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Nepal’s journey towards resilient foreign policy

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There is a huge potential of rapid economic development if Nepal handles its relation with two Asian giants in a proper, pragmatic and prudent manner. The year 2017 has shown some indications in this direction which must be continued by new government in 2018.  2017 turned to bean encouraging year of Nepal with many positive developments in bilateral, regional and multilateral forums.

Nepalhas built upa degree of maturity in dealing with our immediate neighbors which are a key foreign policy challenge. The principle of balanced relation with both neighbors is gradually and slowly being materialized. Due to growing rivalry between India and China, Nepal’s foreign policy needs a lot of fine balancing, and we are mastering to handle such complex issue.

When there was a standoff between India and China over Doklam issues, like other south Asian countries, Nepal faced pressures to take position. Nepal showed a maturity by not taking sides of both countries. There was veiled pressure from both India and China to take their sides on Doklam issue but Nepal maintained an independent\neutral policy which was widely appreciated and acknowledged. On the basis of some provisions of 1950 Peace and Friendship, Nepal was under pressure to take India’s side in Doklam dispute. Later, India and China diplomatically resolved their 70-day long standoff diplomatically.

Another instance is Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI), a centerpiece of China’s foreign policy. Citing some sovereignty and security related issues, India is pressing its immediate neighbors no to be a part of BRI projects. Despite India’s pressure, all south Asian countries except Bhutan have signed on BRI projects.Despite pressures from India, then Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal managed to sign BRI framework with China on May 12, few days ago Belt and Road Conference held in Beijing. The next challenge for Nepal is to select and execute projects under BRI in an independent and prudent way.

Not only with India and China, Nepal has started to take independent decisions in international platforms and its international stature is gradually increasing.  Nepal voted against American President Donald Trump’s unilateral call to make Jerusalem despite warnings to cut development assistances. Nepal’s this policy is continuation of Nepal’s adherence to its policy of non-alignment.

In 2017, Nepal was elected to the powerful United Nations Human Rights Council for the term of 2018-2020. Nepal will be serving in that capacity for the first time since UN’s policy-making body was formed in 2006 which has substantially increased Nepal’s stature at international arena.

There were also some lapses on handling some regional issues which needs to be resolved in 2018. Saarc has been the victim of India-Pakistan rivalry and as chair Nepal did little to hold Saarc summit. As a chair of Saarc, we have to take decisive and bold steps to hold 19th Saarc summit. Nepal in the coming days will have to take active role to boost Saarc, BIMESTEC and Bhutan-Bangladesh-India-Nepal (BBIN) and other regional and sub-regional organizations.

When it comes to policy towards India and China there are some progress and some lapses. Chinese President Xi Jinping was supposed to visit Nepal in 2017 which was not materialized but Chinese side postponed visit citing lack of preparations on our side. Similarly, Indian President Narendra Modi was scheduled to visit in 2017 to inaugurate Arun-3 hydropower projects. The new government should seriously work for the visit of both Xi and Modi which will instrumental in Nepal quest for maintaining a balanced relation with both neighbors.

Despite some shortfall, foreign policy has heading towards position direction and there is a sort of consensus among major parties on it. After the victory of left alliance in Nepal in recently concluded general election, there is a new debate about Nepal’s policy towards two giant neighbors India and China.

There are perceptions that left alliance-led government will contribute to increase Chinese influence in Nepal. This may be partially true but some instances show Nepal is gradually becoming resilient in its foreign policy, and it is unlikely to be changed whichever party forms government in Kathmandu. Considering the fast-changing geopolitics of South Asia, we still need to take mature steps to make a cordial relation with both countries. Some attempts are already in place which needs to be expedited.

In order to prepare the foreign policy that would address the aspirations of changing times, some institutional initiatives were taken in 2017.  High Level Foreign Policy Review Taskforce was set up under the chairmanship of the Minister for Foreign Affairs in April 2017. The taskforce was entrusted to recommend suggesting ways on how foreign policy could be adopted that suits our national interests. These are the good initiatives taken by the government to meet foreign policy challenges. The need of the hour is to prepare to concrete policy towards India and China.

There has been some substantial engagement with India in 2017. Nepal-India Eminent Persons Group has working on how to review 1950. The formation of EGP has triggered public discourse on redefining Nepal’s relation with 1950.  The exchange of high-level visits and fast-tracking the implementation of joint economic projects are some the achievements of 2107. A joint oversight mechanism is monitoring the status of development projects. Instead of launching new development projects, India seems keen to complete pending development projects. Regarding China, there has been regular exchange of visits between two countries. Economic cooperation and connectivity remain the top agenda of bilateral visits between two countries. The areas of bilateral cooperation are expanding with beginning of Nepal-China joint military exercise in 2017. The visits of Chinese political leaders, government officials and academicians have substantially increased.

2018 must be a best a year in the history of Nepal’s foreign policy when it comes to our policy towards India and China. With increasing completion, Nepal-India may come up with new proposals which need to be carefully examined before taking any decisions. 2018 will be a crucial year for Nepal’s foreign policy. Both India and China will make efforts to increase their influence in Nepal. India will struggle to retain its influence in Nepal, while China is work to further consolidate its influence in Nepal. Nepal’s priority should to maintaining a balanced relationship with them to take maximum benefit from their economic development. Building a mutual trust has been a key factor in Nepal’s relation with New Delhi and Beijing.

Kamal Dev Bhattarai is Kathmandu-based writer and journalist. He writes on geopolitical issues mainly focusing on South Asian region. He is closely following Nepal’s peace process, constitution drafting, and constitution implementation process. He has written a book title, '12-point understanding to constitution drafting process.'

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South Asia

Fifty Years OF India-Bangladesh Ties: Sky’s The Limit

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Bangladesh and India are two neighboring countries of South Asia and these two countries have historically had very close relations. After the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, present day Bangladesh was part of the Republic of Pakistan as East Pakistan. The people of Bengal will never forget the assistance rendered by the late Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi and her government when the people of East Bengal under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took part in the war of independence against the West Pakistani military rule.

The role that Mrs. Gandhi played in the international arena, including providing shelter and military assistance to nearly one crore East Pakistani refugees, accelerated Bangladesh’s independence. The generosity shown by Mrs. Gandhi in withdrawing the Indian Allied forces from independence-North Bangladesh in a very short time at the request of Bangabandhu is rarely seen in the case of the newly independent countries.

The unity between the two countries since independence has continued to this day. However, despite the existence of negative relations between Bangladesh and India for some time, the relations between the two countries have reached a certain height in the last 12 years. Many important problems have been solved in the last 12 years, including the solution of enclave problems. Relations between the two countries have been further strengthened by India’s assistance in various projects.

On an annual basis, India’s exports to Bangladesh increased by 46 percent. As of January-March 2021, India’s total exports to Bangladesh amounted to US 3.16 billion. In other words, during this period, Bangladesh was the fourth largest exporter to India. Bangladesh was preceded by the United States (US 15.40 billion), China (US 5.92 billion) and the UAE (US 5.34 billion).

What is clear from these statistics is that trade between the two countries has greatly improved. However, despite the increase in Indian exports to Bangladesh, the desired target for products exported from Bangladesh has not yet been achieved. However, since 2011, the trade deficit between the two countries has been reduced, albeit to a lesser extent, as a result of the Government of India’s decision to allow duty-free trade of Bangladeshi products in the Indian market, except for 25 products. Even then, in order to improve relations, the two heads of government should reach an agreement to reduce the trade deficit.

In the field of culture, very friendly relations exist between the two countries. Just as Bangladeshi cultural groups display their cultural activities in India, so Indian cultural groups often present their activities to the people of Bangladesh. Through this, a strong bridge has been created in the cultural arena of the two countries. It is worth mentioning here that since Bangladesh and India are two states of the subcontinent, there are many similarities between the cultural worlds of the two countries.

The scholarships that the Government of India has introduced for Bangladeshi students in various fields to further enhance the relations between the two countries have had a positive impact on the relations between the two countries. Along with scholarships under the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, the Government of India has introduced scholarships for Bangladeshi students in several other sectors. Among these are the Friendship Scholarship, the Scholarship for the Children of the Freedom Fighters and the Bangabandhu Chair Scholarship on the occasion of Bangabandhu’s birth centenary. The fact that a large number of people from Bangladesh travel to India every year for medical treatment sends a positive message to the relations between the two countries.

In addition, the governments of the two countries are seriously considering launching a regional inter-country road link. If this communication starts, there will be huge potential for expansion of trade and commerce between the two countries. It is expected that this will open new doors for Bangladesh’s trade not only with India but also with our neighboring countries. Many try to view inter-country road connectivity in a negative light, arguing that Bangladesh would then become India’s corridor.

Such an argument is entirely motivated, because if such efforts are successful in the age of globalization, it will bring benefits to both countries. Providing duty-free trade and visa-free travel with this communication will benefit both countries as well as strengthen the people-to-people ties between the two countries as we see in Europe. Many European countries can be entered under Schengen visa.

There is no denying that the governments of Bangladesh and India have reached a consensus on a number of issues since the post-independence period. Important among these were the Padma water sharing agreement, the solution of enclave problems and duty-free access to goods to reduce the trade deficit. However, although the relations between the two countries are very deep, it has not been possible to reach a consensus on a number of issues so far. The most important of these are the Teesta water sharing agreement and the killing at the border.

Although the Indian government has a positive attitude towards the Teesta water treaty, it is not possible to do so due to opposition from the West Bengal government. To complete the contract. If this agreement is reached, it will not only have a positive impact on the relations between the two countries, but will also alleviate the suffering of the people of northern Bangladesh due to the lack of Teesta water.

On the other hand, despite high-level talks between the two countries to reduce the number of killings on the border to zero, such killings have occasionally negatively affected relations between the two countries. The killings should be reduced, especially as the people of Bangladesh may have a negative impact on India.

Bangladesh-India relations are on such a strong foundation that many countries of the world have started envying this relationship. Various leaders are trying to bridge the gap in this relationship. The two heads of government should be aware of this.

We must remember that the relationship between the people of Bangladesh and India stands on a very strong foundation. Thus, the main theme of this year’s Friendship Day may be the conviction to move the relationship forward by reaching consensus on the issues on which consensus has not yet been reached.

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Pakistan slips on a slippery slope of religious militancy

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Pakistani political and military leaders have vowed to eradicate ultra-conservative religious extremism that drove a mob to torture, brutally lynch a Sri Lankan national, and burn his body in the eastern city of Sialkot. Some 900 cases have been filed with police and 235 people arrested in connection with the killing.

“Let me make this clear: I have decided that from now we will not spare those who resort to violence in the name of religion, especially in the name of the Holy Prophet (PBUH),” Prime Minister Imran Khan said at a commemoration of Priyantha Kumara Diyawadana, a 48-year-old textile factory manager.

The mob accused Mr. Diyawadana of removing a sticker of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) or ‘I am Present Pakistan ‘(TLP), a far-right militantly religious group, from machinery before a visit by foreigners.

Some reports claimed that a dispute between Mr. Diyawadana and workers sparked the lynching. It was not clear whether the argument may be connected to the stickers.

The TLP condemned the Sialkot killing but has often turned unfounded blasphemy allegations into a violent crusade in a country where punishment for it is a mandatory death sentence.

Whatever sparked the killing, the government’s response seemed aimed to project determination to tackle a festering problem. It is a claim that rings hollow, despite Mr. Khan’s strong words, in a country where government policies are inconsistent or appear to even encourage religious ultra-conservatism and intolerance.

“We’ll see the truth of this soon enough when the next Pakistani — be he or she Muslim, Hindu, Christian, or otherwise — is lynched in the name of blasphemy.,” said journalist Zarrar Khuhro. “Because that’s going to keep happening no matter what becomes of those arrested in the Sialkot lynching. You know it, and I know it too.”

Despite acting against Mr. Diyawadana’s killers, government and military leaders failed to censor defense minister Pervez Khattak for downplaying, if not justifying, the killing.

Speaking after Mr. Diyawadana’s killers proudly admitted their crime in front of TV cameras and posted selfies with his mutilated body online, Mr. Khattak described them as boys entering adulthood who were “ready to do anything” and learn with age how to control their emotions. “So, this happens among kids; fights take place and even murders. Does this mean it is the government’s fault?”

Most of the suspects in Mr. Diyawadana’s killing were under the age of 30.

Mr. Khattak’s remarks seemed a throwback to four years ago when the military appeared to openly support the TLP as its staged a mass protest against the government of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Dawn, Pakistan’s flagship English-language newspaper, summed up the state of affairs in an editorial. The paper said that “such a statement from a federal minister should come as a shock, but unfortunately, we are accustomed to our public officials being in denial about the realities of extremism and violence in the country.”

Weeks earlier, the government had initially caved in to demands of the TLP under pressure from a mass protest march of thousands of the group’s followers on the capital Islamabad. The demands included the reversal of a decision to outlaw the group and releasing its leader and followers from jail. However, a week later, the government backed out of the deal with the group.

Days before the killing, Mr. Khattak’s colleague, information minister Fawad Chaudhry, sought to shield from criticism religious seminaries or madrassas, an influential segment of Pakistan’s education system. Mr. Chaudhry, who unambiguously condemned Mr. Kumara’s killing, did so by blaming the spread of extremism in Pakistan primarily on public schools rather than on madrasas.

“The institution of the madrassa has become the primary political base for religious groups and religious-political parties and continues to strictly adhere to its potentially explosive sectarian character. It is expanding and encroaching on the formal education sector, and the state has failed to regulate the institution,” said Pakistani analyst Mohammad Amir Rana.

Countering Mr. Chaudhry’s assertions, Mr. Rana noted that “formal education institutions have not produced a fraction of the number of militants who enter the ranks of various national and international terrorist organisations which the madrassas belonging to different banned militant organisations have produced so far.”

Mr Rana made his remarks days before the Sialkot killing, but he could have been writing after the incident when he noted that successive Pakistani governments had sought to depoliticise education on public campuses “while the madrassa students remain politically and ideologically charged and vulnerable to be exploited for street protests and recruitment for military purposes.”

Mr. Chaudhry got it right when he pointed to the public system but failed to mention that it was because the government was increasingly hiring madrassa graduates as teachers in the public sector.

“The madrassa mindset is at its full play in society and is responsible for promoting two major socio-political conflicts…first, the sectarian divide, and second, ideological radicalism,” Mr. Rana warned.

That mindset is gaining further ground with the introduction of a singular national curriculum that gives greater importance to religious education. A court in Lahore has ordered that all school students in Punjab be checked for Quran reading skills.

“Preliminary reports suggest province-wide confusion and chaos and a state of fear among children, teachers, and school principals. Magistrates accompanied by rifle-bearing policemen are pouncing upon schools, interrogating seven- to 12-year-old children,” reported nuclear scientist and human rights activist Pervez Hoodbhoy.

“Grim-faced magistrates swooping down upon schools, destroying the authority of teachers and school principals, and putting terror into the hearts of all is a disgrace to the notion of education. It may not end here,” Mr. Hoodbhoy warned.”

“How we dress, speak, and think is going to be increasingly policed. Imran Khan’s Pakistan is racing down the path to Talibanisation,” he added.

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Quaid-e-Azam: The Protector-General of minorities

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Lynching and setting people was a phenomenon peculiar to India under Modi. But, in a shocking incident , a Sri Lankan factory manager in Sialkot was lynched and later burnt alive. Not only the Pakistan government but also the religiously-oriented parties condemned the incident. Government announced to confer Tamgha-e-Shujaat to the lone voice who tried his utmost to save the victim’s life.

It is heartening that Pakistan immediately apprehended dozens of suspects. In case of India such gory acts go unnoticed.

The incident brought into limelight the bitter fact that ordinary people have a purblind view of blasphemy. They could have avoided taking the law into their own hands. They could have handed over the victim to the police for prosecution if there was any credible shred of evidence against him.

Need for soul searching

While celebrating the Quaid’s birthday on 25th December, the people should refresh their memories of the Quaid’s vision.  Did he visualise Pakistan to be an enlightened democracy or a theocracy?  The Quaid’s whole political struggle was against fanaticism, then spearheaded by Hindus.

Hindu-Muslim amity

The 1916 Lucknow Pact was acknowledged as a pillar of Hindu-Muslim friendship. However, Motilal Nehru, at the behest of the fanatic Hindus, shattered the spirit of peaceful coexistence by formulating his Nehru Report (1928). His son Jawaharlal, outwardly liberal, regarded the creation of Pakistan as a blunder. His rancour against Pakistan reached a crescendo in his remark ‘I shall not have that carbuncle on my back’. Jaswant Singh, in his book, Jinnah: India, Partition, and Independence reveals that Jinnah shelved the idea of independent Pakistan by putting his signature to the Cabinet Mission’s recommendations. This Mission envisaged keeping India undivided for ten years. The constituent assemblies were to consider the question of division after 10 years. When Congress refused to accept the recommendations of the Cabinet Mission, the British government decided to divide India.

Pacifist Jinnah versus jingoist Nehru and Patel

Despite the lapse of over 70 years, India still has to reconcile with Pakistan as a reality.  When Jinnah left India on 7 August 1947, the Quaid said, ‘The past has been buried and let us start afresh as two independent sovereign States. In contrast, Nehru, an outwardly liberal leader, said  ‘I shall not have that carbuncle on my back’. These remarks have been quoted by D. H. Bhutani in his book, The Future of Pakistan (page 14). Vallabhai Patel said, ‘The poison had been removed from the body of India’. RSS’s Mohin Bhagwat and India’s prime minister Narendra Modi have declared to undo partition by doing away with Pakistan.

Not a theocracy

In a broadcast addressed to the people of the USA (February 1948), he said, ‘In any case Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic State to be ruled by priests [mullahs] with a divine mission. We have many non-Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Parsees– but they are all Pakistanis. They will enjoy the same rights and privileges as any other citizen and will play their rightful part in the affairs of Pakistan’ When an over-ebullient admirer addressed him as `Maulana Jinnah’, he snubbed him. Jinnah retorted, ‘I am not a Maulana, just plain Mr. Jinnah’. About minorities, the Quaid often reminded Muslim zealots ‘Our own history and our and our Prophet(PBUH) have given the clearest proof that non-Muslims have been treated not only justly and fairly but generously. He added, ‘I am going to constitute myself the Protector-general of the Hindu minority in Pakistan’. Till his last breath, the Quaid remained an ardent supporter of rights of minorities as equal citizens of Pakistan. Our official dignitaries shun rituals and customs of minorities. But, the Quaid participated in Christmas celebrations in December 1947 as a guest of the Christian community. He declared: ‘I am going to constitute myself the Protector General of Hindu minority in Pakistan’.

One member of his post-Partition cabinet was a Hindu. A Jewish scholar, Mohammad Asad, who embraced Islam, held important positions in the post-Partition period in Pakistan.

The following extracts from the Quaid’s speeches and statements as Governor General of Pakistan epitomise his vision: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques, or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan…you may belong to any religion, caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State…We are starting in the days when there is no discrimination, no distinction between one community and another, no discrimination between one caste or creed or another. We are starting with this fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of the one State”.

The Quaid visualised that `in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State”. A. K. Brohi, in his The Fundamental Law of Pakistan, argues that Pakistan is an Islamic state, but not a theocracy. Jinnah’s address to the Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947, also, epitomises his vision.

Stanley Wolpert paid tributes to the Quaid in following words, “Few individuals significantly alter the course of history. Few still modify the map of the world. Hardly anyone could be credited with creating a nation State. Muhammad All Jinnah did all three”. Pakistan overcame insurmountable problems of influx of 1947 refugees, skimpy finances and myriad other problems to emerge as a viable entity. We welcomed refugees, while India is all set to drive out 4.7 million refugees from its eastern state of Assam.

Concluding remark

Isolated intermittent incidents of religious extremism in Pakistan do not reflect the ethos of the majority. However, there is need to make the masses aware of the vested interests who want to exploit  them by warping their beliefs.

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