The problem

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AT first cut, the 1990s look like a depressing decade for the subcontinent. The early hopeful signs of democratization at the turn of the decade vanished into thin air by the time the new millennium arrived. The army returned to the centre-stage in Pakistan amidst the incompetence of its political class. Democratic politics in Nepal failed to deliver, and the parliamentary system in Bangladesh degenerated into a war of bandhs between two strong ladies.

The rapid dissipation of hope for more representative and effective governance in the subcontinent during the 1990s was accompanied by the rise of religious extremism and anti-modernism in the region, exemplified most significantly by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The new clout of the religious extremists in Pakistan made the nation an epicentre of terrorism in the world – with an impact that ranged from Tanzania to Tajikistan and Manhattan to Mindanao.

In India, the destructive trail of the Hindutva ideology moved from the demolition of the Babri Masjid to the gruesome communal rioting during early 2002 in Gujarat. Civil wars from Kashmir to Jaffna meanwhile raged on, with more victims than anyone would care to enumerate. The introduction of nuclear weapons, covertly at the turn of the 1990s and overtly at the end of the decade, combined the weapons of mass destruction with violence, terrorism, jihad and religious hatred. All optimism for the future of the subcontinent appeared to have been smothered.

Yet the very negative developments carried within them the seeds of a radical transformation of the region. The international impact of the extremist forces that found a home in the north-western part of the subcontinent inevitably drew retribution from the sole superpower of the international system. Never mind the irony that it was the U.S. policy of pitting jihadis against godless Soviet Communists in Afghanistan in the 1980s that produced Osama bin Laden and his jihadi allies.

The American war on terrorism has had its intended and unintended consequences. The Taliban was ousted, and its principal sponsor, the army in Pakistan, has become the instrument to clean up the jihadi mess that was nurtured by it in the 1980s and 1990s. Equally important, it has focused international attention on the subcontinent and its intra-state and inter-state wars. For the first time, an external environment has emerged that is favourable to a reasonable resolution of South Asia’s security challenges – including the Kashmir dispute.

The accumulated impact of globalization on the politics and economics of the subcontinent over the last decade has begun to reveal a radical transformation. The future of international relations in South Asia will be very different from the recent, dismal past. The Indo-Pak military confrontation since the attack on Parliament on 13 December has brought the Anglo-American powers into play in a manner that has not been seen since the early 1960s. The prospect, however remote, of a war between India and Pakistan escalating into a nuclear exchange has forced the international community to explore a final resolution of the underlying political conflict between the subcontinental rivals.

The Kashmir question is not the only one among the regional conflicts that is on the Anglo-American radar. The expansive American war on terrorism has brought the United States, with Britain in tow, into a political effort to deal with the tragic war in Sri Lanka and the Maoist insurgency in Nepal. The U.S. and Britain are stepping up military assistance to both Sri Lanka and Nepal in their local wars on terrorism. Coupled with the American military presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that the world has begun to impinge on the subcontinent.

Along with the global war on terror that is focused on Afghanistan, there have been Anglo-American efforts to defuse the Indo-Pak tensions, the Norwegian mediation between the Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka, and the international initiative on Nepal led by Britain. The security dynamics of the subcontinent are being altered irreversibly.

More subtle, but even more significant, has been the consequences of economic globalization in the 1990s. Under pressure from the ‘Washington Consensus’, all nations of the subcontinent have adopted liberal economic policies. As they open up their markets to the world, the South Asian states are discovering that they cannot keep them closed to their own neighbour, India. While Islamabad continues to resist normal trade relations with New Delhi, the smaller countries of the region have figured out their economic future is now intertwined with that of India. There is both enthusiasm, as in Sri Lanka, and concern, as in Bangladesh, at the new situation. There is no escape from the logic of globalization that demands deeper trade relations and economic integration with India.

Meanwhile proposals for mega-projects for pipelines and transportation corridors, straddling across borders in South Asia, promise to further deepen economic integration in the subcontinent. Whatever might be its other negative consequences, the relentless pressures of globalization are helping to break down the economic walls within the subcontinent.

Trade volumes within South Asia have begun to surge, although entirely in India’s favour at the moment. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are among the top ten export destinations for Indian goods. Nothing less than a reversal of the economic partition of the subcontinent is now on the cards. After the partition divided British India into separate states, insular economic policies and political differences had made borders into high-security barriers. Now globalization offers the prospect of transforming these borders into zones of economic cooperation and reconnect regions that were once part of the same economic and cultural space. The realisation of the new political and economic opportunities in the subcontinent demands a bolder vision from India and a willingness to shed the old shibboleths. But is India up to it?

The idea of a ‘paradigm shift’ in the geopolitics of the region came up in the Indian foreign policy discourse during the early phases of the Kargil war in the summer of 1999. The diplomatic support that India got from the Clinton administration in the Kargil war was entirely unexpected. It was out of character with the past American record in Indo-Pak disputes in which Washington was either neutral or seen as being tilted towards Islamabad. The Clinton administration had insisted that the Pakistani aggression across the Line of Control in the Kargil sector was unacceptable and Islamabad must unconditionally and unambiguously restore the status quo ante.

The U.S. put relentless political pressure on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to enforce the withdrawal until it was achieved. This was the first time ever that the United States so clearly backed India in a security crisis which involved Pakistan, and hence the perception of a paradigm shift. But would this shift endure? That was the central question when in the wake of September 11 the Bush administration found the support of Pakistan and its army critical for the pursuit of its war against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Despite considerable apprehensions in New Delhi that the United States might now return to a tilt towards Pakistan, the Bush administration promised India that there will be no ‘double standards’ in the war against terrorism. It also suggested that there will be a second phase in terrorism in which India’s concerns on cross-border terrorism would be taken on board.

The second phase was not long in coming. After the attack on the Kashmir Assembly in October 2001, New Delhi got the U.S. to brand Lashkar-e-Tayaba and Jaish-e-Mohammad as terrorist organisations. Following the 13 December 2001 attack on the Parliament, India’s threat of an all out war that could turn nuclear got the Americans to force General Pervez Musharraf to make a speech renouncing terrorism. After the Kaluchak massacre on 14 May 2002, the U.S. extracted Pakistani promises on ending infiltration permanently and dismantle the terrorist camps. Colin Powell during his visit to the subcontinent in July 2002 committed himself to keep up the pressure on Pakistan to end cross-border terrorism and backed India’s position on the sequence of steps leading up to a dialogue on Kashmir. He also suggested that free and fair elections under Indian auspices in Kashmir could be the vehicle for an assessment of the will of the Kashmiri people and the first step towards a resolution of the dispute.

By any standard these are wholesome gains for New Delhi. But isn’t there a flip side to these diplomatic successes from the coercive diplomacy that India had practised since 13 December? Has not the Kashmir issue been internationalized? Did Powell not say that the Kashmir dispute is now on the international agenda? The very word ‘internationalization’ sends the Indian political class, security establishment and the talking heads into a paroxysms of furtiveness.

Although it was India that took the Kashmir dispute to the United Nations in 1948, accepted the mediation from the Americans in the 1950s and early 1960s, and the Soviet Union in 1966, there has been a national consensus since the 1972 Simla Agreement that the Kashmir issue must be resolved bilaterally and New Delhi should never accept third party intervention in the dispute either from the United States or the United Nations. Opposition to internationalization has become an Indian mantra that few dare question. But three factors have made an intellectual insurrection, even within the policy-making establishment, that is challenging the traditional distaste for internationalization.

First, bilateralism has not worked with Pakistan. Put even more starkly, India does not have the power to persuade Pakistan to end cross-border terrorism or adopt a reasonable position on Kashmir. The Indian diplomatic efforts throughout the 1990s, and with some serious political energy at Lahore in February 1999 and Agra July 2001, to encourage Pakistan to adopt a moderate position on Kashmir and put down the instrument of cross-border terrorism did not succeed.

Once it acquired nuclear weapons in the 1980s, and believed that it had neutralised New Delhi’s conventional military superiority, Pakistan stepped up cross-border terrorism against India without the fear of punitive retaliation. Having discovered a low-cost, high-value strategy of bleeding India by a thousand cuts, Pakistan, not surprisingly, has been loath to give up that instrument. The changed equation after the nuclearisation of the subcontinent at the end of the 1980s, demanded that India, in its own interest, mobilize a superior third force to rework the power calculus in the region in its favour. If there was no war on international terrorism after September 11, India would have had to invent it.

Second, it was in the very logic of nuclear weapons that the world would devote attention as never before to the crisis management and eventually conflict resolution between India and Pakistan. The frequency of American diplomatic interventions in the subcontinent increased after the introduction of nuclear weapons – during the Brass Tacks crisis of 1986-87, the May 1990 crisis, Kargil in June-July 1999 and the post 13 December 2001 confrontation between India and Pakistan. Each time America devoted high level diplomatic energies to defuse tensions between the subcontinental rivals and prevent them from escalating to the nuclear level.

India cannot expect that the world will sit back and watch repeated military confrontations in the subcontinent just because India does not like third party interventions. Even the smallest statistical possibility of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan would inevitably draw the world into it, given the consequences of such a war. Armed with nuclear weapons, India and Pakistan are no longer free agents to pursue policies without interference from the rest of the world. The question is no longer whether South Asian security problems are internationalized. It is, whether India can take advantage of the internationalization of the Indo-Pak problems, in particular the Kashmir dispute.

Third, the Kargil experience told India that international interventions in Indo-Pak disputes need not necessarily be against New Delhi. It is this political assessment that led New Delhi to adopt the strategy of coercive diplomacy against Pakistan following 13 December. The underlying premise was that a credible threat of war would draw in the United States to put pressure on Pakistan to change course on terrorism and Kashmir. That precisely is what happened, at least verbally. The United States and India have extracted promises from Pakistan to end cross-border terrorism. While India waits for these promises to be implemented, there can be no mistaking the central fact that India has chosen to deliberately ‘internationalize’ the conflict with Pakistan in order to achieve its objectives vis-a-vis Pakistan.

Clever spokesmen of the government might want to differentiate between the internationalization of Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism and the insistence on keeping the prospective Indo-Pak dialogue on Kashmir bilateral. But the reality is that New Delhi needs international support to encourage Pakistan to accept a reasonable solution to the Kashmir dispute.

India would also benefit if the international community underwrites a settlement of the Kashmir dispute to make it an enduring one. There are hints from the Anglo-American world that they might be willing to back a solution to the Kashmir conflict that focuses on adjustments to the Line of Control as international border between India and Pakistan and considerable autonomy for the Kashmiri people across the divide. Must India cry foul at an involvement of the international community in creating the conditions for a final settlement of the dispute that has so sapped the energies of India and Pakistan for five decades?

The Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, in his interview to Newsweek at the end of June said he does not mind a ‘facilitation’ of the Indo-Pak dialogue on Kashmir. The rest of the political class appears way behind the curve. Indo-Pak confrontation since 13 December has brought the United States decisively into the subcontinent. After considerable reluctance the Bush administration appears to have decided to make a bid for lasting peace between New Delhi and Islamabad, for it cannot hope to come every once in a while to manage recurring crises between them. It has understood that conflict resolution will have to follow crisis management this time around.

Given the sea change in Indo-U.S. relations since the end of the Cold War, American interest in resolving the Kashmir dispute is an opportunity and not a threat. The time has come for India to focus on outcomes rather than on procedures. A reasonable and final settlement of Kashmir is in India’s interest. Getting there soon is a strategic necessity. The logistics are a matter of detail and secondary.

For the political establishment in New Delhi abandoning the clichés on internationalization of the Kashmir dispute is as difficult as dumping the notion that the subcontinent is an exclusive sphere of influence. India has long held on to the notion of a ‘Monroe Doctrine’ for the subcontinent. New Delhi has worked on the assumption that it must strive to keep the great powers out of the subcontinent, its own backyard. A corollary of this assumption is that India should not let any other power interfere in the internal affairs of its smaller neighbours and that New Delhi must retain sole responsibility for the settlement of the conflicts in its neighbourhood.

India never really succeeded in keeping the great powers out of South Asia, as Pakistan mobilized the U.S. and China to balance India. New Delhi, however, continued to pursue the objective towards the smaller neighbours. Amidst the globalization of the politics of the subcontinent, the Monroe Doctrine can no longer be sustained. Nor is it worth sustaining.

That India would prefer handling the civil wars in Sri Lanka and Nepal on its own has been obvious. But India’s disastrous intervention in Sri Lanka in the 1990s has been a cautionary one. More fundamental, over the years India’s relations with the neighbours have so degenerated that any intervention in Sri Lanka and Nepal would make the Indian use of force a big domestic issue in both countries and is also not likely to get unqualified support within India itself. It was inevitable then that India allowed, somewhat reluctantly, the Norwegian facilitation of the peace process unfold in Sri Lanka. Equally significant, India had to go along with the British led initiative for international coordination in providing badly needed military and economic assistance to Kathmandu in coping with the Maoist insurgency.

The old way of looking at the internationalization of South Asian security is to define it as a setback. The other is to take advantage of the trend to achieve India’s interests in ending the tragic Sri Lankan conflict within the framework of a united and federal Sri Lanka and defeating the Maoist threat in Nepal. India has not been able to realise these objectives on its own, within a framework of reasonable costs. Working with the international community is the answer. If India and the Anglo-Americans agree on the political objectives in Sri Lanka and Nepal, it makes sense to work together. The focus, again, is on outcomes rather than on mechanics.

While globalization is chipping away at the notion of South Asia as an exclusive sphere of influence for India, it is reinforcing the primacy of the Indian market in the long-term evolution of the South Asian economies. The integration of the markets of the subcontinent over the coming decades is inevitable. Sri Lanka has seen the writing on the wall and is actively trying to link itself into the Indian economy. It wants better market access to Indian market and an exploitation of the synergies with the South Indian states.

Bangladesh, however, remains reluctant to follow the logic of integration despite being increasingly tied to the Indian economy. It is reluctant to sell its natural gas to India and is unwilling to give transit facilities to New Delhi that will cut costs of transportation to the remote North East. Pakistan, in its economic foolishness, would rather import Indian goods from Dubai at exorbitant costs, rather than trade directly with New Delhi. It wants the Kashmir issue settled first.

The old thinking is also pervasive in New Delhi, where the tunnel vision and tight-fistedness of its economic bureaucracy is constraining rather than facilitating the integration of the subcontinent. Despite the dramatic surge in exports to its South Asian neighbours and much slower rise in imports from the neighbours during the 1990s, India has been niggardly in opening its market. While making resounding speeches in multilateral forums against the protectionism of the advanced countries, India is very miserly about opening its own market to smaller neighbours.

South Asian nations have wallowed in poverty for so long and marketed it abroad for aid, that they find it hard to conceive of shared prosperity through greater economic integration. New Delhi has a variety of tools to achieve such an objective. While the creation of a free trade area, through South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), is held back by Pakistan’s political concerns, India can promote integration through sub-regional cooperation under the SAARC charter.

The Asian Development Bank is willing to support projects under a growth quadrangle involving eastern parts of India, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh. China has offered to link its south-western regions with the eastern subcontinent and Burma. While New Delhi complains about Pakistan’s obstreperousness in SAARC, it is holding back on sub-regional and trans-regional economic cooperation citing security considerations.

India could also promote free trade in the region through bilateral arrangements for it alone shares borders with other South Asian nations, none of whom have common frontiers. Although India has begun to expand bilateral trade arrangements, it remains cussed about market access and insists on reciprocity.

Globalization is beckoning India with the prospect of resolving long-standing conflicts in the region and re-integrating the South Asian market. If India can think big and act bold, a peaceful and prosperous subcontinent is within the realm of political imagination. An Indian strategy to shape such a future would involve shedding excessive suspicion of other great powers, finding ways to act in cooperation with them, and discarding the old slogans of ‘internationalization’, ‘bilateralism’ and ‘reciprocity’.

Such a strategy must consider unilateral economic actions that will accelerate integration of the region. Instead, embarking on tortuous bilateral negotiations on trade with the smaller neighbours, India can alter the economic dynamics of the region through unilateral actions. Security multilateralism and positive economic unilateralism from India are the keys to a different future in the subcontinent.