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South Asia

Indian Diplomacy: Aligning with the nation’s interests

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India has been aiming higher and bolder since the arrival of the Narendra Modi government in 2014. One area where this is visible since the inception of this government is in the domain of foreign policy. The government has expanded the scope of its foreign policy to include national and economic security.

Indian diplomacy has been careful enough to understand its limitations and has not tried to punch above its weight. It is exercising its art of diplomacy by engaging with different foreign powers more vigorously than ever before but also not conceding its strategic autonomy. Instead it has decided to let go of some fruitless battles and is prioritizing what seems to be essential to its nations well-being. As India’s Foreign Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar has said, India is cultivating the United States, steadying Russia, managing China, enthusing Japan and attending to Europe.

It has shed its Cold War era thinking and its explicit Non-Alignment attitude. India now co-operates and also competes with its international partners at the time of its choosing. India respects the multilateral rule based global order but at the same time is bold enough to exercise its right to prioritize its national interests.

In the wake of the Pathankot attacks in early 2016, India was quick in its response through a carefully calibrated Surgical Strikes through which it entered Pakistan occupied Kashmir and neutralized terrorists nurtured and harbored by Pakistan. This was a sweet diplomatic victory for India as every major power responded with responses such as asking both India and Pakistan to ‘exercise restraint and increase communication’ and India faced no major frictions with the diplomatic community.

The Surgical Strikes as a response to the abovementioned attacks showed the evolution of how India was changing its outlook on foreign policy. This showed that the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of External Affairs were all now in sync with one another and that there was more open and frequent exchange of ideas and priorities of the nation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has instilled a feeling of nationalism into India’s foreign policy. The foreign ministry no more works in silos. It takes India’s domestic concerns more seriously than ever before and has accepted that it has to function abroad and at home with the aim of fulfilling the national aspirations of Indians. This is also because Prime Minister Modi has made diplomacy very public wherein, he has increased the space of the common man to decide what our foreign policy priorities should be.

This was visible when India recently pulled out of the RCEP Free Trade Deal involving China, ASEAN and other countries. The Prime Minister took serious note of the concerns that the domestic farmers and industrialists raised against the deal and the foreign ministry readily accepted and backed out of the deal to ease the pains of the citizens.

Indian Diplomacy has also embraced social media and other technological advancements to better the lives of its citizens abroad. Started by the former foreign minister Late Sushma Swaraj, Indian diplomats actively scout through Twitter and Facebook to immediately respond to its citizens abroad who are in distress and this has won praises world over.

Another time where the Indian Diplomacy worked over-time and seamlessly with the Ministry of Home Affairs was after the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution of India in August 2019 which had granted Temporary Special Status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. This came at a time when the UN General Assembly was to commence soon in New York, and India’s actions could be interpreted and criticized in endless ways on the international stage. Despite Pakistan’s vociferous criticism, coupled with the backing by China and the wobbly position of the United Kingdom on the issue, it is an accepted fact today that India did not succumb to any international pressures.

It received full support from the US, Russia and France and was hence able to curtail China’s intent to publicly shame India through any UN resolutions. The first public victory came when the UN consultations on the issue were held in the form of a closed-door meeting wherein our partners in there stated Kashmir as a matter of internal reorganization within India. Since then, India has been selective in its response on the issue and has staved off any international media pressure. India surprised the world when it allowed an unofficial delegation of 27 EU Members of the Parliament in October 2019 to visit Kashmir who went and got a ground reality of how tough it is for India to tackle terrorism. They concluded and agreed with India’s long-standing position that Kashmir is an internal matter of India.

Not wanting to view this diplomatic victory as an isolation tactic against China, the diplomats were quick enough to arrange for a rapprochement between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Modi at Mahabalipuram in Chennai through informal talks between the leaders. The Indian diplomats have also expressed their regards to the Russians through signing up for renewed arms deals with Russia and an informal summit between President Putin and PM Modi at Vladivostok, Russia. And with the United States, we agreed with the demands by President Trump for the cancellation of the Generalized System of Preferences for India in the area of trade. Clearly everything has come at a price, but the Indian Diplomacy has been willing to pay the right price instead of remaining in inertia as in the past and letting the international community dictate terms for India.

The domestic demands of India are now the trend setters of India’s foreign policy and this was again visible with India’s amendment to its Citizenship Act of 1955, wherein the Government of India has amended the Act to grant citizenship to minorities from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, who have come to India seeking refuge from religious persecution or the fear of it. This Act has caused visible disappointment with Bangladesh which has been manifested in the form of their Foreign Minister and Home Minister having cancelled their visits to India. While many have seen this as an exclusion of granting citizenship to Muslims from these countries through the Amendment, the Indian Government and the Foreign Ministry have been unshaken by in their stand. The Government has stated that this Amendment has been made to correct the historical injustices faced by the minorities of these countries during the bloodshed experiences of Partition of India during 1947 and the period ensuing that up to December 31, 2014.

India has always treated its neighborhood very generously. It has been philanthropic in the Free Trade Agreements that it has signed with them, voluntarily provided access to its achievements in science and space technology and has renewed engagement and hence importance to the region through groupings like ISA, BIMSTEC and IORA. Co-operations of this nature must convey to the neighbours that while India is more than willing to provide developmental assistance and co-operate in many other areas, today, it has reclaimed its space to prioritize its domestic agendas too. Our neighboring countries must not view India’s internal matters as a threat or lack of concern to regional integration. Just like the rest of the world, India is simply not willing to bear some burden which it believes as historical injustice or detrimental to its domestic agenda. India has never and will never involve in acts which resembles ‘beggar thy neighbor’ attitude.

Also, Indian Diplomats today walk around with a loaded gun in their holster fully aware of the happenings around the world. Whether it is of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudis, Treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, the misadventures of the Assad Regime in Syria, Treatment of the Rohingyas in Rakhine State of Myanmar or of the inhuman treatment meted out to the Kurds in North East Syria by Turkey— they see it all in real time and maintain a measured silence on all issues not from a place of weakness but a position of strength. India is not a global policeman and has neither intended to be one. Although the home to the largest democracy in the world, it does not preach to any nation about how one must govern themselves. It is pragmatic of the evolving morals of the world and changing political and national ambitions of major powers and is evolving with it.

Whether it is the EU, US or the likes of Turkey, India issues statements regularly when it finds any criticism inaccurate or unwarranted. The Ministry of External Affairs has expressed displeasure recently through a press release with regards to the statement made by the USCIRF on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019. Also, it took a bold call to criticize Turkey on its handling of the Kurds after the US vacated its troops and co-operation with the Kurds in Syria.

To sustain such a growing clout in the international multipolar world, India must concentrate more on the economic front and work harder towards a $ 5 trillion economy. Most countries today maintain their support for India because of its growing trade and economic activity with them. Hope this increases in the days to come in order to maintain the momentum that we have gained in the international space as a serious voice.

Studying Master of Arts (Diplomacy, Law and Business) at Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal School of International Affairs

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South Asia

Has Modi Conceded ‘South Asia’ to the United States?

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been pursuing an assertive and confrontational foreign policy. From carrying out ‘surgical strikes’ across the Line of control to unilaterally scrapping Kashmir’s special autonomy, Modi has shown that he has no aversion to undertaking bold actions. For the last seven years, he has essentially reshaped India’s foreign policy to match the brand of muscular nationalistic politics that he and his party have pursued for decades. In other words, like India’s domestic politics, its foreign policy has been (excuse the pun) Modi-fied. However, no other foreign policy position of the Modi government would be as consequential as his decision to align India with the Quad, a NATO-like strategic coalition centred on the Indo-pacific. By joining the alliance, Modi has removed the last Nehruvian pillar of New Delhi’s foreign policy: Non-alignment.

Following Independence, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru crafted India’s foreign policy on the Principles of Anti-Imperialism and solidarity among the third world states recently broke free from the shackles of colonialism. Nehru was one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement along with Nasser and Sukarno. Despite being a comrade and disciple of Gandhi, Nehru was in no way a pacifist. He was not hesitant in using force to pursue Indian national interest wherever and whenever it was possible. Under Nehru’s leadership, India invaded and occupied Goa from the Portuguese. He also initiated India’s nuclear program. Nehru envisioned India as the hegemon of South Asia, which he believed was the country’s ‘manifest destiny’. He proposed a ‘Broad doctrine’ that hinged on the idea that New Delhi has an exclusive right to protect its national interests within its landmass and its periphery. In Nehru’s words, “any attempt by a foreign power to interfere in any way with India is a thing which India cannot tolerate, and which, subject to her strength, she will oppose.” However, this ‘Broad doctrine’ achieved maturity under Indira Gandhi, who pursued a policy of aggressive use of military force to deter external powers from interfering in South Asia. Her interventionist foreign policy led to the breakup of Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Indira’s and later Rajiv Gandhi’s foreign policy revolved around keeping external powers at bay and maintaining Indian primacy in South Asia. New Delhi was so opposed to the idea of external powers gaining a foothold in South Asia that it intervened in Sri Lanka’s civil war out of fear that the United States might secure a naval base in the strategic port city of Trincomalee.

However, it seems that Narendra Modi has reversed India’s long-standing opposition to the presence of external powers in South Asia. New Delhi has openly backed a defence agreement between Maldives and United States. Among other things, it seeks to increase cooperation between the two countries. Though Indian officials have stressed that the agreement would not “impinge on India’s role as a ‘Net security provider’ in South Asia”, it begs the question: would such policy reversals have specific implications on the geopolitical status quo in South Asia? Have India conceded its role as the primary guarantor of security of South Asia to the United States?

It certainly seems that the Modi government has abandoned India’s ‘move alone’ policy. The concept of an alliance is becoming more and more attractive to Indian policy makers. This shift signals one crucial factor: India is no longer confident of its capabilities to resist the Chinese juggernaut’s inroads into South Asia. Beijing has established a significant presence in South Asia over the years. China is now the largest source of investments in all of India’s neighbouring countries. The BRI initiative has gained many tractions among South Asian countries. New Delhi is concerned that Beijing is strategically funding infrastructure projects which could be used for military purposes in future. The very fear of encirclement by China has led India to welcome more American engagements in South Asia. But what would be New Delhi’s role in this strategic arrangement? There is no doubt that New Delhi holds a central position in US indo-pacific strategy, but the power asymmetry between the two countries overwhelmingly favours Washington.

On 7 April, US Navy’s 7th fleet conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) without consulting with New Delhi. It is interesting to note that the US generally carries out such operations in the backyards of its rivals, like in the South China Sea or Black Sea. But conducting these operations in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of an allied nation is unusual. This action indicates that Washington is unwilling to concede any space to India just for the sake of the alliance.

Historically, any partnership between a greater power and a lesser power had never been treated as ‘equal’. No matter what officials in New Delhi might believe, this is the conventional wisdom in Washington. Indo-US relations might have come a long way but, if such cooperation continues through the upcoming decades, the position of the lesser power, in this case, India, is bound to relegate to a role of a ‘junior partner’, and the United States is making no ambiguity in signaling it.

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India’s Decision to Deport Rohingyas- How Fair?

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A young Rohingya girl holds her brother © UNHCR/Vincent Tremeau

India’s Apex Court recently ruled in affirmative the deportation of about 170Rohingya refugees who were detained in Jammu’s Jail. Critics have been uneasy with this decision, for this sharply contradicts the principle of non-refoulement – a principle that places human lives on the highest pedestal and prevents states from returning refugees to those places where their lives will be threatened. Simultaneously, critics have also been vocal about their displeasure with the current dispensation that is no longer willing to extend its magnanimity vis-a-vis refugees. This shattering reality marks the defeat of human right champions. In the light of these attacks, it is necessary to evaluate the current Supreme Court decision vis-a-vis International Law and whether India is justified in taking the stance that it has taken.

International Law on Refugee Rights

International regime has given the 1951 Refugee Convention as well as the 1967 Refugee Protocol that inter alia define who a refugee is. The definition clearly enumerates those who have a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion in their country of nationality or in their country of residence. The definition also covers stateless people in its ambit. Convention also envisaged the right to non-refoulement which affords the basic right of refugees to not be returned to the place where they are likely to face persecution on the abovementioned grounds. This is a natural corollary to the very foundation of refugee law, for in the absence of provision of non-refoulement, the instrument would be a mockery. Suffice to say, non-refoulement remains the basic provision and has obtained the status of customary international law. In fact, its incorporation in numerous international instruments as well as regional instruments has underscored the significance States attribute to human lives. To scholars, the concept of non-refoulement has attained the status of jus cogens or peremptory norm of general international law from which no derogation is permitted. In fact, as per UNHCR’s experience, states, including non-parties to the convention, have overwhelmingly accepted the practice of non-refoulement.

However, this fundamental norm is subject to exceptions. The first exception is when the said person is a threat to the national security of the state in which he has taken refuge. This remains an important parameter since national security weighs heavily in a state’s radar, and any such threats would necessitate measures such as expulsion or deportation. However, the threats must be assessed and weighed against the threat to one’s life in case of refoulement. Lauterpacht and Bethlehem have suggested certain criteria such as, whether there is a prospective threat to the security of the country of refugee; whether there is a threat to the country of refugee and not to a third country or international community at large; and whether there exists a reasonable threat, the criteria for which must be set high, bearing in mind the adverse consequences of refoulement; and whether the said measures are proportional to the said threat.

The second exception is when the person has been convicted by a final judgement of a particularly serious crime and constitutes a danger to the community. For the purpose of our analysis, the first exception requires focus.

India’s Position vis-a-vis Refugees

India has been a gracious host to the refugee communities that have sought refuge in its territory, despite it not having signed the 1951 Refugee Convention or Refugee Protocol. Tibetans who sought refuge in India after a failed revolt against Chinese in 1959 were allowed a government in exile and have received active support from the Indian government since. Similarly, many Sri Lankan Tamils, who fled the war ravaged country have been living in India with the support of the government. India has also accepted many of the refugees who escaped the wrath of Pakistan in the months preceding the Bangladesh Liberation War. Fair to say, India’s record on sheltering refugees has been exceptional and has been consistent with the principles enshrined in its constitution, granting the right to ‘life and liberty’ admirably.

However, India’s stance on Rohingyas has taken a different road. While India prides itself on being the champion of individual rights and rightly so, its response was largely muted during the 2017 military crackdown in Rakhine. And its current stance to deport Rohingyas is in consonance with its initially muted response. But that can largely be attributed to the threat that India had already perceived vis-a-vis these refugees.

Rohingyas and Extremist Nexus

Scholarship on this issue has pointed to an early connection between Rohingyas and extremist organizations. A Paper by European Foundation for South Asian Studies has highlighted the nexus between the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) and extremist groups. This group, which was founded in 1980s by Mohammad Yunis, had links to Jamaat-e-Islami of Bangladesh and Pakistan, Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen in the 1980s-90s. Many of the members (of RSO) received training at Afghan facilities in the early 1990s. Afghan instructors have also trained RSO in camps in Bangladesh, a claim that can be corroborated by a 2005 Congressional Research Service Report on Terrorism in South Asia. The same report pointed out the connections between Al-Qaeda and Rohingyas. Another organization, Harkarah al-Yakeen (HaY), founded by Ataullah Abu Amar Janani, that later changed its name to Arakan Rohingyas Salvation Army (ARSA) was also noted to have connections to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia where they received training. It has further been noted by a 2016 report of the International Crisis Group that ARSA has clear links to elements in Pakistan.

The fact that Rohingyas remain a fertile ground for terrorism and can be used by non-state actors to further their political agenda has been noted by Lt. Gen. Chowdhury Hasan Sarwardy (Retd.). In fact, a piece by The Week has pointed that Lashkar-e-Taiba has been making inroads in the refugee camps and has been providing the youth with arms, ammunition and training. The growing terrorism in Bangladesh and its spillover effect in the Rohingya community had already alarmed Indian security officials. However, with many of the Rohingyas living in India, more specifically in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, doubts have been raised. Of course, the first question remains, why Jammu and Kashmir despite its distance to Myanmar? Shouldn’t Rohingyas instead seek refuge in the Northeast, which is geographically closer? A clear answer is not present.

What is apparent is that many of these refugees in the Union Territory have been receiving training from Pakistani terror groups. The same European Foundation for South Asian Studies report has pointed out that many of the Rohingyas have fought alongside Pakistani terror outfits in the Indian Administered Kashmir, which is an imminent threat to India’s national security. Besides, there is a clear proof of Pakistani based terror outfits such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) lending support to Rohingya terrorist outfits such as Aga Mul Mujahideen (AMM). This, coupled with their proximity to Pakistan, via Kashmir, has naturally heightened India’s security concerns.

Pakistan’s enthusiasm to use proxy wars as a way to seek revenge from ‘Hindu India’ has frequently disrupted peace in the region. India, unfortunately, has suffered the brunt of Pakistan’s ill-decision making. With Pakistan effectively losing respect in the international community due its active support for terrorists, it has channelled its funding to many of these refugees through Bangladesh. This concern has been backed by South Asia Democratic Forum’s Director, Siegfried O. Wolf, who has pointed out to Inter-Services Intelligence’s support for camped Rohingyas in Bangladesh who can serve Pakistan’s long term goal of annihilating India.

This brings India to the position where it stands. India has credible evidence to showcase that its national security has been heavily compromised due to the nexus between Rohingya Refugees and Pakistan backed terror groups, and that its decision is hinged on national security imperatives. The presence of these refugees in the fragile Union Territory of Kashmir has added to India’s concerns, given the precarious state of affairs of the UT especially since the revocation of its special status. Global Terrorism Index 2020 has pointed out the same reality – India’s biggest threat comes from Islamist terrorist groups. Thus, India stands very well within its rights to turn back the said refugees who pose a glaring threat to India’s national security, and it does not amount to a violation of customary international law on non-refoulement. Nor does it diminish India’s credibility as a magnanimous host that tries to uphold the tenets of ‘life and liberty.’ To the keyboard warriors, this marks the death of ‘democracy’ at the hands of a communally blind government, but to the patriot it is another rightful step in safeguarding the country’s integrity.

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Rohingya crisis: How long will Bangladesh single-handedly assume this responsibility?

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Photo: IOM/Mashrif Abdullah Al

At least 8,60,000 Rohingya FDMNs, mostly women and children entered Bangladesh fleeing unbridled murder, arson and rape by the Tatmadaw in Rakhine, what the United Nations has decried as textbook example of ethnic cleansing and genocide, beginning on August 25, 2017. The latest influx of Rohingyas brought the number of undocumented and registered Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to more than 1.1 million. Not a single Rohingya returned home to Rakhine when the Myanmar government blocked the repatriation process in various ways. Owing to critical socio-economic, environmental and security concerns, the Bangladesh government launched a project of relocating one-tenth of the Rohingyas to Bhashan Char on a voluntary basis. So far 18,334 Rohingyas have been relocated to Bhashan Char and they expressed “high satisfaction” over the existing considerable safe, secured and crime-free environment compared to the mobbed camps in Cox’s Bazar.

Bangladesh government invested more than US $310 million from its own funds to develop the 13,000-acre island with all amenities and facilities of drinkable water, electricity, sanitation, agricultural plots, 120 cyclone shelters in each cluster, two hospitals, four community clinics, mosques, warehouses, telecommunication services, police station, learning centers and playgrounds which is far better than the facilities in the Cox’s Bazar camps. From the outset, the initiative was called into question by some human rights organizations and NGOs. However, in the wake of recent visits by high officials of the international community and donor states, it has been proven that the allegations against Bangladesh were merely political and propaganda.

Delegates from the EU, the OIC and the UN all demonstrated their prima facie satisfaction by seeing the facilities and living conditions of the Rohingya refugees in the Bhashan Char. Previously, a few INGOs and interest groups disseminated that the conditions in Bhashan Char are inhabitable and the relocation plan is a wrong decision of the Bangladesh government. But now all the foreign delegates and human rights proponents agreed that the decision to relocate some 100,000 Rohingyas to Bhashan Char under the Ashrayan-3 project was a timely decision for the well-being of the Rohingya community itself. Since the massive influx of Rohingya into Bangladesh in August, 2007, Bangladesh has actively carried out its humanitarian role. But, has the international community fulfilled its duty, apart from criticizing Bangladesh’s initiatives and raising funds for refugees for the time being? Bangladesh has done its part, and it is now time that the international community shares the burden and puts pressure on Myanmar to repatriate the Rohingya refugees.

Bangladesh is trying to solve the crisis with its utmost efforts using all of its diplomatic maneuvers in the bilateral, trilateral and multilateral levels. Acknowledging the outstanding assistance in hosting 1.1 million Rohingya in Bangladesh, the US special envoy for climate change John Kerry during his recent visit to Bangladesh said that the global community must hasten its efforts to resolve the crisis as it is not merely responsibility for the country. Bangladesh in every multilateral forum has been desperately raising the issue of the Rohingya crisis as it has a far reaching social, economic, environmental and security concerns not only for Bangladesh but also for the South Asian region. For instance, Bangladesh raised the Rohingya issue at the 10th D-8 summit held in Dhaka and sought international support.  But it is ironic, due to lack of goodwill of the concerned parties, the situation is protracting. All the international community including the UN, the EU and the OIC members should work in a coordinated way to find a comprehensive and durable solution to the Rohingya crisis.

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