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75 Years Journey of Independent India: Views from Bangladeshi Perspective

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India, which was known as the Indian subcontinent for centuries, was a very rich region in terms of culture, economy and civilizations. For instance, at the end of the 17th century, India’s share was actually a quarter of the world economy. From history, we see that the Europeans came to this region to change their fates. In fact, India had a rich maritime legacy and played a significant role in world trade and economy for centuries. A British scholar, John M. Hobson, in his book, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilizations argues that “As late as the end of the eighteenth century, India had greater intensive and extensive power than the major European powers” had.

So, this was India, an economic power, maritime power and definitely a soft power. But the 200 years of British rule and exploitation made India decay in all parameters. Against British exploitation, India emerged as a sovereign nation-state on 15 August 1947. India’s independence in 1947 is a landmark event in the world history. And as a citizen of Bangladesh, India’s independence is crucial to me for several reasons.

First, I believe that if India would not be independent, Bangladesh might not have emerged as a sovereign nation-state in 1971. Without India’s material, moral and diplomatic support, the independence of Bangladesh would not be possible. It is important to note that 1, 6, 61 Indian soldiers sacrificed their lives for the Liberation of Bangladesh. This is how Indians fought for Bangladesh’s independence which is well-recognized in Bangladesh. In addition, when 10 million refugees from Bangladesh took shelter in different states of India, including West Bengal, the people of those states wholeheartedly supported them. The spirit of 1971 remains the foundation stone in Bangladesh-India relations.

Second, from an “international basket case”, Bangladesh is now a development miracle. And behind such success, one also needs to acknowledge the role of India in the last 50 years.

Third, India is a versatile land with great diversity in geography, language, religion, culture and ethnicity. In fact, the impressive development record, continued prosperity, stability, the sustainability of the largest democracy in the world, strong democratic institutions and a vibrant civil society including the media and academics  is an inspiring story to many in the region and beyond. And to create an identity of the South Asian region in the international arena, Indian independence was crucial.

Fourth, a stronger and prosperous India is beneficial to the South Asian countries and the region as a whole and beyond. In these 75 years, India has achieved impressive success from agricultural production to nuclear and space technology, from Ayurveda to biotechnology. So, if India would not be independent, it might not be able to excel itself in the areas of science, technology and innovations which have spill-over effects in the region.

Finally,India’s independence has value from an international relations perspective. One must remember that India emerged during the Cold War period, where power politics mostly dominated the world politics. Against such a backdrop, India advocated for de-colonisation, spoke for South-South cooperation, and avoided aligning with power blocs. India emphasized on peaceful international relations, a rules-based order. In fact, India played a crucial role in the success of the 1955 Bandung conference. It is also worthy to note that India hosted the first-ever Asian Relations Conference in March-April 1947, which was the forerunner of the Bandung conference.

I want to emphasize here that coming down to 2021, India needs to play a leading role as a regional power. As a citizen of Bangladesh, I feel that some issues can be taken into consideration seriously on the occasion of India’s 75years of independence. 

First, after 75 years of India’s independence, I strongly feel that India needs to focus more on its soft power than hard power. With about 1.35 billion people, investment in human development and human security becomes necessary for India.

Second, I do feel that India needs to focus more on institution building in the region. In this case, it is worthy to note that India is doing an excellent job in the promotion of regional consciousness through South Asian University. However, except for South Asian University, we don’t see so much success of the SAARC. In fact, it will not be wrong to claim that SAARC is not working out well due to India-Pakistan rivalry. Against such a backdrop, India can strengthen BIMSTEC. I think it is high time to move forward the Bay of Bengal region which has remained a conflict-free region for years. There is also a need for strengthening BRICS, BCIM Economic Corridor, and the Indian Ocean Rim Association, where India can play crucial role.

Third, there is a growing militarization in the Indian Ocean Region which is not beneficial to any littoral state. In order to make Indian Ocean Region as a zone of peace, India can play leading role.

Fourth, in 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) focusing on mainly maritime domain which is highly encouraging for the region. It can be mentioned that maritime terrorism, piracy, armed robbery against ships, marine plastic pollution, climate change and ocean acidification, the emergence of dead zones, overfishing, IUU fishing  are grave concerns for the littorals in the Bay of Bengal region including India. In this case, a regional approach becomes imperative where India needs to play a significant role.

Fifth, on February 8, 2019, the late and the former External Affairs Minister of India, Sushma Swaraj, at the 5th India-Bangladesh Joint Consultative Committee Meeting mentioned that as many as 90 bilateral agreements had been signed between Bangladesh and India since Narendra Modi’s 2015 visit in Bangladesh (Ministry of External Affairs of India, 2019). I want to reiterate here that this has only been possible due to a strong political will from both Delhi and Dhaka to deepen the ties. And this improved relation has impacted millions of people across borders. I always think that a strong political will is enough to change the region of South Asia and the Bay of Bengal Region, where India can play a crucial role.

Sixth, I believe, nurturing people to people contact becomes important in any bilateral relationship. In this case, easing the visa regime, increasing the volume of scholarship, the volume of cultural exchange programmes, including exchanges of students and teachers, musicians will be imperative in accelerating people-to-people contacts in the region where India can play leading role. It is highly encouraging that in 2019, the number of visas issued by India to Bangladeshi citizens crossed the mark of 1.5 million, which is imperative in the promotion of people-to-people contacts.

Seventh, I strongly believe that strengthening academic cooperation between India and its neighbours becomes necessary. India can make a study; how many India Study Centre are available in the region and how many institutes in India focus on neighbourhood studies? It is important to promote joint research and collaboration among scholars, researchers in the region. India study centre in the region needs to be promoted where Indian High Commission on those particular countries can play vital role. Though there is a Japan Study Centre and an East Asia Study Centre focusing on mainly China and Japan at the University of Dhaka, there is no India Study Centre in Bangladesh. It is important to establish an India Study Centre/Institute at the University of Rajshahi, which will be dedicated to the knowledge promotion on Indian affairs, on Bangladesh-India relations.

Eighth, the world of 1945 and 2021 is not the same. Similarly, India of 1947 and 2021 India is not the same. For instance, in 1947, India was a poor country with a large impoverished population and suffering from food shortages. The situation of the industry was also not good enough. The country also faced challenges like national integration and nation-building in the post-partition era. In 2021, India is the third largest economy in PPP (purchasing power parity) terms while the country has the third-largest pool of scientific and technical experts in the world. It is one of the key countries in the global economy and global supply chain. The country has contributed immensely to the international peace and security domain through its active troops contributions to the UN peacekeeping missions. Thus, I strongly feel that United Nations Security Council needs to be reformed. And as a South Asian representative, India can be a permanent member of the Security Council. Indian neighbours can actively support India to gain the Security Council membership.

Finally, there is a possibility of the rise of protectionism, less cooperation in the post-pandemic world. The coronavirus crisis also showed the world the apparent absence of global leadership when it was badly needed. The coronavirus crisis also showed us the importance of the region, regionalism and regional cooperation to face any pandemic or any common challenge. Thus, I feel that, in the vaccine production, sharing and vaccine trade, India’s neighbours including Bangladesh should get the first priority. Because in this age of inter-dependence of so many factors and dimensions, if the people of its neighbours remains unsafe against the pandemic, the safety of India would also be endangered or vice versa.

I conclude by saying that India’s fate is closely tied with its neighbours as it is said that you can change your friends but not neighbours. In fact, neighbours matter in the context of security, development, peace, and prosperity. Therefore, India, with its South Asian and Bay of Bengal neighbours can work collectively in the international forums for the common causes including global health governance, climate change, and free trade. At the regional scale, India taking its neighbours in confidence, can constructively cooperate for a prosperous and peaceful South Asia and Bay of Bengal region in the post-COVID-19 world, which would ultimately benefit everyone.

Md. Shariful Islam is an assistant professor in International Relations at the University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh. Currently, he is on study leave and pursuing Ph.D. in International Relations at South Asian University, New Delhi. Email: shariful_ruir[at]ru.ac.bd

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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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