Hectoring hegemon

AJAI SHUKLA

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FOR much of the world, the end of the Cold War was the greatest security watershed since the Second World War. For South Asia, however, the half-century of struggle between the two superpowers remained till the end little more than an opportunity to score points off one another, allying with whichever bloc seemed more likely to further their local interests. While the collapse of the Soviet Union gave the West an opportunity to exchange guns for butter, India and Pakistan entered into a decisive phase in their long fight for control over Kashmir. At the same time that the Berlin Wall was crumbling, the Kashmir valley was going up in flames. But, preoccupied with its own unexpected changes, the West neither noticed nor cared.

The transition of the subcontinent from a strategic backwater to an area of superpower interest only began in the summer of 1998 when both India and Pakistan crossed the nuclear threshold in quick succession. While both countries had long possessed a usable nuclear capability, the tests highlighted and gave credence to the doomsday scenario war games that invariably concluded with mushroom clouds rising from various points in the subcontinent. But the real turning point was 11 September 2001. The spotlight that initially focused on Afghanistan, as American planners considered the modalities of taking on Al Qaeda and the Taliban, inevitably widened to include Central Asia, Pakistan and then India.

 

 

No longer do American troops exercise in Central Asia and the Middle East, mothball their equipment and head home, having gone through the motions of preparing themselves for unlikely contingencies in the region. Today, elite CENTCOM forces in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are symbols of the area’s new importance. These also serve as regional trip wires to prevent any tension from escalating into open war. Colin Powell only stated what a succession of visits from his colleagues had already indicated: that Kashmir is squarely on the international agenda.

Western concern about the region’s proclivity for the export of terrorism is magnified by the nuclear status of its two most implacable adversaries. India believes that conflict with Pakistan can be contained within the conventional envelope. This optimism is founded on the experience of fighting the Kargil war without breaching the nuclear threshold and now hinges on confining the war within an acceptable ‘strategic space’, where India’s conventional forces would achieve conflict termination objectives without threatening Pakistan’s vital interests.

While India has not come up with a convincing answer to how it will achieve this feat of military wizardry, Pakistan has clearly signalled that it has the bomb, the means of delivery and the will to use it. America, therefore, continues to apply every pressure to ensure that its war on terror is not reduced to an undignified troop evacuation operation. If India had imagined that going nuclear would provide it the independence of decision-making, reality today is proving quite the opposite.

But when India initially mounted its full court press along the border, there was no international pressure on it to stop. Its winning formula during the Kargil conflict, a calibrated mixture of military and diplomatic pressure, was applied after the 13 December attack on Parliament. Rather than a slow climb up the escalation ladder, India took the elevator to the top floor, mobilised in full, and awaited decisive American intervention. But India miscalculated in failing to realise that the template of 1999 did not fit the situation in 2002. A black and white Pakistani violation of the Line of Control had been easy to identify and reverse; covert support to terrorist groups was a situation painted in shades of grey. This time even the high moral ground was not unambiguously India’s. If Pakistan was on the backfoot because of its connections with jehadi groups, India was on shaky ground about its human rights record in Kashmir.

 

 

Eight months later, having ordered its forces neither forward nor back, India risks a serious loss of credibility. Pakistan has made what it considers major concessions but without satisfying India’s desire for a permanent solution to Kashmir on its own terms. Unable to go to war with weapons, the two countries today are locked in combat on the semantic plane, with battalions of diplomats on either side selectively interpreting the carefully neutral statements of visiting diplomats to convince themselves that their policies are alive and well and that each is gradually, but steadily, outmanoeuvring the opponent. For a country that has steadfastly stood against third party mediation in Kashmir, India now places enormous store by what external powers say.

This situation gives rise to a question: with a bilateral solution not having materialised and external mediation ruled out by India, why has there never been, at any stage of the crisis, a viable regional initiative towards lowering tensions between India and Pakistan? China, a superpower in the making, has barely been visible and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), dismissed even within the region as an ineffectual talk-shop, has played its usual non-role. Does this mean that external mediation is inevitable each time tensions rise? What does external mediation mean for the region?

 

 

China, an important presence in the region, continues to exercise enormous influence with Pakistan. The ‘all weather friendship’, as the two countries continue to describe it, provides Pakistan with a security blanket that, after the loss of its strategic depth in Afghanistan, is even more vital for its security calculus. But while remaining a source of assurance for Pakistan, and its primary military supplier, China’s response to the Kashmir flare-up in its own backyard has been remarkably muted. While concerns about Muslim insurgency in Xinjiang do make China reluctant to play big brother to Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, it is larger geostrategic concerns that account for China’s deafening silence.

Chinese analysts argue that America’s ‘infiltration of South Asia’ accounts for China’s warmer stance towards India. While Yevgeny Primakov’s proposal for a China-Russia-India axis to counter America’s ‘hegemonism and power politics’ remained in the realm of rhetoric, apprehensions about America’s presence in the region and increasing defence cooperation between America and India are making China careful about India’s sensitivities. In possession of a part of Kashmir, China is not keen on taking up the dispute.

The easing of tensions between India and China has been slow, but steady. India categorically recognised Tibet as an autonomous region of China in 1991, dampening long simmering Chinese resentment at the Dalai Lama’s activities in India. While China has still to make a reciprocal response to India on Kashmir, it pronounced in 1993 that Kashmir was a bilateral problem between India and Pakistan. In 1996, President Jiang Zemin, addressing the Pakistani Senate in Islamabad, disappointed his hosts by avoiding any reference to Kashmir. Until George Fernandes’ ill-advised remark about China’s threat to India, Beijing had neither lectured India on the virtues of nuclear restraint nor questioned its sovereign right to develop nuclear weapons.

 

 

The border dispute, stabilised by confidence-building agreements in 1993 and 1996, can today be resolved without major political ripples. During the Kargil war, India moved large forces from the Sino-Indian border to Kashmir, despite the mountain passes being invitingly open. This year, again, India has displayed the same confidence in Chinese neutrality. All this has given Indian military planners many more options than they have had for decades.

As its economic and social reforms kick in, China’s ‘comprehensive national strength’, its own index of power encompassing economic, military, demographic and political might, is rising unstoppably. Using indices of purchasing power parity, the World Bank visualises that China will be the world’s biggest economy by 2010. As its security concerns become global, India is the beneficiary: China’s ever-present consciousness of its image as an emerging superpower, responsible for regional peace, is making it far more even-handed in its dealings with India and Pakistan.

The real stumbling block in relations between China and India today lies in the realm of weapons proliferation. China’s documented supply of arms, nuclear know-how, and ballistic missiles to Pakistan causes deep insecurity within the Indian security establishment. While China insists it is contravening neither the NPT nor the MTCR, there are few takers for this claim, particularly in India.

 

 

Underlying Indian objections, however, is a deeper presumption: that India must possess a nuclear strike capability but Pakistan must be prevented from having that option. While this would certainly enhance India’s ability to pressurise Pakistan, subcontinental security would perhaps be better served by stable nuclear deterrence operating in the region. China, however, has decided to quietly maintain a balance of power; neither raising too many objections about India’s increasing ability to strike targets anywhere in China, nor hesitating to assist Pakistan in acquiring the same capability against India.

The present situation, China believes, is an American struggle with Russia for influence in the region and that it need not get involved any more than is necessary. Chinese strategists characterise their current policy with a saying of Deng Xiaoping: ‘When the sky falls, let the tall guys hold it up.’

With China barely pro-active, the other regional option for maintaining security is SAARC, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. This seven-member grouping includes six countries of the subcontinent – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan – and the Maldives, but will probably also include Myanmar, as that country emerges from its self-imposed isolation. SAARC, however, is a patient of the same disease that it is expected to cure: distrust between the regional powers.

The terms of the SAARC Charter, heavily influenced by India’s fears that Pakistan would use the forum to internationalise the Kashmir dispute, rule out any role for SAARC in today’s crisis. Article Ten, just below which the seven regional heads of government affixed their signatures in Dhaka in December 1985, lays down two general conditions: (i) Decisions at all levels shall be taken on the basis of unanimity, and (ii) Bilateral and contentious issues shall be excluded from the deliberations.

 

 

In effect, Article Ten means that the K-word cannot even be mentioned in SAARC unless every one of its members, including India, agree to discuss it. While Article Four of the Charter leaves open a window for a dispute-resolving mechanism by ‘permitting the establishment of additional mechanism under the Association as deemed necessary,’ this again is subject to the principle of consensus. But as long as India remains mistrustful of the other member-countries, it vetoes any discussion on Kashmir as a ‘bilateral dispute with Pakistan’ and as an ‘internal matter of India’. While similar regional bodies in Africa and Europe move forward towards evolving regional solutions for dispute resolution, SAARC confines itself to wordy expostulations on the need for economic cooperation and cultural exchanges among countries in South Asia.

And so, even as America becomes increasingly forthright with its advice on Kashmir, even using words like ‘political prisoners’, ‘human rights’ and ‘free and fair elections’, India seems more willing to take its chances with America than with SAARC. Tensions with practically all the smaller SAARC countries make India suspicious about their relations with Pakistan. The relationship of every other regional country with India is hostage to that country’s relationship with Pakistan. Over the years, these neighbours have been left with little doubt that any friendly gesture towards Islamabad would be viewed in Delhi as an unfriendly act.

 

 

Regional relations are a major Indian foreign policy failure. While diplomats claim at every opportunity that they are dealing with hostile countries in Pakistan and China, they failed to marshal the support that could easily have been forthcoming from the smaller regional countries. Farsighted governments have grappled in vain with the South Block bureaucracy to win this support. Former prime minister I.K. Gujral abandoned in 1997 the principle of ‘reciprocity’ in dealing with the smaller regional countries. Summed up, the ‘Gujral Doctrine’, as it came to be dubbed, meant that any concession granted by India would not demand a concession in return. India would behave with the magnanimity expected of a regional power. But this visionary doctrine soon fell, along with Gujral’s short-lived government, and the foreign ministry reverted to what the regional states resentfully view as bullying. Analysts today are again proposing a recycled version of the Gujral doctrine, this time with the brand name of ‘positive unilateralism’.

The truth, however, remains that after decades of hard bargaining with its smaller neighbours over relatively inconsequential issues, India is perceived in the region as a hectoring hegemon. Bangladesh, at whose birth India played midwife, finds it easier to deal with Pakistan, a country that Bangladesh itself blames for the deaths in 1971 of three million Bangladeshi freedom fighters. After almost 2000 Indian soldiers died fighting to liberate Bangladesh, it took just five years for bitterness to creep into India’s relations with that country. Bangladeshi estrangement is a case study of how not to conduct foreign policy, and a sample history of how India continues to deal with countries in the region.

 

 

In the years following 1971, Mujibur Rehman, personally beholden to India for his transition from a Pakistani jail to the Presidency of Bangladesh, ensured that relations between the two countries remained excellent. After his assassination, relations with the military clique that supplanted him were naturally strained but instead of balancing its policy and adopting an even-handed approach towards the entire political spectrum, India continued its bias against the military and favoured Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina. Thirty years later, India continues to differentiate between Mujib’s party, the Awami League, and the ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP), that it considers inimical to Indian interests. The BNP, a bitter political foe of the Awami League, naturally beats India with every stick it can find. Thanks to India’s hard bargaining over relatively simple border demarcation and water sharing treaties, this is good politics in Bangladesh.

India alienated large sections of Bangla opinion by its handling of as sensitive an issue as the sharing of water. The Farakka Barrage on the Ganga, completed in 1974, gave India control of much of the water flowing into Bangladesh. During the years the water sharing treaty was being negotiated, Bangladesh had little choice but to accept the water released to it, which it naturally considered too little during the dry season and too much during the monsoons. While this was actually a shared problem, India’s arbitrariness created enormous ill-will among the 40 million farmers in Bangladesh whose livelihoods depended on water flows. The water sharing treaty was signed in 1996, but the bitterness is still being tapped by the BNP.

Anti-India opinion in Bangladesh also draws ammunition from the way the border demarcation between the two countries has dragged on. A comprehensive border agreement in 1974 between Indira Gandhi and Mujibur Rehman left only 6.5 km of border to be demarcated, with an area of just 3000 acres – worth haggling over for a farmer but hardly for an aspiring superpower – to be negotiated. Instead of swiftly implementing the accord, India involved itself in prolonged wrangling over minor issues like the Teen Bigha corridor. Only in December 2000, after building up much ill-will, were joint working groups formed to implement this accord.

 

 

Last year’s incident at Pyrduwah shocked India, when Bangladeshi border guards killed a platoon of Indian border guards at a disputed village on the India-Bangladesh border. But sections in Bangladesh, who saw this as the humiliation of an arrogant neighbour, clapped at images of Indian bodies hanging from bamboo poles. India’s response to the Pyrduwah incident highlighted everything that is wrong with India’s foreign policy vis-à-vis its neighbours. The response, it was reasoned, needed to be restrained since the incident had been staged by the pro-BNP Bangladesh Rifles to embarrass India’s friend, Sheikh Hasina. It is this tendency to allow the internal party politics of its smaller neighbours to affect its policies that creates ill-will with other regional countries.

India’s relations with Sri Lanka follow the same pattern, despite the country being embroiled in a civil war that is similar in many ways to the situation in Kashmir and heavily dependent upon Indian support, even if only in restraining LTTE activities inside India. But for India, the ghost of the Indian Peacekeeping Force or IPKF – the highwater mark of its imperial delusion in the mid-1980s – is a hard one to bury and it has never forgiven Sri Lanka for asking the IPKF to leave in 1990 when the LTTE had finally been pushed on the defensive. Stung by this rejection, India’s cold hands-off approach thereafter opened the door for extra-regional mediators. If the current truce with the LTTE ends Sri Lanka’s civil war, India will garner little gratitude from that country despite having sacrificed over a thousand soldiers in that island.

 

 

Relations with Nepal too are cordial only on the surface. While minor issues of border demarcation and water sharing could have been resolved amicably, India’s economic blockade in 1989 of that land-locked country, dependent almost entirely on India for access to the world, severely damaged any chances of being viewed in Nepal as a benign regional power. Today, a host of irritants like ISI operations in Nepal and its growing relations with China continue to dog relations between the two countries. While an embattled Nepalese government fighting a growing Maoist insurgency has little choice but to look to India, a fund of anti-India feeling is alive and well.

Myanmar too is regarded with suspicion. For decades, insurgent groups in the Indian North East took refuge in the remote mountain tracts of North West Myanmar, where the Myanmar government itself had little influence. When this began changing, India found a fresh grievance in China’s burgeoning relations with Myanmar. China’s access to Myanmar’s Coco Islands in the Bay of Bengal created fears in New Delhi of China’s real or proxy presence on Indian flanks. Bhutan alone seems to satisfy Indian foreign policy demands, perhaps because of its total acceptance of Delhi’s dictates.

 

 

Today, isolated in a fractured and divided subcontinent, India looks outwards for help in resolving problems that are purely internal. Like many times in the last thousand years, foreign powers, interested in establishing a presence in the region, find themselves being welcomed by local rulers interested in scoring short-term gains over their neighbouring states.

While paying lip service to the notion of sovereignty, India has transformed the disaffection within a section of its own people into an international dispute where local decisions will be increasingly dictated by external powers. And in what can be called the globalization of security, the value systems of dominant external powers are already being superimposed onto the dispute and will form the general framework within which solutions have to be found. As India and Pakistan are forced towards a solution of the Kashmir problem, they will both have to grapple with the slogans of democratisation, self-determination, human rights and federalised governance.

Which is just as well for the people of Kashmir.

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