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Why are our neighbours wary?

March 24, 2018 11:34 IST

Blackmail on one side and bullying on the other doesn't make for a constructive partnership, says Sunanda K Datta-Ray.

Then Nepal prime minister Sushil Koirala, Bangladesh Speaker Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, then Sri Lanka president Mahinda Rajapaksa, then Mauritius president Navin Ramgoolam, then Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif, then vice-president Hamid Ansari, then President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Narendra D Modi, then Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, Maldives President Yameen Abdul Gayoom and Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay soon after the Modi government was sworn in, May 26, 2014. Photograph: Press Information Bureau

Sheikh Hasina's intriguing comment the other day that India should make an effort to keep neighbours happy raises a number of possibilities that it would be unwise of Narendra D Modi to ignore.

Since she was speaking to Indian journalists, the warning was obviously meant to be conveyed to New Delhi where the prime minister alone matters in our one-man government.

The obvious first inference is that the Bangladesh prime minister wants Mr Modi to know bilateral relations are not quite as hunky-dory as Indians believe. But there are bound to be wider implications.

Bhutan's Dawa Tsering, once the world's longest-serving foreign minister, claimed that many South Asian leaders had welcomed Pakistan's nuclear capability. Without necessarily being pro-Pakistani or anti-Indian, they felt there should be some check on India's authority.

 

With one crucial difference, India's relationship with the other seven members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is not unlike the equation between the United States and the 40 other North American countries and colonies.

The US is far too rich and powerful for any question of parity with any of them. Cuba was the only odd man out but it, too, has moved closer to the US sphere of influence.

In contrast, every South Asian country, led by Pakistan, sees itself as India's equal, and is encouraged to do so by the US and China which have their own agendas in the region.

Geography often aggravates the effects of this imbalance. A landlocked country like Nepal additionally suffers from disadvantages that a victim complex magnifies.

Disparity in size doesn't prevent defiance as in the Maldives. There are complications over sharing natural resources (Indus water with Pakistan), defending a land border (India-Bangladesh) or upper and lower riparian rights (China, Nepal and Bangladesh).

India's security sometimes demands extending its military presence into neighbouring sovereignty as during the Doklam stalemate with China.

Sri Lanka's ethno-cultural affinity is a source of both strength and weakness.

As a result, relations are less than harmonious. The world heard of what were presented as Indian blockades of Bhutan and Nepal.

The Indian peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka (1987 to 1990) was an utter and embittering failure. Both India and Pakistan accuse the other of covert operations in each other’s territory.

If independent Bangladesh was a signal victory from the humanitarian, Bangladeshi nationalistic and Indian points of view, it also reminded the neighbourhood that India has the will and capability to act as the US did when it helped to break up Colombia and create a sovereign Panama whose canal it controlled.

The extreme case was India's 1975 annexation of the protected Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim for which, too, a parallel was available in the US absorption of the kingdom of Hawaii some 77 years earlier.

India must forge a viable partnership with the other SAARC members against this historical background and given these geopolitical drawbacks.

It was Inder Kumar Gujral who said as prime minister that although India could not shrink in size to oblige its neighbours, it could create a climate of confidence to dissolve fears.

That was exactly the advice Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew had given Rajiv Gandhi, citing the case of Suharto's Indonesia setting fear and suspicion at rest among smaller members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Again, there's a vital difference. Unlike India, Indonesia surrendered territory for Timor-Leste to emerge as a sovereign republic in 2002. In contrast, the legitimate and agreed transfer of a speck of West Bengal territory to Bangladesh was delayed for decades.

Returning to Sheikh Hasina's comment, she probably had in mind the aborted agreement between West Bengal and Bangladesh on sharing the Teesta river's waters.

In June last year, the two countries swapped tiny islands in the Bay of Bengal ending a dispute that had kept thousands of people in stateless limbo for nearly 70 years.

The Teesta dispute should similarly be settled amicably. But it must also be stressed that no stable relationship can be based on the bigger partner forever giving.

An old incident involving a Bangladeshi landowner and fringe politician, Morshed Ali Khan Panni, illustrates the attitude of some of India's neighbours, not, of course, the outright hostile ones.

When gas was discovered in Bangladesh, Panni suggested to H M Ershad, then Bangladeshi president, that it should be sold to India which desperately needed energy.

'Then we can turn it off if India is disobliging!'

Blackmail on one side and bullying on the other doesn't make for a constructive partnership. Both sides must concede and compromise.

IMAGE: Then Nepal prime minister Sushil Koirala, Bangladesh Speaker Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, then Sri Lanka president Mahinda Rajapaksa, then Mauritius president Navin Ramgoolam, then Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif, then vice-president Hamid Ansari, then President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Narendra D Modi, then Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, Maldives President Yameen Abdul Gayoom and Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay soon after the Modi government was sworn in, May 26, 2014. Photograph: Press Information Bureau

Sunanda K Datta-Ray
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