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India’s Neighbourhood Policy: Modi continues to scratch his head with firewood

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] I [/yt_dropcap]ndia’s relations with our neighbours are historical and traditional. During the Cold War, the behaviour of US and Soviet Union across the world had forced India to pursue less foreign policy initiatives, focus on domestic issues. Now China tries to do that job to India.

As India’s presence across the Indian Ocean declining, China filled the void of dominant power in the regions sphere of influence. At present China, has danced across the Indian Ocean, welcoming all neighbours as a dancing partner. Our observations lead us to presume that our neighbours are keen to continue this relationship with China because of Modi’s unrealistic foreign policy articulations. If this strategy persists India’s future relationship with her neighbours will be in jeopardy. As the window to thwart their ties with China continues to slowly close, the window of opportunity on the Chinese side is wide open. Lots of promises were made during the 2014 election campaign by prime ministerial candidate Modi and have yet to be fulfilled. Though Modi has less perception on foreign policy, he talked louder about the subject than any other candidate but failed to provide any clear policy framework. Days before the election, he heavily criticised the Congress government on its neighbourhood policies. In the last three years Modi’s strategy for neighbour relations has had no clear policy direction. This is seen in particular with India’s relationship with Pakistan, Nepal, and the Maldives, all of whom have seen a new low in diplomatic and economic relations. Sri Lanka wants to travel in two tracks, with both India and China. Our efforts are huge in Afghanistan butprovide little to our interest. Now this government is facing the real heat of their policy. The focus of this article is to critically evaluate how Modi has dealt with our neighbours in the last three years.

Pakistan is a major neighbouring state. During 2013-14 the Prime Ministerial candidate Modi attacked Dr Manmohan Singh stating his leadership should have more guts with strategic trajectory in handling Pakistan than the Congress Party led UPA government. Today, Modi is in a desperate mood as he faces people’s expectations and questions, in particular – in what way has his government policy differentiated from the previous Congress Party’s foreign policy? What happened to the promises made on the campaign trail?

In the last three years more than 150 armed forces members were killed while fighting terrorists and recently two soldiers martyred in active combat. Not only were these two soldiers killed in action, but they were mutilated and beheaded by Pakistan army. Though these acts are against the International Human Rights Law and Geneva Conventions, Pakistan denounced the claim for responsibility and failed to act. In the face of such a cruel and inhuman act, what is or where was Modi’s response to Pakistan?

Last September the BJP attempted to take credit for the surgical strike made by the Indian army that occurred on Modi’s order. Modi’s Administration statement states that the Pakistani Ambassador to India was summoned during this. While the Congress Party government did it, it was criticised by the BJP. Now it is the BJPs turn. They have to respond to the people, especially as ceasefire violations are continuing. The Uri attack was unforgivable, and Pathankot would be unforgettable. This government is functioning by statements and phrases. So what about Udhampur, Gurdaspur and Pampore? Modi’s strategists simply stopped with statements of condemnations. Has Pakistan been contained or controlled? No. What is this government’s policy on Pakistan? Does it have any worth-while, effective foreign policies? Would Modi’s foreign policy articulators have any perceptions on strategy? Why did Modi visit Pakistan to wish his counterpart on his birthday? Would this not be considered a bluff incident to analyse and ultimately be criticised by IR scholars? Why this sudden failed tilt? Without any homework, Modi’s Pakistan visit was more of a performance and created big media debate than anything else. This is not a strategic move.  

With what reason was Pakistan allowed to investigate the Pathankot base? This is right time to implement changes and direction into India’s policy. Though Pakistan is facing challenges from across the spectrum, its geographical location makes it difficult for the US, Russia and China to isolate or dismantle their relations, even as the war on terror continues to be a global, primary national security threat. India exercising its diplomacy by using the word ‘terror’ to isolate Pakistan from the international system has not yet yielded any expected advantage. China announced a new $43 billion partnership with Pakistan. The new president of the U.S., although favouring India, insisting us to talk with Pakistan. Has Modi not seen that our ally Russia continues to try and sell military equipment and weapons to Pakistan, even participating in military exercises together. However, India still imports 75% of her military procurements from Russia. This may be because if India was to divert some of its military purchasesto the US and Israel, it would not be well received by Russia. For this reason, Russia is emitting a warning signal to India by making a move towards Pakistan. Responding to Russia, Modi’s External Affairs Department has showed nothing but disgust, which demonstrates that the department was not functioning properly or not allowed to function.

The day in 1979 when Afghanistan was invaded by Soviet forces, was a troubling period for all South Asian nations. They all wondered, what is going on in Afghanistan? The post-US withdrawal created a vacuum for the Taliban to restart theirfundamental Islamic political movement again. Pakistan would like to undermine and dismantle India’s investment in Afghanistan by using the Taliban. An unstable Afghanistan would be a crisisfor all its neighbours. India has invested vast amounts of money and resources to create stability and security across Afghanistan.Bilaterally, New Delhi and Kabul’s realisation are very encouraging and convergent. However, the policy under Modi is not enough to support President Ashraf Ghani in combating the Taliban directly. Hesitation inestablishing and strengthening Afghani security is a weak policy and this needs to be resolved. A week ago its former President Hamid Karzai said, “India should have its own policy on Afghanistan”. This is absolutely right.The International Community acknowledges our commitment to rebuild Afghanistan, but to safe guard what we have built and established there the Modi government needs to have a separate policy in strengthening Afghanistan. This includes giving the armed forces training and knowledge of the Taliban as a terrorist organization and the weapons they use. If not, all the contribution and work carried out by India in the post-US withdrawal in Afghanistan could disappear. Moreover, failing to rethink our present strategy on Afghanistan, in particular itslax security condition and ambiguous, unclear initiatives only embolden the Taliban to take control of another city like Kunduz.

Once, Nepal was akin to a state within India. Then, Nepal became a buffer state between the two giants of India and China. Now, under the current Modi government’s strategy it has become akin to a state within China. Nepal’s failure to accommodate India’s concern over their new constitution showeddisrespect to India’s ruling elite.This caused a major rift between New Delhi and Kathmandu, and was widened by our National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s suggestions to apply realism to Nepal. The Modi government stopped the energy supply to Nepal and this impacted their domestic politics, heavily backfiring on our relations with the nation. The result of this was Nepal being pushed to acquire its energy supply from China. As the saying goes, this indicates that Modi may have scratched his head with firewood. When a landlocked country like Nepal solely relies on us, there is never an appropriate time to suggest the application of realist approach to its government. There is no need to follow that approach, particularly when it does not take an IR scholar to know that Nepal has no other choice but to turn to its other neighbour. Who pushed Nepal into China’s lap? No one else to blame. It is absolutely the failure of Modi government. Now we cannot expect the same trust from Nepal, as they will always have China as an option.

Bangladesh shares its borders with India and Myanmar. However, China invested more than $38.05 billion into the country the last year. Investment inflow is good for Bangladesh because their other demands will be imported from India. At the same time, China’s also aims to move Bangladesh into their sphere of influence in order to gain regional leverage against India in the future. Modi’s soft corner with Prime Minister with Sheikh Hasina would be a traditional method. Reaching out to the opposition is also a good strategic trajectory and Modi should try this. The recent visit of Hasina to India after a seven year gap was proclaimed as a success from both sides. The Indian prime minister announced a $5 billion line of credit to Bangladesh. This shows that New Delhi and Dakha have moved beyond Teesta. In addition, if the Modi government makes a comfortable environment to resolve the Teesta it will strengthen Hasina’s hands in the upcoming election in Bangladesh. However, no fresh thinking has been added in terms of solutions to Teesta or containing China’s influence in Bangladesh. It indicates that the Modi government has failed in articulating new policy directions towards Dhaka.

The new government of Myanmar has taken a new policy shift after the Foreign Minister Aung Suu Kyi visited China. Her earlier objections on Chinese investments in Myanmar are now given importance and under reconsideration by her government. We can certainly presume that this is a new shift by the democratically elected government. Still, the new government has an emotional attachment with India that can be strengthened while the foreign minister visits India. However, Aung Suu Kyi’s mind may change and turn towardother neighbours for investment from abroad. Obviously China will be a better option for them than India. During 2015-16 India’s bilateral trade with Myanmar was just $2 billion and Chinese with Myanmar was $9.4 billion. China is ready to offer everything that India can not. For this reason we cannot blame Aung Suu Kyi’s change in policy stance. Now she is not a leader of a movement but Myanmar’s foreign affairs minister and the State Councillor. She has a responsibility to take care of Myanmar’s interests, not India’s. To continue historic bilateral trade agreements for the sake of old friendships would not benefit India either. Constrictive policies and follow-ups are completely missing from India towards Myanmar. Modi’s achievement in regard to India’s relations with Myanmar has been inadequate and this government has pushed Myanmar towards China. However, the consolation would be the commitment of Aung Suu Kyi – that Rangoon will never allow any third parties to target India from their land.

India gave humble warnings to the Maldivian government while it failed to consider giving afair trial to the former President Mohamed Nasheed. Further, what was India’s stance on the Maldives while the increasing activity of ISIS and Saudi Arabia’s madrasas flowed in effortlessly? How is it possible to maintain that we are the main security provider across the Indian Ocean, while the Modi government abstains to give resolutions to the island nations issues. However, the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) states are expecting from India to deliver our policy exercises and allow the democratically elected system to rule Maldives.Moreover, Modi did not visit the Maldives while he travelled to the Indian Ocean countries. It was announced that the prime minister would not be visiting the island due to the difficult situation unravelling in the Maldives. Still, India is hanging on to the old policy of non-intervention under Modi’s administration at a time when India is seeking major power status in the international system, while the world is facing multipolar disorder. This indicates that our policy is paving the way for the Chinese to intrude and spread their presence in the Indian Ocean.

India and Sri Lanka face many difficult challenges. Between Indian-Sri Lankan fishermen issue, the UN enquiry into human rights violations during the 2009 war, concerns of LTTE reestablishments, India’s concern of Chinese Investment in Sri Lanka, the debate on the new constitution, and Sri Lanka’s policy dance between India and China, it seems support to Sri Lankan in the last three years has diminished. In this environment, it would be wise to presume that Sri Lankans will move their focus towards where help and support is presented. For this reason we cannot accuse our neighbours of turning their backs, rather they have changed due to their own national interest, and China stands with their interest. Engaging with our neighbour, China’s trajectory is very clear in that it would like to hold its dominant position in the Indian Ocean. He had accused and criticised the previous Congress government, but he does not have any new policies with him or demonstrate any significant change. If Modi has guts, he should talk with strong diplomatic language to our neighbour that if Colombo’s moves hurt India’s interest, it means they are hurting themselves.

Conclusion

Our traditional ties with our neighbours are now under threat. The rising shift in focus of our neighbours towards China will not be thwarted unless a suitable strategy is applied by Indian policy makers. Not enacting a significant policy sooner has been a huge loss and major mistake. Today, our strategy indicates that our relationship with our neighbours has one major obstacle – that is they must notbe too close to China. Traditionally, it was India that provided security and support across the region. Whenever the Chinese land on our neighbour’s soil with the bequest of economic assistance and stronger diplomatic ties, our governments response is not very sharp. Hence, this has not displayed any serious diplomatic pressure on our neighbours. Moreover, Modi has no trust in his external ministry or external affairs ministerto work effectively and discharge her duties. This is the main reason he is not willing to accommodate her in his foreign visits. Modi’s foreign policy formulations are only by their government secretaries. This government’s department of external affairs issues run by a government secretary. The prime ministerstill believes in his personnel charisma in dealing with the foreign policy of India. It has considerably failed. Since he does not realise this- his government will not learn from past mistakes either. China’s perceptions are not presumed by this government. This would be observed as a large weakness of this government’s diplomatic circle. Where ever our policy is weak, without any difficulty or hesitation China has managed toland very safely. The present ‘soft power’ approach of this government would not give any strategic advantage to India’s interest with our neighbours. Like a bandwagon, our neighbouring states are ‘looking east’by standing in our hold. If this government could not make our neighbours stand at our side, then seeking major power status in the international power system under this administration would be a joke.

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

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India’s multi-alignment: the origins, the past, and the present

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In the initial two decades following India’s independence, India’s foreign policy was heavily determined by the personal predilections of its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his protégé VK Krishna Menon, both influenced by British socialism. Nehru himself handled the external affairs portfolio until his death in 1964.

The policy of ‘non-alignment’ which the duo initiated in India’s foreign policy gained world-wide attention since early 1950s, which later became a full-fledged movement and forum of discussion in 1961 (NAM) that consisted of developing and newly decolonised nations from different parts of the world, primarily from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

But, the policy never meant isolationism or neutrality; rather it was conceived as a positive and constructive policy in the backdrop of the US-USSR Cold War, enabling freedom of action in foreign and security policies, even though many of the individual NAM member states had a tilt towards the Soviet Union, including India.

However, the lofty Nehruvian idealism of India’s foreign policy in its initial decades was not successful enough in integrating well into India’s security interests and needs, as it lost territories to both China and Pakistan during the period, spanning 1947 to 1964.

However, when Indira Gandhi assumed premiership, realism had strongly gained ground in India’s political, diplomatic and military circles, as evident in India’s successful intervention in the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Even at that point of time, India still sticked on to the policy of non-alignment until it was no longer feasible in a changed international system that took shape following the end of the Cold War, which is where the origins of a new orientation in India’s foreign policy decision-making termed as ‘multi-alignment’ lies.

Today, India skilfully manoeuvres between China-led or Russia-led groupings such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), along with its involvement in US-led groupings such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or the Quad), in which Japan and Australia are also members.

Militarily though, India is still not part of any formal treaty alliance, and is simultaneously part of a diverse network of loose and issue-specific coalitions and regional groupings, led by adversarial powers, with varying founding objectives and strategic imperatives.

Today, non-alignment alone can no longer explain the fact that recently India took part in a US-chaired virtual summit meeting of the Quad in March 2021 and three months later attended a BRICS ministerial meet, where China and Russia were also present.

So, how did India progress from its yesteryear policy of remaining equidistant from both the US-led and Soviet-led military blocs (non-alignment) and how did it begin to align with multiple blocs or centres of power (multi-alignment)? Answer to this question stretches three decades back.

World order witness a change, India adapts to new realities

1992 was a watershed year for Indian diplomacy. A year back, the Soviet Union, a key source of economic and military support for India till then, disappeared in the pages of history, bringing the Cold War to its inevitable end.

This brought a huge vacuum for India’s strategic calculations. Combined with a global oil shock induced by the First Gulf War of 1990 triggered a balance of payment crisis in India, which eventually forced the Indian government to liberalise and open up its economy for foreign investments and face competition.

India elected a pragmatic new prime minister in 1991 – PV Narasimha Rao. The vision he had in mind for India’s standing in the world was quite different from his predecessors. Then finance minister and later PM, Dr Manmohan Singh announced in the Indian Parliament, “No power on earth can stop an idea whose time has come”.

This was during his 1991 budget speech and it marked the beginning of building a new India where excessive control of the state on economic and business affairs seemed no longer a viable option.

At a time when Japan’s economy was experiencing stagnation, China was ‘peacefully rising’, both economically and industrially. The United States remained as the most influential power and security provider in Asia with its far-reaching military alliance network.

As the unipolar world dawned proclaiming the supremacy of the United States, PM Rao steered Indian foreign policy through newer pastures, going beyond traditional friends and partners like Russia.

In another instance, 42 years after India recognised Israel as an independent nation in 1950, both countries established formal diplomatic ties in 1992. Indian diplomats accomplished a task long overdue without affecting the existing amicable ties with Palestine.

In the recent escalation of the Israel-Hamas conflict, it is worth noting that India took a more balanced stance at the United Nations, which was different from its previous stances that reflected an open and outright pro-Palestine narrative.

Today, India values its ties with Israel on a higher pedestal, even in areas beyond defence and counter-terrorism, such as agriculture, water conservation, IT and cyber security.

Breaking the ice with the giant across the Himalayas

China is a huge neighbour of India with which its shares a 3,488-km long un-demarcated border. Skirmishes and flare-ups resulting from difference in perception of the border and overlapping patrolling areas are a regular occurrence in this part of the world.

For the first time after the 1962 war with China, which resulted in a daunting defeat for India, diplomatic talks for confidence-building in the India-China border areas were initiated by the Rao government in 1993, resulting in the landmark Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the defacto border between India and China.

The agreement also provided a framework for ensuring security along the LAC between both sides until a final agreement on clear demarcation of the border is reached out. The 1993 agreement created an expert group consisting of diplomats and military personnel to advise the governments on the resolution of differences in perception and alignment of the LAC. The pact was signed in Beijing in September 1993, during PM Rao’s visit to China.

Former top diplomat of India Shivshankar Menon noted in one of his books that the 1993 agreement was “the first of any kind relating specifically to the border between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China … It formalized in an international treaty a bilateral commitment by India and China to maintain the status quo on the border. In effect, the two countries promised not to seek to impose or enforce their versions of the boundary except at the negotiating table.”

The 1993 pact was followed by another one in 1996, the Agreement on Military Confidence-Building Measures. The following two decades saw a number of agreements being signed and new working mechanisms being formalized, even though two major standoffs occurred in the Ladakh sector in 2013 and 2020 respectively and one in between in the Sikkim sector in 2017.

The agreements served as the basis upon which robust economic ties flourished in the 2000s and 2010s, before turning cold as a result of Chinese aggression of 2020 in Ladakh. However, the 1993 agreement still was a landmark deal as we consider the need for peace in today’s increasingly adversarial ties between the two nuclear-armed Asian giants.

Integrates with Asia’s regional architecture

Before the early 1990s, India’s regional involvements to its east remained limited to its socio-cultural ties, even though the region falls under India’s extended neighbourhood, particularly Southeast Asia. But, since 1992, when the Look East Policy (LEP) was formulated under the Rao government, India has been venturing into the region to improve its abysmal record of economic and trade ties with countries the region.

New Delhi began reaching out to the ASEAN or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1992 and was made a Sectoral Partner of the association in the same year. Thus, India kicked-off the process of its integration into the broader Asian regional architecture.

In 1996, India became a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum, a key platform for talks on issues of security in the wider Indo-Pacific region. India became ASEAN’s summit-level partner in 2002 and a strategic partner in 2012.

A free trade agreement (FTA) was agreed between ASEAN and India in 2010. And in 2014, the erstwhile LEP was upgraded into the Act East Policy (AEP). Today, the ASEAN region remains at the centre of India’s evolving Indo-Pacific policy.

Bonhomie with the superpower across the oceans, the United States

1998 was an important year, not just for India, but for the world. Until May that year, only the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council possessed nuclear capabilities. That year, ‘Buddha smiled again’ in the deserts of India’s Rajasthan state, as India under PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee successfully conducted a series of underground nuclear bomb tests, declaring itself a nuclear state, 24 years after its first nuclear test in 1974 code-named ‘Smiling Buddha’.

The move surprised even the US intelligence agencies, as India managed to go nuclear by bypassing keen US satellite eyes that were overlooking the testing site. Shortly after this, Pakistan also declared itself a nuclear state.

India’s nuclear tests invited severe international condemnation for New Delhi and badly affected its relationship with Washington, resulting in a recalling of its Ambassador to India and imposed economic sanctions, which was a big blow for India’s newly liberalised economy.

But, a bonhomie was reached between India and the US in a matter of two years and then US President Bill Clinton visited India in March 2000, the first presidential visit since 1978. The Indo-US Science and technology Forum was established during this visit and all the sanctions were revoked by following year.

Bharat Karnad, a noted Indian strategic affairs expert, notes in one his books that, “Vajpayee’s regime conceived of ‘strategic autonomy’ to mask its cultivating the US, which resulted in the NSSP”.

The Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) between the US and India was launched in January 2004 that covered wide ranging areas of cooperation such as nuclear energy, space, defence and trade. This newfound warmth in Indo-US relations was taken to newer heights with the conclusion of the landmark civil nuclear deal between 2005 and 2008.

Today, India is a key defence partner of the United States, having signed all the four key foundational pacts for military-to-military cooperation, the latest being the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geo-spatial cooperation, signed in October 2020. The two countries are key partners in the Quad grouping and share similar concerns about an increasingly assertive China in the Indo-Pacific region.

Like his predecessors, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been trying to cultivate this special relationship with the United States, reinforced by cooperation in the Quad grouping and also by constantly engaging a 4.8-million strong Indian diaspora in the United States.

The leaders of both countries, from Vajpayee to Modi and from Clinton to Trump have reciprocated bilateral visits to each other’s countries. And, India looks forward to the Biden-Harris administration for new areas of cooperation.

But, a recent military manoeuvre in April, this year, by a US Navy ship (which it calls a FONOP or Freedom of Navigation Operation) in India’s exclusive economic zone, off Lakshadweep coast, casted a shadow over this relations.

The US openly stated in social media that it entered the area without seeking India’s prior consent and asserted its navigational rights. This invited mixed reactions, as it was highly uncalled for. While some analysts consider it humiliating, others think that the incident occurred due to the difference of perceptions about international maritime law in both countries.

Today, along with the US, India skilfully manages its ‘historical and time-tested’ ties with Russia, a strategic foe of the US, and moves forward to purchase Russian-made weapon systems, such as the S-400 missile defence system, even after a threat of sanctions. But, in the past several years, India has been trying to diversify its defence procurements from other countries such as France and Israel and has been also promoting indigenisation of defence production.

A BRICS formula for responsible multilateralism

India is a founding member of the BRICS grouping, formalised in 2006, now consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – the emerging economies of that time with a potential to drive global economic growth and act as an alternate centre of power along with other groupings of rich countries such as the G-7 and the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

India always stood for a responsible global multilateral system and rules-based order. Indian leaders have attended all summit-level meetings of BRICS since 2009 unfailingly. Last year, the summit took place in the backdrop of India-China border standoff in Ladakh, under Russia’s chair, a common friend of both countries, where the leaders of India and China came face-to-face for the first time, although in virtual format.

The primary focus of BRICS remains economic in nature, but it also takes independent stances on events occurring in different parts of the world. The grouping also established a bank to offer financial assistance for development projects known as the New Development Bank (NDB) based in Shanghai, China, in 2014, with an Indian as its first elected president.

BRICS also became the first multilateral grouping in the world to endorse the much-needed TRIPS waiver proposal jointly put forward by India and South Africa at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to suspend intellectual property rights on Covid vaccine-making during the duration of the pandemic to provide developing countries that lack adequate technologies with means to battle the virus.

As India gears up to host this year’s upcoming BRICS summit, there is no doubt that being part of the grouping has served the country’s interests well.

Manoeuvring the SCO, along the shores of the Indo-Pacific

The SCO or the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is a regional organisation consisting of eight Eurasian powers, largest in the world both in terms of land area and population covered. It stands for promoting mutual cooperation and stability, where security issues can be freely discussed and conflicts are attempted to be resolved.

India is not a founding member of the SCO, which was created in 2001. Both India and Pakistan were admitted as full members in 2017. The grouping’s members also include Russia, China and four Central Asian countries, excluding Turkmenistan.

Sharing a common platform with Pakistan and China and the presence of a long-term friend, Russia, has helped India diplomatically in key occasions. Using the SCO platform, the existing differences between member states can be discussed and prevented from escalating into major conflicts.

This was evident most recently visible in 2020 when the foreign ministers of India and China agreed on a plan for the disengagement of Indian and Chinese troops from the LAC, as a major step in the diffusion of tensions in Ladakh that had erupted since May that year.

But, Russia and China collectively oppose the usage of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’, something that surfaced into political discourse with the famous speech delivered by the former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in August 2007 in the Parliament of India, calling for “the confluence of two seas” and hinting at a new maritime continuum of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

It is in this context that the grouping of India, Japan, Australia and the United States gained prominence. The four Quad countries came together to offer humanitarian assistance following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the ambit of the grouping’s co-operation ranges from maritime security to cooperation in Covid vaccine production and distribution.

After a decade since the first joint naval exercise of the four Quad countries took place in 2007, the ASEAN’s Manila summit in 2017 provided a platform for the four countries to connect with each other and enhance consultations to revive the four-nation grouping.

The Quad has been raised to the summit level now with the March 2021 virtual summit, and has also conducted two joint naval exercises so far, one in 2007 and the other in 2020. This loose coalition is widely perceived as a counterweight to an increasingly assertive China.

India is the only country in the Quad that shares a land border with China. At the same time, India is also the only country that is not a formal security ally of the United States, meaning if India quits, the Quad ceases to exist, while the other three countries can still remain as treaty allies. However, setting the US aside, cooperation among the other three Quad partners has also been witnessing a boom since the last year.

India and Japan have expanded co-operation in third countries in India’s neighbourhood such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar to improve connectivity and infrastructure in the region and offer an alternative to China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, which is perceived as having implications of a potential debt-trap aimed at fetching strategic gains.

Amid the pandemic, both the countries have joined hands with Australia to launch a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) to diversify key supply chains away from China.

However, India doesn’t perceive a free and open Indo-Pacific as an exclusionary strategy targeted at containing some country, rather as an inclusive geographic concept, where co-operation over conflict is possible. This was articulated by Prime Minister Modi in 2018 at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore.

Various additions were made to this view in later stages, as the concept evolved into a coherent form, representing New Delhi’s expanding neighbourhood. This vision aligns well with related initiatives such the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) and the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), aimed at improving maritime security, trade, connectivity and management of shared resources.

The future

For India, this is an era of complex multi-alignment, different from the Cold War-era international system, where multiple centres of power exist. At different time periods in the past, India has adapted well to the changing circumstances and power dynamics in the international system.

India’s strategic posture today, despite being aspirational, is to have good relations with all its neighbours, regional players, and the major powers, to promote rules-based order, and in the due process to find its own deserving place in the world.

In July, last year, India’s External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar has made it clear that India ‘will never be part of an alliance system’, even though a tilt towards the US is increasingly getting visible, taking the China factor into account. Jaishankar also stated that global power shifts are opening up spaces for middle powers like India.

As the world tries to avoid another Cold War, this time between the United States and China, the competing geopolitics of the Eurasian landmass and the Indo-Pacific maritime region is poised to add up to New Delhi’s many dilemmas in the coming years.

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The unrecognized demographic situation of West Bengal and consequences yet to occur

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World’s second large demographic nation India’s state West Bengal is now apparently residence of over 91 million population. At the same time, West Bengal is the fourth-most populous state and the fourteenth-large state by area in India. It is also the seventh-most populous country subdivision of the world. To get an insight into the present situation of West Bengal anyone has to look back in 1947 and later consequences. As being a prominent ethnocultural region of India, West Bengal faced political partition in the year 1947 in the wake of the transformation of British India into two separate independent nations India and Pakistan.  Under the process of partition, the then Bengal province was bifurcated into two segments. The predominately Hindu living area named West Bengal, a state of India, and the predominately-Muslim living area turned as East Bengal and after becoming a province of Pakistan that renamed as East Pakistan and later in 1971, the Muslim-majority country of Bangladesh.

In 1971 at the time of partition, the Muslim population of West Bengal counted 12% and the Hindu population of East Bengal remained 30%. While at present, with continuous Muslim immigration, Hindu persecution, conversions, and less production of offspring, West Bengal’s Muslim population has increased to 30% (up to 63% in some districts). While as per the counting report of 2011 Bangladesh’s Hindu population has decreased to 8%. When at the present situation for Hindus in Bangladesh is certainly dire, then life has become increasingly difficult for Hindus in West Bengal, having a Muslim-appeasing government. The governance of the elected government led to the demographic and cultural shifts in West Bengal. Prevailing of the same governance after the 2021 Bidhansabha election leads to the destruction of Hindu’s belonging everywhere in Bengal. The situation stood worse in the outskirts where media coverage is poor, compelling Hindu families to flee in adjacent states or to hide. A sizable number of Bengali Hindu families already preferred to shift to Assam.

Looking back as per a striking report of July 2014 by Times of India fewer children were born in Bengal and the prediction was there will be even fewer in the next generation. The 2011 Census shows a decadal growth of 13.84% in West Bengal, which was significantly below the national growth average of 17.7%, and the decadal growth was lowest ever and beaten only by the aftermath of the infamous Famine of  Bengal,1942.

While the retrospective study of the demography of West Bengal shows that the culturally dominant Hindu population in West Bengal during the first census of 1951 was around 19,462,706 and in the 2011 census it had increased to 64,385,546. While the percentage of the Hindu population in the state decreased from 78.45% in 1951 to 70.54% in the 2011 Census. The data sharply indicates fewer children birth within families of Hindus only while the population of Muslim counterparts tends to grow over time. Once considered a symbol of Indian culture, what has happened in Bengal for the last few decades is the indicator of West Bengal’s demographic future.

Starting from the diminishing of the Hindu culture, communal riots against the Hindus have started happening for quite some time and the situation has been that the banning of celebrating the festivals of Hindus has started in the last few years. Added to those the recent genocide of Hindus depicting a recent trend of population.

Back in 2015 the famous American journalist Janet Levy has written an article on Bengal and the revelations that have been made in it state that Bengal will soon become a separate Islamic country. Janet Levy claims in her article that civil war is going to start soon in Bengal after Kashmir. Which almost begun in recent times in the wake of the Bidhansabha Election of West Bengal.   

Ushering the prediction of Janet Levy mass Hindus will be massacred and demanded a separate country.

She cited the facts for his claim back in 2015 that the Chief Minister of West Bengal has recognized more than 10,000 madrassas who were privileged to receive funds from Saudi Arabia and made their degree eligible for a government job, money comes from Saudi and in those madrassas, Wahhabi bigotry is taught.

In the recent past Chief Minister started several Islamic city projects where Islamic people are taught also started a project to establish an Islamic city in West Bengal. It’s evident that Chief Minister has also declared various types of stipends for the Imams of mosques but no such stipends were declared for Hindus primarily. Janet Levy has given many examples around the world where terrorism, religious fanaticism, and crime cases started increasing as the Muslim population increased. With increasing population, a separate Sharia law is demanded at such places, and then finally it reaches the demand of a separate country.

Author and activist Taslima Nasreen once became reason to test the ground reality for West Bengal.

In 1993, Taslima Nasreen wrote a book ‘Lajja’ on the issue of atrocities on Hindus in Bangladesh and forcibly making them Muslims.

After writing the book, she had to leave Bangladesh facing the threat of bigotry. The author settled in Kolkata considering that she will be safe there as India is a secular country and the constitution also provided the freedom of expression. Eventually experienced the nightmare that Taslima Nasreen had to face a riot-like situation against her in 2007 in Kolkata. Even in a secular country like India, Muslims banned Taslima Nasreen with hatred. Fatwas issued to cut her throat on the secular land of India.

Upholding the threat the author was also attacked several times in different cities of the country.

But the secular Leftists never supported Taslima, not even the Trinamool government of West Bengal because the Muslims would get angry and the vote bank would face shaking.

That time first attempt was made in which Muslim organizations in West Bengal demanded the Islamic blasphemy (Blasfamie) law. Raising questions on India’s secularism and action of secular parties.

Janet Levy further wrote that for the first time in 2013 some fundamentalist Maulanas of Bengal started demanding a separate ‘Mughalistan’. In the same year riots in Bengal, houses and shops of hundreds of Hindus were looted and many temples were also destroyed by rioters under the safe shelter of government and police.

After the Bidhansava Election 2021 the Hindus of West Bengal facing the same or even worse situation.

Are Hindus boycotted?

Victorious party supremo of West Bengal was afraid that if the Muslims were stopped they would get angry and would not vote and after getting freshly elected her government falls into that vicious circle again.

It is evident from the aftermath of the election result in West Bengal that not only riots but to drive away Hindus, in districts where there are more Muslims, boycotting Hindu businessman. In the Muslim majority districts of Malda, Murshidabad, and North Dinajpur, Muslims do not even buy goods from Hindu shops. This is the reason why a large number of Hindus have started migrating from West Bengal like Kashmiri Pandits, here Hindus leaving their homes and businesses and moving to other places. These are the districts where Hindus have become a minority.

Invoking such incidents Janet, stated that the demand for partition of Bengal from India will soon begin from the land of West Bengal. No demographic theorist interpreted the present demographic situation of West Bengal sabotaging Malthusian theory.

In accord with Janet’s analysis, a few recent sources also indicated the number of the Muslim population, in reality, is much higher than the number on record given to the hiding of numbers of children by Muslim parents when a survey takes place. Implementing CAA, NRC could have been way out for West Bengal to check the proper demographic status and to prevent further population explosion to sustain Bengali Hindus. Perceiving the appeasement politics of government for the last 10 years it’s seeming to be unlikely to get any sharp solution. 

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South Asia

Covid-19 has made Feminist Foreign Policy all the more Relevant to India

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Photo: Amit Ranjan/Unsplash

As the impact of the year long COVID19 pandemic continues to be felt across different parts of India—where patriarchy is entrenched in the social code and inequalities against women are being intuitively practised—the repercussions of the health crisis along with the ever deepening gender gaps are being disproportionately and severely borne by women. Yet, most of the discussions revolving around the pandemic have either been gender-blind or gender-neutral, often resulting in the systemic subjugation or marginalisation of women.

In light of these challenges, the thematic debate on gender equality can no longer continue just on papers, it in fact, needs to be converted into actions by the Indian government in order to deal with the short term consequences of the pandemic as well as to develop long-term sustainable peace. The adoption of a Feminist Foreign Policy (FFP) framework is the best way to achieve this dual goal. A FFP could offer a concrete opportunity for India to build a more inclusive policy making set-up; breakaway from the predominant patriarchal notions; and, address pandemic relief strategies—from the viewpoint of women and other vulnerable or under-represented sections of society.

Gendered Impact of COVID19 in India

Within India’s socio-cultural and economic realms—that have historically been marred by inequalities and rigid stereotypes—the gendered effects of the COVID19 pandemic have been both, intersectional and complex.

To begin with, owing to the rapidly increasing number of COVID-19 patients, health-care workers in India, particularly the nurses of whom approximately 88.9 per cent are women remain much more vulnerable to contracting the deadly virus. The existing problem of shortage of basic equipment for these healthcare workers further aggravates these concerns.

Second, the pandemic has had a detrimental impact on an already shrinking Indian economy resulting in financial cut downs and rising unemployment. Women—either due to the deeply embedded patriarchal attitudes or due to the subconscious bias that arises out of such attitudes—have stood at the forefront of being temporarily or permanently laid-off from their jobs. According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, with the commencement of the nationwide lockdown, the rate of unemployment reached 23.5 per cent in March to April 2020 with higher shares of unemployed women. The unemployment rate for women further reached 12.39 per cent as of February 2021.

Third, women in India are now being confronted with a shadow pandemic where forced proximity, isolation, increased substance abuse, lack of access to justice etc. during the on-going health crisis has resulted in an increasing threat of domestic or gender-based violence.  As per a set of data released by the National Commission of Women in April 2020, there was an almost 100 per cent increase in domestic violence during the lockdown.

Nonetheless, these are only some of the immediate effects of the pandemic on women in India. There are other sequential consequences that will emerge in time including, the problems of depletion in savings and assets, pandemic-related widowhood, etc., which would collaboratively make recovery extremely difficult for women.

Evidently, in India, the pandemic is exploiting pre-existing economic and social inequalities along with social norms that give men embedded advantages, and has been posing a real threat to closing gender gaps. In fact, according to the recent World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index, India has already slipped down 28 spots to rank 140th among 156 countries in comparison to its 112th position among 153 countries for the year 2019-2020.

But despite bearing a differential impact, women in India have not been included either directly or indirectly in the development of response strategies to deal with COVID19. As such, they remain absent from decision-making tables that involve the shaping of the future of our societies. However, research indicates that the inclusion of women along with other diverse voices makes for better options in policy making and in bringing about comprehensive outcomes that accommodate the needs and concerns of all groupings.

How can a FFP help?

These unfortunate states of affairs demand an adjustment in India’s thinking and strategy, bring about a paradigmatic shift in its traditional policymaking and allow for diverse representation to effectively deal with COVID19 pandemic. The present crisis is therefore, precisely the time to be talking about a FFP in India and for its representatives to make a stronger commitment to mainstream gender at the policy level.

By critically reflecting on the existing international power structures, a FFP framework focuses on protecting the needs of marginalised and female groups and places issues of human security and human rights at the heart of discussions. In doing so, it provides a fundamental shift from the conventional understanding of security to include other arena of foreign policy such as economics, finance, environment, health, trade etc.

With this new perception of health risks and crisis management as a security threat, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, India can potentially explore broadening the humanitarian trade options under its international arrangements to address shortages of medicine and lack of access to personal protective equipment for health workers within its territory— a vast majority of which continue to be women.

The adoption of a FFP could also pave the way for an increased regional cooperation, facilitate regional discussions on myriad issues and enable the development of targeted recovery program designed specifically for the empowerment of women. Such a program would account for the fact that the economic repercussions of crises disproportionately affect women and therefore, help India in securing assistance from its neighbour to address the gendered economic and social effects of the COVID19 pandemic.

Besides, FFP does not only mean considering power structures and managing relations at the global level alone but also evaluating outcomes within the country’s own domestic landscape. In this sense, a FFP could provide India with an important starting point for bringing about an internal shift by focusing more on gender issues, especially in terms of the strictly defined patriarchal gender roles and eliminate barriers that continue to restrict women’s participation in decision-making processes.

An emphasis on women’s participation in India’s leadership positions would in turn catalyse the application a gender lens to the process of domestic policymaking, thereby, achieving comprehensive outcomes that are inclusive of diverse perspectives. Such policies will promote women’s concerns as humanitarian issues, prioritize and safeguard the continuum of sexual and reproductive health and rights, and continue to facilitate the provision of information and education, thus making women better equipped to deal with the consequences of the pandemic.


Adding on to these factors, given that the FFP is an all-inclusive approach, its application could also potentially strengthen cooperation between the Indian government and civil society organisations or women’s network at home as well as abroad to manage the pandemic and its deleterious effect on people, especially women. At a time when the government resources are overwhelmed in their fight against the pandemic, greater involvement of civil society organisations can in fact, play a critical role in advocating social justice, women’s rights, social equity, and provide medical and food support, distribution of hygiene kits, spreading awareness about the virus, etc. These efforts could bring about a considerable improvement in women’s vulnerable position under the current Covid19 crisis in India.

Conclusion

As such, the FFP approach offers huge potential to address some the major institutional and organisational injustices against women in India, and the COVID19 pandemic represents a critical juncture in this regards. A FFP is important not only to ensure that the gendered imbalances inflicted by COVID19 do not become permanent but also for the long term economic and social development of the country, the strengthening of democratic institutions, and the advancement of national security as well as peace. But whether India will adopt or even consider moving towards a FFP in the near future remains to be seen.

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