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Our Man in Bandung: How Sir John Kotelawala of Ceylon shocked Nehru’s idealism

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Authors: Punsara Amarasinghe and Eshan Jayawardane*

To historians of Southeast Asia, the Bandung conference of 1955 presents itself as one of the most striking international initiatives undertaken by newly-independent Indonesia. For historians of Indonesia, it marks the emphasis on foreign as against domestic policy that was associated with Sukarno’s growing dominance. To biographers of Sukarno it appears to be both a strategic device in domestic politics and a far-sighted perception of a shift in international relations. Internationally it was both to demonstrate the influence of India and to show its limits. Even more it was to mark some kind of success for the People’s Republic of China and for Chou En-lai in developing the foreign policy line associated already with Geneva and the five principles of co-existence.

However, the melodramatic act performed by Ceylon’s third prime minister Sir John Lionel Kotelawala had simply upset the apple cart of the conference and Nehru’s motive of introducing Chou Enlai to the decolonized states. There have been a number of narratives written from various perspectives describing the role Sir John Kotelwala’s role in Bandung today and many of them have depicted him as a colonial infant who acted under British interests to sabotage the motives of Bandung conference which grounded on building Afro Asian socio-economic cooperation to resist any kind of neo-colonialism by any nation. The idea of Bandung conference was technically conceived in the conference held in Colombo under the leadership of prime minister Sir John Kotelawala in 1954 and the Colombo conference itself was a brighter idea arose from Sir John without any particular reason. Yet, the Colombo conference was rather a platform for the leaders of newly independent states to discuss their common problems and the idea of calling a larger summit for Afro Asian countries was propounded by Indonesian leader Sukarno. He himself proposed the clam city called “Bandung “in Indonesia as the host city of the conference and India’s prime minister Pandith Jawaharlal Nehru played the cardinal role as the protagonist who anticipated to bring his notion of nonaligned principle into the forum of Bandung.

On the other hand, the timing of Bandung was less revealing. Indeed, the conference took place during a period of growing international tension and complexity. The Cold War was in the process of establishing itself as an abiding phenomenon, reaching deep into newly liberated states and non- self-governing territories alike. In the backdrop of such complex political unrest which had started to soar it wings globally, the discontent among the leaders who participated in Bandung was a salient factor and the opening of Bandung diverged its participants into strong ideological convictions. It was rather obvious that Nehru was dwelling in his idealism driven by his profound sense of resentment towards colonialism as inherently evil and his mission in Bandung stood for achieving two main goals. First was to undermine American cold war interests in Asia as it was represented by the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO), which he perceived as a real threat for the neutrality of decolonized countries in Asia. Secondly, he wanted to utilize the Bandung forum to engage the People’s Republic of China as a fellow Asian country regardless of its Communist ideology.

However, Nehru’s motive of softening the path for China to stand among neutral countries was not favourably viewed by some of the leaders participated in the conference. Prime minister of Ceylon Sir John Kotelawala and Carlos.P.Romulo of Philippines were main vocal opponents in China’s standing as a neutral country by virtue of Communist doctrine. From two of them, the voice raised by Sir John Kotelawala was widely trumpeted by Western media as a vehement criticism of the Communism and this compliment was later used by Sir John’s political opponents to describe him as a hardcore follower of the West. But, the reality stemming from Bandung records indicate that Ceylon prime minister Sir John Kotelwala’s speech echoed more neutrality than Philippines’ Carlos.P.Romulo , who entirely took pro-U.S stances in the conference. Notwithstanding his fame, as an anti-communist fascinated by Western values, Sir John raised the importance of “Asian Values “in his speech at Bandung. Highlighting his Buddhist faith Sir John stressed that the Third World’s “strength” lay in its “weakness.” It was precisely because they were “all poor and underdeveloped” that Third World states could “offer formally [their] services as mediators”.

Sir John Kotelwala’s major blow of Bandung was that his proposal to describe “Communism” as another form of imperialism equal to Western colonialism. Bringing the examples of Soviet satellite states from Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Sir John pointed out the similarity between Western imperialism and Soviet expansion arguing that later should be declared as another form of imperialism.

As a matter of fact, this was an unexpected moment for Nehru who was yeaning to introduce his friend Zhou Enlai to the Afro Asian leaders at Bandung. Nehru with his usual paternal sense of statesmanship approached Sir John at the end of the second-day session and asked Sir John “Why did you do it? Why did not you show me your speech before you gave it?” this remarked sounded like paternal advice of senior statesman in an Asian power to a less scholarly, stubborn prime minister of a lesser-known island. But to the biggest surprise of Nehru, the answer came from Sir John was shocking and coarse as he answered “Why should I? Do you show me yours before you give them?”

The world witnessed by Bandung leaders and the objectives they determined to achieve in 1955 have been altered today with rapid changing dynamics since the fall of the Soviet Union. Also, the camaraderie Nehru reverently admired between his country India and China was marred by the Indo China war which was fought eight years after Bandung conference showing the strength of “realpolitik “than the Nehruvian idealism. Even today the scepticism existing between China and Indian over the geopolitical issues in South Asia is an intriguing one. In evaluating the role of Sir John Kotelawala of Ceylon, one should always remember that it was his pragmatism and inherent personality factor which boosted his role in a conference dominated by a political giant like Nehru. More importantly,  Sir John’s audacity to question a world-leading political ideology and defend his position as premier of a sovereign state before a powerful neighbour like India was an early warning to not take small neighbours for granted.

*Eshan Jayawardane is an independent researcher currently lives in Napiers, New Zealand and holds M.A in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi , India.

Punsara Amarasinghe is a PhD candidate at Institute of Law and Politics at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna, Pisa Italy. He held a research fellowship at Faculty of Law, Higher School of Economics in Moscow and obtained his Masters from International Law at South Asian University, New Delhi. He served as a visiting lecturer at Faculty of Arts, University of Colombo Sri Lanka and author can be reached at punsaraprint10[at]gmail.com

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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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