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Withering India’s Neighbourhood Policy

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] I [/yt_dropcap]ndia is believed to be one of the emerging economic powers of the world. This potential is attributed to several indicators such as demographic dividend, substantive economic growth, political stability, unity in diversity, a good pool of trained and skilled human resources, new strides in science and technology, mastery in information technology, well trained and adequately equipped army etc.

For the given of its size, location, economic potential, India has been holding an important and unique position in South Asia. In the terms of geography, demography, economy and military, it is the largest country in the South Asia. For the given of such factors, the countries of South Asia have always been remained skeptical of taking undue advantage of the weak bargaining capacity of neighbouring countries in a bilateral dialogue. India wanted to enhance bilateral relations with all the South Asian countries, but Bhashin (2008) has argued that   its bilateralism took as an instrument of coercive diplomacy and Indian hegemony.

Conceptualization of India’s South Asia Policy

Michael (2013) has argued that the inspiration and philosophy of Indian foreign policy has been derived from Kautilya’s Arthashastra, that is believed to be as a manual of statecraft. In this manual, the incumbent or the potential king has been guided, how to rule a state or what rules are to be followed to gain geopolitical and geostrategic space in terms of power in the region.

India has been following good neighbourly policy even before its independence. This argument could be substantiated by the argument of Rajkumar (1952: 46), who quoted Jawaharlal Nehru’s first speech delivered in December 1927, wherein he said, “The people of India have no quarrel with their neighbours and desire to live at peace with them.” The Nehruvian foreign policy had been consistently followed by the successive governments of India.

In the post-Cold War era, India has emerged as an economic global player in the global arena. The former Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao (2009-2011), has argued and accepted that a ‘peaceful neighbourhood is mandatory for the realization of India’s vision of economic growth.’ Realizing the geopolitical and geostrategic imperatives, India has invoked all the neighbouring countries to be partners and contribute to the regional growth and prosperity (MEA, Annual Report 2005: 1).

Modifying the South Asian Policy

India has been pursuing good neighbourly policy vis-à-vis South Asian countries, however, it is failed to convince them of the same. The leadership of these countries is of the firm opinion that India has been pursuing hegemonic policy. Moreover, the relations with almost all countries have remained off the keel. Since India has been emerging as one of the economic powers, thus, it realized that peaceful neighbourhood is the prerequisite of its economic development and prosperity in general and for the region in particular.

Even before the formation of his government, Modi had outlined foreign policy priorities during a Network 18 TV Programme: ‘Think India, Dialogue Forum,’ in 2013 as:

•Improving relations with immediate neighbours, as peace and tranquility in South Asia is essential for realizing the development agenda.

•The introduction of para-diplomacy.

•Enhance of bilateral trade with all the countries.

In order to show his priority and interest towards South Asia, the first, and unique step was taken by inviting all the heads of the South Asian countries. Moreover, it was believed that it would undo the criticism of his being hardliner. The invited guests list included-Hamid Karzai (Afghanistan), Tshering Tobgay (Bhutan), Abdulla Yameen (Maldives), Sushil Koirala (Nepal), Nawaz Sharif (Pakistan), Mahinda Rajapaksa (Sri Lanka), Navin Ramgoolam (Mauritius), Parliamentary Speaker Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury (Bangladesh) respectively. The policy was christened as the Neighbourhood First Policy, later on, formalized and concretized by the first speech of Indian President Pranab Mukherji (2014, June 9) and PM Address to the 69th Session of the United Nations General Assembly. By highlighted the place of neighbours in Indian foreign policy PM Modi said, “A nation’s destiny is linked to its neighbourhood. That is why my government has placed the highest priority on advancing friendship and cooperation with its neighbours.”

The objective of the first step is to improve and enhance bilateral ties with the South Asian countries. PM also held talks with all the all the heads individually on the second day of swearing-in-ceremony. During these meetings, he strongly advocated for trade, connectivity, infrastructure, transit facility issues among the South Asian countries. On the eve of 18th SAARC Summit, Kathmandu (2014, November 26-27), he also exhorted his counterparts to give greater focus on the people to people contacts, better connectivity, commercial linkages among the South Asian region.

PM Modi visited almost all the South Asian countries in order to enhance multifaceted engagements with these countries. Bhutan was the maiden foreign visit of PM Modi. He had emphasized on building economic ties between both the countries. The other areas of cooperation included hydro-electric deal, the inauguration of the India-funded Supreme Court of Bhutan building. The bilateral relations between both countries were termed as “unique and special relationship.”

After the long hiatus of 17 years, PM Modi had visited Nepal. This visit has created an unprecedented enthusiasm among the Nepali public and politicians. He became the first foreign leader to address the constituent assembly of Nepal. PM Modi has also declared a long list of gifts to Nepal. He advocated that borders must be bridges, not barriers.” But Nepal’s constitutional crisis 2015 and Indian stand on it, distanced both the countries from each other despite India’s neighbourhood first policy.  

The bilateral relationship between India and Bangladesh has also improved a lot under the Neighbourhood first policy. The controversial issues between both the countries have been sorted out like boundary issue through the land boundary agreement (LBA) and the Teesta water-sharing pact. Bangladesh has also been cooperating in eliminating the extremist groups from North-East. Similarly, good relations have been developed with Sri Lanka under the stewardship of PM despite reservation about the Hambantota port and stationing of Chinese submarines at the same port. Maldives is a very important country for India’s maritime security architecture. Due to this, Maldives has been figuring very prominently in Indian neighbourhood policy.

Pakistan is a country which is difficult to deal with despite having neighbourhood first policy. The hardliner perception of PM Modi has substantially changed when on the swearing-in-ceremony, PM Nawaz Sharif was invited. During the talk between both the leaders, they looked forwarded to improve the relations by starting the dialogue at various levels which have been suspended even before taking over the governments by both the leaders. But despite India’s number of efforts like visiting by PM Modi to Pakistan during the marriage of grand-daughter of PM Nawaz Sharif, conveying best wishes for the birthday and surgery of PM Nawaz Sharif, the dialogues at all levels have remained suspended. Intermittently, gun-firing on the line control distancing both the countries from each other. The Kashmir issue has been time and again raised in the international forum such as UNSC and GCC etc. Notwithstanding of India’s good neighbourly policy, the bilateral relations between both the countries have not been improved.

Similarly, Afghanistan has figured very prominently. It is called as the first strategic partner of India. India became the fifth largest donor to Afghanistan. India has made substantial FDI of US$ 2 billion. Very recently, parliament building built by India handed over to Afghanistan. Afghanistan people hold India in a very high esteem. However, neighbourhood first policy, did not show any substantive results in respect of Pakistan and Nepal.

India pursuing it neighbourhood policy since its independence which is consistently being followed by the successive government. This policy has been derived from the Kautilya’s Arthsashtra. After taking over the reign of the Indian government, PM Modi has revived and renovated the policy into neighbourhood first. Though this policy has been remained a bit successful in improving relations with some of the countries but it has been failed in respect of Pakistan and Nepal. It is, therefore, recommended that neighbourhood policy is required to be remodeled and refashioned, in order to not only improve relations bilaterally rather creating the peace and stability for the entire South Asian region.

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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South Asia

More about how democracy should be elected -Interview with Tannisha Avarrsekar

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Tannisha Avarrsekar. Image source: startocure.com

Tannisha Avarrsekar, a political activist who wants to increase equality in the representation of political candidates in India. In this interview, Tannisha discusses more about her journey, political beliefs and her platform Lokatantra.

Why did you start Lokatantra?

I started it because I wanted to make politics more accessible for the youth.

I moved to London for my undergrad when I was 18, so 2019 was the first election that I was able to vote in. But after I came back, I found that gathering information about the registration process, as well as probable candidates took more time and effort than it should.

I began realizing that for citizens like me, who wanted to be more politically aware or socially conscious, there was the dearth of a platform where they could educate themselves and engage with those they were considering electing. And that’s how Lokatantra came along.

Tell us more about Lokatantra.

Lokatantra.in is an online political platform that aims to make the youth more politically aware and socially conscious. It attempts to bridge the gap between voters and politicians by empowering voters with comprehensive information about their candidates and the voting process, after verifying its authenticity and organizing it in a manner that makes it quick and easy to understand. It also does telephone voter registrations for those having trouble with it.

On the flip side, the social enterprise also collects data on citizens’ opinions on key issues through polls and surveys, and then analyses and publishes the results, to aid in the decision-making of leaders. In this way, the platform sheds light on the accomplishments of politicians- especially independents who can’t afford expensive campaigns, as well as the troubles of the common man.

The Lokatantra.in website and mobile application prides itself on its treasury of information about each and every candidate from the Mumbai City district. This extensive material includes details about these candidates’ educational qualifications, past political affiliations, career highlights, controversies, criminal records, and standpoints on critical debates. The platform also allows users to ask candidates questions, as well as rate them so as to help other voters from their constituency make their choice.

What do you think can make journalism more neutral?

More crowdfunded platforms. Limits on investments by big corporations, and complete transparency in the finances of media houses. Also, stricter penalties on misinformation.

Why is equal representation in politics important?

Equal representation in politics is important because it encourages newer political faces and fresh ideas into our country’s governance, which has been largely polarized and dominated by big political parties, with old loyalists and deep pockets. It allows us to choose our leaders based on more than just their party symbol and spending power, and instead take into account their character, ideology and objectives.

How is Lokatantra a unique platform? What do you do differently?

Before an election, Lokatantra interviews all the candidates standing, with a uniform questionnaire to gather their opinions on issues that play a key role in deciding who to vote for and are yet often not a part of mainstream discourse. The answers from these interviews are then fed into an algorithm, which allows voters to answer the very same questions, and then ranks the candidates in their constituency based on how much their political opinions match. What makes this quiz truly extraordinary is the fact that it takes into account the nuances of one’s answers, by letting you weigh how much each issue affects your vote.

We also spend a lot of time answering personal questions and engaging in individual conversations about politics, with members of our community that message us.

Tell us more about your personal political affiliations.

As the face of a politically neutral platform, I’m not permitted to have political affiliations. But I would describe my personal ideology as socially liberal and fiscally conservative.

What do you think are the biggest electoral problems India is facing at the moment and what do you think are the solutions?

I think it is the shocking mass disappearances of voter names from electoral lists, which has caused erosion of public faith in the democratic process.

A colleague of mine- Siddhant Kesnur and I, recently wrote a policy memo about the solutions to this, and if I had to pick one that I think would be most effective it would be stopping the misuse of the ECI’s Form 7, which is an application for voter deletion that ridiculously enough can be sent on behalf of any citizen by any citizen. Simply communicating the receipt of this form to those on whose behalf it has come in, would significantly curb its abuse.

What do you think will pose the greatest challenge to India’s growth in the future?

The move from patriotism to nationalism. In May 2018, Kaushik Basu the economist had cautioned Bangladesh saying that “vibrant economies have been derailed by zealotry many times throughout history”. He had given three examples to support his point: (1) the golden era of economic growth in Arab cities like Damascus and Baghdad which passed when religious fundamentalism began to spread about a thousand years ago (2) Portugal’s position as a global power in the 15th-16th century, which ended when Christian fanaticism became it’s driving political force, and (3) Pakistan’s economy, which after performing fairly decently started slipping from 2005 onwards because of military rule and Islamic fundamentalism.

It makes me sorry to say that the extremist rhetoric we witness in India these days is an alarming harbinger of this kind of zealotry, which has the potential of not just derailing us economically but also causing lasting damage to the social and cultural fabric of our nation.

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India: Metamorphosis from disinformation to stark lies

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When European Disinfo Lab exposed India’s disinformation network, India apologized. But, the portents are that India continued spreading disinformation, nay stark lies against Pakistan. India’s usual modus operandi was  to employ dubious  thinktanks and journalists of doubtful credentials to tarnish Pakistan’s image. For instance, Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a registered Canadian charity, published a Pakistan-bashing report ‘Khalistan—A project of Pakistan’ which found mention in almost all leading Indian newspapers. Now, Indian government  has told its Supreme Court that farmers’ protest in India are being pro-Pakistan and pro-Khalistan elements. The SC has called upon Indian government to submit an affidavit about its allegation along with corroborative evidence.

Another pro-India “thinktank”, spouting venom against Pakistan is the “International Terrorism Observatory”. It is chaired by Roland Jacquard. Prestigious French newspaper Le Monde (The World) pointed out in 2015; he is the only member “without publications, without a website, without postal address and without any legal existence”. He runs a bookstore stacked with books on “networks of Islamist terrorism’. According to journalists Didier Bigo, Laurent Bonelli and Thomas Deltombe, Roland Jacquard’s claim of being a media expert is questionable.

 India-sponsored think tank  International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies run by Srivastava Group of India shot into limelight when it paid for the travel and accommodation of an unofficial far-right delegation of 23 European Union parliamentarians to Srinagar on October 30, 2013. The trip was arranged by Indian intelligence surrogate, Madi Sharma, who posed as a self-styled “international business broker”.

India’s metamorphosis from disinformation to stark lies

It appears India has now realized that its disinformation is losing clout. So, instead of banking on dubious journalists and think tanks, it has begun to churn out lies against Pakistan through its own agencies, including the prestigious India Today.

Almost all media outlets and TV channels disseminated the false report that an ex diplomat  has admitted that India did actually kills 300 men in Balakot  air strike on February 26, 2019. Some channels have retracted the false rreport while others are staying mum.

What did the news agency ANI say?

The statement falsely attributed to diplomat Agha Hilaly was carried by several news organisation, including India Today, and was based on an input by news agency ANI. The News agency ANI quoted Pakistani diplomat Agha Hilaly as saying, “India crossed the international border and did an act of war in which at least 300 were reported dead. Our target was different from theirs. We targeted their high command. That was our legitimate target because they are men of the military. We subconsciously accepted that a surgical strike — a limited action — did not result in any casualty. Now we have subconsciously told them that, whatever they will do, we’ll do only that much and won’t escalate.”

Truth

The video was misattributed and the quote was actually a snippet of a larger quote made by former diplomat Zafar Hilaly in a television debate.The full quote by Zafar Hilaly is as follows:: What India did was an act of war. By crossing the international boundary India committed an act of war in which they intended to kill at least 300 people. Coincidentally, they [Pakistani people] did not die and India bombed a football field. “Hilaly has also said that the viral video is edited and does not represent his full quote. He also shared the full video on his Twitter account. A fact-check by “Alt News” found that the comments were misreported and the ex-diplomat who made the comments was “Zafar Hilaly”.In the debate posted on YouTube by HUM news as part of a program called “Agenda Pakistan”, Hilaly  had said, “What you did, India, was an act of war. India ne jo kiya, international boundary ko cross karke ek act of war. Jisme kam se kam 300 logo ko unhone marna tha. (What India did was an act of war. By crossing the international boundary India committed an act of war in which they intended to kill at least 300 people).”Zafar Hilaly also tweeted a video saying his statement was spliced and edited. Alt News said a version of the video posted on Twitter had an abrupt cut “around 0:7-0:9 seconds” and the word “marna (to kill)” sounds as if Hilaly said “mara (killed)”. The news has since been removed by websites.

Conclusion

A basic principle of disinformation is ‘never lose sight of truth’.  A half-truth or even .005 per cent to 5% untruth, a twisted truth, or sometimes a truth concealed may appeal more to readers or viewers than a stark lie.  Goebels is not alive to tell that he never said ‘the bigger the lie the more it will be believed’. Pathological lying is not the art of disinformation. Psychologists would tell that, even under stress, a mature person would suppress truth rather than tell a lie.

Richard Deacon  says,  ‘Truth twisting…unless it is conducted with caution and great attention to detail, it will inevitably fail, if practiced too often… It is not the deliberate lie which we have to fear (something propaganda), but the half-truth, the embellished truth and the truth dressed up to appear a something quite different’ (The Truth Twisters, London, Macdonald & Company (Publishers) Limited, 1986/1987, p. 8). 

He gives several example of disinformation including sublimininal disinformation by which the truth can be twisted so that the distortion is unconsciously absorbed, something which both television and radio commentators have subtly perfected’. (Ibid. p. 9).

Role of India’s foremost intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), in conducting disinformation campaigns has, by and large, remained hidden from the media watch.  It is now being exposed. RAW is burning midnight oils to exploit USA’s sensitivity about certain ticklish subjects like Hawala transactions for funneling funds to “terrorists’, nuclear proliferation, use of missiles to hit aircraft, and development of chemical biological and nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

The RAW’s disinformation campaign, often bordering on lying, is well reflected by innocuous-looking news (unsupported by reference to information sources) that appear, from time to time, in Indian media. Hilaly debacle is a case in point.

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Casteism inside RSS, and its’ abhorrence

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Dr Ambedkar, the architect of Indian Constitution, believed that ‘RSS is a dangerous association’. The latest to join this belief is Bhanwar Maghwanshi, a former RSS worker and also the author of the book ‘I could not be Hindu’ (2020)

***

At the age of 13, Bhanwar Maghwanshi joined RSS. Instead of playing, learning and exploring, he opted to do something ‘bigger’ in his life. But, unfortunately, he was shocked to learn how RSS practices casteism without using the term ‘Dalit’ in its shakhas. He was active with RSS, as a sevak, during the so-called Janmbhoomi movement of Ayodhya in late 1980s. In his panchayat in Rajasthan, he never listened to azan or interacted with any Muslim – in person, but developed strong abhorrence for the Muslims when he was learning ‘skills’ in RSS. His dad was a Congress activist and discouraged him to join RSS (because, for him, RSS would never want ‘brahmin’ sevaks to sacrifice their lives) but BhanwarMeghwanshi – on positive note – entered RSS.

RSS is a hydra of Hindutva, Hindu Nationalism and Hindu Rashtra. BJP is its outcome. Since 2014, India is witnessing a systemic degradation of free speech, social equity, human development, economy, environment and women safety. The Modi government came to power in 2014 chanting ‘minimum government, maximum governance’ slogan but unfortunately it transformed India into ‘new’ India with the maxims of ‘minimum governance, maximum statism’. One of the oldest, yet contemporary, [social] statism is casteism. It’s 21st century and the elements of caste as a whole continues to haunt the democratic features of India. A recent NCRB data suggests that India is unsafe for Dalit and Adivasi girls. There’s an increase of 300% in hate crimes. The architect of India’s constitution Dr Ambedkar was ‘untouchable’ and had come to conclusions that Hinduism can’t be reformed. He chose Buddhism in October 1956 and found emancipation through the teachings of Buddha. The same is the case with BhanwarMeghwanshi who is an Ambedkarite today, learned a different version of Ambedkar in his RSS years. Even God knows that RSS has appropriated Dr Ambedkar conveniently, for its own political agenda.

Bhanwar’s ethnographic encounter in his book “I could not be Hindi – the story of a Dalit in the RSS” is essential to refute the pseudo-science of RSS or Hindutva trollers on the subjects of Islam, untouchability and other narratives. The book sheds a detailed light on what RSS is, casteism in the RSS, and how RSS makes its ground in the society. Navayana Publishing House mustered the courage to publish the book, unlike other ‘popular’ publishing houses, according to Bhanwar. He dreamt of becoming a ‘pracharak’ but was stopped to become a ‘vistarak’ because of his ‘caste’ and this is where he learned that he is a lesser Hindu than other Hindus in RSS. He left RSS after a very bitter experience. He writes, “We had organised an event of Sangh in my hometown, I was heading the event as I was the most active and passionate worker in my area. I had planned to make food at my home only for the senior guests and the priests who would join the event. My father strongly opposed and said that they would never eat food cooked by us. I did not listen to him. I cooked good Rajasthani food with pure ghee and invited them. They did not come home but said that ‘you just pack the food we will eat it in the next village, as we are running out of time’. I packed the food for them, I later learned that they did not have my food but threw it in a naala (gutter). As the district chief, I got angry with them and asked the reason, but did not get satisfactory answers. I was reminded of my father’s words that ‘people like us did not own any place in the Sangh’, it solely belongs to the upper castes.”

The book smashes the rosy picture of RSS and explains that the Dalits’ role in RSS is mere foot soldiers for the communal polarisation and Hindutva activities. In an interview to Caravan magazine (14th March 2020), Bhanwar Meghwanshi made it clear that “In the eyes of the Sangh, the Hindu Rashtra is a Brahmin nation with the varna system, the four vedas and the Manusmriti. The Sangh wants to run the nation on this very base. I feel that in the Sangh’s Hindu Rashtra, shudras or untouchables will be slaves, and Muslims, heretics or foreigners, will be given a second-class status.”

In this memoir, Bhanwar also writes that in his village, low caste people joined the RSS in large numbers: “Of the fifty or so children who attended the shakha in my village, most were OBCs—Kumhar, Jat, Gurjar, Mali and so on.” They joined because of the Sanskritization processes and because of the games they played in the shakha, but they resided for ideological reasons too as, slowly, they learnt that “hindukhatre main hai” (Hindus are in danger) because of Muslims and Christians. He also recalls that, while in the Sangh, he “heard a lot about weapons being stored in the basements of mosques” and that getting rid of the Babri Masjid was like “a second battle for independence”.

Bhanwar is not new in this race. A sarcastic letter authored by a Dalit activist P.D. Shelare, on 13/1/1934, published in ‘Janata’ divulged about casteism or caste segregation practices in some shakhas of RSS. Shelareratiocinated that RSS was aware of the practices but it did not react. It’s obvious to learn that Hinduism is incomplete without casteism. The caste practices made me leave Hinduism too, on 30th December 2018. I adopted Buddhism, on par with Dr Ambedkar’s teachings. While reading the book, I could resonate my experiences too. In the current landscape, interactions and social relations have changed a lot. Caste dynamics too. To add to the woes, love jihad law will further strengthen more endogamy and discourage intercaste marriages. Dining with Dalits alone would not bring about social changes. The ‘safe space’ for the dissents and Dalits is diminishing, whereas love for hatred is openly normalised. 

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