June 05, 2007

India caught in a ring of fire

Jume 5, 2007
Asia Times

By Dhruba Adhikary

KATHMANDU - Reflecting growing anxiety in New Delhi about ongoing conflicts in the neighborhood, a leading Indian publication, India Today, led its May 28 edition with a cover report headlined "Neighbors on fire". Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal are four countries covered by the magazine.

Although they are very much part of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the publication has conspicuously left out three countries: Afghanistan, Bhutan and


Perhaps New Delhi thinks these three can't afford to antagonize the rulers of India.

Political instability of an unprecedented kind has gripped the South Asia region, and the reasons for this range from armed insurgency to communal animosity and political obduracy thereof. Fears are being expressed that rapidly unfolding events and trends might place the basic principle of - and popular faith in - democracy at risk. Does India, the world's largest democracy, stand to gain from such a scenario? How will it be useful to India, not very far from China, to watch transparent political systems turning into opaque regimes in countries in its vicinity? Anyhow, when its immediate neighborhood is on fire, what should be India's reaction?

New Delhi, of course, could take some pleasure if it were discreetly assisting those responsible for setting the fires in the neighborhood. The other alternative, as the publication suggests, is to start worrying about the fallout for South Asia, where India is a dominant power. "India must ensure," said Aroon Purie, the chief editor of India Today, "that it plays a part in making sure its neighbors are able to put out their fires."

In other words, India should help neighbors to help themselves - confine its role to that of a facilitator. It should play the role of mother India, not that of a big brother. But it seems unlikely the Indian establishment will do this, and New Delhi is sensitive whenever issues in public debate involve the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Defense.

This is explained in a book, Making News, published in 2006. In a chapter contributed by Rajdeep Sardesai, a noted television journalist, there is a description of how journalists who do not want to toe the official line have to run the risk of being called anti-nationals. He tells how journalists are expected to "follow hook, line and sinker what the ministry is saying".

Unlike other issues, matters involving foreign relations are not regularly discussed in Parliament. Officials find it expedient to convince their political masters that it is beneficial to keep issues in the domain of external relations and diplomacy secret, in effect taking the agenda away from the public on whose behalf the government is expected to be working. This is what India is today, decades after renowned American scholar John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) said India was a functioning anarchy. (He also served as US envoy in New Delhi under president John F Kennedy.)

India Today has culled the opinions of experts criticizing the authorities for "ad hoc-ism". One is Brahma Chellaney, a strategic analyst, who said, "It is odd that Delhi does not have a clear neighborhood policy." It means that India has conducted its relations in the neighborhood in a haphazard manner without any coordinated, clear-cut policy since it ceased be a British colony in 1947. These include the wars with Pakistan, the clash with China, support to the movement to "liberate" Bangladesh, the annexation of Sikkim, and the landing of Indian troops in Sri Lanka to protect the Tamil population. And, in a more recent case, pitting Maoists, democratic parties and the monarchy against one other - thereby destabilizing Nepal.

Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon admitted, in front of a New Delhi audience on April 10, that South Asia "remains one of the least integrated regions in the world".

Should not India, the largest country in the region - and currently the chair of the SAARC - do some introspection where its measures have failed to create a conducive atmosphere to build "interdependencies", as Menon alluded to in his speech at the Observer Research Foundation?

There is a need for dispassionate study to find out why India's relations with Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal have remained less than cordial. Surely, India alone cannot be right and others all wrong.

As has been pointed out by experts - and tacitly admitted by authorities - New Delhi is working without a policy on its neighborhood. It ostensibly is guided by assumptions, presumptions, perceptions and intelligence reports that are inherently flawed because of preconceived motivations. Menon, as quoted by India Today, said diplomacy "is to get other people to do what I want but get them to think that I am doing what they want".

Since Menon is the head of India's diplomatic service, it would be fair to assume that the country's envoys - be they in South Asian capitals or elsewhere - perform their roles on this basis. This leads one to consider what Indian Ambassador Shiv Shankar Mukherjee in Kathmandu - and in the border town of Birgunj - has been doing.

In earlier times, the Maoist leadership waging a war against the Nepali government was led to a believe that Delhi was acting for their benefit. Once the Maoists decided to join mainstream politics and become a part of Parliament as well as the government, Indian diplomats found it expedient to entice one or two breakaway Maoist factions and extend them support, on the basis of which they have launched a separatist movement in the southern plains called Terai. One of the leaders at the forefront of this "Madhesi" movement, Upendra Yadav, is a Maoist renegade who in 2004 was arrested on Indian territory with two of his comrades.

New Delhi quietly handed over the two to Nepali authorities but set Yadav free while he was still in Indian territory. There is a widely held perception that Yadav, who physically resembles the people of the nearby (to Nepal) Indian state of Bihar, is being used to sustain a hate campaign against Nepalis of "hills" origin.

This is presumed to be based on an Indian interpretation that most Maoists are of "hills" origin, and that by getting them evicted from the plains India can keep its porous borders safe and also prevent the Maoist movement from spreading to adjoining Indian states. Clearly, it is an attempt to create a buffer within a buffer - which is Nepal. It is becoming clear that Yadav is being groomed to take a role akin to that of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran's in Sri Lanka.

If Prabhakaran can obtain Indian support for his fight for a separate Tamil state, Yadav's expectations for similar support from New Delhi for a "Madheshland" look logical. Some analysts tend to see these initiatives as an example of the double standards that India has applied for decades, citing military repression in Kashmir, the northeast and elsewhere to quell separatist movements.

The Indian stand on the Maoists has been inconsistent. When the Indian Foreign Office was led by Jaswant Singh, New Delhi labeled the Maoists as terrorists. Later, it reversed this approach and started to assist them, despite their violent methods. More than 13,000 lives have been lost in the decade-long insurgency that began in 1996.

Yet New Delhi was instrumental in making them a party to a 12-point agreement with the Nepali Congress-led front of seven political parties. One agreement led to another, and eventually the Maoists fully joined the constitutional process, finally becoming a part of the interim government on April 1 this year.

But now India sees them as a deadly menace, a sort of Frankenstein's monster. But the stinging question is: Who supported them so that they could be where they are now? The Maoists have ambition, as is evident from this observation of top Maoist leader Pushpa Kamala Dahal, aka Prachanda, reproduced in the May 18 report of the International Crisis Group: "Even if we are a small country in South Asia, we think our revolution can have impact all over the world."

Prachanda stresses the "great" experiment Nepal is about to undertake, saying that the country will be a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. Communism may have died elsewhere, and the Shinning Path movement in Peru isn't there to provide them inspiration any longer, but Nepali Maoists claim that they have become a force to be reckoned with.

In a broader context, Indian is jittery over possible Chinese inroads into Nepal through the Maoists; here the interests of New Delhi and Washington converge. That the United States and India consult on Nepal has been made public by their officials on

numerous occasions. In response to a US Congress committee query on March 22, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice conceded that "our closest international partner in working on affairs in Nepal is India".

She also described Nepal's conditions as "somewhat tenuous", at the same praising her ambassador, James Francis Moriarty, for his performance in Nepal. Rice's remarks serve as an indicator that Moriarty and his Indian counterpart Mukherjee are working in tandem.

Their frequency of visits, conducted separately, to the residence of interim Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala create enough room for conjecture that the external influence on crucial decisions he makes is pervasive.

Apparently, Delhi has argued with Washington as well as with countries in the European Union that they should remain in touch with the Indians whenever the West intends to make substantive offers to Nepal. The reason: it is India that has to face the resulting consequences, pick up the pieces.

Moriarty and Mukherjee could, if they wanted, have met Koirala and the chief of the Nepal Army, General Rookmangud Katawal, at the same time. Analysts say Mukherjee wants to protect himself from embarrassment because the government in India is based on a coalition to which communist parties provide important support.

This leaves the task of condemning Maoist violence to Moriarty, who receives condemnation for being the meddlesome ambassador of an "imperialist power". Maoist leaders no longer publicly denounce India, which used to be seen as an "expansionist power". (In private conversations, the Maoists, like any other political leaders, resent New Delhi's growing interference in Nepali politics.)

In the words of analyst Upendra Gautam, the Americans' approach to issues is usually direct and straightforward - they say what they accept and what they reject. The Indian style is different, and it is often difficult to fathom what New Delhi means or wants.

"There is a visible lack of sincerity as well," Gautam said, referring to the usual Indian hesitation in implementing various agreements on trade, transit and water resources with Nepal. Gautam also agreed with those who think that while the Indians and Americans may be working jointly to contain China, India often goes further and goads the US to do things for which it has to face public anger.

One recent incident in eastern Nepal provides an example. Outside a Bhutanese refugee camp, Moriarty faced a stone-throwing crowd he had gone to meet to make an offer for resettlement of about 60,000 refugees. Mukherjee, on the other hand, has not encountered any hostility, although it is his country, India, which has assisted the Bhutanese royal regime in evicting the more than 100,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese nationals who have taken shelter in United Nations-run camps since the early 1990s. (The diplomatic corps in Kathmandu issued a statement last weekend expressing concern for the safety of diplomats accredited to Nepal.)

A news report published in The Australian newspaper on April 12 said the central plank of India's impatience and concern stems from a perception that the Chinese influence on Nepal is on the rise - not only through the Maoists, who have joined the government, but also by China's reported interest to extend its Tibetan railway to Nepal. Since India enjoys a close and improved relationship with China, especially after Beijing recognized Sikkim as a part of India, there is apparently no ground for New Delhi to be over-sensitive.

Meanwhile, Nepal remains politically unstable as interim government leaders and feuding political parties work overtime to find a date for proposed November elections for a constitution-making assembly.

There are rumors that New Delhi is contemplating sending in troops, as it did in Sri Lanka in the 1980s. Speculation also includes a possible bid to dispatch Indian soldiers under UN command. But there are hurdles. How will, for instance, the 50,000-plus Nepalis currently employed by the Indian Army react when they know that their motherland is being invaded by Indian forces?

Observers mention such aspects to discount fears of direct military intervention by India, also because the mission to Sri Lanka turned out to be a fiasco (and led to the assassination of prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991). The other important deterrent is China, which obviously does not want to see undesirable activities in a country bordering Tibet.

Beijing's concerns of instability in Nepal may not be found in the daily media, but it would be wrong to presume that the Chinese are indifferent toward happenings in the vicinity of Tibet. Unlike India, China does not take too much interest in who comes to power in Nepal; its policy has been to deal with whoever has been accepted by the people of Nepal.

In the past, China maintained contacts with the monarchy; since April 2006 it has worked with first the caretaker and then the interim government headed by Koirala. In a concomitant gesture, China changed its ambassador after Nepal's interim constitution in effect suspended King Gyanendra by way of transferring his official responsibilities to the prime minister.

By directing its new ambassador, Zheng Xianglin, to present his credentials to Koirala (April 19), Beijing issued a pithy message that its past linkage with the monarchy was not a permanent one, or that it would go against the wishes of the Nepali people. Zheng became the first ambassador accredited to Nepal to break the tradition of seeking an audience with the king for the said purpose.

In addition, Beijing has invited Koirala to pay an official visit to China, this is likely to be next month. Meanwhile, a number of delegations, including official ones, have arrived from China in the past few months.

And a senior member in the Maoist hierarchy, Barshaman Pun (aka Ananta), has been to China twice in the past six months. Media reports said in recent weeks that if approached by Nepal, China could make arrangements for a limited supply of petroleum products for Nepali consumers who have to date been fully dependent on supplies from India. Some of these developments seem to have set off jitters in New Delhi, prompting it to look for alternatives.

What could these be? First, India has to develop an integrated foreign policy for the neighborhood with a specific pledge to support democratic processes in all countries. Second, it needs to stop getting involved in internal political competitions, and develop friendly and transparent relations with governments elected by the people. Third, it could lift all restrictions on trade and transit facilities and begin treating neighbors on the basis of equality and respect.

By taking such measures, India would win the goodwill required to project itself as a genuine regional power. This is preferable to entertaining the idea of coups to install "friendly" regimes.

Dhruba Adhikary, who has been a Dag Hammarskjold fellow, is a Kathmandu-based journalist.

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