The nations’ rapidly deteriorating sex ratio, large gender gap and high drop out of girls prompted the central government to initiate the social campaign like ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’. More such steps are needed as in 2015, only 3.7 million eligible girls were out of school whereas in rural areas girls receive an average of fewer than four years of education.
Almost every conceivable strategy and approach to promote girl education has been covered in National Policies on Education and five year plans of the Government of India; however still many targets are to be achieved especially in the area of women education. The NPE 1986, POA 1992, SSA 2001, NCF 2005 and the NCF for Teacher Education in 2010 all focused on girl education and we cannot say things are not improving; just the pace needs to be enhanced. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (known as RTE) Act, 2010, charted a new roadmap for gender equality in education in India and the five year plans (Sixth Plan 1980-85, Seventh Plan 1985-90 and Ninth 1997-2002) specifically paid attention to educationally backward states and socially deprived groups and highlighted the role of local communities. All policy documents recognize that girl/women education especially from poor communities and rural areas need special attention. While affirmative action in the form of scholarships, abolition of tuition fees, bonds, reservation of jobs and places in institutions of higher learning have been provided, still there are evidences of stumbling blocks at the elementary level itself. There is lack of better implementation mechanism for education programmes and policies. Policies that are critical to increasing girls’ access, including flexible school times and adapted curricula, remain at the micro level and are not being integrated. Not only this, India’s budget for education sector remains far from the desired 6 per cent of the GDP. We are still not able to place education on the priority lists in budget allocation which hampers the image of education. If we look at the 2016 budget, there is an increase of Rs 43,554 crore for school education (approx 3 per cent increase) and Rs 28,840 crore for higher education (approx 7.3 per cent increase).
These issues have created a large gap in enrolment and gender parity, girls with disability, poor households, from remote or rural areas and girls from minority ethnic or linguistic backgrounds have more difficulty in getting into primary or completing secondary education. One such community is the Muslim minority community, it is observed that girls from Muslim community strive for identity crisis and gender equality; they face challenge of gender stereotypes. The retention and transition rates among these marginalized girls still persist. Therefore, there is a need to create strategies that would increase girls’ participation in education, strategies that would promote safe and sustainable education for the girls and will make families from conservative communities more interested to send their girls to school. In this context, making a provision for only girl’s school with more women teachers, gender sensitive teacher training, learning material, scholarships, awareness-raising campaigns and community mobilization can make a positive impact on the society and girl education.
Gujarat is a state in India with multicultural talent. In Gujarat Muslim community is looking forward to pool in the identity and build educational institutions. Therefore education of Muslim girls in certain institutions proves to be a hall mark of representing their identity. While these facts keep challenging us to take in time steps, it is equally true that efforts are on and one such model example is of Fatimah Zahra English Medium School for Girls in the city of Vadodara in Gujarat that is certainly changing the discourse. I have examined the role played by this school in educating girls and empowering them and their community. Muslim parents here prefer to educate their girls and empower them within their own culture; they prefer a community school for their girls to any other school (successful or model schools) available in the area. Therefore the institutions that take care of religious nationalism among the community promote feelings of social networking and help community remove the identity barriers. The role of institutions of religious education is thus enhanced, such institutions help remove myths about community and promote collective solidarity. This is a reason for girls in bulk getting enrolled in Fatimah Zahra School. This school plays a major role in influencing the community’s choice to educate their daughters by catering to their demand for community schools; it promotes minority culture and tries to mainstream this culture in education.
Fatimah Zahra English Medium School for Girls, established in the year 2012 in the old walled city of Vadodara city, has been catering to Muslim populace of this area where the girl education opportunities are particularly limited. There is just one Gujarati Medium girl’s school in the area. Majority of the residents of the area are economically and educationally backward and earn their living as auto drivers or lorry pullers. The school is up to class VIII; it is growing year by year until it is upgraded to higher secondary level. After school hours the school premise is used as Madressa and life lifelong learning centre for girls. The infrastructural facilities in the school are highly satisfactory, it has enough classrooms, a subject room with smart board, Principal’s office, the staffroom, activity room, dining room and the open hall for assembly. Classrooms have moveable furniture to allow group work and are decorated with charts and students’ work (also displayed in the Principal’s office). The school follows State Board syllabus and teachers incorporate cooperative learning strategies in their respective subjects, they undergo professional development programmes on a regular basis. Since the year 2012 significant improvements were made and school became very popular.
Today the student numbers grew to 1130 with 30 female staff. The school is successful in motivating community and parents to send their girls to school. This growth made the school over-crowded; subsequently the trust members are into the process of establishing preprimary in a separate building in the nearby area. Now the community of the area have developed trust in the school and respect every activity school organise. They allow their daughters to actively participate at local and district level activities and attend various camps. It never happened before, states one of the prominent trust member of the school, who has taken this mammoth task of educating community girls. Emerging from the advocacy and initiative of the trust members of this school, the community invest in cash and kind for a separate pre-primary building for school. Members of the community are contributing their labour, raising funds, and collectively working together to get the legal permissions to ensure the completion of the new building. The trust has further plans to establish a lifelong learning centre for the girls/ women of the community.
This school is successful in changing mindsets of the community, and the people of the community are made to understand the value of educating their daughters. Being an academic advisor for the school I visit the school regularly and conduct several workshops and orientation programmes for the teachers. I witness community not only supporting their daughters to go to school, but actively participating in all the activities. Every member associated with this school spare no efforts to discuss with parents that education matters for all and religion encourages rather that hinders girls to be educated. Community has understood the value of education and realise that if a girl goes to school she can get a better job and is more capable to help her family. Together, we can overcome challenges and break the barriers to girls’ education, and provide educational and vocational opportunities for all girls and boys, and then their futures will be so much brighter, says one of the Trust members of the school.
As a pathway out of poverty to economic growth, integrating Madressa with formal education, this school is successful in changing the deep rooted mindsets of community and empowering Muslim girls with education. Therefore it will not be wrong to say that policies and programs that are implemented with a strong focus on the community, with help from community or government partners are likely to be successful. Government, civil society and the NGO’s must set the benchmark of performance by implementing policies and programs for girl education and make an impact on girl child education. Therefore it will not be wrong to mention that when educational programmes are designed around the unique needs of the given community then these programmes become more effective and efficient and make a positive impact. Fatemah Zehra English Medium School for Girls is one such example of a modest step taken by the dedicated and focused members of the society to educate girl child and within no time the school has progressed in many ways. The highly increasing graph in enrolment and several good practices of this school have paved a way for the school to be called a Model School for Girls.
Status of Minorities in Pakistan
In February this year, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, posted a tweet condemning the Delhi riots and stated that anyone who targets the non-Muslim minorities in the country or their places of worship will be dealt with strictly. For all the resolute comments that Mr Khan has made for protection of minorities in Pakistan, the reality showcases a completely different scenario. The status of religious freedom is almost minimal, minorities have been unjustly prosecuted under the blasphemy laws and there have been targeted attacks on the non-Muslim citizens and defenders of human rights. This article aims to assess the condition of Minorities in the country and the unjust use of blasphemy laws as a tool of oppression.
Forced Conversions: A chronic problem
On October this year, Arzoo Raja, a 13-year-old Christian girl, was abducted right outside her house in Karachi. She was forcibly converted to Islam and married off to her abductor, a 44- year-old man. The police denied these claims and asserted that it had sufficient proof to prove that the girl converted and married off on her own volition. To make matters worse, the Sindh high court validated the marriage (even though the legal age is 18), and stated (based upon falsified documents) that Arzoo was old enough to make her own decisions. This case isn’t a one off and there have been multiple instances in the past where underage girls from minority religions have been abducted and forcefully married off after conversion. A few months ago, a Hindu teenage girl, Simran Kumari was abducted from Ghotki in Sindh and converted to Islam. She was also married off to her abductor and her parents were stopped from visiting because of them being ‘Kafirs’ . Mirpur Khas, Sanghar, and Ghotki are some of the districts that have had the highest number of such incidents and all of them come under the province of Sindh. These incidents are more than just ordinary cases of forced conversion, they are a reflection of deeper issues rooted in economic, social and cultural status of the minority communities.
Most of the minority communities have been traditionally engaged in jobs associated with low income such as daily wage labour and any scope of upward economic mobility is limited. Amar Guriro, a senior journalist states that many Hindu and Christian women convert due to their poor financial condition, and that Muslim men easily lure these women on the pretext of providing better financial and living conditions . But investigations in the past have revealed that economic hardship might be a factor in these incidents but it isn’t the only factor, and in most cases, the women yield to their abductors due to fear of their lives. There have been cases where after a woman is abducted from a village, large groups of Muslim men drive around the village with loudspeakers in their cars shouting “the victory of Islam”. The main reason behind this is to instil a psychological fear and ensure that the minority communities do not take legal recourse. It’s unfortunate that even if the victim’s family were to lodge a First Information Report, it would make no difference. The police, political representatives and the judiciary are usually in cahoots, and any form of protest would be at the cost of endangering their own lives. This is clearly seen in majority of the cases where the victim is usually below 18 years of age, even though as per a recent amendment to the penal code, the legal age of marriage for girls is 18 years. The police play a huge part in providing forged documents as proof to the judges who readily accept it without questioning the legitimacy and let the accused go scot free.
The blasphemy laws in Pakistan pose another set of problems for the minorities, and are one of the strictest in the Islamic world. They were inherited from the former colonial rulers back when Pakistan was a part of India and a British colony. During the reign of the military government headed by General Zia-ul-Haq, few other clauses were added to these laws which criminalised certain acts such as insulting Islam’s Prophet, speaking against the holy Quran or using derogatory language against important religious scholars. According to the data given by National Commission for Justice and Peace, there were a total of 1540 blasphemy cases which came up till 2018 and out of those 1540 cases about 50% cases had a non Muslim as the accused even when they constituted very small share of the total population . The Ahmadiyya’s, a Muslim minority, are the worst affected by these laws. The Ahmadiyya community is a sect of Islam which has its roots in India and was founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Unfortunately, the Ahmadiyya community faces a lot discrimination world over and is generally regarded as non-Muslim in most of the Islamic countries. According to the second amendment in Pakistan’s constitution, the Ahmadis are considered as non-Muslims in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The Ahmadis have had repeated allegations of blasphemy against them due to the fact that their religious beliefs contradict the verses in the Quran and are therefore equal to speaking against it. This is completely ironical to the fact that Pakistan’s constitution clearly states that each and every single religious community has the right to profess, propagate and practise their religion. For the other minority religions, the blasphemy laws act as a means of seeking revenge or showing dominance for the majority Sunni Muslims. In May 2019, Ramesh Kumar Malhi, a Hindu veterinary doctor, was accused of wrapping medicines in the pages containing verses of Quran because of which his clinic and a few other shops belonging to the Hindu community were burned down . Similarly, in 2018, a 25-year-old Christian man was accused of sending blasphemous texts because of which Muslim mobs raided the houses of Christians living in the area and threatened to set their houses on fire. In both the incidents, the police filed no cases against the offending mobs. In most of the cases, it is important to note that the reason for charging someone with blasphemy is usually due some other personal conflict entirely unrelated to the charge of blasphemy and is usually used as a means to extract revenge.
These blasphemy laws represent the sorry state of freedom of speech in the country. The idea that anything with regards to religion is sacred and cannot be contested leads to the formation of dogmatic opinions. While it is understandable that the blasphemy laws only apply to statements meant to defame a religion, but since these laws come under the purview of the Federal Shariat Court to determine what is Islamic or un-Islamic, even well-intentioned constructive criticism is considered blasphemous. John Stuart Mill, one of the most influential thinkers of classical liberalism, in his book ‘On Liberty’ talks about the role of freedom of speech and expression. He says “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”. The reasoning behind this is to show how important it is to allow divergent views to be spoken about clearly, and even if there is disagreement about the truthfulness of a particular view or opinion, there’s always a possibility that it might contain a certain element of truth. The inability of a country to tolerate divergent views is representative of its insecurity towards criticism and change. This eventually leads to its downfall as even the most common and rational arguments are sometimes suppressed.
Subpar Standard of Living
While the cases above represent some of the worst atrocities against minorities in Pakistan, their everyday lives don’t provide a very bright picture either. There has been discrimination in the past with regards to employment, such that sanitation work or daily wage labour work was restricted to non-Muslims only. Even with regards to education, there have been reports where the students from the minority religions have faced religious slurs or have been plainly discriminated by the teachers. Some of the textbooks portray the minorities in a negative light and completely negate their existence when recounting the history of the country, this reinforces an anti-minority mindset within the young adults and prevents the minorities from enrolling in educational institutions which restricts their social and economic upward mobility. In general, at least in the rural areas, non-Muslims have faced violence and many have lost their lives too. There have been numerous cases where houses of Hindus and Christians have been burnt down, their men, women and children killed or forced to leave the village. Temples and Churches have been destroyed in many areas, such that only a handful remain. A survey by the Pakistan All Hindu Rights Movement showed that out of a total of 428 temples that were present in the country during independence only 20 remain today.
While the government of Pakistan refuses to do anything, human rights lawyers and non governmental organisations present a ray of hope. In the past, journalists, activists and human rights lawyers have actively taken up cases of forced conversion, religious violence and misgovernance. This has made justice an achievable reality, even if it is only for a handful of cases. But the downside to this is that by saving the lives of others, the activists and lawyers have put their own lives at risk. There have been many instances where activists and journalists have received threats and backlash from religious extremists, some have even lost their lives. On 5thJune a journalist who had been criticising the government and the military was abducted in Lahore and detained without any proper warrant . Similarly, a co founder of an NGO working for the rights of young women was randomly detained and put on an exit control list, restricting her ability to travel overseas.
Imran Khan’s inability to take firm action against the oppression of minorities in Pakistan is an indication of their worsening condition in the country. His ostrich approach makes him preach about the inexistent tolerance that Pakistan has for non-Muslims on various
International forums. It would be wise for him to first start taking constructive steps to improve the situation in his own country before concerning himself with the issues of his next-door neighbour. The tough balancing act that Mr Khan has tried to play between supporting a tolerant Pakistan and the Islamic clerics at the same time has clearly failed. Zahid Hussain, an analyst and author states that Imran Khan, right from the time that he came to power, did want a tolerant Pakistan, but not at the cost of losing support of certain extremist elements. The problem is, instead of carefully balancing the two, he empowered the extremists, nullifying any bit of chance there was for improving the condition of minorities.
Theorizing The teesta River Water Dispute
Teesta River originates in the Himalayas and flows through the states of Sikkim and West Bengal to merge with Jamuna in Bangladesh (Brahmaputra in Assam). The river drains nearly 95 per cent of the state of Sikkim. It covers 3,225 square kilometres across the districts of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri in West Bengal before entering into Bangladesh. It is the fourth longest transboundary river of Bangladesh that flows down from India.
In Bangladesh, Teesta River covers 9,667 square kilometres with an estimated population of 9.15 million as in 2011.1 According to the estimates provided by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics 2012, 21 million people are directly or indirectly dependent upon the river water for their livelihoods in Bangladesh. It covers nearly 14 per cent out of the total area under cultivation in Bangladesh.
This river has been a point of contention between India and Bangladesh since 1950s and 1960s when India and former East Pakistan began discussing proposed projects on the river. Immediately after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, the Indo-Bangladesh Joint River Commission was set up to carry forward the talks over the sharing of river waters in 1972.
The Teesta barrage, hydropower projects and dam constructions over Teesta in India has led to a disturbance in the flow of river water downstream, i.e., in Bangladesh. Though the hydropower projects and dam constructions are also being carried by the Bangladesh government on its side of the river.
Bangladesh, that gets lesser share than that of India of the Teesta River water, claims for an equitable share which is unacceptable to the state of West Bengal. Negotiations over the same have been going on since 1983. The matter is still over the table with an unresolved dispute.
A significant amount of Teesta’s water flows only during wet season i.e., between June and September, leaving scant flow during the dry season i.e., October to April/May which paves way to the issue of equitable sharing during lean season. The 50-50 allocation of the river water could have been agreed to but it was opposed by the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamta Banerjee, who claims that it would be unfair to West Bengal since it would adversely impact the water-flow available in the state.
The stakeholders here are not just the Indian state and the Bangladesh government but since water is a state subject, the Indian state of West Bengal is a large party to the matter whereas Sikkim has highly been ignored (which is also a point of highlight for the critics).
Bangladesh claims that an equal water sharing is essential for them since their basin dependence is higher than that of India’s and also, that the downstream nature of Bangladesh makes them vulnerable since any construction by India affects the water flow available to them. Apart from the farmers getting adversely affected, the inadequate flow of water has also created siltation. Thus, these are reasons enough to get India’s attention towards this issue.
However, West Bengal’s concerns can also not be ignored which states that Teesta has dried up due to which an acute drinking water problem has been caused apart from another issue which states less availability of water for irrigation needs.
In 1983, an ad hoc arrangement was made between India and Bangladesh wherein both agreed to share 75 per cent of river water with India using 39 per cent and Bangladesh 36 per cent. The remaining 25 per cent was to be distributed after some further studies. In 1997, a Joint Committee of Experts was formed to examine the matter. It took until 2004 for a Joint Technical Group to be formed which drafted an interim agreement for the sharing of the river water during the lean season. However, in 2005, the JTG admitted its inability to come up with a solution.
In 2005 itself, the Joint River Commission stated that the river will not be able to meet the needs of both the countries during the lean seasons, hence, any agreement that is made will have to be based upon shared sacrifices. In 2010, the two countries agreed to resolve the matter expeditiously and drafted some principles for the sharing of river water during the lean season.
In 2011, the agreement was to be signed during the visit of the then Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, to Dhaka, Bangladesh. However, it fell through when the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamta Banerjee protested against the proposed allocation of 50 per cent of the river’s water to Bangladesh.
Since then there have been bilateral discussions on the dispute between the two countries but they have been unable to reach upon a mutually agreed agreement. Something that has been continued to be a major sore point within the bilateral relations of India and Bangladesh!
Teesta barrage, whose construction started in the late 1970s, is the largest irrigation project of the entire eastern region. It aims at utilizing the potential of Teesta River in hydropower generation, irrigation, navigation, and flood moderation. India, being the upper riparian country, controls the flow of the river water into Bangladesh from the Teesta barrage. Even Bangladesh has constructed a barrage downstream that provides water for agriculture and irrigation to the drought prone areas of northern Bangladesh.
Bangladesh argues that the construction of Teesta barrage has drastically reduced the availability of water downstream, especially, in the dry season. On the other hand, it’s not just Bangladesh that is facing such issues, India is facing such issues as well. A reduced availability of groundwater due to underground tunnelling has been witnessed which has impacted agricultural productions and livelihoods in the region. The drying up of natural springs and local water resources, the matter which also needs to be addressed, has resulted in growing scarcity of drinking water. An increasing number of landslides have also been witnessed in the mountainous regions of Sikkim.
Development of hydropower projects and the construction of dams are majorly held responsible for all such issues. It has been a growing concern in India and something that the environmentalists, scientist, social activists have all cautioned against. Changes in the river, which have largely been due to the dams being constructed on the Teesta are being witnessed, including frequent changes in the course of the river, delta formation, high rates of siltation, increased erosion, and siltation of agricultural land in the areas surrounded by the river.
Availability of water for irrigation is a key issue, particularly for West Bengal, as highlighted by local communities. It is estimated that the availability of water for irrigation be reduced due to the series of proposed dams since every hydropower project is estimated to absorb at least 5 per cent of the river’s running water.
Similar is the situation with Bangladesh as well where farmers are being forced to rely on tube wells to pump underground water which has resulted in increased cost of production and also, reduced areas under cultivation. In many areas, increased siltation of riverbed has caused widening of the river which has resulted in bank erosion and flooding.
The Perspective Of Institutional Economics
The dispute is still hanging somewhere unable to find itself a reasonable solution. It is not just about the point of contention regarding the sharing of water, that how much water should India consume or how much of it should Bangladesh take away from the river, but it is also about the environmental concerns and the way it is impacting the humans. Maybe, if India takes up the discussions regarding sharing of some of the benefits that it would gain from its hydropower projects, it could happen that the dispute might be solved, but that would not solve the environmental concerns altogether.
Environmental economics, a strand of economics, offers one such solution which talks about using a price signal in waiving off a particular dispute. But in order to do that, you need to own that particular resource which is not possible in the case of a river. The market, thus, cannot allocate the resource using a price signal since there are no specified property rights, therefore, none of the state can boast of ownership. The lack of property rights disables either of the state to be able to sell it or rather, in this matter, be able to negotiate a settlement using a ‘price’ signal on the basis of cost-benefit analysis. Similarly, one state cannot also exclude the other state from using the river water since it’s a common environmental resource for both the states.
This indicates towards the presence of externalities that happens when there are lack of property rights and people utilize their utility not considering what additional/negative utility others may get from it. In such a problem, institutional economics, another branch of economics, has some solution to offer. Elinor Ostrom, an American political economist talks about common pool resources that people have managed successfully for generations. She says that these resources should be managed in communities where people can collectively come and decide and set up some rules that should match the local conditions since different regions have different ecosystems.
Here, in the context of the Teesta River dispute, the major thing that is missing is the ‘people’ and their participation in forming a consensus over the usage of river water. The local communities are the major stakeholders of the river water and it is them who are being majorly effected but they have been kept away and everything has just boiled down to politics and the bilateral equations between the two states. This leads us to understand the issue from the lenses of political ecology.
Political Ecology And Its Links With The Dispute
Political ecology is that branch of geography that emerges from ‘critical geography’ and makes this basic point that physical environment in which we live in is not just natural but is characterized by a constant human intervention making it a ‘built’ environment. And since we live in such environment which is partly and very deeply influenced by human beings themselves, social and human processes should be right at the centre of our analysis.
Political ecology fundamentally connects questions of environment with questions of political processes and political power, something that is clearly visible in the dispute in discussion. It also draws insights from political economy, particularly, Marxian political economy to draw this connection between environmental issues, political power, and political and social processes.
David Harvey, one of the renowned scholars of political ecology, talks about the phenomenon of ‘Accumulation by Dispossession.’ This phenomenon talks about the existing social relations between the capitalist class and the farmers/working class. This talks about how the farmers are being left with no other option than to lose their lands and become a victim at the hands of the industrial development.
Here, in the context of Teesta River dispute, something similar is happening. On one hand, while the government and a section of civil society is happy with the expected benefits of the hydropower project like employment, energy sufficiency, new revenues, on the other hand, local communities, environmentalists, scientists, and activists are concerned about social, cultural, and environmental aspects of these projects. More such projects are proposed, more the economic and industrial development but only at the cost of environmental development and also, at the cost of the livelihoods of the local communities!
The politics of the two countries, their asymmetric relations, and their urge to economic and industrial development has costed the local communities their livelihoods. For the authorities concerned, it’s about their political ego, their incapability of meeting the local needs through the existing water share, but holistically, this matter is not just about that. Undoubtedly, it continues to be dominated by political procedures but what matters the most are the local communities who are suffering on both the sides of the borders. It is these people who are losing their livelihoods, lands, and the allied opportunities but have been kept away from the major procedure of decision making. The sufferers are none but the environment itself whose course is being decided by the humans and also, the humans – but only the ones that are dependent upon the same environment for their livelihood opportunities. Rest that remains is the politics!
As Sri Lanka struggles with Chinese debt-trap, Maldives moves closer to the Quad
The Indian Ocean’s geopolitical currents have witnessed drastic transformation this year, particularly in the past three months, with India shedding the exclusive right of its sphere of influence over the Indian Ocean, by allowing the United States in its own backyard. Washington and New Delhi seems to have entered into what few analysts call a ‘soft alliance’.
Sri Lanka and Maldives are strategically located in the northern section of the Indian Ocean, and have long been historically, culturally, and geopolitically under India’s sphere of influence. But, things are beginning to change as Chinese debt-trap looms over these islands.
The Quad grouping, consisting of India, Japan, the United States and Australia, has demonstrated its collective military might in the maritime sphere of India with the recently concluded annual Malabar naval exercise. It also led to the emergence of new dynamics of cooperation in previously reticent areas, built upon confidence in each other’s abilities and consciousness of where it stands in the newly unravelling geopolitical equation.
India’s new strategic comfort with bringing in partners from the Quad partners lying external to the Indian Ocean Region, namely the US and Japan into its long-held exclusive sphere of influence signals a tilt in strategic imperatives for New Delhi in favour of the US that too in an evolving cold war-like situation involving Washington and Beijing with different set of countries rallying behind each side.
India has recently welcomed the US-Maldives Defense Cooperation Agreement signed in September, this year. The following month saw US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Male where he announced Washington’s intent to open an embassy soon.
Less than three months after the defence pact with Washington, Male signed a new agreement with Tokyo this month, for availing a Japanese grant of $7.6 million to strengthen the archipelago’s Coast Guard capacities, in a second major pact with a Quad member.
New Delhi’s newfound willingness to work with external actors in the Indian Ocean is a sign of strategic comfort stemming out from realist foreign policy considerations to expand its circle of friends and coalition partners in its own backyard against a common and more powerful adversary, Beijing, with which it also have decades-long tensions in the Himalayan frontiers.
Even though both these two countries succumbed to disproportionately superior Chinese economic might since the past one decade, it seems Maldives has somehow managed to come out of its dangerous level of dependency on China since Ibrahim Mohammed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party assumed presidency of the island nation two years back in November 2018.
The Sri Lankan economy went into a tailspin since the civil war ended in 2009. The country’s exchequer was badly in need of financial support to sustain itself. It was also the time when Beijing just began to project its military and economic power in its neighbourhood and beyond as the flamboyant 2008 Beijing Olympics concluded.
The island of Sri Lanka soon acquired new geoeconomic significance when President Xi Jinping launched the most ambitious infrastructure project of this century in 2013, the Belt and Road Infrastructure, connecting three continents with the Indian Ocean as its epicenter of vitality.
With BRI, a tangled web of debt-trap rapidly began to loom over Sri Lanka as Beijing pumped-in investments into the war-battered island with malicious intentions.
The story of handover of Hambantota port, strategically located in the southern tip of Sri Lankan coast, to China for a 99-year lease in 2017, and the Colombo Port City project being built with Chinese assistance are just examples of how economic leverage gained geopolitically advantageous positions for Beijing overlooking the Indian Ocean. These assets are going to play a significant role in the connectivity of BRI’s ‘Maritime Silk Road’ aspect.
Chinese-led projects are built and managed by Chinese workers themselves as they do in any other part of the world, naturally bringing presence of Chinese personnel to the areas where it operates.
The BRI, however, enhances Sri Lanka’s significance in what theorists call the String of Pearls, wherein Beijing attempts to encircle India by a series of ports and maritime installations under its control in the Indian Ocean such as the overseas military base in Djibouti, Gwadar in Pakistan, and the ports in Bay of Bengal under Chinese influence hosted by either Bangladesh or Myanmar. Chinese submarine presence is also a new reality, particularly in areas surrounding the Malacca Straits.
All these factors naturally brought New Delhi closer to Washington to formulate a ‘collective strategy’ against the expansionist tendencies manifested by Chinese behaviour. At the same time, India has been taking proactive steps in its individual capacity to boost ties with other island and littoral states in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), like Mauritius and Seychelles where India’s listening posts to monitor sea-lanes also operate.
The Indian Navy has always been the first responder to any HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) situations in the IOR which earned significant soft power and respect for India in the countries of the region. This vision has been immortalized in India’s maritime doctrine for regional cooperation in the Indian Ocean, SAGAR (Security and Growth for all in the Region), that was unveiled in 2015.
With the entry of the US, which already has its presence in the British Indian Ocean Territory of Diego Garcia lying mid-way of the ocean, that too with India’s approval, and France in Reunion in the western Indian Ocean, the geostrategic picture of IOR is beginning to change.
Maldives stands as a good example of how to overcome Chinese dominating agenda by boosting cooperation among democracies. But, the Abdullah Yameen-era nightmare of Chinese debt burden is still far from over. In fact, Sri Lanka too is well aware of the Chinese trap from which it yearns to decouple itself. But, Colombo is left with limited options or alternatives to do so.
The renewed Indo-US strategic cooperation, if not translated into offering a viable solution to the debt-trap conundrum, Sri Lanka might irreversibly evolve into another extension of Beijing’s legs in the Indian Ocean threatening the sovereignty of democracies in the region.
Recent steps in the strategic realm are welcome, but the Indo-Pacific democracies, particularly India and the US, should cooperate with these two key island states more in the economic realm as well, if possible near to the extent of Beijing as a collective move.
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Increasing strains between Pakistan and its traditional Arab allies, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, is about more than...
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