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South Asia

Indo-French Ties Stronger Than Ever Before

A file photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. | PMO India/Twitter

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An underrated, silent, yet one of the most dependable future alignments occurred in 1950 when the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) decided to offer technical cooperation to India’s civil nuclear innovation. Since then, Soviet Union had been the more advertised ‘ally’ of India but, there could be no nuking of Indo-French ties despite the ‘nuclear apartheid regime’ against India post its 1998 nuclear tests. In fact, after the tests, both nations became strategic partners. Last week, when PM Modi landed in Paris, he became the first head of state to meet President Macron after his re-election for the second term. The undercurrent warmth in the two leaders’ bear hug symbolized not only the personal chemistry of the two leaders but also marked the durability and sustainability of Indo-French cooperation.

The visit of Indian Prime Minister to Europe comes at a crucial juncture in geopolitics at the moment- given the Russia-Ukraine war, ‘information war’ between the West and Russia, Europe’s concerns over India’s ‘equidistance’ in the conflict etc. Amidst all this heat came Modi-Macron tête-à-tête – with the Élysée Palace hosting a vegetarian spread for the Indian delegation, wherein both sides aspired to reap benefits of an old and stable relationship. The prospects of France-India relations are anyway, massive- in terms of all aspects of trade, defence, space, technology, nuclear and strategic ends.

On most global issues of security, climate change, transnational terrorism etc. India and France are on the same page, with both leaders having the democratic capital as well as political will to build up on these key issues. The ingredients are already present and the following factors hold the potential to set the tone for even further enhanced cooperation.

The first element is defence cooperation- France is already India’s second largest weapons’ supplier, after Russia. The major factor responsible for India’s ‘proactive neutrality’ in the current Ukraine war is its dependence on Russia for defence supplies. Paris offers the required diversification in New Delhi’s defence pacts with some big ticket deals already in. Last of the 36 Rafael jets from France are being readied for delivery and India’s aircraft carrier INS Vikrant is looking at more Rafael fighter jets by Dassault Aviation. Indian Navy’s sixth Scorpene (French designed) class submarine was launched in April 2022. France also becomes a ‘unique defence supplier’ to India- given the fact that it does not trade with India’s rivals- Russia supplies weapons to China and USA does the same for Pakistan. This makes Paris ‘special’ for New Delhi.

The second element is the Indo-Pacific cooperation. President Macron has ambitious goals in the region as exhibited by his special Indo-Pacific forum hosted in February 2022. Amidst Russia’s military build-up in Ukraine, France managed to focus on Indo-Pacific. Given the presence of French Reunion Islands in the Indian Ocean, France has direct stakes in the region, unlike the rest of Europe which is geographically isolated from the Indo-Pacific. Paris is still seething from the AUKUS snub and considers it as an ‘Anglosphere Club’- India is also not part of it, despite being a member of QUAD in the region. France, clearly, is an Indian Ocean power and India’s vision of the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) being a multilateral space fits with Macron’s worldview.

Emmanuel Macron sees himself not just as the leader of France but he also stands as one of the tallest leaders in Europe. He wishes Europe to step out of America’s shadow- in terms of will, here, Germany lags behind. Another crucial factor here is France, throughout the war in Ukraine, has been understanding of India’s position on the matter and did not lecture India once. Thus, Paris, in every way, acts as India’s ‘gateway to Europe’. With France being the current President of Council of the European Union (EU), India-EU free trade agreement (FTA) talks become much easier.

There are certain areas of unrealised potential- first is bilateral trade. France makes up only 1.4% of India’s total trade. Due to the pandemic, the bilateral exports on either side are declining. Both partners must take note of this issue as “countries that trade together, stay together”. Second is the China factor- as witnessed by the difference in the language on the Indo-Pacific. Macron considers China a competitor, not an aggressively revisionist power trying to upend the world order. Here, India needs to convince France for greater engagement in Indo-Pacific or perhaps, even convince it of the China threat.

The recent joint statement, last week, can be read with the following three takeaways- “both sides will work together to end hostilities in Ukraine, expand defence cooperation and collaborate in space”. When PM Modi landed in Berlin earlier on his Europe visit, there were separate press releases. While French condemnation of Russia in Ukraine is strong and public and India’s reluctance to name Russia continues- their joint statement, this time, becomes significant with India actually incorporating French objections over Russia’s actions in the same statement. The two nations called out for an “immediate ceasefire and a diplomatic solution for the conflict”. Both Modi and Macron are also uniquely placed as leaders of the two nations to communicate with the warring parties; having direct communication lines with both Moscow and Kyiv. Also, they highlighted need for a multilateral response to high inflation and disruption of supply chains due to the war.

France already agreed to technology transfer with its Scorpene class submarines and now is looking forward to more such deals in order to move ahead from a ‘seller to investor’ relationship in defence ties with India. The most exciting takeaway becomes the ‘bilateral strategic dialogue’ on space between the two partners to be held later this year. The economy of space, security challenges and rules in space will be the essential topics of discussion at the Dialogue. New Delhi has held similar such engagements with USA and Japan on ‘rules in space’ and France becomes the third country here. 

India-EU need to fast-track their FTA talks and a ‘vote of confidence’ from France can actually seal the deal. Many experts in India call out France as the ‘new Russia’ for India, given their strong convergence on most issues. India and France co-founded the International Solar Alliance earlier – 2021 was the year of Indo-French alliance towards a greener planet. France has become a solid veto in favour of India at the UN Security Council on matters of Kashmir and cross-border terrorism from Pakistan.

Both nations have more in common than ever before with very little colonial baggage. The current churns in geopolitics- Ukraine, Afghanistan, Indo-Pacific etc. offer ample opportunities for both sides to cooperate for ‘democratic renaissance’ and capitalise on strategic gains.

PhD scholar and Junior Research Fellow in Diplomacy and Disarmament Division at Centre for International Politics, Organisation & Disarmament (CIPOD), School of International Studies (SIS), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi.

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South Asia

Regime Change Operation Theory: Another Crack in Narratives

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“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”, is a cardinal of propaganda or a propaganda technique often attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels. Psychologists somehow call it as the “illusion of truth” effect. This actually sums up what is happening today in Pakistan. From foreign conspiracy to the cracked narrative of now Regime Change Operation, all has been illusion or delusional. Historically, Regime change is an ancient and special kind of intervention, the kind of intervention President Bush had in mind for Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Since World War II, regime change is exclusively quoted as toppling an existing regime that displeases the Superpower. The regime change phenomenon has been brought in the public domain repeatedly in the world and maybe that is the inspiration for PTI as well. In 2016, when ICIJ leaked 11.5 million files of Panama paper, Russians called it as “CIA Operation against Vladimir Putin”, in Pakistan it was called as a “Foreign conspiracy against Nawaz Sharif with an involvement of Establishment” and today, Imran Khan and his team continue to peddle this flawed narrative of a Regime Change Operation in the public domain without giving an iotia of evidence. Hence, it has become equally important today to dissect the difference of regime change in Pakistan and a constitutional No confidence motion. 

To begin this dissection, let us first analyze the capacity of CIA. Does CIA really have the capacity to contact, persuade and in other terms recruit 172 constitutionally elected MNAs along with 22 angry MNAs of the ruling party for a “Regime Change Operation”. You will be surprised to know this absurd logic by PTI that CIA has today recruited Jahangir Khan Tareen, Abdul Aleem Khan, Nadeem Afzal Chan and Yar Muhammad Rind?

Consider the amount of stakes United States has in the World Bank. It has a total of 2,925,790 votes. But if the US was planning a regime change operation in March 2022, why would the World bank disburse an amount of $529 million in February 2022. At the IMF, US has 831,401 votes. If the CIA was planning a ‘regime change’ in March 2022 why would the IMF which has so much of the US influence, distribute $1.053 billion in February 2022? On February 4, the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) received $1.053 tranche of its three-year, $6 billion IMF loans. At the Asian Development Bank, the United States has subscribed 15.5% of the total capital and controls 12.75% of the votes. If again CIA was planning a ‘regime change operation’ in March 2022 why would the ADB disburse $461 million in February 2022? If United States was conspiring a regime change operation inside Pakistan, why was a US official invited to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation conference in Islamabad on March 21?

Imran Khan’s regime change theory has a huge evidence gap. Since he claims that there is a proof of contacts between Pakistani members of Parliaments and Americans, why has no evidence been revealed? Can he give some other evidence to prove his regime change operation mantra? Only one more evidence, which he claims to be a threatening letter but that too was busted by the National Security Committee, highest forum of the country. Khan claims that the no-confidence vote was a plot by the United States to avenge his defiant trip to Moscow. But the Joint opposition has been thinking about and preparing for the no-confidence move for months. Even towards the end of last year, it was widely known that the opposition intended to make such a move. The no confidence vote had been anticipated for a long time before it was moved, so the fact that it happened only after the trip to Moscow does not imply that it was triggered by it.

Whatever happened in Pakistan is not a CIA driven regime change operation but in fact it is a constitutionally driven legal process of Vote of No Confidence. All relevant stakeholders of the country are on the same page that there was no Regime Change Operation. No such evidence has been found by Intelligence agencies of the country. However, Khan still believes on it. Is it an illusion or a reality? 

But remember the propaganda technique “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth” and may be PTI believes the same while it continues to mislead the public to mint its political dividend.

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South Asia

Bulldozing Dissent in India

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State brutality and hostility have emerged as the defining factors in BJP’s (Bharatiya Janata Party)  policy toward Indian Muslims. From mob lynching and punishment on beef consumption to imposing a ban on the ‘hijab’ in universities, BJP continues to find novel ways and means to target Muslim society and enforce the concept of Hindu supremacy in India. While deliberate marginalisation of Indian Muslims is not new and remains an important part of India’s policy towards its minorities, the intensity of this campaign is soaring with every passing day. 

Recently, two senior BJP members made disparaging remarks against the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), brushing aside the sentiments of the state’s largest minority. The comments drew criticism from around the world, creating a diplomatic row for India.While PM Modi decided to remain silent on the issue, the concerned BJP members had to be suspended from the party given the intense backlash from several countries, especially the Gulf states.

On the other hand, the remarks also sparked a wave of anger in the Indian Muslim communities, who registered their grievances by holding protests on the streets in various parts of the state.  However, to deal with its own citizens, India resorted to using force and refused to let the Muslims protest peacefully, depriving them of their fundamental democratic rights. Amidst the demonstrations after Friday prayers, clashes between protesters and police broke out in several parts, the most notable one occurred in Uttar Pradesh (UP). Two teenagers lost their lives, and several were injured. The Indian police also arrested approximately 300 individuals taking part in the protests.  

The most concerning event that followed afterwards was bulldozing the houses of Muslim activists who were either present at the demonstrations or were apparently the organisers. The demolitions were justified on the pretext that they were illegal establishments. In reality, these criminal activities were done on the behest of the Chief Minister of UP, Yogi Adityanath, who is an ardent RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) follower – the most projected political figure in BJP (after Narendra Modi) and a torchbearer of Hindutva politics.  

It has been observed that the frequency of the use of bulldozers to demolish personal property is increasing in Muslim-majority areas in India. CM Adityanath himself is considered the pioneer and advocate of this ‘bulldozer strategy’, which is now frequently being executed throughout India by other BJP leaders. His ardency with the idea of demolishing Muslim houses can be sensed from the fact that bulldozers are displayed at BJP rallies to demonstrate them as a symbol of state power. Mrityunjay Kumar,  Adityanath’s media advisor later tweeted a photo of a bulldozer with the caption, ‘Remember, every Friday is followed by a Saturday,’ which conveys the government’s unapologetic stance on its actions and the intent to use such equipment without hesitation. 

Whats worse, the state machinery deliberately orchestrates the scenes of Muslim houses being turned to rubble to instil a fearful impact. Its purpose is to deter the Muslim communities from protesting against the ‘saffronized’ state. Such images are meant to signal that the state will not tolerate such kind of opposition in the BJP-led India and will not hesitate to exercise the use of force against such segments. The prime objective is to bulldoze their courage to stand against oppression in the future. 

Another way to look at this violence is the long-term dynamics of Indian politics. While it is apparent that Narendra Modi will contest the next Indian elections for BJP, it is fairly evident that an alternative leadership is preparing to succeed him in the future. The potential candidates are replicating his past machinations to strengthen their personal and political statures. Akin to Modi’s Gujarat massacre, his party members are recreating events that can bear similar impacts in order to emerge as radical leaders in accordance with BJP’s vision.  This includes intense and targeted verbal and physical attacks on Muslims. Hence, the use of force against Muslims will likely be a prominent factor for capitalising on the majoritarian Hindu vote bank.  

Lack of accountability, persistent silence of key leadership and the embedded political objectives are fanning dangerous flames in an already fraught environment for Muslims in India. The repressive attitude toward Indian Muslims has now been institutionalised at the state level and suggests that life will only worsen for them. India’s belligerent policy and confrontational actions will fuel further divisions in a society that has become extremely polarised along religious lines. Political interests are overshadowing national interests and the trend is likely to continue.

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This week’s deadly earthquake is a reminder of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan

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Damage is seen in the Spera district, in Khost province after a devastating earthquake hit eastern Afghanistan in the early morning of 22 June 2022. © UNICEF Afghanistan

Afghanistan can’t catch a break. This week’s deadly earthquake is the latest chapter in a worsening humanitarian crisis. It has also shone a light on the shortcomings of the Taliban’s ability to deal with the myriad of problems in the poverty stricken country. This represents an opportunity for the international community to play a larger role in helping Afghanistan to recover and rebuild.

This comes as a magnitude six earthquake hit Afghanistan’s remote Paktika province on Wednesday. The Taliban have claimed that at least 1,000 people have died, with over 1,500 injured. The number of casualties is expected to rise over the coming days. The remoteness of the province and heavy rain has hampered rescue efforts in what is the deadliest earthquake in two decades.

For Afghans this is the latest in a line of tragic events that are causing untold suffering. Since the Taliban takeover in August last year, Afghanistan has endured a worsening humanitarian crisis. Decades of conflict, natural disasters, poverty, drought and the coronavirus pandemic have meant that most Afghans are now facing a rapidly deteriorating situation under the Taliban.

The United Nations Development Program has stated that Afghanistan is facing ‘universal poverty’, with 97 per cent of Afghans living below the international poverty line. Acute malnutrition has risen dramatically across the country, with 95 per cent of Afghans now experiencing food insecurity. Well over 80 per cent of families are facing high unemployment, creating a situation where they cannot feed their children and where those children are either sold for money to buy food or forced to work or beg for pitiful sums. The healthcare system has also collapsed, with doctors and nurses not being paid and with medicine in short supply.

The Taliban rightly deserves criticism for this situation through poor governance and the mismanagement of what government funds are available. It has become quickly apparent that the Taliban are incapable of dealing with either the humanitarian crisis or effectively responding to the earthquake in Paktika. The Taliban’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzadah has pleaded with the international community to “to help the Afghan people affected by this great tragedy and to spare no effort”.

The situation in Afghanistan also raises uncomfortable questions about the role of the international community in causing the current crisis. The country has long been heavily reliant on foreign aid, and this was no different under the NATO-led occupation. The chaotic withdrawal of both international forces and humanitarian aid agencies resulted in much needed funds leaving with them.

Additionally, the implementation of harsh sanctions and the freezing of remaining Afghan assets by the United States has effectively hamstrung the Taliban’s ability to help those most affected by the crisis and to respond to disasters such as the recent earthquake. For these reasons, the Taliban’s claim that international sanctions and the freezing of Afghan assets is acting as a collective punishment on all Afghans has some merit.

In a positive development, the United Nations and aid agencies are on the ground providing support to those affected by the earthquake and have been undertaking operations to tackle the humanitarian crisis for some time.  This includes providing tonnes of medical supplies and teams of medical professionals, and the roll out of food and tents for starving and displaced Afghans.

But more needs to be done. The international community, particularly countries who withdrew from Afghanistan last year, can provide much needed equipment and supplies so recovery operations can continue in Paktika. If these country’s still do not wish to recognise the Taliban, then these funds can be provided to UN aid agencies at ground-level.

Furthermore, the international community needs to play a larger role in alleviating the humanitarian crisis. This can be achieved by unfreezing frozen government assets, which belongs to Afghans, so development projects can continue, and civil servants, teachers and healthcare workers can be paid.

Through this funding, the international community can attempt to leverage the Taliban to adequately fund the education, financial and health sectors so people are paid and so these sectors can strengthen to reliably assist those in need. This leverage can also convince the Taliban to allow women to re-enter the workforce and participate in social life, something that will go a long way to ensuring that families earn enough to feed themselves.

The recent earthquake has highlighted the dire humanitarian and economic situation Afghanistan is in and it is up to both the Taliban and the international community to fix it.

While the international community doesn’t have to recognise the Taliban, it is equally responsible in ensuring that the crisis ends so innocent Afghans can rebuild their lives with dignity.

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