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South Asia

Caretaker Government System has No Alternative in Bangladesh

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Evidently, there is no politics in the Bangladesh now. For many years, a kind of controlled politics has been practicing by the ruling party. Opposition politics has been brought into the house. Occasionally there are some government-sanctioned human chains, but no large gatherings are allowed. As a result, the politics of the opposition has been limited to press conferences. COVID 19further limited their politics. Even in this controlled political situation, some surprising things happen from time to time. Most of it is related to social problems. However, even in these incidents, some political issues create surprises. Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies, the main opposition parties in the struggle for the caretaker government, have become increasingly frustrated with the government’s wrath and are finally losing local elections under the ruling party. It was far from their dream to win in last two proceeding national elections.  In additional to that, the representatives of the civil society have also started talking about the caretaker government system. At a recent virtual roundtable meeting on good governance organized by a well-regarded civil society organization, SHUJAN, constitutional experts, lawyers, teachers, researchers and civil society representatives highlighted the need for a caretaker government. They said that the country’s democracy is being harmed as people turn away from the polls. As democracy takes on a fictional form, extremist groups can emerge. In order to overcome this situation, the caretaker government system has to be brought back and the citizens have to go to the polls. At the same time, they have termed the current Election Commission (EC) as a depoliticization commission. They said that before we saw the military rulers depoliticize EC by seizing power, now the civilian government has also depoliticized the country with the help of the EC. Within a week of their roundtable meeting, the Left Democratic Alliance also called for new elections under a non-partisan caretaker government. The sudden need for a caretaker government in a peaceful political environment of the country is certainly significant and very important for politics.

There is nothing new to say in our country that elections are never fair and acceptable under a party government. Because there is a lack of trust and confidence between the government and the opposition. The system of caretaker government originated mainly due to mistrust and confidence between the political parties. After the mass movement of the nineties and the resignation of the H. M. Ershad, a kind of complication arose as to under whom the new elections would be held. At that time, all the opposition parties, including the two main opposition parties, Awami League (AL)and BNP, came together and decided that the election would be held under a non-party government and not under any political party. It was from this decision that the theory of caretaker government was discovered. It was unanimously decided that the Chief Justice would be the head of the caretaker government. He will form a caretaker government on a small scale to run the government with eminent persons from different fields. The main task of this government will be to arrange a free, fair, neutral and acceptable election within three months. The party that wins the election held under this government will come to power. In that system of caretaker government, the first caretaker government was formed under the leadership of Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed. It was widely assumed before the election that AL was coming to power. AL was also sure that it was coming to power and, accordingly, the party had formed a shadow cabinet. On the other hand, the BNP assumed that it was sitting in the seat of the opposition. The supporters, starting from the leaders and workers of the party, had the same attitude. The issue was that ALwas coming to power and BNP was becoming an opposition party. At the end of the election, AL lost unexpectedly and unimaginably, and the BNP won. For AL, it was like a thunderbolt without clouds. The leaders of the party were outraged and said that the election was rigged. However, the AL’s demand was not met as the election was considered free, fair and neutral at home and abroad. The party finally accepted it and sat in the seat of the opposition. Later, the issue of caretaker government was added by amending the constitution 1996. Since then, elections have been held every five years under a caretaker government. However, whichever party was in power, it also used tactics to get its loyalists to come to the caretaker government. Even then the elections held under the caretaker government were becoming free, fair and acceptable. Voters also choose their favorite party and candidates by voting in a festive atmosphere. Problems arose with the formation of the caretaker government in 2008. Opposition party of then, AL, raised the issue that the ruling BNP alliance had planted a caretaker government with its loyalists. AL started a violent movement including non-cooperation movement around the country claiming that elections cannot be held under this government. At one stage, the government, known as One-Eleven was formed with the intervention of the military. The military began to run the government from behind the scenes with the caretaker government in front. As soon as this government came to power, it started a kind of depoliticization process. The two main political leaders, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, were arrested and placed under house arrest. As well as the military-backed caretaker government introduced the reform in politics with some front-line leaders from the two parties, BNP and AL, and created a minus-two formula to eliminate the two leaders, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina. When the mainstream leaders and activists of AL and BNP put up strong resistance against it, the military-backed caretaker government released two leaders, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina and finally arranged the election.  In the election held on 29 December 2008, the AL won two-thirds of the seats and secured an absolute majority. The BNP got only 36 seats. As soon as the AL came to power, it took initiative to cancel the caretaker government. Its argument was that democracy would not be institutionalized if elections are held with an unelected government. Democracy must be established through elections held under a party government. The party cited the example of elections held under party governments in various countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and India. However, the opposition political parties and the civil society did not believe that the election would not be fair under the party government. Due to their opposition, the ruling coalition government formed a committee to seek the views of civil society people, including opposition political parties. Representatives of the main opposition BNP and other political parties and civil society voted in favor of the caretaker government. The Supreme Court of the country ruled against the caretaker government presumably under the influence of the ruling entity but simultaneously it suggested that the next term election could be held under a caretaker government. Following the court decision, caretaker government was dismissed absolutely by the 16thamendment to the Constitution referring to Supreme Court’s verdict. As AL had the absolute majority in the parliament, no parliamentary debate needed to form a decision. It seemed that the decision was already taken outside the parliament. After the abolition of the caretaker government, the election was held on 5 January 2014 under the ruling party amidst strong agitation of the 20-party alliance. The election was unprecedented in history. Before the election, the candidates of the ruling grand alliance were elected unopposed in 154 seats. Most polling stations were empty on polling day. Experts call the election a “vote without a vote”. The election became a matter of question at home and abroad. The ruling party was in the process of justifying it by labeling itas the election to prevent constitutional crisis. Leaders from AL also widely called it an election to uphold the Constitution and said that another acceptable election would be held soon with the participation of all parties. Once the election was over, the government took a firm stand to suppress the opposition movement and chose the path of repression-torture. Thousands of leaders and activists, including top opposition leaders, were arrested and prosecuted. AL government successfully suppressed the postelection movement by oppression, mass-arrest and forced disappearance. Later, all local level elections, including by-elections under the ruling party, were held unilaterally. Although the opposition BNP-led United Front participated in the national elections on December 30, 2018, it was held in a fancy process. The night before the election, ballot boxes were filled in favor of the ruling party AL. The ruling alliance won an absolute majority in the election, while the BNP-led United Front won only 6 seats. Opposition groups called the election a “vote rigging”. Though the election was questioned at home and abroad, the ruling party did not listen to it.

The fact that free, fair, neutral and acceptable elections are not possible under the ruling party in our country has been proved since the abolition of the caretaker government system. Voters have turned away. Even many of the leaders, activists and supporters of the ruling party do not go to the polling stations. They already know that the candidate of the ruling party will be the winner. From the country’s opposition political parties to civil society representatives and conscious citizens, everyone believes that the questionable election under the party government is a threat to democracy as well as pushing the country towards depoliticization. If this situation continues, extremist groups may rise in the country, which will not be good for anyone.

Mahmudul Hasan is a recent LL.M. graduate of energy and environmental law and Thomas Buergenthal Fellow at The George Washington University Law School, Washington, D.C.

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South Asia

India’s Unclear Neighbourhood Policy: How to Overcome ?

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India has witnessed multiple trends with regards to its relations with its neighbours at a time vaccine diplomacy is gaining prominence and Beijing increasing the pace towards becoming an Asian superpower, whereby making these reasons valid for New Delhi to have a clear foreign policy with respect to its neighbourhood.

Introduction

The Covid Pandemic has led to increased uncertainty in the global order where it comes to power dynamics, role of international organisations. New Delhi has tried to leave no stone unturned when it comes to dealing with its immediate neighbours.  It has distributed medical aid and vaccines to smaller countries to enhance its image abroad at a time it has witnessed conflicts with China and a change in government in Myanmar. These developments make it imperative for New Delhi to increase its focus on regionalism and further international engagement where this opportunity could be used tactically amidst a pandemic by using economic and healthcare aid.

According to Dr. Arvind Gupta, New Delhi has to deal with threats coming from multiple fronts and different tactics where it is essential for New Delhi to save energy using soft means rather than coercive measures.. India under Vaccine Maitri has supplied many of COVAXIN doses to Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka where many have appreciated this move. The urgency of ensuring humanitarian aid during these periods of unprecedented uncertainty are essential in PM Modi’s Security and Growth For All ( SAGAR) initiative, which focusses on initiating inclusive growth as well as cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region.

This pandemic witnessed various threats coming in India’s neighbourhood through multiple dimensions which include maritime, land, cyber as well as air threats where adversaries are using these to put pressure on New Delhi to settle land as well as marine disputes as per their terms.  These encirclement strategies have made it necessary for India to open up various options such as holding maritime joint exercises with like-minded countries, developing partnerships, providing economic as well as healthcare support to weaker countries plus having a clear insight about changing global dynamics and acting as per them.

This piece will discuss about various changing tactics, pros and cons which India has with respect to developing its national security vis-à-vis its neighbourhood, why should it prioritise its neighbourhood at the first place?

Background

India’s Neighbourhood is filled with many complexities and a lot of suspicion amongst countries, some viewing India because of its size and geography plus economic clout as a bully where it is wanting to dominate in the region putting others aside. This led to New Delhi play an increased role in nudging ties first with its neighbours with whom it had multiple conflicts as well as misunderstandings leading to the latter viewing Beijing as a good alternative in order to keep India under check.

Ever since PM Modi has taken charge at 7 RCR, India’s Neighbourhood First Policy has been followed increasingly to develop relations, to enhance understandings and ensure mutual cooperation as well as benefit with its neighbours. The relations with Islamabad have not seen so much improvement as compared to other leaders in the past. Even though former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was invited for PM Modi’s 1st Swearing In ceremony in 2014, terrorist activities have never stopped which could be seen through Pathankot, Uri and Pulwama terror attacks which killed many of the Indian soldiers. Even though surgical strikes were conducted on terror camps in retaliation to these bombardments, Islamabad has not changed its heart at all about its security or regional demands. New strategies and friendships are being developed where Beijing has played a major role in controlling power dynamics.

The Belt and Road initiative, first time mentioned during President Xi’s 2013 speech in Kazakhstan, then officially in 2015,  lays emphasis of achieving a Chinese Dream of bringing countries under one umbrella, ensuring their security, providing them with infrastructure projects such as ports, railways, pipelines, highways etc. The main bottleneck is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor when it comes to India’s security threats, passing through disputed boundaries of Gilgit and Baltistan in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir till Gwadar. Other projects have been initiated in Chittagong, Hambantota, Gwadar , Kyapkyou. These projects form a String Of Pearls in the Indo Pacific where New Delhi is being balanced against through economic plus development incentives being given to the member countries under the project. That’s why in the recent past, New Delhi is asserting its influence in the region, looking at new dimensional threats where Beijing’s threats in the maritime domain in the islands in East as well as South China seas are not being seen favourably in many countries such as ASEAN, US, Australia and Japan which is giving India an opportunity to look towards countries with a common threat. Amidst this great power struggle between Washington and Beijing, New Delhi is stuck between a rock and hard place i.e., having a clear and strong foreign policy with its neighbours.

In this region, India has a sole threat which is mainly Beijing where the latter has achieved prowess technologically and militarily where New Delhi lags behind the latter twenty fold. So, there is a need for improvising military technology, increase economic activities with countries, reduce dependence on foreign aid, ensure self-reliance.

Situation

South Asia is backward when it comes to economic development, human development and is a home to majority of the world’s population which lives below poverty line. The colonial rule has left a never-ending impact on divisions based on communal, linguistic and ethnic grounds. Even, in terms of infrastructure and connectivity, New Delhi lags behind Beijing significantly in the neighbourhood because the latter is at an edge when it comes to bringing countries under the same umbrella. Due to these, many initiatives have been taken up by New Delhi on developing infrastructure, providing humanitarian aid to needy countries.

There have been numerous efforts made by India with respect to reaching out to the Neighbours in 2020 through setting up of the SAARC Covid Fund where many Neighbourhood countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka gave contributions to ensure cooperation, joint scientific research, sharing information, healthcare kits where the countries contributed USD $ 18 million jointly towards this fund where New Delhi made an initial offer of USD $ 10 million.

New Delhi has even mustered ties with the Association of Southeast Asian countries during the pandemic under its Act East Policy where proper connectivity through the Northeast could be useful in easing movement of goods but currently, the infrastructure in Northeast needs more improvement where issues such as unemployment, poor connectivity are prevalent whereby disconnecting it from rest of the other states. This region could play an important role in linking Bangladesh, Myanmar to New Delhi along with the proposed India-Thailand –Myanmar Trilateral Corridor. Focus has also been laid to develop inland waterways, rail links and pipelines to ease connections between countries, making trade free and more efficient.

India is focussing on developing the Sittwe and Paletwa ports in Myanmar under the Kaladan Development Corridor, at the cost of INR 517.9 Crore in order to provide an alternative e route beneficial for the Northeast for getting shipping access

Summing Up

 These above developments and power display by a strong adversary, give good reasons for New Delhi to adopt collective security mechanisms through QUAD, SIMBEX and JIMEX with a common perception of having safe and open waters through abiding to the UNCLOS which China isn’t showing too much interest in, seen through surveillance units, artificial islands being set up on disputed territories which countries likewise India are facing in context to territorial sovereignty and integrity. These developments make it important for India to look at strategic threats by coming together with countries based on similar interest’s vis-à-vis Chinese threat.

There is a need for India to develop and harness its strength through connectivity and its self reliance initiative ( Aatmanirbharta ) so that there is no dependence on any foreign power at times of need . Proper coordination between policy makers and government officials could make decision making even easier, which is not there completely because of ideological differences, different ideas which makes it important for the political leadership to coordinate with the military jointly during times of threats on borders. Self-reliance could only come through preparedness and strategy.

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South Asia

India is in big trouble as UK stands for Kashmiris

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 A London-based law firm has filed an application with British police seeking the arrest of India’s army chief and a senior Indian government official over their alleged roles in war crimes in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Law firm Stoke White said it submitted extensive evidence to the Metropolitan Police’s War Crimes Unit on Tuesday, documenting how Indian forces headed by General Manoj Mukund Naravane and Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah were responsible for the torture, kidnapping and killing of activists, journalists and civilians – particularly Muslim – in the region.

“There is strong reason to believe that Indian authorities are conducting war crimes and other violence against civilians in Jammu and Kashmir,” the report states, referring to the territory in the Himalayan region.

Based on more than 2,000 testimonies taken between 2020 and 2021, the report also accused eight unnamed senior Indian military officials of direct involvement in war crimes and torture in Kashmir.

The law firm’s investigation suggested that the abuse has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. It also included details about the arrest of Khurram Parvez, the region’s most prominent rights activist, by India’s counterterrorism authorities last year.

“This report is dedicated to the families who have lost loved ones without a trace, and who experience daily threats when trying to attain justice,” Khalil Dewan, author of the report and head of the SWI unit, said in a statement.

“The time has now come for victims to seek justice through other avenues, via a firmer application of international law.”

The request to London police was made under the principle of “universal jurisdiction”, which gives countries the authority to prosecute individuals accused of crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world.

The international law firm in London said it believes its application is the first time that legal action has been initiated abroad against Indian authorities over alleged war crimes in Kashmir.

Hakan Camuz, director of international law at Stoke White, said he hoped the report would convince British police to open an investigation and ultimately arrest the officials when they set foot in the UK.

Some of the Indian officials have financial assets and other links to Britain.

“We are asking the UK government to do their duty and investigate and arrest them for what they did based on the evidence we supplied to them. We want them to be held accountable,” Camuz said.

The police application was made on behalf of the family of Pakistani prisoner Zia Mustafa, who, Camuz said, was the victim of extrajudicial killing by Indian authorities in 2021, and on behalf of human rights campaigner Muhammad Ahsan Untoo, who was allegedly tortured before his arrest last week.

Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the past two decades in Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both in its entirety.

Muslim Kashmiris mostly support rebels who want to unite the region, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.

Kashmiris and international rights groups have long accused Indian troops of carrying out systematic abuse and arrests of those who oppose rule from New Delhi.

Rights groups have also criticized the conduct of armed groups, accusing them of carrying out human rights violations against civilians.

In 2018, the United Nations human rights chief called for an independent international investigation into reports of rights violations in Kashmir, alleging “chronic impunity for violations committed by security forces”.

India’s government has denied the alleged rights violations and maintains such claims are separatist propaganda meant to demonize Indian troops in the region. It seems, India is in big trouble and may not be able to escape this time. A tough time for Modi-led extremist government and his discriminatory policies. The world opinion about India has been changed completely, and it has been realized that there is no longer a democratic and secular India. India has been hijacked by extremist political parties and heading toward further bias policies. Minorities may suffer further, unless the world exert pressure to rectify the deteriorating human rights records in India.

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S. Jaishankar’s ‘The India Way’, Is it a new vision of foreign policy?

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S. Jaishankar has had an illustrious Foreign Service career holding some of the highest and most prestigious positions such as ambassador to China and the US and as foreign secretary of India. Since 2019 he has served as India’s foreign minister. S. Jaishankar also has a Ph.D. in international relations from JNU and his academic background is reflected in this book.

His main argument is simplistic, yet the issues involved are complex. Jaishankar argues that the world is changing fundamentally, and the international environment is experiencing major shifts in power as well as processes. China is rising and western hegemony is declining. We are moving away from a unipolar system dominated by the US to a multipolar system. Globalization is waning and nationalism and polarization is on the rise (p. 29). The old order is going away but we cannot yet glimpse what the future will look like. This is the uncertain world that Dr. Jaishankar sees.

Dr. Jaishankar also argues that India too has changed, it is more capable and more assertive. The liberalization program that began in 1991 has made the Indian economy vibrant and globally competitive and it is well on track to becoming the third biggest economy in the world, after China and the US.  The war of 1971 that liberated Bangladesh, the liberalization of the economy after 1991, the nuclear tests in 1998 and the nuclear understanding with the US in 2005, Jaishankar argues are landmarks in India’s strategic evolution (p. 4). So given that both India and the system have changed, Jaishankar concludes, so should India’s foreign policy.

But his prescription for India’s foreign policy, in the grand scheme of things, is the same as before – India should remain nonaligned and not join the US in its efforts to contain China. India will try to play with both sides it seems in order to exploit the superpowers and maximize its own interests (p. 9). But he fails to highlight how India can find common ground with China other than to say the two nations must resolve things diplomatically. He also seems to think that the US has infinite tolerance for India’s coyness. In his imagination the US will keep making concessions and India will keep playing hard to get.

Jaishankar has a profound contradiction in his thinking. He argues that the future will be determined by what happens between the US and China. In a way he is postulating a bipolar future to global politics. But he then claims that the world is becoming multipolar and this he claims will increase the contests for regional hegemony. The world cannot be both bipolar and multipolar at the same time.

There is also a blind spot in Jaishankar’s book.  He is apparently unaware of the rise of Hindu nationalism and the demand for a Hindu state that is agitating and polarizing India’s domestic politics. The systematic marginalization and oppression of Muslim minorities at home and the growing awareness overseas of the dangers of Hindutva extremism do not exist in the world that he lives in. He misses all this even as he goes on to invoke the Mahabharata and argue how Krishna’s wisdom and the not so ethical choices during the war between Pandavas and Kauravas should be a guide for how India deals with this uncertain world – by balancing ethics with realism (p. 63). Methinks his little digression in discussing the ancient Hindu epic is more to signal his ideological predilections than to add any insights to understanding the world or India’s place in it.  

One aspect of his work that I found interesting is his awareness of the importance of democracy and pluralism. He states that India’s democracy garners respect and gives India a greater opportunity to be liked and admired by other nations in the world (p. 8). Yet recently when he was asked about the decline of India’s democratic credentials, his response was very defensive, and he showed visible signs of irritation. It is possible that he realizes India is losing ground internationally but is unwilling to acknowledge that his political party is responsible for the deterioration of India’s democracy.

This is also apparent when he talks about the importance of India improving its relations with its immediate neighbors. He calls the strategy as neighborhood first approach (pp. 9-10). What he does not explain is how an Islamophobic India will maintain good relations with Muslim majority neighbors like Bangladesh, Maldives, and Pakistan.

The book is interesting, it has its limitations and both, what is addressed and what is left out, are clearly political choices and provide insights into how New Delhi thinks about foreign policy. So, coming to the question with which we started, does India have a new foreign policy vision? The answer is no. Dr. Jaishankar is right, there is indeed an India way, but it is the same old way, and it entails remaining nonaligned with some minor attitudinal adjustments.  

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