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South Asia

Walking the tight rope: India’s Diplomatic Strategy in the Middle East

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India’s diplomatic corps have been resolutely articulating India’s stances and furthering its interests in the international fora where multiple challenges emanating from historical and contemporary contexts are being faced. One important factor which India’s astute foreign policy makers have faced is the complicated and crucial engagement with the Middle East. There are multiple facets to India’s engagement in the contemporary context that add to this complexity. One, India’s old adversary and neighbor Pakistan has upped the ante in its diplomatic blitzkrieg especially within the Muslim world. Second India’s has varied strategic interests in the warring Middle East factions. Third, the economic interdependencies and the crisis in the international trade in the Trump era has further complicated India’s position as an economic actor in the region. While there are various constituent elements of India’s Middle East outreach, the contemporaneous concerns relate more to its relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Turkey.

India and Saudi Arabia have historically engaged in deep and multi-dimensional political, economic, cultural, defence and strategic cooperation. Saudi Arabia has long been an important Indian trade partner; the Kingdom remains a vital source of energy for India, which imports almost a fifth of its crude oil requirement from Saudi Arabia. Enhanced security cooperation has added a new dimension in the bilateral ties between New Delhi and Riyadh. Recently, Indian PM Narendra Modi was conferred with the highest civilian award of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia even as the top leadership continues to send signals of deep comradarie and solidarity.

With the ascent of the crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman, various layers in this important diplomatic relationship have surfaced. This has happened in a particularly peculiar geopolitical and geostrategic context where both countries have faced tough challenges to their internal stability and international position. While Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is still emerging from the consequences of the massive attack in its oil fields as well as the widespread criticism of humanitarian crisis in Yemen at the international fora, India is grappling with international criticism and discourse about the situation in Kashmir in context of dilution of its political autonomy as well as prolonged information and communication blackout.KSA has had a mediating role in the Indo-Pak tussle since Pulwama and how this hyphenation has led to competitive photo-ops of diplomatic support. Even as KSA has stood by Indian leadership’s vital interests. However, the Pakistani leadership has been relentless in its attempts to appeal to the leader of the Islamic world for vital economic and diplomatic support, especially in context of the Kashmir situation. Even as Saudi Arabia has managed this delicate equation with deftness, it has given in to Pakistan’s economic demands while making a symbolic gesture of closeness by offering the private jet to Pakistani Prime Minister for his visit to the West.  It doesn’t help that the Indian economy is going through a rough phase. However, the audacious announcement to invest $100 Billion in the fledgling Indian economy is a bold testament of the veritable and vibrant economic partnership between New Delhi and Riyadh. It is pertinent to note that in the contemporaneous challenges that the countries face, Iran as well as Pakistan emerge as key actors that affect the bilateral engagement in a pronounced manner.

Iran is India’s historic ally and third largest supplier of crude oil. However, the India-Iran relationship transcends oil. India, with an investment of $500 million, aims to develop Iran’s Chabahar port as a transit hub for Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). Additionally, India is developing two gas fields, namely Farzad-B gas field located in Tehran and the South Pars field located between Iran and Qatar. These projects clearly highlight India’s long-term engagement with Iran. However, India’s muted response to US pressure has been causing slight tension in the bilateral relationship. Even though the top-level bilateral meeting between Indian premier Modi and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani was successful to diffuse tensions to an extent. The crisis in Yemen, oil trade and even India’s action in Kashmir continue to affect the relationship.

In this context, the challenges emanating from Turkey are also a sign of worry. Even as Turkey has remained an old ally of Pakistan and a supporter of the ‘Kashmiri’ cause, its open support for a rather lonely Pakistan should cause some worry in India’s strategic circles. This is because India has fine diplomatic relations with Turkey and has considerable economic and trade interests.

However, oil being an important consumer and agricultural good in India’s economy, it is important to secure its interests to have access to reliable and affordable Iranian crude oil. The trade negotiations and engagements with the US haven’t had any headway even as the threat of sanctions for buying oil from Iran continues. India could emerge as a trouble-solver in this context especially since this KSA-Iran conflict in oil supply context has global implications. PM Modi’s personal chemistry with the US leadership could be useful in this context.

Prannv Dhawan is a student-researcher and policy commentator based out of National Law School of India University, Bangalore (India). He leads the South Asia Forum at the Council for International Relations and International Law. He regularly contributes to various policy platforms, media outlets and academic journals.

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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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South Asia

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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South Asia

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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