India's strategic liability


Oct 8, 2009
India's strategic liability

Politically incorrect? For sure. But time to wake up to the strategic relevance of South Asia. Are the immediate neighbours important for India? Absolutely, no doubts; but for all the wrong reasons. Unless handled carefully they would make life miserable and excruciating for India.

In one form or another, India has serious and long-running problems with all its neighbours. Not just with China, India has unresolved problems with most of its neighbours. While it's northern neighbour had skilfully resolved all its territorial disputes except for one (with India of course), New Delhi has serious border quarrels with most of its neighbours. If the Kashmir question hogs the maximum attention, situation is no better on other fronts. Even after decades India and Bangladesh are yet to formalise their borders. A small stretch still remains the sticking point thereby preventing India from ratifying the boundary treaty signed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as far back as in 1974.

No matter how scholars choose to depict, interpret or rationalise the phenomenon, none can ignore the large-scale presence of Bangladeshis inside India. Rather than controlling the daily flow of hundreds of illegal migrants from that country, New Delhi is haggling over the presence of a few hundred people inhabiting pockets of islets that are in 'adverse possession.' If these are not enough, in recent months both countries are entangled in a dispute over maritime boundary. Scarcity of natural resources, especially hydrocarbon, could only intensify the Indo-Bangladeshi competition over the exclusive economic zone. Likewise, the fishing rights periodically crop up whenever the situation in Sri Lanka deteriorates.

Second, the cross border ethno-linguistic linkages have proved to be a curse rather than a boon. Violence in the neighbourhood invariably spills over into India. The primary headache of the Pakistan-watchers has been to prevent internal meltdown in that country falling into the Indian lap. Situation elsewhere is no better. For years Bangladesh has been a safe haven for various militant groups that were operating in India's northeast. Despite the recent bonhomie, seasoned observers doubt Sheikh Hasina's ability to synchronise Bangladeshi policies with India's security concerns over the militants. The post-monarchical political structure in Nepal is getting complicated by each passing day. The civil war in Sri Lanka has ended but the situation is still fluid. Reconciliation between warring sides would require prolonged and sustained efforts from the Lankan government.

Three, in recent years the neighbours have been using the China card. Since the late 1950s Pakistan has successfully played the China factor to minimise its strategic vulnerability vis-à-vis India. Now others have joined the bandwagon. Sri Lanka which in the late 1980s used Pakistan to counter India's role in the ethnic crisis, is now cozying up to Beijing. Similarly, China has overtaken India as the largest trading partner of Bangladesh. Since the dying days of the monarchy, Nepal has played up the China card and now anti-Indian rhetoric has become the daily staple food for the Maoists.

Four, on the economic front the numbers are louder than the most optimistic voices. India's trade with the countries of South Asia is just a drop in a bucket. During 2008-09, India's imports from the countries of South Asia stood at $1.8 billion or a mere 0.5.9 percent of the total imports. During the same period India exported $8.6 billion worth of goods to its neighbours accounting for about 4.6 per cent of the total exports. So much for South-South cooperation!

The hype over the eventual transformation of South Asian Association for Reginald Cooperation into a South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA), to become fully operational by the end of 2015, will not be change the situation. Even if India were to unilaterally bring down all the trade barriers vis-à-vis its neighbours, the material impact would be marginal. Why then is this obsession with the neighbourhood? It is politically correct to play up the good neighbour image.

Thus many want India to bend over backwards, even over unreasonable demands. Rather than expecting the neighbours to be equally accountable to their commitments, some demand concessions from the more powerful India. Even those who otherwise oppose unilateralism harp on unilateral concessions from India, political as well as economic. Fortunately so far no one has claimed that such measures from India would solve the key problems but many argue that such measures would 'minimise' the friction and hopefully reduce anti-Indian feelings prevalent in these countries.

Secondly, the ethno-linguistic baggage has far serious role in shaping India's neighbourhood policy than many cared to admit. This at times many view the neighbourhood through the ethno-linguistic blinkers. One has to consciously delink cross-border ethnic links while formulating India's policy towards the neighbourhood. One is not suggesting that New Delhi should be indifferent to the concerns and voices of Tamil Nadu, West Bengal or Bihar while formulating its policy towards Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or Nepal respectively. But let these states not have the monopoly in determining the relative importance of the neighbouring states. One has to reframe the issue: Is Sri Lanka important because of the Tamil Nadu politics and interests or in spite of them? Same holds true for other neighbours.

Yes, South Asia is strategically important. Not because it has too many incentives or advantages to offer but failure to pay close attention to the region would be detrimental to India. Violence in Kashmir, terror in Mumbai, large-scale illegal migration, turmoil in the northeast, floods in Kosi or periodic tensions in Tamil Nadu are directly linked to developments in the neighbouring countries. India could ignore these countries only at its own peril. Giving the countries a greater degree of importance should not be difficult. Such an approach might even given them a degree of importance, enhance inter-personal relations and provide a congenial political atmosphere. No harm doing that.

But let us not miss the big picture. The priority accorded to South Asian countries must be commensurate to their relative importance and utility for India's peace and prosperity. It is time to recognise that both individually and collectively the countries of the South Asia have very little to offer positively. They are strategically important; but not as an asset but as a liability. Yes, South Asia is India's strategic liability. Only that.

The author teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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