China and India, ‘jutting’ out as two huge states, hedged in the massively large canvas of other numerous states, from the tiny to the medium sized. As one then moves towards the South Asian region, the sheer physical size of India overshadows its other neighboring states; its huge population and equally large economy gives it the muscle to, at times ‘intimidate’ its smaller neighbors. Soon after independence, India and its leadership, led by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, an ultra-nationalist and one of the leading lights of the anti-colonial movement, in the initial post-independence period, were imbued with the spirit of ending the colonial rule globally, ‘based on anti-colonial politics of a unified multi-ethnic and multi-religious grounds, with lofty ideals of universalism’. As independent India gathered strength, the admirers of this anti-colonial fervour faced disappointment; India, like its colonial masters was unable to avoid the pitfall of ‘flexing’ its muscles in its neighborhood. This was felt more in the smaller states; the smaller neighbors, which include Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, who are all members of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), have expected that the ‘bigger neighbor’ would be generous in its dealing, but the ground realities are nothing which India can be proud of. It seemed that India had forgotten its struggle for freedom, and thus, ignored the legitimate aspiration of its smaller neighbors, who justly wanted to be treated equally on the principle of sovereign equality. India imposed unequal treaties on Nepal and Bhutan and going against a treaty signed with Sikkim in which its sovereignty was recognized, it was forcibly annexed.  
As the Kashmir War was imposed on Pakistan right after independence, it was the first to feel the pinch of neo-colonial arrogance. India, under a system of government which was initially the Congress or its legacy, or its successor, much more unsophisticated in its governance, cannot be expected to be compassionate or fair to its minorities, especially Muslims, who constitute the largest minority in the country. India abandoned those moral principles, the message of Mahatma Gandhi, in which it used to take such pride, and resorted to methods of repression which probably exceed those of the rivals, anything the British ever wrought against their Indian colonial subjects since 1858. This was followed by the ‘big brother’ pinch felt to some extent in different periods by Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, but it was Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka in particular who felt the ‘pinch’ by India. When these smaller neighbors of India feel visibly comfortable with China, it unnecessarily arouses India’s suspicion. The regional record reflects that India is not willing to learn any lesson, and thus, no course correction in its foreign policy in the region is even contemplated.  India messed with China and faced dreadful consequences in 1962 as it vacillated on the offer by China to negotiate the border demarcation. China’s relationship in the region, particularly with its smaller neighbors, is aptly summed up by its leadership that ‘China shall never seek hegemony nor seek advantage of its size to coerce smaller countries.’ 
On the other hand, India’s foreign policy record towards her neighbors since independence, generally, was unquestionably interventionist, but sticking to its double standards, it remained strongly opposed to the interference of other major powers into the region. Of late, however, this strategy seems to have changed, not only because of India’s changing outlook and ways, but also due to geopolitics and the emergence of China as a regional and global economic power with an impressive defensive shield.  


In an incident in the Pulwama district of Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) in February 2019, in which paramilitary soldiers were killed as a result of a suicide attack, the Indian government, without any proof blamed Pakistan, even though Pakistan denounced the act of terrorism according to its stated policy on the same day. It refuted Indian allegations and termed it as an Indian attempt to divert world attention from the excesses and grave violations of human rights in IIOJK. 


India and Pakistan: Adeversarial Relationship Reignited
Ousting the British colonial masters from India was a cause on which Muslim and Hindu leadership led by Quaid-e-Azam Mohmmad Ali Jinnah and Jawahar Lal Nehru respectively, had no differences, even though they had, otherwise, an adversarial relationship. However, it was odd that the Hindu leadership had an unrealistic approach to the demand of the Muslims to have their homeland carved out of India. The Muslims could not have exchanged colonial masters from the British to the Hindus. The transfer of assets to Pakistan was secular Nehru’s first post-independence credentials’ litmus test and he miserably failed. To many, the antagonism between Pakistan and India seems a bit odd, but according to Abdus Sattar, Pakistan’s former Foreign Minister, “The roots of the antipathy can be traced to the history of Hindu-Muslim relations and contention between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League”. Logically, seven decades are enough for the bitterness to boil over, but the incumbent Modi government’s policies have vowed to continue on the same lamentable path, targeting the Muslim minority that critics say explicitly ignore Muslims’ rights and is effectively intended to disenfranchise millions of Muslims. This stands as a testament to the foresight of the Muslims who had made up their minds in 1940 to lead their lives away from the prying eyes of the Hindus and their leaders.   
Independence for states normally brings immense joy and celebrations and camaraderie with each other. These states, having suffered under cruel colonial rule, also stand in solidarity with other states who are struggling to break free of the colonial yoke. Pakistan had expected that India too shall abide by the agreement made to transfer the share – both monetary and non-monetary – to Pakistan in the spirit of camaraderie, and peacefully negotiate other thorny issues, ranging from sharing water, border demarcation to seeking the wishes of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. While it was not wholly unexpected of the Indian leadership to get over its antagonism to the new neighboring Muslim state, but to renege on most of the agreements and promises it had made to Pakistan and the then colonial British government, was shocking to say the least. Pakistan, a much smaller state, as compared to India, badly needed its share of the finances and instead, it had to be content with crookedly demarcated borders, especially in Punjab, which impacted negatively on Pakistan vis-à-vis the Jammu and Kashmir state, and, not surprisingly, the dispute which followed and its horrendous outcomes. Avtar Bhasin, a known expert on Pakistan-India relations, did not mince any words when he stated, “Whether India likes it or not, Pakistan has come to regard  Jammu and Kashmir as the core issue between the two countries. The entire discourse between the two countries in the last seventy years revolved around Kashmir”. He sums it up, “If the problem has come to this pass, India has to shoulder much of the responsibility for it too” and that “India’s biggest failure in Kashmir lies in the fact that in the last seven decades it allowed alienation among the vociferous sections of the population.”


Kiriti Nidhi Bista, the Prime Minister of Nepal, had in 1969 called for ‘nullifying the unjust treaty’. Dr. Shastra Pant, a well-known Nepalese author, considers the 1950 India-Nepal treaty as ‘detrimental to Nepal’s sovereign position and prestige, that obscured its image in the international arena’. The desire of Nepal to become independent and self-sufficient has been hampered because of India’s neo-colonialism. 


If one leaves aside the 1948 and 1965 wars, which were Kashmir dispute related, India’s propensity to flex her muscles on her neighbors has never abated, even when the outcome has mostly been ordained – a humiliation. In an incident in the Pulwama district of Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK), in February 2019, in which paramilitary soldiers were killed as a result of a suicide attack, the Indian government, without any proof blamed Pakistan, even though Pakistan denounced the act of terrorism according to its stated policy on the same day. It refuted Indian allegations and termed it as an Indian attempt to divert world’s attention from the excesses and grave violations of human rights in IIOJK. Prime Minister Imran Khan, in a televised address on February 19, responded to Indian threats by rejecting the alleged connection of Pakistan in the Pulwama attack and asking for evidence to corroborate the involvement of Pakistan and to share any actionable intelligence. He also made an offer of talks to India on all issues, including terrorism. The Prime Minister issued a stern warning to India that any attack from their side will be retaliated in a similar manner, but Modi’s government remained unrepentant and the result was Pakistan Air Force (PAF) shooting down two Indian fighter jets in Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK).
In the continuing ‘blurred’ picture of Pakistan-India relationship, the initiatives taken by Pakistan currently reflect three significant developments that point towards a possible ‘détente’ in the bilateral relationship.
First was Pakistan and India’s Director General Military Operations’ (DGMO) announcement of February 2021, to a recommitment to the original ceasefire accord of 2003, reached four years after the Kargil War (for Pakistan, protecting the civilian population of Azad Kashmir from a hot LoC was a priority, especially given the escalation in violence during long spikes seen over the years). This agreement also aimed to reinforce confidence-building measures.
Secondly, the Kartarpur Corridor between India and Pakistan, which opened in November 2019, allows Indian devotees to visit Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara in Pakistan. The Kartarpur Corridor has strategic importance and can go a long way in bringing the two countries closer to diplomatic dialogue, since the two countries may turn over a new leaf to build strong ties, bury the hatchet, and increase people to people contact which shall spread love and bring peace in the region. 
Thirdly, in a rare instance of cooperation in a tense relationship between the two neighbors, India sent the first shipment of 2,500 metric tonnes of wheat for Afghanistan through Pakistani territory on February 22, 2022. 
These three significant developments have the potential to break the ice of ‘incommunicado’ between Pakistan and India, provided India acts in a manner to bury the past and move forward in the larger interest of bilateral and regional peace. India has to realise that the decision to scrap Article 370 of its constitution in 2019, which had given IIOJK special status, has destroyed the region’s identity. IIOJK is now a union territory and will no longer have an independently elected government. This alone should be an eye-opener. India has to realise that the situation in the post-370 scrapping is untenable and the population in the region is up in arms. The flip side is an all-out war between the two nuclear-armed neighbors that would lead to unimaginable destruction. The only option is for accepting Pakistan’s continued offer to work closely to design systems that would be more compatible with the aspirations of the people of the region, of which the best option is to adhere to United Nations auspices, the right to self-determination of the Kashmiris on both sides of the Line of Control, a right they have been denied to this day. 


In its dealing with Sri Lanka, as compared with India's policies of arm twisting, China has employed economic incentives which have been applauded by the successive Sri Lankan governments and its people. Sri Lanka has been known to steer away from global politics, but it seems that its ‘ship’ has not been able to navigate from the ‘turbulent waters’ of Indian global and regional ambitions and the politics of Tamil Nadu, its southern province, which overlooks the northern part of Sri Lanka. 


India and Nepal: Juggling Borders and the Economic Factors 
Governments in landlocked states continue to juggle, keeping the neighborring states ‘pleased’, especially those who are blessed with access to the sea, and keeping their population burdened as they are paying high prices for even products of daily use. In this context, Africa and South Asia have woeful tales to share. On the other hand, since the end of the Second World War, fatigued with wars, massive loss of life, and economic devastation, Europe rightly realized the futility of remaining at odds and chose cooperation, which leads to peaceful coexistence; the result is a population that is prosperous and contented. 
Nepal is one of the landlocked South Asian states on whom geography has thrust challenges, which at times, it was unable to cope with; India is one of its neighbors accompanied by a long list of coexistence travails. Nepal, rightly feels that being a sovereign nation, it should be able to make decisions in its national interest. Successive governments of Nepal and its people also had no ambiguity that free transit and trade was their right. Nepal also believed that exercise of these rights should not be considered an anti-India act, but its experience proved otherwise. Since, the signing of the Nepal-India Treaty of 1950, which the people of Nepal believe was imposed on their country by India, Nepal has been in discussion with India to return Nepal’s territory, encroached by colonial Britain by the imposition on Nepal of various 19th Century treaties. However, India continues to behave as if it has inherited the colonial policy as the successors of the British. India, due to its size, geopolitical location, and economic standing globally, has been able to ‘sell’ its narrative to major powers. The 1950 treaty with Nepal allows an open border system, and citizens of both countries do have the provision of equal treatment in the economic sphere. The treaty is known to be quite partial and Nepal has been made dependent on India, ranging from trade, economy to employment, and has little freedom in signing agreements with other countries, particularly within the region. Kiriti Nidhi Bista, the then Prime Minister of Nepal, had in 1969, called for ‘nullifying the unjust treaty’. Dr. Shastra Pant, a well-known Nepalese author, considers the 1950 India-Nepal treaty as ‘detrimental to Nepal’s sovereign position and prestige, that obscured its image in the international arena’. The desire of Nepal to become independent and self-sufficient, has been hampered because of India’s neo-colonialism. A major part of Nepali media is directly or indirectly run by Indians, of which misinformation to Nepal’s citizens is a direct result. 
In the recent past, India imposed an economic blockade against Nepal, and has serious reservations as Nepal has shown a growing inclination towards aligning with China, and the Chinese model of economic engagement through loans and the Belt and Road Initiative, over what it considers an interfering policy of India. As compared to India, with which Nepal continues to have territorial issues, Nepal and China amicably settled the border demarcation in 1960; China ceded over three hundred miles of its territory to Nepal. The people of Nepal desire to escape from the web of Indian policy which aims to weaken and subdue them by dividing them into castes, religion, gender, and other related issues. 
India and Sri Lanka: The Tests of Geographical Proximity and Ethnic Mix
Sri Lanka’s pivotal location in the Indian Ocean has ‘forever’ attracted the attention of major powers during the British colonial and post colonial period, especially by India, its northern ‘big brother’. Colombo, the globally known Sri Lankan port is a jewel in the Indian Ocean. Of late, the United States and India have been concerned about China’s focus on strengthening its economic and trade ties with Sri Lanka. In its dealing with Sri Lanka, as compared with India's policies of arm twisting, China has employed economic incentives which have been applauded by the successive Sri Lankan governments and its people. Sri Lanka has been known to steer away from global politics, but it seems that its ‘ship’ has not been able to navigate the ‘turbulent waters’ of Indian global and regional ambitions and the politics of Tamil Nadu, its southern province, which overlooks the northern part of Sri Lanka. 


Kunwar Natwar Singh, an Indian diplomat and politician, who served as the Minister for External Affairs, admitted in one of his writings that the Tamil Nadu government in 1986 had financially assisted the secessionist LTTE and that the LTTE had extracted monetary payment from the Indian government before they expressed their willingness to accept the Indo-Sri Lankan agreement as a political reality.


Despite continued denials, India has not been able to come out of the ‘cloud’ of complaints by prominent Sri Lankan politicians about her ‘overbearing’ attitude and interference in the country’s internal affairs. Sri Lanka’s ethnic mix of Sinhalese, who are in a majority, followed by Tamils and Muslims are like an ‘albatross’ in the country’s neck. Sri Lanka fought two decades of Tamil insurgency, during which successive governments in India and Tamil Nadu had been known to support the Sri Lankan Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who battled the country’s security forces to establish a separate Tamil homeland. Ultimately, the secessionist movement was crushed by the Sri Lankan Government. Kunwar Natwar Singh, an Indian diplomat and politician, who served as the Minister for External Affairs, admitted in one of his writings that the Tamil Nadu government in 1986 had financially assisted the secessionist LTTE and that the LTTE had extracted monetary payment from the Indian government before they expressed their willingness to accept the Indo-Sri Lankan agreement as a political reality. He may have summed up this state of interference by maintaining that the government of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had ‘mishandled’ the Sri Lankan ethnic issue and it was no surprise that it ‘failed’. The three-decade armed conflict between the successive Sri Lankan governments and the LTTE, cost an estimated 60,000 or more lives and according to one estimate, the costs of conflict since 1983 may at least be equivalent to twice the 1996 GDP of Sri Lanka. The lament is that this human and economic cost which was inflicted on Sri Lanka, despite the country having low income but for long enjoyed a reputation for high levels of social indicators, comparable to those of much richer countries and well above those of its sub-continental neighbors. Even though, India has strong economic and trade ties with Sri Lanka, it is still miffed at Sri Lanka’s growing economic ties with China.  Economic relations with China, in particular, have gotten stronger during the last 20 years, with China emerging as the biggest bilateral lender and FDI provider to Sri Lanka. India continues to use its muscle and the Tamil card to intimidate Sri Lanka.  For India to ‘claw back’ its once upon a time position as the leading economic and trade partner of Sri Lanka, is an uphill task when the competitor is China, virtually the world’s leading economic power.
The Importance of Respecting Sovereignty and Adhering to Coexistence 
Since the end of the Second World War and the setting up of the United Nations in 1945, the United Nations Charter has been the guide for states, in which “respecting the sovereignty to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors” forms one of the significant parts. The declaration of the first Asian-African Conference at Bandung in 1955 laid special emphasis on the The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which are based on mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. It is surprising that while India is a signatory to the United Nations Charter and the declaration of the first Asian-African Conference, its record in the relationship with its neighbors, especially the smaller ones is least enviable. Abdus Sattar, one of the most prominent foreign policy practitioners of the past, had summed up the dilemma of the states of South Asia and had India in mind when he stated that the evolution of relations between these states can be understood in the secular paradigm of a conflict between a more powerful state seeking domination and its less powerful neighbors aspiring to protect their rights. 
Instead of its foreign policy pushing policies that embody respect for the sovereignty of its neighbors and practicing coexistence, history records that in the past seven decades, India has been embroiled in either conflicts or browbeating with its neighbors. It looks as if India aims to establish hegemony in its neigborhood and desires to conduct relations with them on its own terms. India is breathing down the neck of Nepal and Sri Lanka and they hardly have elbow room to maneuver their foreign policy in furthering their national interest. If it means enhacing ties with China, there are numerous obstacles in their path. India’s relations with Pakistan are in an incommunicado mode and several of Pakistan’s offers to reengage have been spurned by India. Kanwar Natwar Singh has summed up India-Pakistan relations as they have been ‘accident-prone’. “The future lies in the past. Kashmir is the ultimate hurdle. We have to deal with Pakistan in a pragmatic manner if we are not to make a mess of the relationship.”
Instead of SAARC emulating the best of the European Union and ASEAN as regional organisations, India stonewalling the holding of SAARC Summit in Pakistan, has put a brake on this regional orgainsation to play its role for the common good of the region. The growing trend of Hindu nationalism under the government of Prime Minister Modi has disturbed all these smaller states, which they interpret as India becoming autocratic and possibly more aggressive. India’s continued suppression of minorities and annexation of illegally occupied portions of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir state is depriving South Asia of enjoying the fruit of trade, connectivity, and economic integration. If India desires respect in the neighborhood, it has to spurn its yearning to dominate its neighborhood and instead embrace the true spirit of coexistence and respecting the sovereignty, in which lies the salvation of the region.


The writer holds a Masters in Political Science (Punjab University) and Masters in Diplomatic Studies (UK). He has served in various capacities in Pakistan’s missions abroad and as an Ambassador to Vietnam and High Commissioner to Malaysia. He is on the visiting faculty of four mainstream public universities in Islamabad and Adviser to the India Centre at the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad. 
E-mail: [email protected]
 

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