July 14, 2020

Caroe's lessons

BY A.G. NOORANI19 MAY 2006 00:00 IST
UPDATED: 19 MAY 2006 00:00 IST

The book dips into archival material to trace the strategic thinking of Sir Olaf Caroe, a distinguished Foreign Secretary of the Raj.

The Future of The Great Game: Sir Olaf Caroe, India's Independence, and the Defense of Asia by Peter John Brobst; The University of Akron Press, Akron, Ohio; pages 199, $39.95.

SOME time ago I asked Caroe's `Brains Trust' to produce a comparison between India and China as future Great Powers, e.g. in material resources, man power, political stability, organisation. They produced an interesting paper which I read today. The general conclusion was that there was not much in it, but that China was tougher and had been through the fire both of internal revolution and of external invasion, while India had not and was softer." Lord Wavell, the Viceroy, wrote this comment in his Journal on September 18, 1944, when India was under British rule and the Second World War had not ended. (Wavell: The Viceroy's Journal edited by Penderel Moon; page 90).

No Indian politician, academic or journalist thought of the prospect which exercised a foreigner who knew that the Raj would have to end not long after the war came to a close. Wavell was referring to Sir Olaf Caroe, ICS (Indian Civil Service), who was Secretary in the External Affairs Department. It sired the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA).

Olaf Caroe belonged to a distinguished band of Foreign Secretaries who thought afar and left a legacy. Unlike Mortimer Durand and Henry McMahon, his impact was not in the realm of action but in the realm of strategic thinking. He was one of the most cerebral of them. He influenced and helped K.M. Panikkar, K.P.S. Menon and A.S.B. Shah. He read classics at Oxford and served in the Army during the First World War. His forte was geopolitics. He divided the world into "Seven Theatres of Power". The Gulf was an area of particular concern. He learned Urdu, was fluent in Pashto, studied the Akbarnamah and preferred the ICS to the British Foreign Office. In 1923, he joined the Indian Political Service; served as Foreign Secretary (1939-45) and as Governor of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) from March 1946 to June 1947. Jawaharlal Nehru hounded him out of this office after a sustained campaign of vilification. Since Caroe was opposed to the establishment of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah refused to recall him to that post after Partition and appointed George Cunningham, instead.

In retirement, Caroe joined the influential Round Table group, contributed to its journal and to the Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society. He wrote three influential books - Wells of Power (on security in the Gulf), The Pathans (a classic), and Soviet Empire (on Stalin's policies in Central Asia).

The Department of External Affairs then administered British protectorates in the Gulf, including Kuwait, Bahrain and the Trucial States. Until 1937, Aden was governed from Bombay. The External Affairs Department manned consulates in China, Central Asia and West Asia.

Caroe has been greatly misunderstood and his influence was vastly exaggerated. His futurology reflected a paternalistic romanticism. But there was a kernel of sound sense in his assessments, which have stood the test of time. He dared to think and thought creatively, though he was alarmist at times. Nehru's main concern vis--vis China was preservation of the McMahon Line. He was dimly aware, if at all, of the Aksai Chin till late in the day. As far back as on November 20, 1950, he said: "Our maps show that the McMahon Line is our boundary and that is our boundary, map or no map... and we will not let anybody come across that boundary."

No official did more to fortify India's case on the Line than Caroe did as Deputy Secretary. London had refrained from publishing the Shimla Convention of 1914 and the India-Tibet exchange of notes on the Line that year in order to give China time to come around. Caroe realised that this created uncertainty. He got published these documents and a map which showed the Line as the boundary. He wrote to R.A. Butler, Under Secretary at the India Office on March 4, 1937, warning him that the consequences of "our failure to publish the 1914 agreement with Tibet" enabled China's cartographers to absorb chunks of Indian territory in that sector. One finds, again and again, British officials in India remonstrating with London when Indian interests were neglected in framing imperial policy.

All this was known. What Prof. Peter John Brobst of the University of Ohio at Athens, Ohio, has done is to delve into the archives in the British Library in London and present instructive chunks from the treasure trove, which reveal the range and depth of Caroe's thought and that of his colleagues in what Wavell called his "Brains Trust". Brobst's comments, for the most part, are apt. The sole blemish is the author's projection of the Great Game, of which Kipling wrote in Kim, to the present day and an obsession with it that drives him mercilessly to irritate the reader with constant and irrelevant references to "the Great Game". This is a truly path-breaking and invaluable work. Not surprisingly, no Indian scholar has cared to explore this path.

Contrary to an Indian myth, India's "partition represented the failure and not the fulfilment of imperial design. Pakistan as the keystone of an Islamic alliance was a rationalisation of partition, not a motive. Indeed Caroe's geopolitical thinking weighed heavily against such a step. Supposedly one of its primary architects, Caroe in fact endorsed the creation of an independent Pakistan only in the difficult last resort, offering compelling evidence of the instinctive aversion that officials of the Raj generally felt toward partition."

As far back as June 28, 1935, when he was Deputy Secretary, Caroe wrote to the Secretary of State for India about "the new political forces... at work in Eastern and Central Asia". He was appalled at the "typical British and British Indian apathy" towards issues of security. In 1942, he set up the "Viceroy's Study Group". In a major paper dated April 26, 1942, he wrote that "a realisation is needed in the highest places that India cannot build a constitution unless the frontiers are held and the ring fence in some manner kept standing". It was entitled "Whither India's Foreign Policy". Two others he wrote bear mention. They are "Some Constitutional Reflections on the Landward Security of the India of the Future" (August 18, 1944) and "The Essential Interests of the British Commonwealth in the Persian Gulf and its Coastal States, with special reference to India" (1944). The Planning Division of the MEA set up in 1966 has been a joke from the inception.

In 1942, Caroe noted that intelligence assessors at the Foreign Office had "with a few exceptions in relation to Japan, been able to give little thought or study to the problems of Asia and none at all to India". India apart, he said, "the countries on the Indian Periphery all the way from the Middle East to Malaya are conspicuous by their absence". As a result, Caroe had "been considering means whereby we in India might be able to do something to fill this lacuna".

Lord Linlithgow was Viceroy then. Even this wooden man felt the need for "some reflection to be undertaken", an exercise which India's leaders and diplomats find irksome and unnecessary. Prof. Brobst rises to the challenge of analysing the material. Archival discoveries supplement his own able research. Unlike some, he does not simply dish out the discovered documents, prefacing them with a perfunctory introduction.

The study group comprised senior officers from both the ICS and the Indian Army. General Sir Alan Hartley, Deputy Commander in Chief of the Indian Army; Major-General Walter Cawthorn, Director of Military Intelligence; Sir Theodore Gregory, an economist; and Sir Everlyn Wrench, in the Finance Department. Sir Maurice Gwyer, C. J. of the Federal Court and one of the principal draftsmen of the 1935 India Act, participated actively. So did Peter Fleming, Ian Fleming's older brother who had travelled extensively in Chinese Central Asia in the 1930s and had come to India in 1942 to organise strategic deception operations. Among the founding members was H.V. Hodson, Constitutional Adviser to the Government of India, who became Editor of The Sunday Times.

Two members especially influenced the agenda of the group. One was Guy Wint, an established expert on the history and politics of Asia. During the war, Wint was officially attached to Britain's Ministry of Information. Another key figure in the study group was Lieutenant-General Sir Francis Tuker, who joined in 1944. In 1946 and 1947, Tuker was GOC-in-C, Eastern Command.

Members presented papers to the study group anonymously, although Caroe kept a master list of the authors that he eventually sent to the India Office. Copies of papers were sent to the Viceroy and the C-in-C. The group met in the homes of members. Minutes of discussions were carefully maintained.

When Caroe emphasised to a colleague in London, on September 13, 1945, the "concept of India and [the] centre of [an] Asiatic System" he articulated a concept which lay at the core of Nehru's vision. "In the modern world it is inevitable for India to be the centre of affairs of Asia." Caroe wrote on August 18, 1944: "All who look forward to the emergence of India as a Great Power must assume and work for her unity." He was a true friend of India whom Nehru woefully wronged.

Caroe told the Study Group in 1941: "It was clear that with India on the threshold of greater industrialisation and increasing world importance, wider and fuller education was necessary on technological grounds to meet the rising demands for labour capable of efficient work with modern machinery in all forms." Use of Indian languages would help to improve the situation. He argued that the dominance enjoyed by English as the language of instruction had historically "acted as a deterrent to students and has thus restricted the spread of education", adding that "in India the second language had not to be acquired as we learn French to widen our outlook and open new doors, but as a medium of actual instruction in, e.g. mathematics". Caroe worried that the effect was "to render higher education unassimilable [sic] save for the ablest of all, and thereby to destroy the basis of all sound education". The use of English had provided a unifying force among India's elite, but like Tuker, Caroe recognised that defence had to be placed on a more popular footing. No longer, he warned, would it suffice to draw India's leadership "solely from the wealthy classes or from those who can afford to pay university fees".

Second to Caroe, if that, was Tuker's strong emphasis of India's importance in the future. He wanted to publicise the "certainty that India would be the centre of (the Indian Ocean) region". Tuker noted an Indian trait before it surfaced after Independence. It was in a paper entitled "Defence and National Efficiency" (1945). It was ignorance married to chauvinism.

Brobst does justice to archival material because his research in published matter is excellent. One dreads the prospect of an academic adventurer proceeding to London to publish the papers with an ignorant and chauvinistic Introduction. Incidentally, besides the papers, the minutes of discussion in the Viceroy's Study Group are also available in that library.

On January 7, 1943, the Group contemplated "a high-class magazine" on defence "appealing to the Indian intelligentsia". It would present "articles on all current important world problems in a way calculated to stimulate thought and encourage ideas which could be contrasted or compared with the affairs on which Indians now concentrate their whole attention".

Sir Maurice Gwyer contributed a paper on "Post-War Security in the Indian Ocean" in May 1944, in which he warned against trying to influence Indian thinking on security lest it be misconstrued "as an ingenious device of imperialism to reimpose control".

The author records in detail Caroe's interaction with and help to Panikkar, K.P.S. Menon and A.S.B. Shah. They shared a passion for strategic literacy. Neglect of India's external relations by British as well as Indian leaders depressed Caroe.

Brobst takes the reader through Caroe's theories on "India's Outer Ring", the Buffer System, much of which became irrelevant after Independence. Guy Wint was much more realistic than Caroe. Advances in military technology and the rise in air power had undermined the traditional role of the buffer states. He wrote on June 7, 1943, a paper entitled "Some Problems of India's Security", in which he pointed out that just "as Louis XIV, when his grandson ascended the throne of Spain, remarked that the Pyranees had ceased to exist, so today have the Hindu Kush virtually ceased".

Caroe's concern with the Soviet Union and China's "expansionism" is well known. But then, Nehru himself voiced the same apprehension in an interview to C.L. Sulzberger of The New York Times reported in The Times of India (April 27, 1950). "More and more" the Soviet Union was following a "nationalistic expansionist policy". The author perceptively notes: "Historians point out that the views represented by Caroe and Wint tended to embed a fossilised Russophobia and to reflect a blinkered ideology of anticommunism. In hindsight, British fears between late 1939 and early 1941 that the Soviets would attack Southwest Asia and perhaps even India itself were exaggerated. British suspicions about the Nazi-Soviet Pacts as an inducement to Soviet expansion at the expense of the British Empire slighted the intricacies of Soviet policy. Such criticism, however, can itself be carried too far. British thinking was complex and far from a knee-jerk response."

Nor has China proved revanchist as Caroe feared. It settled border disputes efficiently and fairly. India remains the sole exception for reasons Indians are not prepared to recognise. Interest in Tibet's autonomy was understandable, but there was scant interest in China's perceptions. Eventually, Caroe's "Inner Ring" (Balochistan, Nepal and the Naga Hills) proved as obsolete as the Outer Ring.

It is unfortunate that Nehru fell out with this dedicated official. He formed the Interim Government on September 2, 1946. Only a month later he began itching for a tour of the tribal areas in the NWFP. He went there against the advice of Gandhi, Patel, Azad, Wavell and Caroe. The four-day trip in October was a disaster. Predictably, the reception was hostile. We have a fair and objective account of the entire episode in Parshottam Mehra's excellent work The North-West Frontier Drama 1945-1947: A Reassessment (Manohar; 1998). It is based on extensive research in British archives and lives up to the high standards of Prof. Mehra's research. Far from conspiring against Nehru, Caroe asked Mountbatten to persuade Jinnah to instruct his followers not to hold demonstrations against Nehru. The Deputy Commissioner, Mardan, C.G.S. Curtis saved Nehru's life. Nehru, sporting his half-baked Marxism, talked of "class conflict" and abused the tribal leaders ("pensioners"). He went there for partisan ends, impetuously enough, and conducted himself arrogantly. Caroe was made a scapegoat for Nehru's follies. Since Nehru was "indispensable" to Mountbatten's success, Caroe had to go. In 1963, Nehru invited him as a state guest to help co-ordinate work for the Tibetan refugees.

India's High Commissioner in London, B.K. Nehru, wrote a note of thanks to Caroe on February 1, 1975, for his support to India's absorption of Sikkim within the Union of India.

Brobst fully demolishes the myth which Selig S. Harrison and Chester Bowles fostered that the United States arms aid to Pakistan was inspired by Caroe's Wells of Power. Caroe's visit to the U.S. State Department in May 1952 left him feeling insulted.

In retirement, Caroe received attention and respect given to few. He foresaw a lot, misunderstood a lot. Brobst makes the perfect comment on his contribution when he writes that "a combination of anachronism and prescience... . characterised so much of his thinking".

Fundamentally, Nehru's world view clashed with Caroe's. Fundamentally, Nehru was right on non-alignment. It is true, of course, that he had in 1948-49 sought an alliance with the U.S. and was rebuffed. Non-alignment is, however, a non. It no more indicates how a country pursues its interests than calling a person non-married indicates how he or she pursues happiness.

K.P.S. Menon wrote in his autobiography Many Worlds (1965; page 271): "A Foreign Office is essentially a custodian of precedents. We had no precedents to fall back upon, because India had no foreign policy of her own until she became independent." He was grossly unjust to the Foreign Secretaries who preceded him - like Caroe. The National Archives of India refute him. A Foreign Office is no mere "custodian of precedents" either.

What he added reveals a lot; everything, in fact: "Our policy therefore necessarily rested on the intuition of one man, who was Foreign Minister - Jawaharlal Nehru. Fortunately, his intuition was based on knowledge... " The first part was, tragically, all too right. The second was preposterously wrong.

Nehru had, broadly, two aims in sight - promoting India globally and checking Pakistan, especially on Kashmir. In March 1947, he wrote a memo on Germany's reunification. He dictated - rather tried to - terms to the U.S. on a peace treaty with Japan. Nehru stipulated cancellation of the U.S.' alliance with Japan and surrender of its bases.

His note to Vallabhbhai Patel on November 8, 1950, said: "The fact remains that our major possible enemy [sic] is Pakistan. This has compelled us to think of our defence mainly in terms of Pakistan's aggression. If we begin to think of, and prepare for, China's aggression [in Tibet] in the same way, we would weaken considerably on the Pakistan side" (Sardar Patel's Correspondence; Volume 10; page 344). Nehru's use of the word `enemy' betrayed an outlook he tried to conceal.

Eventually, he lost the friendship of both and drove the two into an embrace in 1963. How? The reason is not addressed at all. The stark truth was that temperamentally Nehru was a unilateralist. His note to Sheikh Abdullah on August 26, 1952, spelt out this line. In Delhi Pakistan's Prime Minister Mohammed Ali was reminded that "in the balance, the Indian army was stronger than the Pakistan army and we would win in the end" (Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru; Volume 28, page 249). To the world he would counsel against a talking from a position of strength: "It is the approach which uses the words: `Let us have a tough policy, let us speak from strength.'"

If vis--vis Pakistan he banked on superior armed power, vis--vis China he unilaterally altered "all our old maps dealing with this frontier" which would then be treated as a "firm and definite one which is not open to discussion with anybody" (July 1, 1954; SWJN, Vol. 26, page 482). That spelt a deadlock. Here China was the more powerful adversary. But, then, Nehru was unaware of even the concept of limited war and imagined that any armed conflict with China would lead to a world war.

Even on international issues Nehru was a unilateralist; flouting international law and morality he asserted an exclusive right to the upper riparian (India) to deal with the waters as it pleased. This was said in regard to the Farakka Project on March 12, 1960 (Sharing the Ganges; Ben Crow & Ors; page 64). It was unilateralism rampant, throughout.

The country has paid a heavy price in its foreign and domestic policies for practising the personality cult and neglecting professionalism. The Caroes had a lot to teach us.


July 13, 2020

India made compromise with Pakistan over Baloch cause, says Naela Quadri

Published :11 Jul 2020 , 09:38 pm IST
Updated :11 Jul 2020 , 10:00 pm ISTN


Naela Quadri Baloch, the voice of Balochistan's struggle for independence believes that India made a compromise with Pakistan, Iran over Baloch cause and mention the movement only to counter Pakistan's Kashmir comments.

New Delhi: Naela Quadri Baloch, activist and Chairperson of Baloch People's Congress spoke exclusively to ETV Bharat on Baloch struggle, Pakistan Stock Exchange attack and their political struggle to gain freedom.

The Balochistan Liberation Army had recently claimed responsibility for the attack on Pakistan Stock Exchange that killed 10 people. The group has been waging an insurgency for years, demanding independence for Pakistan's gas-rich southwestern Balochistan province, which borders the southern Sindh province, near Karachi.

Responding to the question of achieving freedom using the means of terrorism, Naela Quadri said that Baloch are freedom fighters and not terrorists and there is a difference between fighting for freedom and being involved in terrorist activities.

"The Baloch struggle for freedom is being quelled. The voices of Baloch people remain unheard. Young Baloch people, who are well-educated and capable, are taking their lives just so that the world hears their voice," Naela said.

"The world is a hypocrite. Pakistan army is the real terrorist who destroys our homes, abducts our children and women," she alleged.

India made compromise with Pakistan over Baloch cause, says Naela Quadri

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Q. Can you achieve freedom through political means or through the political struggle?

A: We knocked on the doors of other nations to gain support for our political struggle. Without political means, we cannot achieve anything. The political parties which represent the Baloch people are older than Pakistan's party- the Muslim League.

Our political movements are doing their job. There are many ways to go about to achieve freedom, but we believe in the path of peaceful politics.

Q. Why the world turns a blind eye to your struggles?

A: The countries work towards their interests. The United Nations (UN) receives a major chunk of its fundings from China. Now, it seems it is difficult for the UN to understand our struggles. Some countries want the support for Pakistan in Afghanistan, and some do not want any noise across the Wagah border or along the LoC.

We do not want to sideline any nation, we want every nation to enjoy sovereignty over its land. Balochistan is much more than minerals. It is our motherland.

Q. Pakistan has always alleged that India is fueling Baloch freedom struggle. What do you have to say about this allegation?

A: For Pakistan, it is a reason to attack Baloch struggle. India lacks the political will to support Baloch movement. Indians want their government to support our movement but they could not convince its government even with their votes. Be it Congress or BJP, the Indian government has made a compromise with Pakistan over Baloch freedom.

The least India could do is to support Baloch cause in the UN. But it is reluctant to do even that. And, when the Pakistan army commits atrocities they say to call your Modi, ask him to come to save you! They call us 'Hindus' before launching their attack against Baloch people.

Moreover, India just wants to use Baloch movement as a 'card' when Pakistan rack up Kashmir issue.

Q. Who calls you 'Hindus'?

A: The Pakistan Army calls the Baloch people 'Hindus' before committing atrocities. They feel that our Quran is Gita. Our Quran E Pak is the same as theirs, but since it is in the hands of Baloch people they feel it is different. It was we who taught them how to read 'Kalma'.

Q. How do you see Pakistan's involvement in Kashmir's 'freedom'?

A: Kashmir has no relation with Pakistan. It was not part of Pakistan in the past and it should not be a part of Pakistan in future. Pakistan is an artificial country !!

The British wanted to keep a proxy in South Asia, and then the US helped then and now China is lending a helping hand. Without external support, Pakistan cannot even survive on its own.

For Pakistan, terrorism is an asset. They are committing atrocities against native Kashmiris in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). They have militarised the entire region violating UN conventions by sending its troops and by arming militants.

Q. Does the split among various groups hampering the cause in Baloch camp?

A: It is a good thing that diversity exists in Baloch camp. India's freedom struggle was aided by the diversity of thoughts, ideology: from Gandhi's peaceful struggle to Bhagat Singh's militant struggle. Every freedom movement has multiple camps.

All the groups came together under Baloch National Front (BNF) and served as an alliance between all such groups. Because of the fact that many people had to live the country to save their lives, to lobby in the UN, we split under several banners. We are united under one cause: freedom of Balochistan.

Q. Has India betrayed Baloch cause?

A: Other than speaking about Baloch freedom, there is little action on the ground. Following Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 2016 speech from Red Fort, our expectations were high. But nothing happened after that.

Even Jawaharlal Nehru met with Baloch representative in 1948 when Baloch was fearing Pakistan occupation. But Nehru did not support our cause because both Indian and Pakistan armies were under the control of the British at that moment in time.

Q. What will be the blueprint if Baloch gets independence?

A: Balochistan was never a part of India, Iran nor Afghanistan. It will become a sovereign country. Balochistan is the grandmother of civilisation. Our civilisation has spread to Kerala, Sri Lanka and even Afghanistan.

One possibility exists, that is to make United states of all South Asian countries in the region. The states will have a common currency, common defence and huge capital. Balochistan will be a part of this set-up. But it will never give away or sacrifice its land, culture nor its identity.

As China eyes multi-billion dollar Iran deal, India's Chabahar port may lose relevance

WION New Delhi Jul 13, 2020, 07.58 PM(IST) Edited By: Palki Sharma

File photo: Chabahar port. Photograph:( Zee News Network )


The deal will fundamentally change Iran’s relationship with China. It will put Tehran in Beijing’s corner and India could see its influence diminish overtime. 

China has struck a deal with America's enemy - Iran. It's a $400 billion economic and security strategic partnership deal.

As always, China is using its chequebook to have its way. It has bought Iran over for $400 billion dollars. It is a 25-year strategic accord with an 18-page agreement that weds Iran to China for a quarter of a century.

Once it is signed, Iran will open its doors for Chinese investment not just in one or two sectors but across the Iranian economy. The Chinese presence in Iran would expand in banking, telecommunications, ports and railways, also more than a dozen projects will go to Chinese companies.

Beijing hopes to get cheap oil in return. China will walk away with a steady supply of Iranian oil at a heavily discounted rate for 25 years and this is just one side of the story of the economic aspect.

The deal also has a military dimension. There will be reportedly joint training and exercises, joint research and weapons development, even intelligence sharing as part of the agreement. 

The deal will fundamentally change Iran’s relationship with China. It will put Tehran in Beijing’s corner and India could see its influence diminish overtime. 

The biggest threat is to the Chabahar port. It was seen as India’s counter to the Gwadar port in Pakistan that is part of China’s Belt and Road initiative(BRI), if China invests heavily in Iran the Chabahar port could lose its relevance. 

However, it is hypothetical as of today. The Iran-China agreement reportedly has not been submitted for Parliament’s approval yet and hasn’t been made public. China hasn’t shared the details of the deal yet as well. The ministry of foreign affairs in Beijing was asked about it today and it didn’t share any information.

It is not yet clear if the top brass of the Communist Party has signed off on it but the details of the deal that have leaked are reportedly part of the “final version”. Iran is not hiding the fact that it is negotiating the agreement with China. On July 5, Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif indicated that the deal will happen and it will be presented before Iran's Parliament for approval.

The potential agreement is a big threat to India. Historically, India and Iran have enjoyed a close relationship. India was one of the biggest buyers of Iranian oil but New Delhi stopped buying oil from Iran in 2019 after the United States slapped sanctions against Iran and refused to grant any waivers to India. 

Now, Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy against Tehran has failed. China went under the nose of the Americans and managed to negotiate a deal with Tehran that could create more flashpoints in West Asia and even cost India its relationship with Iran

Iran drops India from Chabahar rail project, cites funding delay

Suhasini HaidarNEW DELHI 14 JULY 2020 00:02 IST
UPDATED: 14 JULY 2020 08:31 IST

The development comes as China finalises a massive 25-year, $400 billion strategic partnership deal with Iran, which could cloud India’s plans.

Four years after India and Iran signed an agreement to construct a rail line from Chabahar port to Zahedan, along the border with Afghanistan, the Iranian government has decided to proceed with the construction on its own, citing delays from the Indian side in funding and starting the project.

Last week, Iranian Transport and Urban Development Minister Mohammad Eslami inaugurated the track-laying process for the 628 km Chabahar-Zahedan line, which will be extended to Zaranj across the border in Afghanistan. Officials told The Hindu that the entire project would be completed by March 2022, and that Iranian Railways will proceed without India’s assistance, using approximately $400 million from the Iranian National Development Fund.

The development comes as China finalises a massive 25-year, $400 billion strategic partnership deal with Iran, which could cloud India’s plans.



Trilateral agreement

The railway project, which was being discussed between the Iranian Railways and the state-owned Indian Railways Construction Ltd (IRCON), was meant to be part of India’s commitment to the trilateral agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan to build an alternate trade route to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Also read: Iran to promote Chabahar as curbs will hit main port

In May 2016, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Tehran to sign the Chabahar agreement with Iranian President Rouhani and Afghanistan President Ghani, IRCON had signed an MoU with the Iranian Rail Ministry.

The MoU was to construct the Chabahar-Zahedan railway as “part of transit and transportation corridor in trilateral agreement between India, Iran and Afghanistan”. IRCON had promised to provide all services, superstructure work and financing for the project (around $1.6 billion).

Also read: India to develop Iran's Chabahar port

However, despite several site visits by IRCON engineers, and preparations by Iranian railways, India never began the work, ostensibly due to worries that these could attract U.S. sanctions. The U.S. had provided a sanctions waiver for the Chabahar port and the rail line to Zahedan, but it has been difficult to find equipment suppliers and partners due to worries they could be targeted by the U.S., said officials. India has already “zeroed out” its oil imports from Iran due to U.S. sanctions.

The Ministry of External Affairs and IRCON declined to comment on the issue.

However, when asked if the MoU with IRCON had been cancelled, now that the project has been started without it, an official said India could still join at a “later date.”

25-year Strategic Partnership

Meanwhile, complicating matters further, Iran and China are close to finalising a 25-year Strategic Partnership which will include Chinese involvement in Chabahar’s duty free zone, an oil refinery nearby, and possibly a larger role in Chabahar port as well.

According to leaked versions of the 18-page “Comprehensive Plan for Cooperation between Iran and China”, being finalised by officials in Tehran and Beijing, the cooperation will extend from investments in infrastructure, manufacturing and upgrading energy and transport facilities, to refurbishing ports, refineries and other installations, and will commit Iranian oil and gas supplies to China during that period.

Iranian officials denied a report that also suggested Chabahar port, where India took, will be leased to China. However, Iran proposed a tie-up between the Chinese-run Pakistani port at Gwadar and Chabahar last year, and has offered interests to China in the Bandar-e-Jask port 350km away from Chabahar, as well as in the Chabahar duty free zone.

Each of those possibilities should be watched closely by New Delhi, said former Ambassador to Iran, K.C. Singh. “[The Iran-China deal] impinges on India’s “strategic ties” with Iran and the use of Chabahar port. Jask lies to west of Chabahar & right before Straits of Hormuz. China would thus extends its control along the Pakistan-Iran coast,” he cautioned.

(with inputs from Yuthika Bhargava)