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The Congress Party should stand boldly with their Foreign Policy to advise the BJP Government

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During the 2009 summit in Sharm-el Sheikh in a Joint Statement with Pakistan, Prime Minister Gilani stated that Pakistan had some information concerning threats in Baluchistan (mea.gov.in). In my perception, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh would allow this with the fully intention and make Pakistan aware that (India’s eye on Baluchistan).

The high level criticism came from the BJP against the Congress Party and Dr Singh government. Former minister of external affairs and finance Mr Yeswanth Sinha speaking in the parliament debate lashed out Dr Singh’s administration and said, “All the waters of seven seas will not wash the shame at Sharm-el-Sheikh” (news18.com).

Now Prime Minister Narandera Modi speaks about Baluchistan’s human rights during his independence address. What makes Modi copy Dr Singh’s idea of dealing with Pakistan by mentioning Baluchistan’s human rights issues? After the August 2016 Independence Day speech by Modi, the BJP ministers are still searching for more diplomatic words. In particular, Shri Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Union Minister for Law and Justice & Information Technology, has been compelled to give an explanation about Modi’s perception on Baluchistan. The issue remains that they are trying to defend what exactly Modi had said, rather than trying to differentiate the speech with Dr Singh’s joint statement in 2009. My point is that whether Dr Singh had clearance to add the ‘B’ word in the joint statement or if Modi’s speech did on Independence Day, it is clear that Modi had taken the idea from Dr Singh. Instead of shying away from the scene, the Congress Party should boldly stand by their policy and address to the public that the BJP is replicating and repeating their ideas.

I think former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh is aware of this issue and has politely yielded to the joint statement. This informs Pakistan that if interference continues within Kashmir then the threat level for Baluchistan will increase. Dr Manmohan Singh is not a realist. However, by allowing the addition of the word “Baluchistan” to the joint statement, he demonstrated that if required, India could change its tone from defensive to offensive retaliation. Silently, Dr Manmohan Singh exercised a realist approach to our neighbour in his own humble way. At the time, Dr Singh’s perception was not directly recognised by the BJP opposition.

The BJP claims that including the ‘B’ word in the joint statement draws more attention to India’s involvement. Along with opposed Dr Singh’s approach, the BJP also failed to cooperate with the government in handling Pakistan with a more realist grasp and accusing them of giving Pakistan the ability to raise the issue across international forums.

Voicing the ‘B’ word in the joint statement demonstrates India’s capacity, capability and sacrifice, an important move that the BJP opposition has failed to recognize. However, Dr Singh knows that India will never compromise any of India’s interests, in any forums. But the fears of the BJP’s domestic politics do not burden Dr Singh. Dialogue is the only option to resolve the outstanding issue with Pakistan at this point. However, in the prism of realism, tackling Pakistan should not be an outdated policy. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi considered this approach during the East Pakistan crisis and it lead to the 1971 war. India had no other choice but to allow the flow of refugees from the former East Pakistan, which forced India to engage in the war with Pakistan, and subsequently the liberation and birth of Bangladesh.

Articulating the ‘B’ word in 2009 and 2016 really reflects on our large neighbour China. China’s military officials may not have fully considered this, but the diplomatic circles in Beijing are definitely heavily involved in the element of backup, extending interests and researching the region further. The reason China has spent huge sums of money on the Gwadar Port in particular corresponds with Beijing’s ‘one China one belt policy’, and this is considerably concentrated within the province of Baluchistan.

Foreign policy in India has never been considered seriously by national parties for internal policy discussion. These issues are only discussed with select senior leaders. Many in the party, including senior leaders and cadres refuse to discuss these issues because they are dispassionate, indifferent or show an apathetic attitude. Well, in democracy any move of the ruling party policy would be questionable by the opposition and disused in the social media. However, refusing to address certain issues and opposing policies to gain cheap political victory is never advisable. The BJP, have taken this a step further, particularly with their actions toward prime ministerial candidate Modi and opposing any initiative taken by Dr Singh during 2013-14.Now the BJP is struggling to handle the opposition because they are blindly against the Congress Party’s noble notions under the Dr Singh administration. And, thanks to social media, the youth go this country find it easier than ever to compare and enjoying the dramas of the ruling elite.

What should the Congress Party do? They should not feel that they are the ‘B’ team of the BJP government on foreign policy articulation. First, the Congress Party stands strongly with their ideas and that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The Congress Party should take pride in knowing that their ideas were replicated and reproduced by the Modi government. The best example would be GST or Adhar card. Baluchistan’s struggle was really felt by the Congress Party during the Dr Manmohan Singh administration, but failed to take off because the BJP’s stiff opposition.

Second, apart from Dr Singh’s doctrine to add the ‘B’ word in the joint statement, Modi has spoken about Baluchistans influence from National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval.

“You do one more Mumbai, you lose Baluchistan” said by Ajit Doval.

Can Modi accomplish what Indira Gandhi did in 1971 with Pakistan? The Congress Party should be able to comfortably and directly ask this to Modi. The BJP government under Modi looks like a paper tiger. The Congress Party should not shy away from its responsibility in suggesting policy directions to the government. As the principle opposition, the Congress Party shoulders more responsibility, and further, i regards to foreign policy may be able to offer more to the Modi government.

Third, the action and direction taken by Dr Singh in 2009 must now by followed by the Modi government in order for the Congress Party to catch up, push forward and be victorious. There is no time like the present, and this applies to the Congress Party taking the issue to the media. This is the time to celebrate not to oppose the government. What Modi has done for Baluchistan’s human rights, was originally the idea of Dr Singh. The Congress Party should not make the same mistakes as the BJP in 2009 with opposing the ruling party. Media reports suggest that there is much confusion surrounding the Congress Party leaders about the issue of Baluchistan. The Congress Party should speak in one voice, particularly about the foreign policy matters with the government. The reason would be when they form the next government, the Congress Party would be in a very comfortable position to continue policies advocated by them now as the opposition.

Fourth, the external affairs ministry under Prime Minister Modi is only exercising the return of stranded Indians from the Middle East, with no policy making work given to the Cabinet Minister Susma Suraj, one of the senior leaders of the BJP.   As Modi’s own strategy for dealing with Pakistan was tried, tested and failed, instead of admitting his policy mistakes Prime Minister Modi said; “we should be careful while dealing with Pakistan”. In handling Pakistan since 2014, the BJP government had not only failed but now searches for new policy guidance, a step taken on the road paved by Dr Singh in 2009.

And finally, if Modi pronounces Baluchistan again in a statement, that is not wrong. But, Congress Party officials should remind the BJP that this was their policy. What and how the Modi government will raise the human rights issue of Baluchistan and further, how Pakistan would respond, will be developments that to be patiently waited for and watched carefully. In addition, the Congress Party will be closely monitored by the public. Advising and suggesting the government on sensitivity issue scores better reactions and votes from the public. Shy away from these, and the Congress Party will not receive any positive results or rewards at this juncture.

Antony Clement is a Senior Editor (Indo-Pacific), Modern Diplomacy, an online journal. He is a researcher in Indian Foreign Policy. He is currently working on two books - “The Best Teacher” and “Diplomacy in Tough Times”. His research centres on India’s diplomacy & foreign policy and extends to domestic politics, economic policy, security issues, and international security matters, including India’s relations with the US, the BRICS nations, the EU and Australia. His recent book is “Discover your talents.”

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South Asia

Taliban and the crisis in Afghanistan

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Source: Twitter

In 2021, the Afghan Taliban took back control of Afghanistan after fighting a rebellion for twenty years. The Taliban reformed and began regaining territory less than 10 years after the American-led invasion that overthrew the previous regime in 2001. In line with a 2020 peace agreement with the Taliban, they staged a swift assault as the US started to evacuate its last forces from Afghanistan.

Even though they promised to preserve the rights of women and communities of religious and racial minorities, the Taliban have enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law. The Taliban have failed to provide Afghans with sufficient food supplies and economic possibilities as they have evolved from an insurgent organization to a functioning administration.

Numerous instances of human rights violations have been documented by the UN mission in Afghanistan. Because the Taliban scared off journalists and put limits on press freedom, more than 200 news outlets had to close. Activists and protesters have been tracked and forcefully disappeared, and their government has ruthlessly suppressed protests. They also reinstated the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which was previously in place, and enforced laws against actions judged to be contrary to Islam. They instructed judges to apply their version of sharia in November 2022; in the following weeks, authorities resumed public hangings and floggings.

Women’s rights have been undermined. Due to restrictions put in place by the Taliban, girls are not allowed to go to high school, and women are not allowed to go to college or teach there. The group banned women from working for local and international voluntary groups in December 2022. According to estimates from the UN Development Program (UNDP), limiting women’s employment might cost Afghanistan’s GDP up to 5%. Amnesty International reports a substantial increase in the number of women jailed for defying discriminatory rules, such as those requiring women to cover their whole bodies while in public and to only appear with male chaperones. In addition, there are now more child marriages.

The UNDP says that the Taliban’s rule has also taken away the gains that Afghans made in their living conditions in the 20 years after the US invasion. In a study from October 2022, the organization claimed that practically all Afghans were living in poverty. Since the takeover, the economy has contracted by up to 30%, and there have been an estimated 700,000 job losses. More than 90% of individuals are impacted by food insecurity. The problem is getting worse because several countries and international groups have stopped giving aid, which is vital to the economy and public health.

International observers are nonetheless worried that the Taliban pose a danger to national and international security through their funding of terrorist groups, especially Al-Qaeda. Taliban leadership might convert Afghanistan into a haven for terrorists who could launch attacks against the US and its allies, despite Taliban pledges that the country’s territory wouldn’t be used against the security of any other country. The violence has also increased along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, which has always supported the Taliban. Tehrik-e-Taliban, a terrorist organization commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, has gained strength due to the Taliban’s ascent to power. The organization broke off a cease-fire with the Pakistani government in 2022 and began carrying out assaults throughout the nation. Officials from Pakistan have charged the Afghan Taliban with giving the extremists a safe harbor in their country.

For many years, the Afghan government relied on help from a number of countries; according to 2019 World Bank research, contributions from foreign partners funded 75% of the government’s public expenditures. Many of these countries stopped off aid when the Taliban took control, fueling concerns about potential future economic turmoil. Nevertheless, aid rose in 2022 as donors sent more than $2.6 billion. The US has donated more than $1.1 billion in help since the coup. However, according to UN authorities, the pledges fell short of the nation’s humanitarian requirements.

Many Western countries, most notably the US, shut down their diplomatic posts in Afghanistan when the Taliban took power. Diplomatic relations and recognition have been withheld from the Taliban regime, which refers to Afghanistan as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The UN General Assembly has also postponed a decision on who would indefinitely represent Afghanistan at the UN. The Taliban are now being investigated by the International Criminal Court for suspected atrocities, including crimes against humanity, committed against Afghans.

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South Asia

Decoding Donald Lu’s Visit: A Positive Upward in US-Bangladesh Relations?

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The U.S Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Donald Lu paid a visit from January 12 to 15. During his brief but swarming itinerary the two parties discussed various issues ranging from diplomatic to political. Interestingly, this is the 11th visit of any U.S high-official in the past two years. The frequent swapping of delegations from the both sides pose a critical juncture between the U.S-Bangladesh relationship. Experts believe that recurrent visits from US high-ups are definitely an auspicious sign between the relationship of the two nations. Therefore, the visit of Donald Lu is an offshoot of the “growing reciprocity and renewed engagement” between Dhaka and Washington.

Needless to say, Bangladesh has a long standing and steady relationship with the US since the latter recognized the former shortly after independence on April 04, 1972. Recently the US-Bangladesh celebrated the completion of 50 years of bilateral relationship and US President Joe Biden termed this as “robust partnership”. Amid such backdrop, it goes without saying that the recent visits signal to a significant positive tie-up between the two parties and the visit can be interpreted in the context of international and domestic backdrop of international politics.

The US is the largest market for Bangladesh’s RMG export. Naturally, the issue of GSP reinstatement plays a key role in bilateral camaraderie. Under such circumstances, Lu’s visit is important to hold talks of economic in the context of Bangladesh’s growing needs, especially after the LDC graduation. Moreover, in the annual Global Firepower 2023 Military Strength Ranking, Bangladesh is placed 40th out of 145 nations. On the other hand, Bangladesh came in 12th place on the GFP review’s list of ‘Strengths on the Rise,’ which emphasizes national military powers based on strong growth patterns until 2023. In this context, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and Acquisition and Cross-servicing Agreement (ACSA) agreement indicates to a deeper and strategic engagement from the US rationale.

Bangladesh’s stands at the heart of a strategic position of the US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which aims to counter the increasing footprint of China in the Indo-Pacific region. However, Bangladesh maintains a neutral position in terms of its foreign relations and has been carefully helming without taking any side of any major powers. Washington’s focus on free and fair election is important to maintain a stability in the greater Bay of Bengal neighborhood- an important feat in it’s IPS. Conversely, Bangladesh values economic partnership to sustain her ongoing upward trend. However, at the same time Bangladesh should be careful not to succumb to any pressure, a case in point when the Foreign Minister announced that the US proposed strategy is being vetted under the lens of economic opportunity.

On the domestic fore, arguably, the U.S has been advocating for a free and fair election, upholding democratic values, and condemning extra judicial excesses. However, continuous engagement between the two parties resulted helping to mitigate tensions and create a more positive atmosphere. The crux of Donald Lu’s visit is to reaffirm democratic ideals in state mechanism, rule based international system and Bangladesh to be part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Accordingly, Bangladesh has committed to hold a fair election and the recent decline of the controversial RAB’s extrajudicial excesses reported by Human Rights Watch as well as peaceful demonstrations of the opposition have been markedly praised by Donald Lu. From Bangladesh’s perspective rescinding of sanctions, reinstatement of GSP, and more support for Rohingya Refugees were reiterated. More importantly, Dhaka’s impartial foreign policy goals align with Washington’s interest in the South Asian region and it will be of American interest to consider Bangladesh as an important ally in the geopolitical chessboard of the Indo-Pacific region.  

However, the visit is also crucial for Donald Lu who is accused of meddling with the internal affairs of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. But, Donald Lu manifested his diplomatic acumen to “manage the fissures of the diplomatic ties’ and “highlight on the areas of convergence” in the recent visit. Evidently, the past year has been tumultuous for South Asian nations, following the collapse of Colombo, the Pakistani Economic Crisis and the revolving debt crisis around the region. Amongst her neighbors, Bangladesh has endured relatively steady political and economic pursuit. Therefore, US needs to formulate a comprehensive South Asian policy to accommodate the interests of the respective nations on its own merit.

Bangladesh’s relationship with the U.S is vital in both economic and political stance. Continued engagement and partnership between the two states is critical for the security of South Asia as well as Bangladesh’s ongoing economic prosperity. On a pragmatic tone, it would take more than just this one visit for Bangladesh to solve these complex geopolitical issues. For now, the visit has symbolized strengthening of U.S-Bangladesh relationship going forward by exonerating the mutual interests to diplomatically resolve pressing bilateral issues and elevation of continuous engagement.

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South Asia

Praiseworthy Development of RAB in the Last Year

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Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) image source: benarnews.org

On December 10th 2021, the United States of America (USA) announced sanctions against Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and its seven current and former officials on allegations of Human Rights violation. Such unilateral decisions of the US on the elite force surprised many. But Bangladesh chose to respond maturely through diplomatic communication. Since then, Bangladesh increased diplomatic engagement with the US, a method lauded by many as ‘prudent’ also.

Since the sanction, Bangladesh enhanced its effort to uphold the Human Rights situation in Bangladesh. RAB as an elite force also acknowledged the sanction and behaved in a more professional way. And it seems after one year, there are significant developments regarding both RAB and government policy. Foreign dignitaries and organizations are also lauding these developments.

Efforts from Bangladesh

After the announcement of the sanctions, Bangladesh immediately contacted the US diplomatic institutions to understand and assess the situation. As a part of the efforts, Bangladesh established Human Rights Cell in the Foreign Ministry under its United Nations wing.

Bangladesh also increased its diplomatic communications with the US, not necessarily because of the sanctions, but also due to growing geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region, and commitment to deepen bilateral relations with the US. In the last two years, both countries undertook 18 bilateral visits of mid and high-level. Bangladesh sent 7 delegations to the US while the US sent 11 delegations including Donald Lu’s latest.

Both countries also hold the bilateral Partnership Dialogue and Security Dialogue in March and April of 2022. In the same year, they also celebrated 50 years of their anniversary. Bangladesh’s foreign minister also met his counterpart in April 2022.

While many rogue states such as North Korea, react to the US sanctions by projecting hard power or test-launching missile, Bangladesh resorted to diplomatic means to raise and provide an update about the agenda to its counterpart. Almost in all diplomatic meetings, Bangladesh raised its concern about the sanction. Bangladesh even gave a ‘non-paper’ dossier to Under-Secretary Victoria Nuland, when Nuland came to Bangladesh in March 2022.

Significant Developments

Since the US sanctions on 10th December 2021, the allegations of extrajudicial killings have gone down in Bangladesh. It has reached zero after one year. There were no new allegations of extrajudicial killing by RAB for the last 13 months. RAB’s name was not also mentioned in any other allegations or negative deeds. Therefore, RAB is maintaining a ‘clean record’ at least for last 13 months or so.

Apart from that, the Human Rights situation also improved in Bangladesh in the meantime as the government gave extra effort to project the situation to the international community. During Under Secretary Nuland’s visit in March, she also acknowledged that the situation has improved.

The US Assistant Secretary Donald Lu also acknowledged the further development regarding the allegations against RAB. Secretary Lu visited Bangladesh on January 14th and 15th. He also acknowledged the falling extrajudicial killing in Bangladesh. He also said that there was ‘tremendous progress’ in reducing extrajudicial killings after the US sanctions.

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Kamal also told the media that the US delegation is satisfied with RAB’s current activities. In another expert talk with The Business Standard, the Home Minister further said that the US also praised the actions of Bangladesh in combating militancy, terrorism, arson, and radicalism.

Apart from the US, global watchdogs are also acknowledging the fact. Human Rights Watch World Human Rights Report 2023 mentioned that there is a ‘drop-in abuse’ in Bangladesh (See Page 68).

Such transformation in the US perspective within only 13 months regarding a sanction is very unique considering the history of sanctions. Bangladesh’s diplomatic efforts and commitment to upholding Human Rights deserve praise in this regard. Till now Bangladesh is dealing with the issue prudently.

Lifting the sanctions in a diplomatic manner will require making it a national security interest for the USA. An elite force with a ‘clean record’ and its die-hard effort in curbing terrorism and militancy, fighting drug and human trafficking, and anti-piracy drive can easily draw US national security interest in this region. And RAB has the ability to become so. Considering the historic relations between the US and Bangladesh, the Sanctions are the only ‘strain’ in this bilateral relationship. Lastly, as there are praiseworthy developments, both countries are likely to pass beyond this issue in the near future if Bangladesh continues to maintain the positive trend.

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