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India-Iran Relations and the U.S. Factor

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Authors: Muneeb Yousuf and Tariq Ahmad Lone*

In the wake of changing regional dynamics, India-Iran relations have occupied greater significance. The relations between India and Iran can be traced back to 1950 when both signed a Treaty of Friendship and Perpetual Peace. However, Iran’s joining of Baghdad pact in 1954 and the Cold War politics separated New Delhi and Tehran in converging their relations until 1990s. The Islamic revolution that swept through Iran in 1979, followed by hostage of U.S. diplomats, Iran-Iraq War and Tehran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas among others increasingly led to a range of political and economic sanctions, thereby isolating Iran at the global level.

After the end of the Cold War which led to the breakdown of erstwhile Soviet Union a ‘new world order’ began to shape. The end of the Cold-War drastically transformed the bi-polarity of World Politics which had ensued for nearly four decades, setting the ground for a ‘new order’ that initially looked unipolar in character but with passage of time facilitated the rise of new global powers like China–– a multipolar one. After the end of the Cold War, Liberalization, Globalization and Privatization got momentum. India’s internal economic pressures and taking cue from the changing world, India also opened its economy. That does not signify that the new world only ushered benefits and opportunities, also new challenges that were exceedingly new to the modern states.

In the 1990s the interests of both India and Iran converged around energy, Central Asia and security mostly around Pakistan-Afghanistan region. The relations began to shape up in the early 1990s and India and Iran’s relations finally began its strides in post-2002 after both entered into a defense cooperation agreement. Those relations continued with fluctuations in between due to the recurrent hostile relations between the U.S. and Iran. Tehran’s strategic aim for developing nuclear weapons has come under strong criticism from the Trump regime leading to greater sanctions. Iran is also seen as a major regional threat by many Gulf neighbors including Israel. The larger political and economic sanctions that the Trump regime has imposed on Iran, has led pressure on New Delhi to curb diplomatic ties with Iran. While pressures from India’s allies hinder the cultivation of greater relations with Tehran, New Delhi has never completely curtailed engagement with the former.  As it could be argued that New Delhi is treading a fine path despite Tehran’s strong and persistent criticism from Washington. New Delhi’s policy of not parting ways with Tehran is guided in the rationale of geopolitical, geostrategic and geo-economic interests in the region for which Iran is an indispensable player.

Iran: The connecting Link for India’s Extended Neighborhood

Iran is not only geo-economically important for India per se but also places a connecting link between India and its extended neighborhood-gulf region and Central Asia. Iran’s Chabahar port is vital for India’s geopolitical interests not only in West Asia but also in Afghanistan and Central Asia that is part of India’s extended neighborhood. The importance of the port has significantly increased due to China’s bid to increase its influence in India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood through “Belt Road Initiative” and “cheque book” diplomacy and investment on ports like Gwadar. Keeping in view the significance of Chabahar port, New Delhi has invested huge money on the Chabahar port. In December 2018,in a concrete step towards India’s role in Chabahar Port expansion, India Ports Global Limited company opened its office in Chabahar and took over operations at the Shaheed Beheshti port at the Iranian city. The port will provide seal and connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

India and Iran have committed for the “prosperity through greater connectivity.” Moreover, the focus of the bilateral relations between Tehran and New Delhi is on bilateral cooperation in the fields of energy, trade, connectivity and promotion of people to people contacts. India and Iran along with Afghanistan have trilateral agreement on the development of Chabahar port. The trilateral agreement is motivated to promote connectivity and economic development of the region particularly Afghanistan. Iran has a critical role in India’s emergence as a great power. It is not crucial for securing India’s economic interests but also crucial to increase India’s influence in its extended neighbourhood in westwards which include gulf region and Central Asia. Iran is critical for India’s access to Central Asia and Afghanistan and can help in mitigating China’s growing influence among India’s neighbors.  In an endeavor to consolidate India’s presence in Afghanistan and Central Asia, Tehran plays a pivotal role.

Geo-economic Significance of Iran for India

Iran’s economy is considered as an economy with a large hydrocarbon sector. Iran’s has abundant energy resources with significant oil and natural gas reserves which are second in the world after Russia. India and Iran’s economic ties accelerated following the opening of India’s economy in the early 1990s. However, due to US sanctions on Iran in 2014, the trade has decreased dramatically to the lowest. As per the Exim Bank India Report, India’s imports from Iran are dominated by crude oil, accounting for 85.9 per cent of India’s total imports from Iran. In 2014, India was the second-largest market for Iran’s exports of crude oil…India has steadily cut imports from Iran as the sanctions from the US and other Western countries blocked payment channels and crippled shipping routes.India’s economic interests in Iran are mainly attached to energy and connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The bilateral trade between India and Iran during 2017-18 was US Dollars 13.76 billion. The trade was in 2016-17 US dollars 12.89 billion. Bilateral trade has increased by 6.8% as compared to 2016-17. Indian exports increased by 11.4% and were US dollars 2.7 billion. The imports from Iran also increased by 5.8% and reached to US dollars 11.11 billion. As per Ministry of External Affairs Annual report 2019-20, the bilateral trade between the two reached to US dollars 17.3 billion as compared to US dollars 13.76 billion in 2017-18. This shows an increase of 23.8%. Moreover, Indian exports increased by 32.3% and accounted for US dollars 3.5 billion. Imports from Iran also increased by 21.8% and amounted to US dollars 13.5 billion.  India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. There is a tremendous increase in the demand for energy in India. Energy is also vital input across all the sectors of the economy. India’s high growth in gross domestic product (GDP) results in a climb in the output of goods and services. As a result, the requirement of energy needs in the country is ever increasing. The energy consumption in India is fourth biggest after China, United States of America and Russia. India’s contribution is more than any other country to the estimated rise in worldwide energy demand. In 2040 demographic expansion makes India the world’s most populous state. As per the Global Investment & Business Center report 2015, “Oil demand increases by more than in any other country, approaching 10 million barrels per day (Mb/d) by 2040. India steps up its deployment of renewables, led by solar power, for which India becomes the world’s second-largest market. Three-quarters of Indian energy demand is met by fossil fuels, a share that has been rising as households gradually move away from the traditional use of solid biomass for cooking…India was the world’s third-largest importer of crude oil in 2014 but is also a major exporter of oil products.”

As per the India’s energy outlook report 2015, natural gas consumption triples to 175 cm (although, at 8% in 2040, it still plays a relatively limited role in the overall energy mix)…This mainstay of the rural energy economy is the primary cooking fuel for some 840 million people in India today; its use in traditional stoves is a major cause of indoor air pollution and premature death. Its gradual (albeit not complete) displacement by alternative fuels in our projections to 2040 is achieved thanks to rising incomes and supportive policies; these include one of the world’s largest cash transfer programs, which subsidizes the purchase of LPG cylinders via payments to individual bank accounts, rather than via an intervention affecting end-user prices…India’s urbanization is a key driver of energy trends: an additional 315 million people are expected to live in India’s cities by 2040. This transition has wide ranging effects on energy use, accelerating the switch to modern fuels, the rise in the appliance and vehicle ownership and pushing up demand for construction materials.

The challenge for India will be to set up long term supplies at reasonable prices as anchor gas customers-fertilizer and power industries- may not be able to pay market determined prices.Iran, the repository of huge gas reserves, can ensure increasing India’s LPG demand. To meet the growing demand for energy and sustain the growth rate of economy India needs to plan the sources of the energy supply. Iran is one of the countries that can meet India’s increasing demand for energy resources like crude oil and natural gas. Iran is not only in proximity with India, but India has geopolitical and geostrategic significance for India.

Geopolitical and Geostrategic Significance of Iran for India

India and China are emerging simultaneously as great powers. Consequently, their interests are conflicting at various levels in their immediate neighborhood and Indian Ocean region- strategically and geopolitically vital to global powers. Both want their influence in Iran and around the region. Both pursue the connectivity projects to gain a strong foothold in the immediate and extended neighborhood. China is focusing on the revival of the ancient silk route through its belt road initiative. India, on the other hand, is pursuing connectivity projects like Chabahar port and the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). These efforts are motivated to connect Central Asia and Afghanistan. Both these regions are gaining significance since the 1991 development in the international order. The changing world order has led to the emergence of important geographical locations and Central Asia is one among them, that emerged after the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union 1991. On the other hand, Afghanistan, geo-strategically very vital, became the important country particularly after the 9/11 attacks in the USA. The region was the part of the “Great Game” between Russia and British empires in the 19th century. The region came into limelight again after the conspicuous withdrawal of the USA from Afghanistan. As it is expected to emerge as a power vacuum in Afghanistan for which already significant movements have begun on the part of great powers like China, Russia, Pakistan. India is more concerned about the post-US withdrawal from Afghanistan due to the larger national security attached to the region. India lacks direct connectivity with Afghanistan and Central Asia. Therefore, Iran becomes vital for India to secure its interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Moreover, to reduce Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan, combat extremist groups and contain strategic encirclement by China, Iran can play a vital role. Despite India has all these vital interests attached to Iran, external pressures and internal challenges have constrained India’s relations with Tehran. New Delhi faces a challenge of chasing a side with USA or Iran in times of bitter hostility between the two.

Iran-India cooperation is critical for their mutual interests in a transitional world. However, their relations are sometimes shadowed by the Indo-US proximity. US-India proximity is motivated primarily to protect US interests in India and India’s neighbourhood.  The conspicuous USA withdrawal from Afghanistan after the Doha Deal between USA and Afghanistan Taliban, there is an apprehension of Civil war and instability in Afghanistan. The US wants India’s presence in Kabul to fight terrorism and to strengthen the civilian government. However, this is not possible without the proper access of India to Afghanistan. India has access to Afghanistan via Pakistan and Iran. The hostile relations with Pakistan will not allow it to reach Pakistan. But Iran is critical in India’s presence and influence in Afghanistan. That is why the USA waive sanctions on India’s investment on Chabahar. Moreover, waiver was obtained from the US which enabled the continued imports of Iranian oil and separate mechanisms were evolved for payments and marine insurance.”

India seems reluctant to work with Iran after the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. India not only stopped purchasing Iranian oil in May 2019 but also reduced budget on the investment on Chabahar. Soltaninejad, Assistant professor in, the University of Tehran argues that “Tehran is convinced that India cannot be the partner it needs to counter US sanctions”. India owes its rising power status, in part, to its increasingly close relationship with the United States. No matter how valuable Iran is for India, New Delhi would not endanger its relations with Washington for the sake of preserving its friendship with Tehran. Soltaninejad further argued that “although Iranians are well aware that Beijing would not sacrifice its relations with the United States for its partnership with Iran, they still believe that China will support Iran more strongly than India”. China’s continuing trade with Iran and the purchase of Iranian oil is proof of that. From an Iranian perspective, China’s rise is quite different from that of India’s. India’s economic and military development contributes more to preserving the pro-US international status quo, while China’s rise is seen to come at the cost of the United States’ global position and points towards a balanced global power distribution. However, Iran is well aware of the risks of its proximity to China and does not want to be over-dependent on China.

Conclusion

Ever since Donald Trump has come to power in Washington, the so-called liberal international order has witnessed divergence from the key path. Some analysts have better called it a ‘fuzzy order’. As the New Delhi strives to increase its political influence in its immediate neighborhood and also shape up ‘the emerging regional structures’, it becomes essential for New Delhi to tread a fine path. A multilateral approach in its foreign policy will remain key for New Delhi’s road to major power. India has been caught in a quagmire of balancing the relations between both Washington and Tehran and it cannot afford to embrace one at the cost of others. And here, balancing its relations both with Washington and Tehran with due care for its interests will determine India’s political trajectory. In the level of analysis framework, good relations with Tehran will not only enfeeble Pakistan’s greater strategic depth in Afghanistan but will also provide leverage to New Delhi in deciding the things in Kabul–– a push for a say in the emerging regional situation. On the other hand, a good relationship with Washington will provide good incentives and a vital push for New Delhi to be an important player of the current order. The end of the “Cold War” has certainly ushered a new political order where states need to engage multilaterally and realizing this situation, New Delhi is sending the political message to both Washington and Tehran of cultivating better relations with both despite a greater tension between the two.

*Tariq Ahmad Lone is a Doctoral Candidate at Academy of International Studies, New Delhi.

Muneeb Yousuf is a Doctoral Candidate at Academy of International Studies, New Delhi. He tweets at @MuneebYousuf6

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Critical India: The Real Story

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In recent months, there has been an unprecedented barrage of criticism, innuendos and verbal onslaught on the Modi-led Indian government. The important thing to be noted is that almost the whole of criticism has come from media, academicians, intellectuals and activists, based in India. Among some of the foreign-origin criticism again, the perceptible point is that even there, most of them have had come from Indian based abroad.

Now the obvious point that emerges out of it is what’s the big deal. Aren’t we a democracy, supposedly the largest democracy in the world till the advent of Modi at the national stage changed all that, at least that is what some Indians believe. And a democracy is supposed to have a fair share of criticism of its executive, of its wrongdoings, failures and et all. So what if Modi leadership is being criticised, chided and lambasted by many why should one question it.

Let’s get back to the facts. When Modi took the reins of government in New Delhi, the economy was comfortably placed averaging a GDP growth rate of 6.7% during the 2009-2014 period. For 2013-14, other important economic indicators retail inflation 10.53 based on CPI, Tax to GDP ratio at 7.2% and gross fixed capital formation rate to GDP at 29 with unemployment at a stable 2.2%, showed the economy in a reasonable positive light.

Currently, the Indian economy is passing through one of its worst phases. After  averaging  an  annual  GDP  growth  of  7.5%  for  2014-19,  the  last  two quarters have shown the GDP growing at a measly 3.1% and 4.5% with the overall economy getting contracted by almost 20% and on a YTY basis it might contract by about 8-9%. Unemployment at 6.1% is the highest in the last three decades  while  exports  too,  have  not  made  much  headway.  Made  in  India initiative has failed to do well while Atmanirbhar Bharat has many sceptics, within and outside India.

The government is under fire on one more ground that Bangladesh reportedly has gone ahead of India on the per capita income score. TV channels have hours of unending debates on how this government has brought India to its knees and it is due to the incompetence, ideological prism, fascist and authoritarian, communally divisive attributes of Modi that the country has come to such a pass.

There have been curious cases of few leading opposition politicians, former diplomats, bureaucrats and a couple of ex-military officers, taking a vitriolic, not critical,   anti-government   attitude,   describing   the   government’s   so-called communal, fascist, RSS-led divisive policies that have created troubles with countries  like  China,  Pakistan  and  Nepal.  Interestingly,  these  are  the  very words that are frequently used by Imran Khan, the Pakistani PM in his personalised attacks on Modi. Many of the self-proclaimed analysts who write in a very detailed way on Indian affairs are found  sitting comfortably in some obscure corners of the USA, Canada or Europe without being to India for quite some time.

One  prominent  Indian  security  analyst,  talks  about  India  being  a  no match for China and that in case of a war, within hours, China could decimate Indian  forward  air  bases  and  cripple  country’s  cyber,  communication  and security systems. He also has questioned and castigated government’s go-ahead with the US on BECA and COMCASA on the grounds that the country’s security threats may emanate from the US and not China. A former diplomat with purported leftist leanings has frequently talked about India standing no chance against a superpower China, economically, politically and militarily.

One important point of oft-used argument is that Modi government is responsible  for  Indian-Chinese  troubles  and  that  this  government  is  being backed by corporates to woo the US and act as its lackey. The abrogation of Article 370 by the government is given a primary reason for the anger of China and if that had not been done, China would have continued with its all is well attitude vis-à-vis India. So by daring to do so, India has angered a superpower and hence the Chinese muscle-flexing.

Now let’s try to analyse facts straightaway. Economy undoubtedly, India is in a precarious situation and the GDP contraction is a  very serious one. However, seen objectively in the light of economic disruptions caused by demonetisation and the introduction of GST and that too, followed by the Corona pandemic, it shows that the situation is difficult but not lost. The tax base has widened significantly. Infrastructure has done extremely well as against any previous times in Indian history. Power, Roads, Railways, Airways, Ports all have done remarkably well while telecom has lagged behind. Manufacturing is lately picking up while exports too, aren’t doing badly now. India’s foreign exchange reserves at US$575 Billion is at an all-time high and is currently ranked fifth in the world. Retail inflation in the light of CPI is stable whereas unemployment has acquired critical dimensions and require remedies, urgently. And before Bangladesh, this country had been lagging behind Sri Lanka too on per capita income for decades but why that was not previously discussed by experts, requires no guess.

On  social  issues,  criminal  acts  against  minorities,  especially  against Muslims for which the Modi government has received the maximum flak, have to be seen in the context of broader socio-economic landscape of the land. There have been similar crimes against people from Hindus too and most of them have taken place due to their poor economic status. Nowhere, minorities from economically higher strata have been victimised. And records of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), National Commission for Women (NCW), National Commission for Minorities (NCM) and National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) clearly illustrates that poor economic background has been the overbearing factor responsible for various crimes against most of the fellow Indians.

It also needs to be noted that most of such incidents have taken place against people not because of their caste, religion or the so-called BJP-promoted Brahminical and Hindutva domination but due to social and political factors. A good number of top BJP leaders belong to lower and OBC castes. So that should be also considered while claiming that the ruling party has a typical anti lower caste mentality

Crimes against women are reported in the media and discussed by intellectuals,  academicians  and  politicians  based  on  their  caste  and  not  by talking about gender bias and in terms of political gains. Hence, we have seen a crime at Hathras (UP) taking the country by storm while similar other incidents in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Punjab (all Congress-ruled states) being merely reported or even not being talked about.

Taking about the Modi government destroying institutions in the country, there have been instances when judges passing specific judgements and criticism against   the   government   or   its   leaders,   the   judiciary   becomes   the   last institutional survivor in the country. When same judges pass government favourable judgments becoming unpalatable then that becomes an attack on judiciary.

Media  too  when  it  keeps  highlighting  governmental  failures  at  the national level then it is fine. However, when opposition-ruled states in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh or other places stifle media on free reporting, journalists get detained, their mobiles snatched, false FIRs done there is an eerie silence from the whole of opposition politicians, academicians, intellectuals, champions of freedom of expression, both in India and abroad. How could one comprehend this class of freedom of expression, except double standards.

On Kashmir issue that has been hugely debated and discussed on, nationally and internationally,  Article  370  if  many believe that  was  part  of Indian Constitution applicable to it, that itself explains the government’s right to amend (it has been done many times by previous Congress governments) and  abrogate it. The comprehensive political integration has removed the ambiguous stand India has continued on Kashmir since 1948. As for security implications, the situation in the last one year has been much better and peaceful and better developmental   activities,   lesser   inefficiency,   administrative   apathy   and corruption is visible on the ground.

As for China’s perceived anger, the stand of the current government on rapid building of huge infrastructure in the border region, beneficial for both developmental and strategic reasons, needs to viewed in the context of all previous governments, embedded in the typical Nehruvian mind-set which believed in keeping China happy and not building border roads that will prevent Chinese PLA to reach Indian mainland quickly. Unfortunately, this stand was even taken by one of the recent defence ministers, a very senior Congress leader. So much for the protectors of Indian sovereignty.

Finally, the so-called supremacy of Chinese military. If indeed, it had been so they would not have put their prestige at stake by reaching for a stalemate and eight rounds of unending military and diplomatic confabulations with India, a la Doklam. The desperation and confusion with the Chinese establishment is all the more evident in its repeated requests for Indian quid pro quo for vacating positions in southern banks of Pangong Tso for leaving its positions in Indian areas in Ladakh.

It is true that there is an unlimited social media platform used maliciously by many in India for disseminating all their partisan views. In media too, pro and anti-government views get prominently displayed, in print and electronic and objectivity is in free fall  and available at a  steep discount.  The Indian government has erred in remaining quite on a number of issues, affecting social and religious harmony thus giving an impression of its complicity. Further, there are a number of big mouths in the ruling party, from national to village level who keep on ranting irresponsible statements, providing legitimacy to many criminal acts being done by political or anti-social elements and affecting the credibility of national government in the process. An objective analysis of the government, including a responsible and constructive criticism, based on facts and figures, should be the order of the day. That will go a long way in alleviating irresponsible, biased reporting and improve governmental efficiency and social- economic cohesion in India and the region.

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Status of Minorities in Pakistan

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In February this year, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, posted a tweet condemning the Delhi riots and stated that anyone who targets the non-Muslim minorities in the country or their places of worship will be dealt with strictly. For all the resolute comments that Mr Khan has made for protection of minorities in Pakistan, the reality showcases a completely different scenario. The status of religious freedom is almost minimal, minorities have been unjustly prosecuted under the blasphemy laws and there have been targeted attacks on the non-Muslim citizens and defenders of human rights. This article aims to assess the condition of Minorities in the country and the unjust use of blasphemy laws as a tool of oppression. 

Forced Conversions: A chronic problem 

On October this year, Arzoo Raja, a 13-year-old Christian girl, was abducted right outside her house in Karachi. She was forcibly converted to Islam and married off to her abductor, a 44- year-old man. The police denied these claims and asserted that it had sufficient proof to prove that the girl converted and married off on her own volition. To make matters worse, the Sindh high court validated the marriage (even though the legal age is 18), and stated (based upon falsified documents) that Arzoo was old enough to make her own decisions. This case isn’t a one off and there have been multiple instances in the past where underage girls from minority religions have been abducted and forcefully married off after conversion. A few months ago, a Hindu teenage girl, Simran Kumari was abducted from Ghotki in Sindh and converted to Islam. She was also married off to her abductor and her parents were stopped from visiting because of them being ‘Kafirs’ . Mirpur Khas, Sanghar, and Ghotki are some of the districts that have had the highest number of such incidents and all of them come under the province of Sindh. These incidents are more than just ordinary cases of forced conversion, they are a reflection of deeper issues rooted in economic, social and cultural status of the minority communities. 

Most of the minority communities have been traditionally engaged in jobs associated with low income such as daily wage labour and any scope of upward economic mobility is limited. Amar Guriro, a senior journalist states that many Hindu and Christian women convert due to their poor financial condition, and that Muslim men easily lure these women on the pretext of providing better financial and living conditions . But investigations in the past have revealed that economic hardship might be a factor in these incidents but it isn’t the only factor, and in most cases, the women yield to their abductors due to fear of their lives. There have been cases where after a woman is abducted from a village, large groups of Muslim men drive around the village with loudspeakers in their cars shouting “the victory of Islam”. The main reason behind this is to instil a psychological fear and ensure that the minority communities do not take legal recourse. It’s unfortunate that even if the victim’s family were to lodge a First Information Report, it would make no difference. The police, political representatives and the judiciary are usually in cahoots, and any form of protest would be at the cost of endangering their own lives. This is clearly seen in majority of the cases where the victim is usually below 18 years of age, even though as per a recent amendment to the penal code, the legal age of marriage for girls is 18 years. The police play a huge part in providing forged documents as proof to the judges who readily accept it without questioning the legitimacy and let the accused go scot free. 

Blasphemy Laws 

The blasphemy laws in Pakistan pose another set of problems for the minorities, and are one of the strictest in the Islamic world. They were inherited from the former colonial rulers back when Pakistan was a part of India and a British colony. During the reign of the military government headed by General Zia-ul-Haq, few other clauses were added to these laws which criminalised certain acts such as insulting Islam’s Prophet, speaking against the holy Quran or using derogatory language against important religious scholars. According to the data given by National Commission for Justice and Peace, there were a total of 1540 blasphemy cases which came up till 2018 and out of those 1540 cases about 50% cases had a non Muslim as the accused even when they constituted very small share of the total population . The Ahmadiyya’s, a Muslim minority, are the worst affected by these laws. The Ahmadiyya community is a sect of Islam which has its roots in India and was founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Unfortunately, the Ahmadiyya community faces a lot discrimination world over and is generally regarded as non-Muslim in most of the Islamic countries. According to the second amendment in Pakistan’s constitution, the Ahmadis are considered as non-Muslims in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The Ahmadis have had repeated allegations of blasphemy against them due to the fact that their religious beliefs contradict the verses in the Quran and are therefore equal to speaking against it. This is completely ironical to the fact that Pakistan’s constitution clearly states that each and every single religious community has the right to profess, propagate and practise their religion. For the other minority religions, the blasphemy laws act as a means of seeking revenge or showing dominance for the majority Sunni Muslims. In May 2019, Ramesh Kumar Malhi, a Hindu veterinary doctor, was accused of wrapping medicines in the pages containing verses of Quran because of which his clinic and a few other shops belonging to the Hindu community were burned down . Similarly, in 2018, a 25-year-old Christian man was accused of sending blasphemous texts because of which Muslim mobs raided the houses of Christians living in the area and threatened to set their houses on fire. In both the incidents, the police filed no cases against the offending mobs. In most of the cases, it is important to note that the reason for charging someone with blasphemy is usually due some other personal conflict entirely unrelated to the charge of blasphemy and is usually used as a means to extract revenge. 

These blasphemy laws represent the sorry state of freedom of speech in the country. The idea that anything with regards to religion is sacred and cannot be contested leads to the formation of dogmatic opinions. While it is understandable that the blasphemy laws only apply to statements meant to defame a religion, but since these laws come under the purview of the Federal Shariat Court to determine what is Islamic or un-Islamic, even well-intentioned constructive criticism is considered blasphemous. John Stuart Mill, one of the most influential thinkers of classical liberalism, in his book ‘On Liberty’ talks about the role of freedom of speech and expression. He says “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”. The reasoning behind this is to show how important it is to allow divergent views to be spoken about clearly, and even if there is disagreement about the truthfulness of a particular view or opinion, there’s always a possibility that it might contain a certain element of truth. The inability of a country to tolerate divergent views is representative of its insecurity towards criticism and change. This eventually leads to its downfall as even the most common and rational arguments are sometimes suppressed. 

Subpar Standard of Living

While the cases above represent some of the worst atrocities against minorities in Pakistan, their everyday lives don’t provide a very bright picture either. There has been discrimination in the past with regards to employment, such that sanitation work or daily wage labour work was restricted to non-Muslims only. Even with regards to education, there have been reports where the students from the minority religions have faced religious slurs or have been plainly discriminated by the teachers. Some of the textbooks portray the minorities in a negative light and completely negate their existence when recounting the history of the country, this reinforces an anti-minority mindset within the young adults and prevents the minorities from enrolling in educational institutions which restricts their social and economic upward mobility. In general, at least in the rural areas, non-Muslims have faced violence and many have lost their lives too. There have been numerous cases where houses of Hindus and Christians have been burnt down, their men, women and children killed or forced to leave the village. Temples and Churches have been destroyed in many areas, such that only a handful remain. A survey by the Pakistan All Hindu Rights Movement showed that out of a total of 428 temples that were present in the country during independence only 20 remain today. 

While the government of Pakistan refuses to do anything, human rights lawyers and non governmental organisations present a ray of hope. In the past, journalists, activists and human rights lawyers have actively taken up cases of forced conversion, religious violence and misgovernance. This has made justice an achievable reality, even if it is only for a handful of cases. But the downside to this is that by saving the lives of others, the activists and lawyers have put their own lives at risk. There have been many instances where activists and journalists have received threats and backlash from religious extremists, some have even lost their lives. On 5thJune a journalist who had been criticising the government and the military was abducted in Lahore and detained without any proper warrant . Similarly, a co founder of an NGO working for the rights of young women was randomly detained and put on an exit control list, restricting her ability to travel overseas. 

Missed Opportunity 

Imran Khan’s inability to take firm action against the oppression of minorities in Pakistan is an indication of their worsening condition in the country. His ostrich approach makes him preach about the inexistent tolerance that Pakistan has for non-Muslims on various

International forums. It would be wise for him to first start taking constructive steps to improve the situation in his own country before concerning himself with the issues of his next-door neighbour. The tough balancing act that Mr Khan has tried to play between supporting a tolerant Pakistan and the Islamic clerics at the same time has clearly failed. Zahid Hussain, an analyst and author states that Imran Khan, right from the time that he came to power, did want a tolerant Pakistan, but not at the cost of losing support of certain extremist elements. The problem is, instead of carefully balancing the two, he empowered the extremists, nullifying any bit of chance there was for improving the condition of minorities. 

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Theorizing The teesta River Water Dispute

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Teesta River originates in the Himalayas and flows through the states of Sikkim and West  Bengal to merge with Jamuna in Bangladesh (Brahmaputra in Assam). The river drains nearly  95 per cent of the state of Sikkim. It covers 3,225 square kilometres across the districts of  Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri in West Bengal before entering into Bangladesh. It is the fourth  longest transboundary river of Bangladesh that flows down from India.

In Bangladesh, Teesta River covers 9,667 square kilometres with an estimated population of  9.15 million as in 2011.1 According to the estimates provided by the Bangladesh Bureau of  Statistics 2012, 21 million people are directly or indirectly dependent upon the river water for  their livelihoods in Bangladesh. It covers nearly 14 per cent out of the total area under  cultivation in Bangladesh.

This river has been a point of contention between India and Bangladesh since 1950s and 1960s  when India and former East Pakistan began discussing proposed projects on the river.  Immediately after the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, the Indo-Bangladesh Joint River  Commission was set up to carry forward the talks over the sharing of river waters in 1972.

The Teesta barrage, hydropower projects and dam constructions over Teesta in India has led  to a disturbance in the flow of river water downstream, i.e., in Bangladesh. Though the  hydropower projects and dam constructions are also being carried by the Bangladesh government on its side of the river.

Bangladesh, that gets lesser share than that of India of the Teesta River water, claims for an  equitable share which is unacceptable to the state of West Bengal. Negotiations over the same  have been going on since 1983. The matter is still over the table with an unresolved dispute.

The Dispute

A significant amount of Teesta’s water flows only during wet season i.e., between June and  September, leaving scant flow during the dry season i.e., October to April/May which paves  way to the issue of equitable sharing during lean season. The 50-50 allocation of the river water  could have been agreed to but it was opposed by the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Mamta  Banerjee, who claims that it would be unfair to West Bengal since it would adversely impact  the water-flow available in the state.

The stakeholders here are not just the Indian state and the Bangladesh government but since  water is a state subject, the Indian state of West Bengal is a large party to the matter whereas  Sikkim has highly been ignored (which is also a point of highlight for the critics).

Bangladesh claims that an equal water sharing is essential for them since their basin dependence is higher than that of India’s and also, that the downstream nature of Bangladesh  makes them vulnerable since any construction by India affects the water flow available to them.  Apart from the farmers getting adversely affected, the inadequate flow of water has also created  siltation. Thus, these are reasons enough to get India’s attention towards this issue.

However, West Bengal’s concerns can also not be ignored which states that Teesta has dried  up due to which an acute drinking water problem has been caused apart from another issue  which states less availability of water for irrigation needs.

In 1983, an ad hoc arrangement was made between India and Bangladesh wherein both agreed  to share 75 per cent of river water with India using 39 per cent and Bangladesh 36 per cent.  The remaining 25 per cent was to be distributed after some further studies. In 1997, a Joint  Committee of Experts was formed to examine the matter. It took until 2004 for a Joint  Technical Group to be formed which drafted an interim agreement for the sharing of the river water during the lean season. However, in 2005, the JTG admitted its inability to come up with  a solution.

In 2005 itself, the Joint River Commission stated that the river will not be able to meet the  needs of both the countries during the lean seasons, hence, any agreement that is made will  have to be based upon shared sacrifices. In 2010, the two countries agreed to resolve the matter  expeditiously and drafted some principles for the sharing of river water during the lean season.

In 2011, the agreement was to be signed during the visit of the then Prime Minister of India,  Dr. Manmohan Singh, to Dhaka, Bangladesh. However, it fell through when the Chief Minister  of West Bengal, Mamta Banerjee protested against the proposed allocation of 50 per cent of  the river’s water to Bangladesh.

Since then there have been bilateral discussions on the dispute between the two countries but  they have been unable to reach upon a mutually agreed agreement. Something that has been  continued to be a major sore point within the bilateral relations of India and Bangladesh!

Main Problem

Teesta barrage, whose construction started in the late 1970s, is the largest irrigation project of  the entire eastern region. It aims at utilizing the potential of Teesta River in hydropower  generation, irrigation, navigation, and flood moderation. India, being the upper riparian  country, controls the flow of the river water into Bangladesh from the Teesta barrage. Even  Bangladesh has constructed a barrage downstream that provides water for agriculture and  irrigation to the drought prone areas of northern Bangladesh.

Bangladesh argues that the construction of Teesta barrage has drastically reduced the  availability of water downstream, especially, in the dry season. On the other hand, it’s not just  Bangladesh that is facing such issues, India is facing such issues as well. A reduced availability  of groundwater due to underground tunnelling has been witnessed which has impacted agricultural productions and livelihoods in the region. The drying up of natural springs and  local water resources, the matter which also needs to be addressed, has resulted in growing  scarcity of drinking water. An increasing number of landslides have also been witnessed in the  mountainous regions of Sikkim.

Development of hydropower projects and the construction of dams are majorly held  responsible for all such issues. It has been a growing concern in India and something that the  environmentalists, scientist, social activists have all cautioned against. Changes in the river,  which have largely been due to the dams being constructed on the Teesta are being witnessed,  including frequent changes in the course of the river, delta formation, high rates of siltation,  increased erosion, and siltation of agricultural land in the areas surrounded by the river.

Availability of water for irrigation is a key issue, particularly for West Bengal, as highlighted  by local communities. It is estimated that the availability of water for irrigation be reduced due  to the series of proposed dams since every hydropower project is estimated to absorb at least 5  per cent of the river’s running water.

Similar is the situation with Bangladesh as well where farmers are being forced to rely on tube  wells to pump underground water which has resulted in increased cost of production and also,  reduced areas under cultivation. In many areas, increased siltation of riverbed has caused  widening of the river which has resulted in bank erosion and flooding. 

The Perspective Of Institutional Economics

The dispute is still hanging somewhere unable to find itself a reasonable solution. It is not just  about the point of contention regarding the sharing of water, that how much water should India  consume or how much of it should Bangladesh take away from the river, but it is also about  the environmental concerns and the way it is impacting the humans. Maybe, if India takes up  the discussions regarding sharing of some of the benefits that it would gain from its hydropower  projects, it could happen that the dispute might be solved, but that would not solve the  environmental concerns altogether.

Environmental economics, a strand of economics, offers one such solution which talks about  using a price signal in waiving off a particular dispute. But in order to do that, you need to own  that particular resource which is not possible in the case of a river. The market, thus, cannot  allocate the resource using a price signal since there are no specified property rights, therefore,  none of the state can boast of ownership. The lack of property rights disables either of the state  to be able to sell it or rather, in this matter, be able to negotiate a settlement using a ‘price’  signal on the basis of cost-benefit analysis. Similarly, one state cannot also exclude the other  state from using the river water since it’s a common environmental resource for both the states.

This indicates towards the presence of externalities that happens when there are lack of  property rights and people utilize their utility not considering what additional/negative utility  others may get from it. In such a problem, institutional economics, another branch of  economics, has some solution to offer. Elinor Ostrom, an American political economist talks  about common pool resources that people have managed successfully for generations. She says  that these resources should be managed in communities where people can collectively come  and decide and set up some rules that should match the local conditions since different regions  have different ecosystems.

Here, in the context of the Teesta River dispute, the major thing that is missing is the ‘people’  and their participation in forming a consensus over the usage of river water. The local  communities are the major stakeholders of the river water and it is them who are being majorly  effected but they have been kept away and everything has just boiled down to politics and the bilateral equations between the two states. This leads us to understand the issue from the lenses  of political ecology.

Political Ecology And Its Links With The Dispute

Political ecology is that branch of geography that emerges from ‘critical geography’ and makes  this basic point that physical environment in which we live in is not just natural but is  characterized by a constant human intervention making it a ‘built’ environment. And since we  live in such environment which is partly and very deeply influenced by human beings  themselves, social and human processes should be right at the centre of our analysis.

Political ecology fundamentally connects questions of environment with questions of political  processes and political power, something that is clearly visible in the dispute in discussion. It  also draws insights from political economy, particularly, Marxian political economy to draw  this connection between environmental issues, political power, and political and social  processes.

David Harvey, one of the renowned scholars of political ecology, talks about the phenomenon  of ‘Accumulation by Dispossession.’ This phenomenon talks about the existing social relations  between the capitalist class and the farmers/working class. This talks about how the farmers  are being left with no other option than to lose their lands and become a victim at the hands of  the industrial development.

Here, in the context of Teesta River dispute, something similar is happening. On one hand,  while the government and a section of civil society is happy with the expected benefits of the  hydropower project like employment, energy sufficiency, new revenues, on the other hand,  local communities, environmentalists, scientists, and activists are concerned about social,  cultural, and environmental aspects of these projects. More such projects are proposed, more the economic and industrial development but only at the cost of environmental development  and also, at the cost of the livelihoods of the local communities!

Conclusion

The politics of the two countries, their asymmetric relations, and their urge to economic and  industrial development has costed the local communities their livelihoods. For the authorities  concerned, it’s about their political ego, their incapability of meeting the local needs through  the existing water share, but holistically, this matter is not just about that. Undoubtedly, it  continues to be dominated by political procedures but what matters the most are the local  communities who are suffering on both the sides of the borders. It is these people who are  losing their livelihoods, lands, and the allied opportunities but have been kept away from the  major procedure of decision making. The sufferers are none but the environment itself whose  course is being decided by the humans and also, the humans – but only the ones that are  dependent upon the same environment for their livelihood opportunities. Rest that remains is  the politics!

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