IFS (Retd.) & Advisory Council
I am delighted with this opportunity to share with you my views on the challenges facing India in the years ahead in the context of regional developments. I shall be speaking of international terrorism, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Central Asia, China, Myanmar, South East Asia and Iraq.
Our political, security and economic interests span in particular the area from the Gulf to South East Asia. The world of course has shrunk in every possible way. Globalization and economic inter-dependence, the communication revolution, the revolution in military affairs, attempts to actively universalize certain norms and principles such as democracy, pluralism, good governance, the doctrine of the right to intervention, etc., have contributed to this. What this means is that regional developments and interests can be less and less insulated from the larger global picture, especially if big power interests are involved. What this also means is that the challenges India faces in our region are in many ways challenges that face the international community too.
India is a country wounded by terrorism. Virtually all our neighbours, by choice or default, by acts of commission or omission, compulsions of geography and the terrain, have been or are involved in receiving, sheltering, overlooking or tolerating terrorist activities from their soil directed against India. We have very friendly relations with Nepal, but the open border with that country gives opportunities for foreign agencies to push in terrorists. Bangladesh has long been used as a sanctuary for insurgent groups engaged in violence against India, especially in the North East. Bangladesh effectively refuses to recognize that this problem exists, as some lobbies in that country want to use it as a pressure point against India. We have excellent relations with Bhutan, but Bhutanese soil is currently being used by three Indian insurgent groups for launching terrorist attacks against India. I need not mention the LTTE problem in Sri Lanka and the fact that the LTTE was responsible for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
The issue of terrorism therefore is of core importance to India. Our situation is quite unique because we are the victims of violence directed against us which has no organic link with, and is not a reaction to, any Indian policy of domination and control of economic resources of others, and backing of unpopular regimes or violence or terrorism directed by India against any other country. This is what distinguishes our situation from that of other countries which too are victims of terrorism.
The epicentre of terrorism in our region is Pakistan and the adjoining areas of Afghanistan. The international community, unfortunately, has been refusing to acknowledge earlier even the reality, and even today the dimension, of this problem, notwithstanding September 11. Pakistan has been the mainstay of the Taliban and the Al-Qaida operations, as without Pakistan’s complicity the Al-Qaida could not have become so potent. Even today, the principal Taliban and Al-Qaida cadres are in Pakistan. The ideology, the infrastructure, the mind-set that nourished this movement remains. Ironically, under the very nose of the Americans, who are physically present in the area and are militarily engaged there, the same very forces that supported the Taliban and Al-Qaida have re-emerged politically and have acquired legitimacy through an election process in Pakistan which the West has welcomed. Curiously, the ideology that was being denigrated for its links to outmoded and radical teachings in the Madrassas and propaganda in the Mosques can now claim some respectability as an expression of popular will! There is a lesson in this for western policy makers, about the need for a correct analysis of the situation in Pakistan and, therefore, the correct remedies to be applied. But we wonder whether this lesson is being learnt. If international terrorism is now being presented as the most important problem facing the international community, and one that must be tackled on a priority basis, then those projecting this cannot be seen to be having double-standards or making distinctions between terrorism that must not be tolerated and that that can be. Action taken against regimes that support terrorism should not be measured by the yardstick of the regime in question being pro-West or anti-West. If this were to be accepted, then terrorism cannot be the concern of the international community, it should be the concern of the Western countries alone. By definition, there cannot, therefore, be a global consensus on the fight against international terrorism.
The evolution of the situation in Afghanistan is a major political and security challenge for us. Afghanistan is more peaceful, but not stable as yet. The writ of the Afghan Interim Government does not extend to all parts of the country. The political vacuum in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan is particularly worrisome. The US military is operating in this political vacuum with no signs of emergence of a cohesive anti-Taliban Pashtun force. There is clearly a reticence to allow the Kabul Government, as presently configured and with the present distribution of military power, to extend its sway to the Pashtun areas. The danger in such a situation is that this vacuum could be filled once again by the pro-Taliban Pashtuns backed by Pakistan. With the taking over of power in North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan by fundamentalist pro-Pakistan Taliban parties in Pakistan, this danger has become more acute. Already, the US is showing receptivity to Pakistan’s interests and ambitions in south and eastern Afghanistan. With their attention distracted by Iraq – this will become even more the case if and when military action against Iraq starts – the temptation for Pakistan to play mischief once again in Afghanistan will increase and the willingness of US to counter Pakistan could be diminished. The development and stablization of Central Asia poses a major challenge. We have close historical links with the region. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, this region has begun to figure significantly on the landscape of our geo-political and geo-economic interests. These countries are currently facing the menace of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. It is in the common interest of India and Central Asia that Pakistan evolves into a truly moderate State, as “secular” as an Islamist State can be. The golden opportunity provided to make Afghanistan such a State should equally not be lost. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, initially set up to settle the issue of borders between China and the Central Asian States, is now increasingly focussing on the issue of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. India has expressed an interest to become part of this organization because of the many common stakes we have.
Iran is geo-politically placed to play a key role in Central Asia and the Gulf region. Its Islamic role and its oil and gas give the country much political and economic significance. India and Iran are taking steps to expand and deepen their relationship. We cooperated well in developments that led to the eventual ouster of the Taliban from Afghanistan. However ironical it may sound to some, Iran is worried about the rise of Islamic extremism in Pakistan. We are looking closely at transit arrangements through Iran to Afghanistan, Central Asia and to Russia as part of a strategic relationship we want to build with that country. The other element of this strategic relationship would be energy security. We look upon Iran as a worthwhile partner and not as a country belonging to an “axis of evil”.
With Iraq, India has had historical interaction going back to the early centuries of Islam’s penetration into our country. With Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, until the Gulf War changed the situation, India enjoyed a very friendly and productive relationship. 30% of India’s oil was sourced from Iraq before the Gulf War, Indian companies were engaged in several projects there and India had about 90,000 expatriates working in the country. Whatever the judgement one makes about the harshness of the Iraqi regime, from our point of view it was most important that it was secular. Iraq has traditionally taken an objective view of Indo-Pak differences on Kashmir, without being coloured by religious considerations. In the context of the current situation, we support Iraq’s compliance with the UN Resolutions and elimination of weapons of mass destruction from that country, but we do maintain, unlike many other countries, and we have said so publicly repeatedly, that if Iraq complies with UN Resolutions then sanctions should be lifted in tandem for humanitarian reasons.
We do not favour military action against Iraq as it would have several negative consequences, including the radicalization of Islamic opinion in the middle-east and worldwide. Notwithstanding the more optimistic analyses being made about the viability of a regime change imposed from outside, the democratisation of Iraq and short-lived and containable reaction of the Arab street, it is entirely possible to argue that more bitterness and hatred will follow and the seeds of a more vicious cycle of violence may be sown. We have also to be sensitive to the fact that we have over 140 million Muslims in our own country. On more practical basis, we cannot overlook the fact that we have almost 3 million expatriates in the Gulf whose services impart a certain stability and functional efficiency to these societies, besides the sizeable flow of remittances back to India.
I began with our neighbours, and moved my attention westwards, quite contrary to the eastwards thrust of our current policy. India is an Asian country, the second largest both demographically and geographically. Yet, as a result of the distortions of the Cold War, India is still not considered in some respects as an Asian country. We were and are excluded from APEC and we continue to be excluded from ASEM, the Asia-Europe Meeting. We have, however, assiduously worked to develop a ‘look East policy’ which has yielded fruit.
India has become a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum and now a summit partner with ASEAN, the first India-ASEAN Summit having been held in Cambodia very recently. The ASEAN countries themselves have realized the value of engaging India more for better political, security and economic balance in that region in which China looms large and will loom larger as it grows in economic and military strength. At the recent Indo-Asean summit, we have announced our intention to move towards a free trade area with ASEAN in the next ten years. We are already discussing free trade arrangements with Singapore and Thailand.
As part of strengthening our linkages towards the East, we are developing a stronger relationship with Myanmar, which is our direct geographical neighbour. Myanmar is contiguous with the North Eastern part of the country which is unstable and riven with insurgencies. In order to stabilize the North-East and our frontier areas with Myanmar, strike at the root of the insurgencies festering there, both India and Myanmar see the need for developing our transport linkages so that border trade too can be encouraged. Several projects are already under consideration, which include hydro-electric schemes and multi-modal transport corridors through Myanmar and beyond to Thailand and potentially up to Vietnam. The first project of this kind would be the trilateral highway project between India, Myanmar and Thailand.
This ‘Look East policy’ also fills the gap created by the failure of SAARC to develop into a meaningful regional organization. The root cause of this is Pakistan’s unwillingness to give SAARC any meaningful economic content because of its obsession with the Kashmir issue. The real possibility that SAARC would have provided the framework for overcoming problems within South Asia through the economic and commercial route, in the same way as the European Economic Community brought about a resolution of intra-European problems, especially between France and Germany, has been belied. India, in any case, has very special arrangements with Nepal and Bhutan, which in many ways go beyond a free trade area. With Sri Lanka, India already has a free trade arrangement. India is ready to move in that direction with Bangladesh too. Meanwhile, India supports sub-regional organizations like BIMSTEC and the Growth Qaudrangle which can compensate for the deficiencies of SAARC as a vehicle of strong trade ties within our region.
The challenge India faces vis-à-vis China is to support the progressive expansion and strengthening of our relationship in diverse fields while addressing the unresolved border issue. India and China are, objectively, two major Asian powers with the actual or potential capacity to dominate the Asian landscape. While they could be seen as rivals, it is also true that there is enough political and economic room for other major players, whether Japan and the ASEAN bloc from within the region, and the US from the outside.
The challenge would be to balance the legitimate interests of all these countries in a cooperative framework. Our bilateral trade with China this year will climb to four-and half-billion dollars. If we compare this figure with the one-and-half billion dollars trade with Russia or the 2.5 billion dollars trade we have with France, it will show how much the process of normalization of our relations with China has progressed. But there are many aspects of China’s internal and external policies: the rising profile of China, how its growing strength will impact on the region and beyond, how and to what extent its economic success will make its system more democratic, transparent and comprehensible, all these are of interest and a challenge not only to India but to the international community as a whole.
Let me end with what I began with, our neighbours. A few words about Nepal and Sri Lanka which are facing difficult internal situations with implications for India, would be in order.
Nepal is faced with an internal Maoist insurgency and its political system is under pressure. We believe that both the constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy are crucial pillars for Nepal’s stability and neither should be weakened at the expense of the other. The role of political parties in Nepal should not be marginalised in efforts to find a solution to Nepal’s problems, as seems to be happening at present. Western countries should also be careful about extending excessive military assistance to Nepal in order to avoid increase in the lethality of the internal conflict and leakage of arms to the Maoists.
In Sri Lanka, the peace process should be encouraged but there are imponderables ahead, both with respect to the difficult relationship between the President and the Prime Minister and the questions raised about LTTE’s real intentions and the respect by this organization of democracy and pluralism and the political rights of non-LTTE Tamils and the Muslims. India is playing as constructive a role as possible in helping Nepal and Sri Lanka deal with their internal conflicts, without intereference.