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India’s Troubled Neighbourhood by Maj Gen Dipankar Banerjee

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Author: Maj Gen Dipankar Banerjee AVSM (Retd)
Concerned as we are with the present, today’s geopolitical reality cannot be undone and not many would wish to see it altered. Even our limited attempts at South Asian cooperation have floundered in the face of constant disharmony and distrust.

India is located in a troubled neighbourhood. History is determined by the work of humans; geography is bestowed by God. South Asian geography was further compounded by the fact that it was also shaped by a colonial empire in its own national interests.  When it departed in 1947, what was till then a single geoeconomic entity became in time three fractured nation states. It could still have been three countries within a single nation, federated in ways that could have been mutually agreed upon. Instead the violence of this division left behind a lasting adverse impact. 

It is pointless today to look back and think of what might have been. But, a united South Asia would have not merely been a valid geostrategic entity, but one that would have shared its civilisational values with a wider world and set an example to others.  Values of pluralism, tolerance and liberalism in all its forms and a respect for diversity that flourished here, would have provided an example to others.  Let us humbly accept that it is not the reality today.


Religious Extremism

But, concerned as we are with the present, today’s geopolitical reality cannot be undone and not many would wish to see it altered. Even our limited attempts at South Asian cooperation have floundered in the face of constant disharmony and distrust. Today, it is made much worse by the spectre of terrorism guided by hatred and intolerance. The concept that the ‘other’s very existence is unacceptable leads to a new call for ‘jihad’. The hope is to create a new ‘Caliphate’ under Shariat. With this backdrop a quick tour de horizon of the neighbourhood will be in order.

Chinese Headaches

Tibet and Xinjiang continue to be in internal turmoil with implications for a wider region.  These remain China’s principal strategic challenges today, next only to the South China Sea. Beijing realised this soon after 9/11 but policy changes took time. The leadership in Zhongnanhai remains deeply concerned. Enormous developmental assistance and improvement in standards of living, have not been able to address issues of religious and cultural identities. Population transfer within their homeland leads to local confrontations. This has resulted in counter violence by the people,  the momentum of which seems now poised to increase. Yet, paradoxically India may well find an ally in China to cooperatively address these issues.

While Buddhism’s peaceful resistance is less threatening, the influence of Islam on Xinjiang from growing radicalisation poses a much stronger challenge to Beijing. Post the recent Kunming railway station terrorism incident China has now increased its surveillance and monitoring all across South and Southeast Asia. But, alternate policies take years to evolve and even longer to implement. A greater economic integration with China’s south west (Yunnan and Sichuan provinces) through the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) cooperation is likely to be of great benefit to all. But, it seems that ethnic terrorism issues too will overlap.

Myanmar Convulsions

India’s north-east is by and large peaceful today, though lacking stability due to the absence of economic growth and the possibility of a better future for its rapidly growing youth. Regional cooperation is expected to produce benefits through trade and connectivity. If it does not then they will be enticed to vote with their feet and seek greater autonomy to improve their conditions. This will mean more violence. Rohingya disturbances in Myanmar threaten to open up both internal and external discord and may pose a new challenge to security of the region.

Bangladesh Imbroglio

Bangladesh’s stability and prosperity over the last decade has been notable. Its GDP growth was in many years the highest in South Asia. Yet, fault lines in its society lie deep and are not easily bridged. The spread of violence since mid 2013 has opened up and deepened these fissures. There remains a real possibility that fundamentalist forces through outside support can again raise their ugly head to cause future trouble. Building stable and constructive relations with Dhaka must receive higher priority from New Delhi in the future.

Softening In Sri Lanka

Conditions in the Indian Ocean and Sri Lanka are more favourable today than ever before. There is an effective mechanism developed recently for trilateral maritime cooperation between India, Sri Lanka and Maldives. Indian initiative in enlisting the support of littoral countries for cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Oceans is again promising. India-Sri Lanka relations may again look up after the recent abstention by India in the UN Human Rights Council vote in March 2014. Though future tensions between Sinhala and Tamil peoples may recur if Tamil concerns are not addressed properly.

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