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Outfoxing Signal From SCO for India: Russia Turned Strategic to Strange Partner

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Since its inception, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has been as a Eurasian political, economic, and military organization. Initially, it has five members -China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, known the ‘Shanghai Pact.’ Having strategic interests in the Eurasian region; it becomes imperative for India to institutionalize its engagements with the Eurasian region.

Russia has been encouraging and endorsing India’s full-time membership of the SCO, realizing it is an important potential strategic partner. Realist thinker like Hans Morgenthau had already been put the nations on alert that there is no permanent friends/foes in the arena of international relations. For the given strong strategic partnership between India and Russia, the recent picture of bilateral ties has not been moving in the same direction. In this backdrop, the analysis will be made to know the dynamics, why Russia has been giving the strategic signal for India to be at choppy sea in the SCO?

Genesis of SCO

Out of the ongoing regionalization trends since the 1970s, the SCO, a Eurasian geopolitical organization, originally established as ‘Shanghai Five’ on 26 April 1996, out of the ‘Treaty on Deepening Military Trust in Border Regions in Shanghai.’ After the inclusion of Uzbekistan in 2001, it was rechristened as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Initially, it was aimed at ensuring the liberal democracy to grow in the Central Asian countries. However, it has been argued by a political scientist Thomas Ambrosio, that the SCO has been failed to enthuse the member countries to do the same. During their meeting in Saint Petersburg (Russia), the members signed the SCO Charter in June 2002, in which they determined its purposes, principles, and structures. The SCO has covered wide-ranging of areas of cooperation such as security, trade, investment, connectivity, energy, and culture. Despite its slothful performance, the strategic salience of the SCO cannot be undervalued for the given of membership of two nuclear powers and possessing of the 60% of the land mass of Eurasia and quarter population of the world.

Geopolitical Expansion of the SCO

It has been accepted that the Indo-Pacific geopolitics in the 21st century, going to be determined by the two Asian giants –China and India. Having its geopolitical and geostrategic interests in the Eurasian region, India has been seeking to get into the SCO, which has been lingering on due to the obduracy of China. In the backdrop of regional geopolitical dynamics, India has been encouraged by Russia to join SCO as a full-time member because the latter has considered that the former could be a vital strategic partner to counter China in the Eurasian region. India applied for the membership in September 2014. The SCO approved it in July 2015. To join as a full member, India has signed a memorandum of obligations on 24 June 2016 at Tashkent. Now, it is expected that India will be a full member of the organization by 2017. However, to counter India in the SCO, China has pressed Russia for the entry of Pakistan in the same. Along with India, Pakistan is also joining the SCO in 2017.

SAARCIZATION of the SCO?

Now, India and Pakistan are going to be the member of the SCO in 2017. What will be the geopolitical meaning of this for the SCO? To decode the meaning of hostile relation of India and Pakistan for SCO, it is worth to mention here the performance of the SAARC in this context.

The performance of SAARC in terms of trade and foreign direct investment has been remained at the lost ebb comparable to the other regional organizations such as ASEAN and the EU etc. The SAARC Summit of 2016, has been canceled due to the ongoing tension on the Line of Control (LoC) between both the countries. No substantial cooperation have been achieved in counter terror, energy, connectivity, refugees problems etc. Despite the counter-terror strategy of SAARC in place, numerous terrorist attacks have been taking place in both the countries. Seeing the performance of SAARC during the last 30 years, it is very easily to argue that the SAARC has been failed due to the given hostile relations of India and Pakistan. When these two countries join the SCO, how it will perform, will remain interesting to see the same. It seems that the side effects of the hostility between both the countries will drastically impact the performance of the SCO. Moreover, India will have a pariah status in the SCO, given the changing geopolitical equations. Russia, China and Pakistan has been emerging a new strategic triumvirate.

Russia’s Strategic Signal for India

India and Russia have remained active strategic partners throughout the Cold War. Russia has helped India in various sectors such as military, science and technology, industrialization, and nuclear technology. Russia has remained the largest exporter of weapons to India. With the end of the Cold War and disintegration of the USSR, the geopolitical equations have changed. Russia has come more close to Pakistan despite the given hostile background of relation during the former’s intervention in Afghanistan (1979-89) and now signed defense agreement in 2014.

Russia is one of the dominating players in the Eurasian region. India has interests in the Eurasian region such as political, economic, and security. For the given historical background of bilateral between Russia and India, it is anticipated that the former will remain helpful in protecting the Indian’s interest. But seeing some moves of Russia, it seems that now, Russia has been drifting away from India.

The terrorism, separatism, and extremism have remained the pressing security threats for the SCO member countries and to fight against these threats, is remained the top priority of the SCO since its inception. In this context, Afghanistan case will be taken into account. Afghanistan is a dialogue partner of the SCO, moreover being strategically located, it has been sharing borders with Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and Iran. Due to the resurgence of Taliban in Afghanistan, there is a possibility of shifting of terrorism to Russia and China via the Central Asia. It has created panic for these two countries. Against this background, Moscow is going to host a meeting with China and Pakistan on Afghanistan. India is an acceded member of the SCO, and moreover, it has strategic interests in Afghanistan. Therefore, India also should be a partner of this meeting. However, India has not been made a partner of the same.

The second case was also far-reaching impacts for India. Soon after Uri terrorist attack, India has urged Russia not to take part in the joint military exercise ‘Friendship’ with Pakistan. Ignoring the Indian request, Russia has participated in the same exercise. In the ‘Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process’ (3-4 December 2016), Russia has openly sided with Pakistan on the terrorism issue. Rather, it advised India not to use such fora for the bilateral problems. Russian ambassador to Pakistan, Alexey Y. Dedov does not only supported the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) rather expressed Russia’s interest to join it. Since it is passing through the disputed territory, hence it means, it is weakening the claim of India regarding disputed area. India has been outfoxed/outmaneuvered in the strategic and energy projects from the Central Asian countries by Russia and China. Tanchum (2013), has argued that central Asia is critical for India’s security, trade and energy needs, but it has been outfoxed from the region, and it raises a serious question about India’s ability to be a partner of the regional arrangement. At last, it is concluded that Russia has turned from strategic partner to a strange partner of India. Therefore, Russia is not only a challenge in the Eurasian region and SCO rather it is going to hurt the Indian interests in the South Asia as well. In the changing geopolitical equations, the protection of Indian interests in the Eurasian region would depend on India’s astute diplomacy as well as balance between the major powers.

Dr. Bawa Singh is teaching in the Centre for South and Central Asian Studies, School of Global Relations, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India-151001. bawasingh73[at]gmail.com

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Religion Freedom Index of Bangladesh: Current Developments and Government Responses

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Pope Francis joins in prayers led by a Rohingya Muslim man at an inter-religious conference at St Mary’s Cathedral in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on December 1, 2017. Mohammad Ponir Hossain / Reuters

Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) recently published its annual Religious Freedom in the World 2021 Report (RFR) that scrutinizes the situation for all major religion groups in 196 countries across the world. The report found that, over the past two years, oppression against susceptible faith communities has augmented in all but one of the 26 countries listed in the survey’s worst (‘red’) category. Bangladesh is that only country whose position on the red list of religious persecution remains unchanged.

The annual report says that religious freedom is being undermined in one out of every three countries in the world which composed two-thirds of the world population. 62 countries out of a total of 196 face severe violations of religious freedom. The situation of minorities in India and Pakistan is deteriorating further. The situation in China and Myanmar is the worst. According to the report, the situation is worse in 95 percent of the 26 countries where persecution is taking place. Nine new countries have been included in this list- seven from Africa and two from Asia.

The report on Bangladesh says that the torture of minorities has not increased in recent years but the influence of Islamic groups is increasing in the politics of Bangladesh. However, the government has been successful in subdue the influence and maintaining religious freedom. For instance, after the rise of Islam-fabric politicization leading by “Hefazat-e-Islam”, the top leaders and at least 375 people nabbed for their recent violent activities. The strict position of law enforcement agencies against the rampage of the group denotes the zero-tolerance of Bangladesh government in ensuring religious freedom and upholding “secularism” which is one of the state principals of its constitution. The argument can be evident with the recent report of the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) titled, “Bangladesh and Pakistan: acting against extremism versus making a show of acting against extremism”. Highlighting the activities of the Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam (HIB) in Bangladesh and the radical Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) in Pakistan, the report comments that Bangladesh government has been making “noticeable progress in dealing with the radical Islamist HIB whereas Pakistan has floundered dramatically in its inconsistent, ill-considered and ill-implemented attempts to pacify the TLP”. Besides, the initiatives of the Bangladesh government in protecting the minority rights are so much praiseworthy.

According to the 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom of US Department of State, to advocate the minority rights and to foster religious tolerance, Bangladesh government has taken a number of initiatives such as-

•Providing guidance to imams throughout the country to prevent militancy and monitoring mosques for “provocative messaging”.

•Deploying law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considering potential violence. The Economic Times reported that 30,000 and 31,272Durga Pujas were organized across the country in 2017 and 2018 respectively without any security issue.

•Zero-tolerance to Islamic militancy. For instance, Special Tribunal convicted and sentenced to death seven of eight defendants who were accused in the 2016 killings of 22 mostly non-Muslim individuals at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka.

•Offering stipends to students from the minority groups in the primary and secondary level; and

•Providing funds for minority rituals and social activities.

Most importantly, Bangladesh ensures a level playing field in the employment sectors and a viable people-to-people contact. ‘Dhormo Jaar Jaar, Utsob Shobar,’ (Religion for own, but festivals for all” is a testimony of its secular values and communal harmony. The ACN report itself showed, in Bangladesh, where due to fear of infection, minority faith groups were incapable of offering the last rites to family members, an Islamic charity buried not only Muslim but also Hindu and Christian victims of COVID-19. Besides, reliefs were equally provided to every sector of the society regardless of their race or religion.

To conclude, Bangladesh always believes in fraternity beyond ethno-religious affiliations and practiced secularism in daily life throughout the history. But at present, due to the rise of right-wing populist politics both at regional and global level and rise of fundamentalism, religious harmony in Bangladesh is also affected. However, comparatively, Bangladesh is doing better than many regional states and the country is destined to overcome the challenges in near future due to the pro-active role of the government in this regard.

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West Bengal Election: Implications for Indian Politics

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Polling officials collecting the Electronic Voting Machine (EVMs) and other necessary inputs required for the West Bengal Assembly Election, at a distribution centre, in Uluberia, West Bengal on April 05, 2021. Image source: Election Commission of India, Government of India

After a tumultuous eight phase election process, Trinamool congress has become successful to retain power for consecutive third terms amidst growing popularity of saffron tide. However, Mamata Banarjee’s Trinamool congress has successfully halted the tide at West Bengal frontier. The victory of TMC in the state testifies to “Bengal Exceptionalism” and is also a victory for Indian secularism.

The Trinamool Congress (TMC) victory in the assembly election has far reaching repercussions for wider Indian politics. For one, it sends a resounding message to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that their dream of monolithic Hindu India is still far-fetched. While BJP was much enthusiastic and ardent to gain a victory in the election, as evidenced by Amit Shah’s intermittent visit to Bengal and the latter’s incendiary rhetoric and Prime Minister Modi’s several visit to state to canvass votes. Interestingly, the ubiquitous display of Narendra Modi’s posters led one commentator to sardonically quip whether NarendraModi is vying for chief minister position. This partly explains the importance BJP and Narendra Modi attached to West Bengal election.

Above all, this election was important for BJP to prove their regional appeal. BJP’s vision of “one state, one party” largely hinged on the victory in the Bengal. If BJP could win in Bengal, there had been possibility that other states would fall in order. This significance of Bengal election illuminates the importance that BJP attached to Bengal and their buoyant activities to seal the victory.

Bengal was long been known as bastion of ethnic politics rather than communal one. It was never been a fortress of all-India political parties. Even, in its heyday of all India politics, Indian National Congress (INC) couldn’t gain much favor in Bengal election as the politics in Bengal is driven by an appeal to “Bengali-ness” which other nationwide party lacks.

However, upheavals in Bengal politics had been unmistakable in recent times. Especially, the event of BJP’s significant performance in 2019 union elections led some observes to presage an ominous trend of Bengal politics unfolding. The BJP’s 40% share of vote from Bengal is largely an anomaly in the Bengal’s election history where all India political parties had hard time managing minuscule portion of the votes. The 2019 election result therefore doesn’t augur well for TMC in 2021.The defections of stalwart TMC leaders in favor of BJP exacerbated this grim predication and forbade an electoral mishap for TMC.

The detractors implicated Trinamool Congress for power abuse, extortion, misappropriation of welfare money and egregious Muslim appeasement. Especially, BJP seek to frame Trinamool Congress as anti-Hindu party. They had pointed to how Mamata Banarjee had benefitted Muslim clerics inordinately by providing them with benefits which their counterpart of Hindu religion was deprived of. Beside, “Bangladesh Card” had been recurrently employed to accuse the alleged lenient approach of TMC with regards to Bangladeshi migrants.

BJP capitalized on anti-incumbency resentment emanating from prolonged period of TMC role which had generated local level corrupted politician and scandals of misappropriated welfare schemes facilitated BJP rhetoric. Besides, BJP promised that the coordination with center government will be far easier if BJP gains state power. BJP rallied unemployed youth with the pledge of jobs had BJP

ascent to Bengal throne. Above all, BJP appealed to Hindu sentiments of the 60% majority Hindus of the state.

However, with the charismatic leadership of Mamata Banarjee and the promise of being rooted in Bengali soil and a proponent for peaceful communal relations, Mamata Banarjee’s TMC has been indomitable as manifested by resounding victory of Trinamool Congress.

The BJP’s promise of “Hindu Bengal” hadn’t materialized as West Bengal had long been a fortress of communal harmony, largely an aberration from all other Indian states. This communal harmony has been again bolstered by defeat of BJP in the assembly election.

The result of the election will largely reverberate across India with far-reaching consequences. Firstly, the victory of Trinamool Congress means that Modi’s vision of monolithic India isn’t viable in view regional peculiarities. Secondly, it safeguards the federal structure of India in face of increasing intrusion of central government. It also will restrain Narendra Modi’s unchecked centralization of the state. Thirdly, it will make Mamata Banarjee a spokesperson and central figure of anti-BJP movement in absence of vigorous congress presence. Fourthly, it puts an end to NarendraModi’s contentious CAA(Citizen Amendment Act) and other policies.

Lastly, this win of Mamata Banarjee has the possibility of catapulting her to the heft of an all India leader. Especially, in the absence of a BJP’s strong chief minister face, Mamata Banarjee was vying with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This has momentous implication. This will consolidate the popularity of TMC in other states also with the image of Mamata Banarjee and memory of implicitly defeating Narendra Modi serving as an accelerator of her all-India appeal.

Nevertheless, there is marked indications that the Bengal politics has irrevocably altered in the process of this election. While Bengal had long been the indisputable image of Indian secularism, the communal tendencies have made deep inroads in Bengal politics. BJP has surpassed all other local political parties and now only second to TMC. This trend is unnerving for secular Bengal as well as India. However, it can now rightly be articulated that saffron tide of communalism has been retarded. This victory of Mamata Banarjee has reverberation across India and can be termed as the victory of Indian secularism and federalism.

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Feasible Outcomes after Withdrawal of US Troops from Afghanistan

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According to US President Joe Biden’s announcement, the process of withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan has begun. On September 11, 2001, there was a militant attack in the United States. The United States went on a military operation in Afghanistan in the wake of that attack. Now all US troops are being withdrawn from Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of the longest war in U.S. history. US President Biden commented that the goal of the US war in Afghanistan has been achieved. After the Taliban’s overthrow, the civilian Afghan government was established in Kabul with US support. The US administration now feels that the present Afghan government is capable of ensuring the security of its country.

The announcement during Trump’s tenure was that the troops would leave on May 1. Biden pulled it off in September. Biden’s Republican party has persuaded him against the rapid departure of troops. The reason behind Biden’s announcement of the new withdrawal date lies in repairing relations with NATO, which suffered under Trump. This transatlantic relationship was damaged by several of Trump’s statements. According to Trump, NATO members were not doing what they were supposed to pay for the alliance and wanted to approve Germany, Afghanistan’s top contributor after the US. When the withdrawal agreement was negotiated with the Taliban last year, the demands of NATO members, who are dependent on the US military for airlift support, were not considered sufficiently. Now it appears that NATO also announced the withdrawal of troops after Biden announced the withdrawal of troops to fix September 11 as the withdrawal date. This time change has given NATO members the opportunity to work to coordinate with the United States for their departure from Afghanistan. The Biden administration’s move could be seen in the context of efforts to bring US foreign policy back to multilateralism.

The United States also feels that rebuilding relations with NATO and other partners is very important. Because it will enable the US to stay in better position to face various global challenges like China’s rise and climate change. Already China has expressed concern over the decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan. China thinks foreign troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan in a responsible and orderly manner. According to them, this is necessary to ensure a smooth transition from Afghanistan as well as to prevent any terrorist group from taking advantage of the chaos. But the real problem lies for China as US officials point out that the United States now wants to focus on addressing other important challenges, including the threat from China, by shifting its focus from Afghanistan.

However, the long-term presence of US troops did not eventually defeat the Taliban. Afghan forces and the central government in Kabul could not be able to increase control over the entire country. After 20 years of war and thousands of deaths, US officials have acknowledged that the Taliban are at their strongest military level. We see that the attacks have increased dramatically in the last one year. The Taliban has taken over and has destabilized the position of the Americans in Afghanistan. The provincial capital, briefly occupied by Afghan troops, is regularly recaptured by rebels. US forces are leaving behind a deeply unpopular Afghan government that has not won the confidence of the people. Afghans blame Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s weak leadership for the Taliban’s resurgence. His reluctance to share power is hampering the initial move to map a post-war future, which is a barrier to peace.

The Taliban are indicating that they want to return to the role of the previous regime when American troops leave. Their desire is single authority. Unwilling to compromise and run the country, they want full authority after September. They are talking about establishing their own model of ‘Islamic rule’. But it won’t be that easy for them as they have full control of only 20 to 30 per cent of the districts of the country. The same is true of government forces. Both taliban and government forces hold power in the remaining 50 percent of the area. However if Taliban are able to take control over the whole country, women’s society and the media are most afraid of their past rule. Higher education institutions are often attacked by the Taliban. Millions of girls went to school while Americans were still there, who were forbidden by the Taliban to receive any kind of education. From under the protective shield of Americans, women became doctors, entrepreneurs, Parliamentarians. They will now be in danger. Similarly, Afghans who have struggled to make the country a more hospitable and socially tolerant place will be at risk. Meanwhile, about 17,000 Afghans from those communities are waiting to get U.S. visa.

It remains to be seen whether Afghanistan’s warring sides come to an agreement. As the US moves away, it is time for Afghans to lead the talks and agree on a permanent ceasefire and peace settlement. The coming months will tell how much faith the Taliban and the Afghan government can give to the war-weary Afghan people and show the leadership they need to rule. Whether the Taliban will undermine the rights of women and minorities returning to Kabul has become a question. It also remains to be seen whether the Taliban will allow al-Qaeda and IS militants to be active in Afghanistan if they return to power. There is a possibility of high levels of polarisation across the country due to insecurity among the groups. Stability can come only if the present government and Taliban in Afghanistan work together.

The United States is now more interested in shifting attention from Afghanistan and the Greater Middle East and looking to Eastern Europe and Asia-Pacific region. The United States is reluctant to take responsibility for the negotiations even though it has announced the withdrawal of troops. Biden’s announcement does not have a roadmap for how the country will run after their departure. The United States wants Russia, China, Pakistan and India to participate in talks on Afghanistan. As a major power, it is dependent on who will be in governance in Afghanistan in the interest of Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and India. China and Russia are interested in Afghanistan for regional dominance and trade reasons, but India has a major interest in Afghanistan’s geopolitics in the conflict-making relations with Pakistan and the Kashmir crisis. The current deal will benefit the Taliban as well; It will also help Pakistan create a comfortable position in regional politics. Pakistan would like its backed Taliban government to be established in Kabul in its desire to consolidate its influence. But Pakistan also has a reason to worry. If the Taliban cannot bring peace to the country, the world society will put the responsibility on Pakistan. The refugee wave in Pakistan could rise another round if Afghanistan is newly disturbed. India, on the other hand, will want Pakistan’s influence-free Afghanistan. Again, in northern Afghanistan, where the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek people live, they will not easily accept Taliban forces controlled by the Pashtun population. So there is a risk of long-term unrest. Afghanistan’s future situation depends a lot on what the role of regional powers will be after the withdrawal of US troops and how much the agreement of international community to control itself will be implemented there without being in Afghanistan.

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