National and International Issues

India, Neighbours and the Paradox of Hegemonic Ambitions

Many international observers of South Asia often cast aside Pakistan’s concerns vis-à-vis India as mere paranoia. They tend to forget that there are solid and cogent reasons for Pakistan’s genuine security concerns in the face of Indian aggression since independence in 1947. India refused to implement UNSC resolutions to hold a UN-sponsored plebiscite in Kashmir and failed to implement the verdict of the international tribunal on Sir Creek issue. India played a major role in the dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971, illegally occupied the Siachen glacier in 1984 and initiated the construction of dams in violation of the Indus Waters Treaty so as to starve Pakistan economically by reducing its share of water. Similarly, India continues to support dissidents from Balochistan and hostile elements in Afghanistan to destabilize Pakistan and introduced the Cold Start Doctrine to subdue Pakistan. These are just some of the examples of Indian aggression and reflect part of a broader effort to assume regional hegemony. 


So what has India actually achieved over the last 72 years of its existence? A hot Line of Control with Pakistan, a hot Line of Actual Control with China, tensions with Bangladesh over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, hostile relations with Nepal, lack of trust with Sri Lanka and a deep sense of insecurity amongst other South Asian countries.


During my posting to New Delhi from 1999-2003, I came across a document that had been approved at the highest level, spelling out India’s strategy towards Pakistan. It acknowledged that “India could not impose a decisive war against Pakistan due to the nuclear factor. However, it was important to bring Pakistan to a manageable level of hostility of the kind that India faced from Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Bhutan.” The document listed the recommended steps to intensify hybrid warfare against Pakistan including strengthening of its “assets in Sindh (a political party whose London wing is now proven guilty), Balochistan (BLA, BRA and others), economic strangulation by denying economic opportunities, and cultivating hostile elements from neighboring countries to destabilize Pakistan.” This strategy was employed following the military standoff between India and Pakistan in 2001-02 when India deployed close to a million troops along Pakistan’s border. 


BJP’s philosophical moorings are based on the Hindutva ideology, the notion that India is a fundamentally Hindu nation. This ideology aspires for Hindu domination of India and South Asia more broadly. BJP’s Akhand Bharat concept is meant to advance this precise objective of bringing other South Asian countries within Indian control and influence. Reinforcing this point, a classified CIA document dated May 1998 and released in 2001 highlighted: “The BJP calculates that demonstrating its nuclear prowess and bending its neighbors to its will should earn India world power status and a permanent UNSC seat.” 


However, Pakistan is not the only country facing the brunt of Indian hegemonic ambitions. After independence, India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru pursued a policy to consolidate India’s strategic foothold in South Asia, conveying to the world that South Asia should remain part of India’s sphere of influence. Nehru, while elaborating the foreign policy priorities of India, declared that “India was a big country destined to play a big role in global politics”. In pursuit of these objectives, Nehru’s first priority was to achieve dominance in regional politics. In its quest to dominate the region, India was not only averse to outside powers from expanding their influence in the region, but also remained wary of South Asian countries pursuing independent foreign and security policies. For this purpose, India imposed agreements on Nepal and Bhutan, with highly unfavorable terms and conditions, rendering them literally satellite states of India. 
India’s unilateral military actions in Kashmir, Goa, Sikkim, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Maldives were part of the same strategy. The self-proclaimed role as a predominant regional hegemon required subservience from smaller and vulnerable neighbors, even at the cost of eroding their political autonomy and national sovereignty. Besides binding smaller countries in its neighborhood to unfavorable agreements, India also embarked upon an ambitious defence build-up, including an aggressive development of its nuclear program. It did so with the belief that by building a strong defence and economic base, and by subjugating other South Asian countries, India would be able to acquire an exalted position in the region and advance its global ambitions. India’s hegemonic ambitions received a fillip during the tenure of Indira Gandhi. She believed in the aggrandizement of power and assertion of India’s hegemonic status in pursuit of India’s foreign policy and security interests. In advancing India’s interests, Indira Gandhi did not refrain from violating the established global norms or the UN Charter. Her policies, known as the “Indira-Doctrine”, were based on two principles: (1) No foreign power should be involved in South Asia; and (2) Involvement of any foreign power that does not recognize India’s status and predominance in the region would be considered as inimical to India’s interests. Indira Gandhi’s foreign and security strategies were subsequently followed by her son, Rajiv Gandhi, who succeeded his mother after her assassination by two Sikh guards following the storming of the Golden Temple, one of the most revered holy places for the Sikh community that Indira Gandhi had personally ordered. 
Regime change has become yet another tool used by India to maintain its regional dominance. In June 2001, King Birendra, Queen Aishwariya, and nine members of the Nepalese royal family, were killed by Prince Dipendra in what came to be known as the Royal Massacre. Reportedly, Prince Dipendra had strong ties with India’s intelligence agency, RAW. King Birendra paid a heavy price by wanting to pursue an independent foreign policy, develop close relations with China and Pakistan, and renegotiate the terms of the 1965 treaty. Although India’s interference in Nepal’s internal matters has a long history, it continues till this day. In September 2015, India imposed an economic blockade, creating a humanitarian and economic crisis for Nepal. India wanted Nepal to cancel a constitutional amendment that provided proportional representation to Madhesis, one of the minority communities of Nepal. Tensions resurfaced once again in 2020 following the publication of a map by Nepal incorporating Kalapani, Lipulekh, and Limpiyadhura under its geographical boundaries, areas disputed by India. The already strained bilateral relations reached a new low when Prime Minister Oli of Nepal accused India of conspiring to topple his government. 
Similarly, in Sri Lanka, India’s RAW station chief was expelled by President Rajapaksa in the run-up to the 2015 elections. The RAW station chief was helping the opposition parties by infusing massive funds to oust the incumbent government. In his previous tenure, President Rajapaksa was also credited with dealing with terrorism in Sri Lanka in a decisive manner with significant assistance from Pakistan. He too fell on the wrong side of New Delhi after seeking to strengthen cooperation and relations with Beijing and Islamabad. 
In addition to its direct military involvement in 1971 to dismember Pakistan, India also intervened in Bangladesh following the assassination of Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rehman to install a pro-India regime. Since then, India’s attempt to support the pro-India government of Prime Minister Sheikh Haseena Wajid and marginalization of anti-India politicians including former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, are well-known. India was also instrumental in the revolt against senior officers of Bangladesh Riffles (BDR) on February 25 and 26, 2009 by rebelling BDR soldiers who took over the BDR headquarters in Pilkhana and killed the BDR Director-General along with many other army officers and civilians. Prior to this mutiny, frequent clashes used to take place between BDR and Indian Border Security Force (BSF) over territories illegally captured by India. India’s intentions were to send a clear signal to the Bangladesh army not to challenge Indian authority. 
India’s interference in Maldives’ internal affairs are well-known. In 1989, India intervened in Maldives militarily in an attempt to overthrow Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. India sent 1,600 paratroopers to Maldives supported by three warships. Such extensive involvement of its military was aimed at conveying a message to all regional countries that India had the ability to establish regional supremacy through force. 
Ascendancy of the BJP since the 1990s has brought India’s hegemonic ambitions front and center. These ambitions received further impetus at the end of the Cold War when the U.S. began to court India as the net security provider in South Asia, reflecting a pivot of Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Both U.S. and India had strategic convergences against a rising China and recognized Beijing as a common rival. The strategic alliance between the U.S. and India has complicated the geopolitical and security situation in South Asia. In recent years, India has succeeded in persuading multiple U.S. administrations to coordinate their South Asia policy with New Delhi. This is exemplified in the way in which the U.S. has often overlooked Indian interference in South Asian countries, including Pakistan. 
BJP’s philosophical moorings are based on the Hindutva ideology, the notion that India is a fundamentally Hindu nation. This ideology aspires for Hindu domination of India and South Asia more broadly. BJP’s Akhand Bharat concept is meant to advance this precise objective of bringing other South Asian countries within Indian control and influence. Reinforcing this point, a classified CIA document dated May 1998 and released in 2001 highlighted: “The BJP calculates that demonstrating its nuclear prowess and bending its neighbors to its will should earn India world power status and a permanent UNSC seat.” 
Under Prime Minister Modi, the level of Indian arrogance and hegemonic ambitions have reached new heights, creating a paradox for India with all South Asian countries viewing New Delhi with mistrust. It has also dented India’s reputation globally and raised serious questions over the multi-ethnic, pluralistic, and secular democratic credentials of India. There are even voices within India highlighting the negative consequences of India’s aggressive posture towards its neighbors. Talking about the fascist character of Modi’s government and India’s relentless power ambitions, renowned Indian writer Arundhati Roy has stated, “The abrogation of Kashmir’s special status, the promise of an all-India National Registry of Citizens and the building of Ram temple are all at the front burner of the RSS and BJP kitchen. To reignite flagging passions, all they need to do is pick a villain from their gallery and unleash the dogs of war. There are several categories of villains – Pakistanis, Kashmiris, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, or any one of the 200 million Indian Muslims.” It is therefore no surprise that in this quest for regional hegemony, India has isolated all its neighbors. So what has India actually achieved over the last 72 years of its existence? A hot Line of Control with Pakistan, a hot Line of Actual Control with China, tensions with Bangladesh over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, hostile relations with Nepal, lack of trust with Sri Lanka and a deep sense of insecurity amongst other South Asian countries.


The writer is a former Foreign Secretary and served as Ambassador of Pakistan to the U.S. 
E-mail: [email protected]
 

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