Pax Indica for a stable South Asia

India needs to play a stronger regional role

Maoist guerrillas have blockaded Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital, demanding an end to the constitutional monarchy and ostensibly the installation of a ‘peoples’ regime. King Gyanendra is no angel himself, and mainstream politicians have not distinguished themselves by rising above partisan rivalries and getting round to providing leadership.

Terrorists have just carried out a massive assassination attempt that almost wiped out the top rung of Bangladesh’s opposition party. Had they succeeded Bangladesh would have descended into a paroxysm of internal violence giving ample opportunities for Islamic fundamentalists to seize power, or at least exploit the political vaccum to pursue their intolerant agenda.

Maldives has been placed under a state of emergency by its long-serving, but democratically elected president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Opposition activists have stepped up their campaign of street protests and the government has called for international political figures to help mediate and solve the political crisis. President Gayoom himself has demonstrated a tendency to exploit Islam to strengthen his hold over power.

Sri Lanka continues to remain in a deadlocked situation, with the Tamil Tigers holding sway over large swathes of territory in the north and the east that the government forces are unable to re-capture. The blow-hot blow-cold peace process has brought back some normalcy to the civil war-torn country, but peace is on a tightrope.

Pakistan’s Balochistan province is again in open rebellion, while the tribal-areas of Pakistan’s frontier are almost completely alienated from Musharraf’s Pakistan. Their support for al Qaeda is just one manifestation of their disenchantment with the malformed federal structure of Pakistan. While its own provinces are fighting for some form of self-determination, Musharraf’s regime continues to pursue its dogmatic agenda in Kashmir – an escalation of cross-border infiltration has been accompanied by the strengthening of pro-Pakistani elements among Kashmiri separatists.

Within India, the north-eastern states have yet again indicated their displeasure with the ‘benign neglect’ they have received from faraway New Delhi. Porous borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh allow insurgents, separatists and criminals from these states to exploit the discontent and pursue their own agenda.

Every country in India’s immediate neighbourhood is in some sort of political crisis, and every single one of them affects India’s own internal security. Yet, even as SAARC countries routinely lambast Indian hegemony, the truth is that India has few options to address these multiple crises just across its borders. But stability in India’s immediate vicinity is both in India’s interests as well as desirable in its own right. SAARC, that one effort to foster regional cooperation, often gets into a lets-gang-up-against-India mode that ends up achieving nothing.

There is thus a clear need for India to develop foreign policy options that can bring peace and stability to the region. These options range from active diplomacy to military intervention, and must be conducted under the umbrella of an assertive foreign policy doctrine that articulates India’s intentions to act in favour of restoring stability. This approach is likely to raise hackles in South Asian capital cities, but raised hackles are normal in the subcontinent. South Asia is in a hole despite India’s hands-off attitude to regional security. It can get worse. Besides, the United States has already secured a foothold in the subcontinent, and China is in the process of securing access both to the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Further consolidation of these powers into the South Asian context will just complicate matters further.

Bringing about a Pax Indica in the region requires India to demonstrate its intent and build its capability to secure regional stability. India has to do so not because of a jingoistic urge to dominate its neighbours and bring them under its hegemony, but because regional instability works against its own national interests.

7 thoughts on “Pax Indica for a stable South Asia”

  1. Pax Indica is either a brilliant idea whose time has come or a harebrained scheme that’ll plunge South Asia into darkness and despair. I’m willing to take the optimistic former interpretation if only because South Asia (with the honorable exception of India nd Bhutan is anyway heading towards anarchy and sans Indian intervention will get there slowly rather than rapidly should the worst-case scenario occur).

  2. The idea of pax indica sound great. But to make it realistic, tensions and mistrust between India and her neighbours have to be lessened if not completely removed completely.
    India has to resolve internal differences between its constituent states and stop events like water wars etc between them.
    These steps need a lot of work and therefore pax Indica will take some time coming

  3. Kautilya,

    In my opinion the mistrust is natural and despite anything India does (or does not) some of it will remain. India’s policy towards its neighbours since the 1980s has been guided by a need to remove this mistrust. This policy has neither succeeded in removing the mistrust nor in ensuring India’s internal security, nor indeed in ensuring regional stability. Pax Indica will need to acknowledge that this problem of mistrust is fundamental and the current approach of appeasing regional leaders’ brinkmanship must change.

    Internal differences in India exist; and will exist in our federal set up. But those should not deter India as a whole to move to secure itself. Its like a joint family, there may be tensions between various members, but doors still need to be locked at night; getting a guard dog will also help.

    Sudhir – South Asia is already in darkness and despair. It has the greatest population, largest number of poor people, ranking only above sub-Saharan Africa in human development indicators, and host to the world’s failed and failing states that harbour the world’s worst terrorists. Can things be worse?

    Update: The Indian Express editorial on this subject

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