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Revolutionary Russia and the Formation of Political Consciousness in Modern Kerala

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20th century marks an important epoch in the history of mankind. The century saw multiple revolutions, two devastating world wars, economic depression and economic boom simultaneously, decolonisation, globalisation and technological inventions changing lives of millions of people. Russian revolution was one among the most momentous incident which created tremors all across the world. Popular protests against the authoritarian Tsarist regime resulted in the overthrow of monarchy and formation of Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The new political entity inspired political activists to fight against both autocrats and colonising powers alike. Many activists across the nations wanted to replicate the model adopted by Bolsheviks and Red army in USSR. The dissolution of Soviet Union in 1991 was widely regarded as the end of world communism but still the communist spirit of USSR is resonated in the southernmost state of India i.e. Kerala.

Politically as well as culturally the influence of USSR is still predominant in Kerala. Communist Parties became marginal players in their once strongholds like West Bengal and Tripura where they uninterruptedly ruled for several decades. But in Kerala they had to concede defeat to Indian National Congress led United Democratic Front, even after that Communist Parties are successful at organisational and political levels. The building up of Communist Party of India (CPI) in Kerala was started from 1940s and was aided by left leaning writers and artists which resembled the Agitprop (department of Agitation and Propaganda) of the Soviet Union era. Agitprop was tasked by the leadership to tour all across the Soviet territory to spread communist propaganda and to glorify the ruling icons (Mally, 2003). The publishing house of CPI started to produce Malayalam translations of Russian literature and it found a large audience in Kerala. Magazines published from USSR also reached Kerala. Since these magazines and books were heavily subsidised by USSR the youth could have easy access to those.

Social condition of Kerala in the first half of 20th century was earmarked by complex caste equations and discrimination faced by lower caste people from the landlord communities. There was only a minimal presence of industries and a larger population was dependent on agriculture. The stories of successful revolution and establishment of a ‘proletariat state’ captured the imagination of common people. CPI formed the first government of United Kerala in 1957 and later implemented ‘land redistribution’ which was highly beneficial to the common people hence solidifying their political presence.

Even though ideological crack happened within CPI in 1964 on Sino-Soviet split and Communist Party of India (Marxist) was formed as a breakaway faction (Supporting Chinese communism). This situation is paradoxical since communist parties still draw its ideology from the Russian model and organisational hierarchy from the Chinese model. It is a fact that the Russian novels and short stories had a major role to play in developing Malayalam literate. At the same time, books of some of the popular Malayalam writers were also translated to Russian. One of the less spoken dimension of this influence is the ‘Political killings’ and violence where the tendency to terminate political opponent cuts across the party lines. Another aspect is the politicization of security forces (read police) which is exceptionally high in Kerala police. This paper aims at analysing the role USSR had in creating a public sphere in Kerala leaning towards the left, including its positives and negatives.

SOCIAL CONDITION OF KERALA

Before its unification in 1956, Kerala was three different administrative units. Travancore and Cochin were princely states while Malabar was part of the Madras presidency, hence directly under British rule. Kerala had a very complex caste system where upper castes including Namboothiri Brahmins and Nairs (there was no chaturvarnya system as such in Kerala. Later Kshatriyas were self elevated Nairs) (Nair P. R., 1987). Evil caste practices like untouchability, unseeability and unaproachability were practised within the Hindu fold, Lower caste people belonging to Pulaya, Thiyya, Ezhava communities were not even allowed to travel through roads adjacent to temples. They were only allowed to travel through the other ways when there was no individual from higher caste using the road. These illogical customs forced Swami Vivekananda to call Kerala a ‘Lunatic Asylum’ (Nandatmajananda, 2017). Upper caste (read Nairs) also followed irrational customs including Marumakkathayam and Sambandham. Nairs were the most power caste in Kerala after Namboothiris. Nairs’ marital alliances with Namboothiris called Sambandhams solidified their position in the society. In this system, Namboothiris had sexual union with Nair women and the children born from this had no legal right on their father’s property. Nairs followed a matrilineal system and inheritance to property was traced through women (Arunima, Writing culture: Of modernity and the Malayalam novel, 1997).

By the end of 19th century there was reform movements against multiple aspects including inter – intra caste issues and poor representation of the natives of Kerala in the government administration which was dominated by Tamil Brahmins. Malayali memorial was submitted to the Maharaja of Travancore on 1st January 1891 requesting for more jobs earmarked for Malayalees and Ezhava memorial was submitted on 3rd September 1896 pleading for extension of civil right and employment opportunities for Ezhavas (Nair T. S., 1979). Religious reformation movements were pioneered by Chattambi Swamikal, Sree Narayana Guru, Ayyankali and Mannath Pathmanadhan. Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP) was founded in 1903 by Narayana Guru to mobilise Ezhava community while Nair Service Society (NSS), founded by Mannath Padmanabhan in 1914 questioned Marumakkathayam system and Brahaminical dominance. Ayyankali was an influential Pulaya leader who worked for Pulaya community in the princely state of Travancore (Kurup, 1994). These movements had hence started to develop a strong undercurrent against the current establishment and the social system in general.

Five years before the October revolution, in 1912 a young Malayalee journalist Ramakrishna Pilla had published the Malayalam translation of a biography of Karl Marx even at a time when his ideas were not popular in India. He published strong and eloquent articles against the Maharaja of Travancore and his Prime Minister P. Rajagopalachari in newspaper Swadeshabhimani which was later sealed by the government and Ramakrishna Pilla was send on exile (Jeffrey, What the Statues Tell: The Politics of Choosing Symbols in Trivandrum, 1980). In 1921 Mappilah Rebellion happened in Malabar (Northern Kerala) against the Janmi system and the colonial rule. The news of this rebellion even reached Lenin through one of the founders of Indian Communist Party Abani Mukherji and later a report was published in the Communist Review magazine which was the mouthpiece of the British Communist Party (Ramachandran, 2019). By this time Congress started to get involved in social issues following Gandhi’s call to fight against untouchability and discrimination. The famous Vaikom Satyagraha in 1924-25 saw unification of both Savarna and Avarna castes against the draconian practice of not allowing lower castes to walk through the lanes adjacent to Vaikom Mahadeva Temple. Leader of upper caste Nairs Mannath Padmanabhan carried out ‘Savarna Jatha’ in support of the ongoing agitation. Mahatma Gandhi and Periyar Ramaswami also came to the protesting venue and actively took part in the struggle (Jeffrey, Temple-Entry Movement in Travancore, 1860-1940, 1976). This period also marked beginning of small industries in Kerala and migration of many agricultural labourers to the industrial sites.

LABOUR UNIONS AND POLITICAL DYNAMICS

Distress within labours started to come out. They were under paid, exploited and didn’t have any safety at work place. Attempts were made in coir mat and mattress industry to mobilise workers in 1920s itself. There was a steady decline in the demand of coir goods and many

factories were shut down creating massive unemployment and reduced mages of existing workers. Under these circumstances Travancore Labour Association (TLA) was formed. The first meeting of TLA took place on 31st March 1922. It also became the first labour union to get registration under Travancore Union Act of 1937 and was later renamed as Travancore Coir Factory Workers Union (Nair R. , 1973). The union first carried out general strike in 1938 against Moopan Kashu. Moopans were the supervisors in these factories who had the power to punish workers making mistakes and even to fire them from job. Moopans also collected money from the labourers and the money was known as Moopan Kashu. The government took initiative to abolish Moopan Kashu (Dev, 1977).

It was in the beginning of 1930s that USSR was started to be seen as a messiah for the global working class by labourers and peasants in Kerala. E.V Ramaswamy Naicker after attending May day celebrations in Russia had given a speech in Alappuzha in 1933 where he elaborated to the public the benefits enjoyed by workers in USSR, their progress and development of the nation (Kerala Charithram, 1974). Political wrings of K Kesava Dev and K Ayyappan on USSR found followers in Kerala by that time hence a new political consciousness started to emerge. In 1934 those people who were inspired by the Russian revolution formed Congress Socialist Party within the frame of Indian National Congress. EMS Namboodiripad elaborated the incident as:

“Our understanding about socialist idea was incomplete and hazy. But we tried to spread what we knew among the people using the propaganda machinery then available. No substantial knowledge was there about basic tenets of socialism. But we knew that Soviet Union was a living symbol of all that. For, it was a time that a big and all pervading economic crisis was raging in the capitalist world. At the same time Soviet Union was successfully implementing its first five year plan. Their economic progress was taking place at a pace not achieved by any other country so far. Is there anything more needed to have a good impression of socialism and the bad impression of capitalism? To us who did not have any opportunity so far to make a theoretical study of the fundamental tenets of socialism, it was a fact which was helpful to develop one’s own opinion favouring socialism and to convey it to the people.” (Namboothiripad, 1986).

While Congress Socialist party was being transformed to Communist Party EMS wrote:

“When preparations were being made to convert Congress Socialist Party as a whole into Communist Party, during the weeks just after the beginning of the war, a syllabus on Marxist theory was implemented. During the two and half years of underground work this activity was continued. Leading cadres of the Party were taught authoritative works like Socialism, Utopian and scientific by Engels, ‘What’s to be Done’ by Lenin and Fundamental principles of Leninism by Stalin. Translation of these and many other books was initiated. Some of these were published for the education of the cadre. The work CPSU (B) History by Stalin was translated in toto and chapters were printed one by one. There was urging from all quarters

to learn theory. But only after the party came out of the underground could that process be continued and taken to a higher level” (Nambootiripad, 2015).

Kerala witness many peasant rebellions in 1940s but those were ruthlessly defeated by the police forces. In 1941, peasants revolted in Talasherry and Kayyur. 2 people were shot dead by the police at Talasherry. In Kayyur a police constable was killed during action and 4 of the peasants accused of the incident were hanged on 1943, hence becoming the first martyrs’ of peasant rebellion in Kerala. Initially Travancore princely state was hesitant to join the Indian Union and wanted to be an independent country. Sir C P Ramaswami Ayyar, the Prime Minister of the state wanted to develop and govern Travancore on “American model’. Massive revolts happened in Punnappra and Vayalar in October 1946. Even though the death toll hasn’t been impartially verified, it is said that around 300 people lost their lives and many were injured (Pillai M. , 1988). The impressive role played by Communist Party in organising peasants and labourers for freedom struggle eventually paid political dividend when they won the first state assembly elections of Kerala in 1957 (Kerala was formed on linguistic basis on 1st November 1956).

SOVIET INFLUENCE THROUGH LITERATURE AND ART

Even though agitations lead by CPI and left leaning peasant associations/labour unions consolidated the presence of communism politically, the ideology was further cemented though propaganda materials including novels, stories and translated Soviet works. The literary works which emerged in 1930s were absolute breakaway from the past. More politically conscious authors entered the fray and brought egalitarian values into their novels and short stories. A novel written by O Chandu Menon named Indulekha is regarded as the first complete novel in Malayalam (published in the 1886). The novel investigated the degrading situation of Nairs and Namboothiris. Through the medium of novel the novelist also questioned Sambandham and Marumakkathayam traditions (Arunima, Glimpses from a Writer’s World: O. Chandu Menon, His Contemporaries, and Their Times, 2004). Poem of Kumaranashan and Vallathol Narayana Menon questioned social evils and denounced caste practices. Thakazhi Shivashanka wrote extensively about the feudal framework and the ill treatment of lower castes. Most of his stories were plotted in Kuttanad which was essentially an agricultural region and especially Alappuzha where there were coir factories. Decline of the powerful Tharavadus (Nair joint family) could also be traced in these stories and novels (Verghese, 1970).

Other important story tellers were Vaikom Muhammad Basher, P Kesavadev, Ponkunnam Varkey, S K Pottekatt and Uroob P C Kuttykrishnan. They were highly inspired by the leftist thoughts and brought literature to the doorstep of common people. P Kesavadev was also a

trade union leader and his autobiography is rich with communist thoughts (Mohmed, 1993). Another noted writer, freedom fighter, social reformer and dramatist was V T Bhattathirippad who is better known for his drama Adukkalayil ninnu arangatheykk (From Kitchen to Centre stage) written against Orthdox Brahmins who didn’t allow Namboothiri women to join the public sphere. Namboothiri women were called Andarjanams (people residing inside home). His memoir titled kannerum kinavum gives an excellent account of the Namboothiri rituals and feudalism which he found suffocating (Kumari, 1997) . He was also a member of Communist Party.

This was also the period in which Malayalam writers became inclined toward western literature. The trend started with the translation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (paavangal).

A. Balakrishna Pilla translated Russian, French, German and English works to Malayalam and published in his periodical Kesari. He wrote essays about the emerging literary trends in the western world and he compared Malayalam literary works with their western counterparts which enriched Kerala’s literary sphere. Writers of International repute Gorky, Chekhov and Maupassant became familiar to the public through his Balakrishna Pilla’s book reviews (Pillai A. B., 1935). By the end of 1940s all major Russian writer’s including Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Mayakovksy, Turgenev and Pushkin were translated to Malayalam.

1950s witnessed a literary revolution in Kerala with stories of different genres being produced, More Russian books translated to Malayalam, Malayalam books translated to Russian and popularisation of communist ideas through theatre. Even though theatre was used by CPI for propagating ideas through Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) its Malayalam form Kerala Peoples’ Art Club (KPAC) was founded in 1951 – showing excessive similarity to Agitprop drama troops. Soviet agitprop theatre touched upon multiple aspects of life, the messages were simple – Work hard, learn factory rules, give up the church and donate money to the state (Mally, 2003). The first political drama in Malayalam was Pattabakki (The landlord’s Dues) written by K Damodaran in 1940s. KPAC’s first staged drama was Ente Makananu Sheri (My son is right) and their second drama was Ningalenne Communistakki (You made me a Communist). One of the songs of the drama ponnarivalambiliyil kanneriyunnole (The girl looking at sickle moon) became immensely popular with the common folks. The drama was written by renowned writer and Communist ideologue Thoppil Bhasi. The play was staged 600 times across Kerala and played a vital role in CPI’s electoral success in 1957 (Richmond, 1973).

By this time famous Malayalam poems, short stories and novels were translated into Russian. Vallathol Narayana Menon was the first author to be translated. His poems India weeps, The Lenin’s Mausoleum and Seventh November were translated and Published in USSR. By 1960s Russian Indologists developed a curiosity towards Malayalam language. Thakazhi’s novels Chemeen (Shrimps) and Randidangazhi (Two Measures) were translated to Russian

and were widely read. By 1970s the works of all major short story writers in Malayalam were translated to Russian and this included M.T Vasudevan Nair, P.C Kuttykrishnan, Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, Kesava Dev and Karur Neelakanda Pilla. The influence of Gorky in the framework of Takazhi’s stories drew attention of Russian critics (George, 1972). Like Gorky Malayalam novelists had also portrayed the decaying elite class and the new generation within their family setup questioning the existing customs and asking for a change.

Prabhat Books, established in 1952 was the publishing house of CPI published translated versions of many Russian novels and propaganda materials. Their translations of Maxim Gorky’s ‘Mother’ and Tolstoy’s stories were sold out in several editions (Kiran, 2012). Soviet Union magazines like Misha, Soviet land and Sputnik were available at cheaper prices and the beautiful illustrations attracted a lot of young people to read these magazines. Most of the books in the early period were translated by Edappally Karunakaran Menon while many of the books from 1960s were translated by Omana and Moscow Gopalakrishnan (Kamalakalam, 2018). Another Malayalam novel Oru Sangeerthanam Pole written by Perumbadavam Sreedharan based on the life of Fyodor Dostoevsky crossed more than 100 editions and around 2.5 lakh copies were sold out (kamalakaran, 2019). This rather shows the affection of an entire generation towards the Russian authors and literature.

Malayalam movies in 1970s became extremely vocal of the left ideology. There were movies like Mooladhanam (1969, Das Capital), Punnapra Vayalar (1968), Vimochana Samaram (1971, Liberation war), Raktasakhi (1981, Red Star), Kabani Nadhi Chuvannappol (1975, When river Kabani turned red), Sakhavu (1986, Comrade). Poets and lyricists like Vayalar Ramavarma, P Bhaskaran and ONV Kurup composed revolutionary songs which topped the charts in the second half of 20th century Kerala. Commemorating the death of his fellow comrades at Punnapra – Vayalar Vayalar wrote in his poem Oru thulli raktham (One drop blood), “They ran towards those guns shamelessly spitting fire, laughingly they took all those bullets. I came out of my home hearing loud voices, this is life’s revolution my greetings to you comrade” (Ramavarma, 2013). Powerful orators like Sukumar Azheekod and MN Vijayan stood as firm walls for the intellectual defence of Communism which couldn’t be breached by their political opponents. Even today propaganda movies are released in Kerala with comrade as a protagonist and saviour of society. Movies which are part of a popular culture are still factors for the popularity of Communist Party among the youth in Kerala.

POLITICAL VIOLENCE IN KERALA

Even though Kerala is the most literate state in entire region and its human Development Index can be compared with the levels of European countries, the state is notorious for the level of political violence and murders committed irrespective of Party lines which is way ahead of the national average. In a period from 2000-2017, 172 political killings happened in

Kerala- 85 from CPI (M), 65 RSS/BJP, 11 Congress and 11 Muslim League (Desk, 2017). Cultural reasons for these political murders are explained by political analysts, but appropriation of icons like Stalin has undoubtedly added more seriousness to politics. Communist Party offices in Kerala still bear photos of Stalin while his statues were pulled down in Georgia (his birthplace) after the disintegration of Soviet Union (Osborn, 2010). Due to the restrictions on the flow of information and rapid propaganda, people had no real idea of what was happening inside USSR. What they knew what they were only supposed to know. Stalinism involved termination of political opponents, propagandas, strict punishments (Gulags) and subjugation of alternative views. These criterions fixes perfectly into the Kerala model. Almost all academic centres in Kerala are captured by left wing organisations and liberty to express views is confined their close corporation only. ‘In the early years CPI tried to be an exemplary expression of the “goodwill” and an agent of “people’s democracy” through insurgent “extra parliamentary” methods. As its insurgency methods failed in the late 1940s, the Communist Party embraced the parliamentary form’ notes Ruchi Chaturvedi (Chaturvedi, 2012). So the old revolutionary thought is very much there in their genus which explodes resulting in bloodshed and violence. There have next to nil violence between workers of BJP, IUML or Congress but they are all in constant conflict with CPI (M).

Politicisation of security personnel was an essential part of USSR administration. The Russian revolution was made possible by the red army who were the official affiliates of the Bolsheviks. Even Stalin was always seen in his Semi-Militaristic tunic (Fedorova, 2014). In Kerala politicisation of Police is an important dimension of political process. Whether it is in West Bengal or Kerala CPIM has always been accused of ‘cell-rule’ where party functionaries interfere in the day to day activities of police. P Govinda Menon who was the chief minister of Travancore-Kochi that preceded the Kerala state: “If the Communists violated laws, they would not be arrested; if they were arrested. They would not be prosecuted; if they were prosecuted, the cases would be withdrawn; and if the cases ended in conviction, the sentences would be remitted” (Kumar, 2018). Communist Party has successfully infiltrated their cadres to the police forces which show the still prevailing Soviet era thought of controlling forces by any means. There have been instances of CPI (M) cadres faking police selection examinations and topping the exams (WebDesk, 2019).

CONCLUSION

Influence of Russia has been a mix bag for Kerala. Tremendous deal of progress was achieved in the literary sphere while the political dynamics of the state turned more violent. Russia was seen a true model state and heaven for the common people where there was no discrimination. Thanks to the excessive control over media and literature that the real USSR didn’t come out to the world. Hence CPI grew in Kerala by showcasing Soviet Union as an example and propagating myths of an ‘egalitarian state’. The ‘success’ of USSR revived the hope of a world revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat throughout the world. 1st

generation communists of Kerala were highly impressed with the 5 year plans and wanted to develop Kerala on the lines of Russia. CPI which called World War 2 as an ‘imperialist war’ changed its stand once USSR joined the Allied forces. There was a letdown after Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech went public. The propaganda machinery of USSR was entirely replicated in Kerala with the establishment of communist friendly drama troops, writers, singers and journalists. Following the split in CPI and creation of CPI (M), the feud was settled and the communist parties allied themselves to form a common Left Front.

Influence of leftist ideology has reached at a point where all political parties (including parties with pan-Indian presence) adopting a leftist stand in many of the local issues. Political thinking in Kerala has been very different from the rest of the nation. In the general elections after the end of Emergency in 1977 Congress lost every state in North while the party won all the seats from Kerala. In 2019, when Congress was decimated in all the states Kerala gave 19 out of 20 seats to the Congress, again going against the trend. Stalinism or silencing of opposition is a serious concern which has its roots firmly in the glorification of the cult of a dictator who is still popular among the cadres of communist parties. After the fall of USSR many believed that the communist empire had died. What we see today in China, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam and North Korea as distorted versions of the doctrine without an ideology in itself. Communism in Kerala still echoes the Communism which prevailed in USSR guided by a strong ideology and commitment towards it. Generations of communist leaders’ and workers’ strategy of linking an entire society divided by religion, caste, economic status to a common ideology, influencing their though process, still yields result for the party.

The writer is a political analyst and holds a masters degree in History from the Department of History, University of Hyderabad, India. He writes articles on topics pertaining to International affairs, History and Indian politics.

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South Asia

Narratives and Discourses: Evaluating 75 years of Indian Foreign Policy

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As India celebrates its 75 years of Indian foreign policy and its positioning in the global architecture, it needs to be evaluated that how India has placed itself and whether there is need for course correction to better position India and envision its role in future. One of the articles written by Rahul Sagar states that India has different schools of thought which have placed it as idealists, Hindu nationalists, strategic thinkers better known as strategists, and liberals who have shaped up India’s policy approach over a period of time. India’s foreign policy up to which has been focus primarily on three pillars which includes righteousness, ethics, and forbearance. This also created edifice which is primarily derived from ancient texts, Vedas, and religious discourses. Two aspects Dhamma and peace are the watermarks in Indian policy framework.

In fact, foreign minister S Jaishankar writes in his book that India is increasingly seen as Krishna where it looks into both sides of the coin and tries to decide the best course of action which can meander through difficult choices. Also, it is critical to note that the Nehruvian phase was rooted in idealist notions, and was apathetic to the development of the military forces which can take care of difficult neighbours including Pakistan and China.  The differences between General Thimayya and VK Krishna Menon is well documented and shows the complete disregard for developing capacities of Indian armed forces. There is no denying of the fact that idealism has placed India as the epicentre of discourses relating to priorities of  developing nations and unity among  newly independent Afro-African nations. Nehru tried very hard to build idealist notions of global politics but the problem was not every leader in the global arena was Woodrow Wilson. This approach could not look into the utility of force however Nehruvian thought brought India as a respectable leader among the developing nations.

Three major events shaped up India’s foreign policy- the Panchsheel Agreement 1954, 1971 Indo-Soviet Friendship treaty,  the 1987 India- Sri Lanka Accord and India’s nuclear tests in 1998.. Further, the development of India’s foreign policy was also dependent upon the political leadership, domestic priorities, and international outlook. One cannot deny the fact that national resources, military leadership and intelligence apparatus also shaped the international outlook. Therefore, one can see that engagement of African nations through IAFS meetings, ASEAN countries, Central Asian republics, and better relations with Israel were all part of larger foreign policy footprints. One must all acknowledge that despite having not a big diplomatic core, India’s views have been noted and argued. Specifically, India’s position with regard to sustainable development goals, comprehensive disarmament (Rajiv Gandhi Action plan), consensus on counter terrorism initiatives, South- South cooperation, and crisis management through mediation is well known. One of the important aspects which still requires lot of attention is developing the overall diplomatic history and collecting data and information through interviews, official files, and archives is still a work in progress. Countries like New Zealand have done a wonderful work in this regard.

Few of the areas where India has lost includes the UN Security Council seat because of uncertainties in its role and the charm of leading the developing nations. India’s ambivalent attitude related to its nuclear power status also created problems very recently, as it has to face sanctions post 1998 nuclear tests despite knowing the very fact that it could have developed its nuclear capacities much earlier.The scientific capacities and acumen was there among the Indian scientists. Nehru was completely against the development of nuclear weapons despite prodding by nuclear scientist Homi Jahangir Bhaba but on the other hand Indira Gandhi was the one who looked into the nuclear power status with much seriousness way back in 1969. There is no denying of the fact the development of the Indian economy opened new gates of cooperation and collaboration with various countries across spectrum. However, it is well known that the 3 pillars of national security which includes diplomacy, intelligence, and military need to be working cohesively to protect the national interest and work with like minded countries in raising pertinent international issues.

India’s approach towards West Asia, its pro- Soviet tilt while at the same time processing non alignment, gave birth to strategic autonomy and at the same time look for possible temporary alignments with major powers depending on compulsions and constraints. If one looks into the nomenclature of its relationships with West Asia it starts with Look West policy and culminates in Think West policy. While in the case of Central Asia, given the buffer region of Afghanistan, it is named as connect Central Asia policy. However, one of the most successful policy pronouncements has been the Look East Policy which transcended in to Enhanced Look East Policy (2013) and now is known as Act East policy(2014 onwards). These policies were primarily aimed at looking for leverage in understanding the larger geopolitics of that particular region. The region wise approach and the subject wise divisions within the Ministry of External Affairs Is a manifestation of how India approach is both from regional perspective as well as its own security perspective.

India has difficult choices right from the start and still is facing challenges with regard to its omniscient patrician stance which looks into the knowledge which have been gained through ages and the wisdom which is acquired through experience. However, at times, all these knowledge-based policy pronouncements came crashing down with the Sino Indian war in 1962 and also challenges that it faced while settling the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan. At times, the dilemma of policy approach in global politics cost dearly to the Indian establishment.  

In terms of India’s neo-realist approach one must acknowledge the role which has been played by Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi which completely digressed from the Nehruvian fundamentals. This led to the better management of military resources and looking into best possible permutation in Indian foreign policy. These experiences which have garnered over the period of seven and a half decades also held India to upgrade its foreign policy establishment abroad which includes bringing in scientific advisors, technical consultants, cultural representatives and also utilising diaspora as one of the elements of foreign policy approach.

If one looks into the leadership subsequently which includes Morarji Desai who was much of an idealist so much so that he compromised few of the covert operations that India was undertaking in Pakistan. At times it has been found that the coalition governments have been so much engaged into domestic compulsions that foreign policy approach have been left in limbo.

In terms of proactive engagement, one cannot forget the role played by Narasimha Rao in working out India’s look east policy and subsequently also looking into the possible nuclear tests (in 1995) which was somehow sabotaged by US constraints and compulsions. Narasimha Rao was much of an erudite statesman who had built very good relationship with the opposition led  by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This kind of convergence between the ruling party and opposition was one of the periods when there were synergies in foreign policy making and a participative approach of the opposition to work out a congenial settlement. Before Narasimha Rao, the role which have been played earlier by Rajiv Gandhi was also more of a suave and liberal politician who wanted to mend fences with countries like China and also expanded itself into building bridges with the US allies such as Australia.

Following Narasimha Rao, the role played by people like Atal Bihari Vajpayee who were realist but have a liberal inkling which led to the Lahore bus service and also detonation of nuclear device in 1998. Atal Bihari Vajpayee also make sure that India should respond very legitimately against Pakistan incursions in Kargil. Succeeding Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh has been criticised much for his rather reluctant leadership qualities but he was also instrumental into major ways by signing the Indo US nuclear deal in 2005 and also stressing on the need for developing India’s strategic think tanks.

Invariably it has been seen that India’s foreign policy approach has been well rooted in the objective of mediation, peace, building national and international consensus, and also looking forward for better synergies with the countries which agree on common grounds such as global commons for international development, protecting international law, rules based order, promoting international peace, countering terrorism and political violence, and developing the core foundations for South South cooperation.

Again, if one looks into inherent omniscient patrician aspect there are flaws in the approach that India has taken multiple times. India has also believed that it has a sense of entitlement given its ancient civilization and the pragmatic wisdom that it has acquired over the ages. Even now India has always been stated as the ‘global guru’ and aspired for building this concept of Vasudev Kutumbakam which buttress on international peace and community building approach. These types of pronouncements are a sense of continuity with the earlier approach taken during the Nehruvian times and India has built upon that. However, one must acknowledge the role has played with regard to Cambodia, Indonesia and other crisis torn regions have been left because of changes in government and the transitory politics which have been played by coalition governments which came in multiple phases during the India 75 years of history.

 India under Modi is working somewhere between the core fundamentals of foreign policy while at the same time looking into the foundations put up by Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi as well as liberalist approach which was promoted by people like Rajiv Gandhi. It would not be wrong to say that Prime Minister Modi is embedding all these core fundamentals and working out the strategy which is best for projecting India as a legitimate stakeholder in the international politics. One must also acknowledge that about a decade back there has been debate and discourses with regard to non-Alignment 2.0. There have been books which have been stated that India is a reluctant power, and the power which is yet to gain it’s potential at the international stage. However, one must also acknowledge that with the changing geopolitical dynamics, the return of the phase which was there during the Cold War with alignment between Russia and China on ideological lines.

The global leadership is prodding India to act as a mediator in resolving the Ukraine Russia crisis, is a manifestation of India’s foreign policy which has reached a stage where everybody looks into India as one of the leaders in the international sphere. In terms of strategic aspects and foreign policy pronouncements as well as priorities it is interesting that India’s foreign policy has now matured and shows the resolved to undertake hard decisions and one of the best biggest achievements that India has made over a period of time is having the best of the relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel all at the same time.

Few strategic partnerships with adjective such as special, preferred, desired also shows the gradient of ties and the utility of these partnerships. India now has more than 30 such strategic partnerships with major players across the world.   India’s hard-earned approach with regard to counter terrorism in institutions such as UN showcases that India’s voice is now being hard on important aspects. There has been also been calls from different quarters to say that there should be a resumption of secretary level talks with Pakistan but given the stature that India has achieved, the country has become more inert to the Pakistan’s overtures thereby making Pakistan as one of the pariah states in the international sphere. However, Pakistan is always seen as a bargaining chip by countries such as US and China which believe that Pakistan can be instrumental in keeping India within South Asian space.

One must acknowledge that the 75 years of Indian foreign policy has been a learning curve. But for India to gain a stature which is matching with its ancient civilizational past, and the might of its youthful population as well as economy can be manifested only if India take a cue from its diplomatic past and work out its role in institutions such as UN, IMF, World Bank both through two different blocs  represented by Quad countries and BRICS.

For India in the coming next 75 years is likely to be challenges but one fruitful thing which has happened over a period of time is that India has built its economy, developed military capabilities and astute leadership which can pave way for India. The one challenge that India is being facing is that opposition parties are washing their dirty linen in international space and has been acting in a very strange way where every possible aspect of national interest has been narrated in a different way altogether. One must acknowledge that the synergies which used to exist between Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Bajpai at one point of time is completely missing in the Indian polity. However, one of the reasons is the marginalization of the opposition party and their inability to look into India as a cohesive one unit and rather than settling domestic issues abroad they must also workout cohesive environment for discussion and discourse without hampering India’s interests.

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South Asia

India’s response to Taliban 2.0 and a comparative analysis with Taliban 1.0

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Authors: Vedant Choudhary and Avinav Singh Khatri

An important, albeit now suppressed, international security concern is the exodus of the US from Afghanistan and, consequently Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan. The Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 2021 after fighting a twenty-year insurgency. Further, the Biden administration’s abrupt declaration ordering a pull-out from Afghanistan without furnishing a definitive political solution led to much instability in the nation. The chaos in Afghanistan has led to a large influx of migrants, escalated regional proxy warfare, and a significant deterioration in its foreign ties, posing regional security challenges.

Taliban’s reign in Afghanistan poses a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. Afghanistan is on the verge of a slow collapse. Moreover, it is only joint international action that can improve the living conditions in Afghanistan. The Afghan people are amid one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Given this, the United Nations has issued a 4.4-billion-dollar financial appeal for Afghanistan, making it the world’s largest-ever single-country humanitarian appeal, highlighting the scale of the situation.

This piece analyzes two crucial impacts of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. First, the impacts of the Taliban’s takeover over the Taliban, India, and regional power dynamics. Second, we study India’s Afghanistan policy and how it differed from its previous engagement with the Taliban in 1996-2001. Finally, we suggest how India can best handle the Afghanistan regime change.

Impact of Taliban’s Takeover of Afghanistan

The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan has repercussions for all neighboring states. As a result of the chaos in Afghanistan, there has been a tremendous influx of refugees, an intensification of regional proxy wars, a deterioration of their foreign relations, and regional security risks. India is Afghanistan. India has contributed to Afghanistan’s prosperity and stable governance as the country’s fifth-largest aid donor and most effective partner. Considering the takeover by the Taliban, it is evident that New Delhi is concerned.

Since August 2021, the unfolding of events in Afghanistan has prompted India to adopt a balanced and pragmatic stance toward the country. This has allowed India to participate in regional debates over Afghanistan, contrary to previous beliefs that India had lost all influence in Afghanistan after the Taliban took power. India has not indicated that it will recognize the Taliban government, citing national security concerns. Furthermore, New Delhi has readjusted its Afghanistan strategy by engaging in informal dialogue with the leadership, tackling security risks arising from Afghanistan, and conducting people-to-people engagements. Amidst connectivity limitations and lacking a fully operational embassy in Kabul, it supplied immediate humanitarian aid. Despite their ideological disagreements, India aims to expand its interactions with the Taliban in the near term by capitalizing on the Taliban’s developing disputes with Pakistan.

India has solidified its position as a significant development partner of Afghanistan and garnered the Afghans’ goodwill. It does not depict a tightly defined strategic aim with its investment in Afghanistan; instead, it seeks to contribute effectively to creating a growth-friendly climate for Afghans. This strategy centered on the people is a fundamental advantage India has over other regional states concerning Afghanistan. Moreover, due to its geographical proximity, economic strength, military capacity, and extensive diplomatic network, India is a vital and tangible component in the Taliban’s pursuit of internal and global legitimacy. To display greater autonomy, the Taliban have engaged in activities that undermine Pakistan’s aim to maintain unchallenged control over Afghanistan’s affairs. In reality, the Taliban have openly expressed their displeasure with Pakistan’s efforts to hinder their development and relations with India.

India’s Response

While in Taliban’s previous regime, India distanced itself from the outfit. However, the approach this time is significantly different; India is ready to engage with the Taliban. However, at the same time, India refuses to provide recognition to the Taliban in any manner. It is also to be noted that India is not concerned with the Taliban regime but with its ties with terror outfits and Pakistan.

India’s current approach, while serving the purpose, is walking on a knife edge in many ways. India cannot choose to engage with Afghanistan but also, at the same time, refuse to grant recognition to the Taliban regime. The same is bound to raise questions. Further, in the face of growing pressure to make its stand clear, India would be forced to grant recognition to the Taliban. In this way, New Delhi would be playing into the hands of the Taliban, and India would have to grant recognition to the Taliban, in its desired conditions, with India having very little bargaining power. Therefore, it would be better if New Delhi recognized the Taliban regime before such pressure mounted on it.

India’s different response from 1996-2001

There is a marked difference between India’s current approach to the regime (Taliban), currently when compared to 1996-2001, when the terror outfit took over Afghanistan for the first time. In brief, it can be explained in Sareen’s words, “Engage, do not Endorse.” Sareen argues that Modi’s approach to the Taliban differs from the Vajpayee policy (1996-2001) in as much that the former seeks to engage with Taliban, while the latter was wary of the same.

However, Sareen is also quick to point out that engagement by no means indicates that India accepts or endorses the Taliban regime.

The following are the reasons for India’s current approach.

First, India learned from the IC-814 hijacking incident (1999) the importance of having open and active communication channels. Flight IC-814, en route from Tribhuvan International Airport to Indira Gandhi International Airport, was hijacked, flown to several locations, and finally landed in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Kandahar fell within the regions controlled by the Taliban. In the hijacking, India had no option but to negotiate with the Taliban regime. The same placed India at a severe disadvantage. India, would not want to place itself in such a position again. For this, India must ensure that an active communication channel and diplomacy are open concerning Afghanistan.

Second, since 2001, India has invested significantly in the socio-economic development of Afghanistan. The same has led to very cordial relations between the two nations. The same can be understood from the many interactions between the leaders of the nations. Another decision by India that brought the Indian and Afghani populations to close was the declaration of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee International Cricket Stadium in Lucknow as the home ground of the Afghani Cricket team. The same was a necessary step, given that teams of other nations were wary of playing with Afghanistan on the home ground due to security concerns and inadequate facilities. Through such economic support by India, the Afghani populace continues to expect support from India in times of hardship.

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South Asia

India’s Extended Neighborhood and Implications for India’s Act East Policy

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Governments in India have come and gone, however what remains perpetual is the dynamic foreign policy construct of India. The concept of the “extended neighbourhood” has been woven into India’s foreign policy, which is now becoming multidimensional and omnidirectional – a 360-degree view necessitated by a rapidly changing world – particularly after 1997 (Atal Bihari Bajpai) or 2004 (Manmohan Singh). The historic change of power in the world provides a compelling backdrop for India’s gradually growing emphasis on “extended neighbourhood” in its foreign policy practice and projection. Historically speaking, the extended neighbourhood has influenced India’s foreign policy since its independence. Philosophically, the idea of “Vasundhara Kutumbakam,” or “the world is one big family,” is intricately entwined with the word “extended neighbourhood.” 

The Look East policy and the beginning of India’s economic reforms in the early 1990s paved the way for a multifaceted acceleration of economic and strategic interaction with East and South-East Asia, which are home to some of the region’s most dynamic economies and innovation hubs. India edged closer to the energy-rich regions of West Asia and Central Asia during the next 10-15 years as its need for hydrocarbons developed rapidly. Various geo-economic and geo-strategic imperatives fuel India’s expanding involvement with its wider neighbourhood. The geo-economic imperative requires greater economic integration through trade, investment, technology transfer, and innovation. Additionally, it entails creating a network of connected free trade agreements throughout the area. Engaging and collaborating more frequently to tackle a wide range of intertwining concerns, such as terrorism, maritime piracy, transnational crime, disaster mitigation, and countering transnational pandemics.

INDIA’S INTERESTS IN THE EXTENDED NEIGHBOURHOOD

India’s interests extend beyond its borders, its fixation on the South Asia-centric notion of neighbourhood can no longer be deployed as a useful analytical framework to evaluate India’s regional diplomacy. India’s extended neighbourhood, therefore comprises of the South Asia, Indo-Pacific, South-East Asia, West Asia and Central Asia. Each of these neighbourhood comes with its own opportunities and challenges as far as India is concerned.

BIMSTEC/ACT EAST/ INDO-PACIFIC:  India’s preference for BIMSTEC over South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) stems from the diplomatic strategy to ‘isolate Pakistan’ which translates to keep Pakistan out of its strategic interests in the region given the turbulent past of the two countries. However, this isn’t necessarily the only reason for India to focus on BIMSTEC more. Both internal and external strategic considerations prompt India’s involvement in the sub-regional conference for the Bay of Bengal[1].

Internally, countries in the Bay of Bengal subregion are involved in the development and security concerns of India’s eastern shore, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and the Northeast region. Externally, three key policy initiatives—the “Neighbourhood First” policy, the “Act East” policy, and the “Indo-Pacific” construct—direct Delhi’s present regional strategy, which involves the BIMSTEC subregion.

The frontier regions of India, such as the Northeast and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, are far from the country’s main economic centres. With other BIMSTEC members, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Nepal, India shares sea and land borders (maritime boundaries with Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand). The Bay of Bengal subregion is being envisioned as a result of the BIMSTEC summit, which makes the Neighbourhood First policy more vital than ever. This suggests that the sub-regional grouping plays a crucial role in the efficacy of this approach. India’s “Act East” foreign policy strategy is launched in the BIMSTEC subregion. India’s journey to the east will proceed smoothly if it maintains good relations with the BIMSTEC countries[2].

As far as the Indo-Pacific is concerned, it is a relatively a new concept. Despite being an American initiative, India adopted the Indo-Pacific framework to expand its hub-and-spoke network beyond its current alliance structure and integrate India into the new security system led by the US. The development of the strategic alliance between Japan and India, which served as the foundation for the Indo-Pacific region, has had the fervent support of the US. India’s prominence on security concerns in the area has improved as a result of India’s growing strategic engagement with the Pacific littoral countries. The idea that major nations should assume more responsibility for maintaining peace and stability in the region has culminated with the creation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) framework.[3]

India’s interest in the Indo-Pacific framework is largely due to the prominent position that other nations have given it in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). How other major countries see India will play a role in determining its position within the larger international power system. India is also confident that cooperation with the US, particularly in the Indo-Pacific area, will help it acquire the state-of-the-art defence technologies needed to counter threats from its long-time adversaries like Pakistan and China. India benefits naturally from its proximity to the Bay of Bengal subregion, but it also means that major powers are becoming more interested in its backyard. Long-term strategic problems for India are posed by China’s expanding influence in the wider Indian Ocean region as well as the Bay of Bengal subregion. Beijing has proposed numerous projects as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), including the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, the China-Laos-Thailand Railway Cooperation etc[4].

WEST ASIA: In 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced the “Look West’ policy as an extension of India’s economic hinterland and widening strategic cooperation. Indian interests in the Gulf have continued to be primarily focused on trade, energy security, and protecting the rights of the Indian diaspora in the area. India is actively promoting its culture and educational system in the area with a focus on cooperation and exchange. Strengthening the relationship in the fields of education and culture has been intended to maintain India’s soft power dominance by promoting Indian culture and assisting human resource development in the region. By forging strategic alliances and fostering the region’s crucial energy and trade relations, India has made clear that it wants to incorporate the Gulf region in all practicable new industries[5].

When Modi was elected in 2014, the broad outlines of India’s Middle East strategy were well established. Instead of choosing a different direction, the new administration continued along the same road but reinforced the “Look West” policy by concentrating on three key areas: the Arab Gulf states, Israel, and Iran.

Fast forward 2022, the I2U2 group of countries, ‘I2’ standing for India and Israel and ‘U2’ representing the United States (US) and United Arab Emirates (UAE), held their first summit level virtual meet on 14 July, during US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel. The summit-level talks come as a welcome push since the meeting of I2U2 foreign ministers in October 2021 was followed by a lull despite many analysts christening this new setup as the ‘Middle East Quad’ (or ‘West Asia Quad’).[6]

Each of the four member countries has emphasised one of the six focal points of collaboration that will serve as the beginning of the next stage of this engagement. The first batch of pilot projects will focus on cooperation in the fields of water, food security, health, transportation, and space cooperation. These initiatives will operate under broader global issues like climate change, international economic stability, volatile energy markets, and food markets that have disproportionately impacted the Global South in comparison to the more developed regions of the world. The foundation of these projects is geoeconomics. As far as India is concerned, joining the I2U2 allows India to take use of its favourable relations with Israel, the Gulf, and the US to develop economic exchanges that are mutually beneficial and have virtually no potential drawbacks.

CENTRAL ASIA: The Silk Road provides the basis for the history of India’s relations with Central Asia. However, as time progressed, India’s ties to Central Asia continued to weaken, which is also apparent from the fact that India didn’t have any sizable post-independence policy aimed at Central Asia. With India’s economy growing, so did the demand for energy, necessitating a diversification of suppliers outside of the Gulf. In order to lessen its reliance on pipelines through Russia, Central Asia also thought about how it could supply energy to Asia’s fast rising countries, such as India and China. India’s “Connect Central Asia Policy” is the result of its growing fascination with the region. E. Ahamed, who was the minister of External Affairs for the State at the time, drew attention to the increasing political and economic integration of Central Asia with the rest of the world in 2012 and noted the region’s proximity to India. India’s “Connect Central Asia Policy” was enhanced when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited all five in 2015, making him the first Indian head of state to do so[7]. This renewed interest is due to the region’s altering geopolitical landscape, particularly the growth of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as the external security concerns the region faces. India has strengthened the institutional underpinning for its bilateral defence cooperation in the region. Notably, agreements and memorandums of understanding (MOUs) relating to defence and military technology cooperation were signed between India and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan during Prime Minister Modi’s trips to those nations in 2015. In order to safeguard its energy interests, India has also boosted its civil nuclear cooperation with the region.

KEY CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES VIS A VIS INDIA’S ACT EAST POLICY

India has been engaged in the South-east Asian region on all fronts since 1992, when Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao announced a “Look East Policy” to engage with Southeast Asia. These fronts include diplomatic, security, economic, and people-to-people engagement. Building on Narasimha Rao’s foundation, Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh developed a solid partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Following this strategy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi transitioned his Look East strategy into an Act East strategy. 

Challenges:

The northeastern region has seen slow development on the AEP overland connection strategy, even though the majority of the 4Cs (commerce, connectivity, capacity-building, and culture) under AEP are classed as “anticipated” or “ongoing” with a flexible/infinite timeframe approach. Despite being in charge of a vital strategic overland connecting point to Southeast Asian countries, Modi continues to have a serious strategic flaw in his determination to play a significant role in world events at the expense of ignoring fruitful engagement in the North East Region and with India’s close neighbors[8].

The Indo-Pacific Strategy of 2017 strengthened the hedging of a China-counter strategy through the AEP, but the incoherent and vague China policy of the Trump administration was marked by uncertainties in terms of priority and emphasis, leading to a “worrying” policy situation in Modi’s strategy against China

According to Sanjaya Baru, many ASEAN nations wanted India to counterbalance China’s expanding power, which was initially sparked by China’s rapid rise after the transatlantic financial crisis and the Xi Jinping regime’s increasing assertiveness. Regional business was dismayed by India’s economic slowdown and inward focus, which were indicated in its decision to renounce the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) pact. While the ASEAN and Indian governments worked to maintain positive ties, Southeast Asia’s influential corporate communities—mostly Chinese—started to become less interested in India[9].

OPPORTUNITIES

When the world was perhaps dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, India in its extended neighborhood offered COVID-19 related assistance by supplying HCQ and Paracetamol and other medical equipment’s to almost 123 countries including US, Germany Spain etc. India’s stand on Act East policy is perhaps diminishing. Although during the peak COVID-19. Modi’s broad spectrum diplomatic approach is appreciated, it overlooked its key foreign policy interests in the region that is BIMSTEC and ASEAN which emerge as India’s key interests in the ambit of India’s Act East policy. The long-term effect of continued Indian cooperation with ASEAN would bring stronger, more effective, and more outcome-oriented AEP would automatically involve greater engagement, including easier physical connectivity and more interpersonal contact. This should act as a strong incentive for both parties to set up a robust joint pandemic response structure, preventing quicker pathogen transmissions from being caused by improved connection. In order for India to fortify its credibility in the region and given the China question, India should actively pursue a more serious and concrete Act Est Policy.


[1] Beyond the South Asia-centric notion of neighbourhood

Beyond the South Asia-centric notion of neighbourhood | ORF (orfonline.org)

[2] Beyond the South Asia-centric notion of neighbourhood

Beyond the South Asia-centric notion of neighbourhood | ORF (orfonline.org)

[3] Indo-Pacific: Evolving perception and Dynamics

‘INDO-PACIFIC’: EVOLVING PERCEPTIONS AND DYNAMICS – National Maritime Foundation (maritimeindia.org)

[4] Beyond the South Asia-centric notion of neighbourhood

Beyond the South Asia-centric notion of neighbourhood | ORF (orfonline.org)

[5] Accelerating India’s Look West Policy in the Gulf: IDSA

[6] The I2U2 summit: Geoeconomic cooperation in a geopolitically complicated West Asia

[7] Realising India’s Strategic Interests in Central Asia

[8] India’s Act East Policy: Warning to China or Flawed Strategy?

[9] What’s going wrong with India’s Act East Policy

Sanjaya Baru writes: What’s going wrong with India’s Act East policy? (indianexpress.com)

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