Lax Indica

The problem with letting things in the subcontinent take their own course.

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…

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. [Pax Indica for a stable South Asia]

These words were written in August 2004. The crises mentioned in that post have generally gotten worse. Thanks to India. No thanks to India.

India’s attitude towards instability in all its neighbouring countries has been somewhat similar to, and perhaps an extension of, its laid back attitude towards the worsening of its own internal security environment. Apart from calling the resurgent Maoist movement, the “single biggest internal security challenge”, the UPA government has done precious little. And it has gotten itself into a bind on the rise of jihadi terrorism, which is viewed almost exclusively from the perspective of the ‘peace process’ with Pakistan. It should not be surprising, therefore, that an India that has failed to check the threats at home, is rather unlikely to be able to do anything about the crises just across it borders.

Yet, it is abundantly clear that crises in neighbouring countries—from Sri Lanka to Maldives to Nepal to even Bangladesh—require foreign intervention for their resolution. The Norwegians and Pakistanis (and possibly Americans too) in Sri Lanka, the Europeans and Americans in Maldives and the Americans and the United Nations in Nepal have gotten involved, either of their own accord, or upon invitation. They filled a vacuum left by India when it retreated from the neighbourhood over fifteen years ago. As with uncorking the Mandal genie, caving in in Jammu & Kashmir and Assam, it was the V P Singh government that was responsible for the withdrawal of Indian peacekeeping troops in Sri Lanka, the single act that changed the way Indians and their neighbours perceived power relations in the subcontinent.

A succession of weak governments and weaker leaders did nothing to change the impression that India was on the retreat, and governments, rebels and terrorists in the region could pursue their own agenda without the fear of a forceful Indian reaction. Pax Indica—which stabilised Nepal in the 1950s, liberated Bangladesh in the 1970s, thwarted a coup the Maldives in the 1980s—defaulted to Lax Indica, where the only Indian intervention was an absence of it. The absence of intervention, to turn a Rumsfeldian phrase, is intervention by absence. And not exactly the best way to shape favourable results.

At this time, many argue, India must focus on developing its own economy. Let’s focus, they contend, on the 8% GDP growth (and finding a way out of this business of reservations). Besides, getting into other peoples’ fights is never a good idea, and especially, not right now. In any case, their internal conflicts are localised and unlikely to spill over into India. This is merely self-deception. Stable neighbours and border trade is necessary to sustain economic growth, especially in the border states. As for the “it’s not our business” argument: those fights have claimed the life of one former prime minister, led to one major airline hijack crisis, created another hub of jihadi terrorism—this time on the Eastern front and destabilised several districts of states bordering Nepal. And we are not even accounting for Pakistan. [Related post: Should India fight another war in Sri Lanka?]

That’s not all. The space left by India will be filled by others: the strategic geopolitical rivalry between China and the United States is already manifesting itself in the subcontinent. Even Pakistan is likely to intervene in pursuit of its own interests vis-a-vis India. It is having mixed results now—it’s cozying up to King Gyanendra didn’t work out all that well. But it sells arms to the Sri Lankan government and works with its proxies in Bangladesh. Lax Indica is exactly what they need to grow their toeholds to footholds, and footholds to strategic beach-heads. [Related links: Greg Sheridan (TNI Online) and R S Vasan (SAAG)]

India needs a fresh strategy towards its neighbours.

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. [Pax Indica…]

Again, this is a quote from the post written over two years ago. It is all the more valid now.

12 thoughts on “Lax Indica

  1. The first thing to Analyse is Does Problems afflicting India’s neighbours have a direct hand in India’s Internal Security and If so, what are the ways in which it can be avoided.

    Your article seems to suggest that India should intervene in our neighbouring countries instead of letting other nations in. Point of fact is, that we have tried that in every country and have approximately come home dissapointed.

    We sent IPKF to Sri Lanka and it had LTTE run like hell. But then the Sri Lankan Government played dirty politics and we had to return with a good number of Body bags. But the politics has taken a Severe toll on Sri Lanka as well. No matter what happens now, LTTE cant be taken apart as easily as was done previously and with the kind of experience we have had, I dont think any govt will want to try the same experiment again.

    Best thing to do: See to it that their problems doesnt spill over here.

    Bangaladesh got its Independence entirely because of us and they back track and give Pakistan the toe hold. Also, with major parties making a case of being (atleast publicly) Anti Indian, any wrong step on our part can create another J&K or even worse sort of situation in the North East.

    Solution: Fence the entire border so that we dont have any spillover – either of Arms or of People.

    Nepal: Well, if the Maoists stay true to their word and give up Arms, I believe we would have won a major battle without even a fight. This is because Indias own Naxalites are heavily dependent upon Nepal Naxals for supply of Arms and Ammunitions. Without it, Naxals problem should be taken care of by means of suistainable development in the affected areas to take care of Idle Hands.

    With regard to China and Pakistan, we cant engage them in any normal way since both of them are famous for their duplicity and I think that only if India becomes Economically strong, shall we be able to take stronger steps needed to stop them from creating problems in India.

    Point of Note is that Pakistan Economy is being sustained by way of Grants from US. The Moment it stops, I believe it will be starting to look like Sudan or other afflicted African countries.

    America and Europe have one of the best countries for Neighbours but are still having their own problems. Intervention seems a easy answer, but point is that it can have its own repurcussions if we dont do it right.


  2. Prashanth,

    Your point about fencing the entire border is an apt analogy for India’s current policy towards its neighbours: build physical and mental fences and hope that the problems solve themselves. Only, they don’t.

    You are right that intervention will have repercussions. But then, non-intervention does too. That’s the point I make in this post—the cost of non-intervention is increasing. Those conflicts by themselves will cross the fence. And then outside powers will become players.

  3. Nitin,

    Point to note is that the major players as you yourself have mentioned are US and China. Both of them are masters of duplicity and incase things to go wrong, they can take umbrage under the fact that they being Veto holding members cant be taken to task. India, on the other hand will be hit left and right by everyone concened. For example, Japan isnt concerned that China is aiding and abbetting NK, but when we went Nuclear, we were condemmed like Hell. It was only beacuse of our own inner strength that we were able to raise back again.


  4. Nice title.

    Two non-Pakistani issues that are destined to have a major impact on India.

    1. The Maoist “victory” in Nepal. We are already hearing major anti-India statements from their leaders. They want to review old friendship treaties with India. It would be naive to expect the Maoist / Naxal problem to go away “without a fight”. Actually the only thing that happens “without a fight” is called surrender. Look forward to fun times in the Red belt, the Nepali Maoists are going to and will fish in Indian territory. An extremely worring scenario.

    2. The LTTE and the Tamils fate in Sri Lanka. This is a humanitarian crisis waiting to unfold. Strike that, it is unfolding in front of us this very minute if you look. The LTTE is not what it used to be, the island is severely depleted of Tamils who have migrated to Canada/Australia/Germany/in addition to India. The SL forces smell a possibility of crushing victory at the cost of Tamil lives. This is tragic. Just yesterday 45 Tamils were killed when the SL army bombed a school they were hiding in.

    I want to blog about these things, but I am caught up with what I view is the biggest threat to India. The internal destruction of larger national interests by dividing society along rigid lines. This is the reason no one in India cares about issues of such magnitude as Nepal and Sri Lanka.

  5. Realitycheck,

    I presume you are referring to this and this.

    And you are not wrong. Foreign policy is usually not big with the electorate anywhere (except in circumstances like the one last in America last week). People have a fancy word for such things—rational ignorance.

    Partly due to rational ignorance and partly due to India’a lack of a strategic culture, foreign policy depends on the persons who are handling it.

  6. – Remember IPKF and our support for the tamil rebels in Sri Lanka before that? – Don’t forget Tibet.
    – We are good friends with the Arabs in the Sudanese capital
    – And the Afghanistanis.
    – Do we have a hand in Baluchistan?
    – Setting up a home in Siachen was such a good idea.
    – The Burmese Junta is a good friend of ours.

  7. Nitin,

    My take on it is. Most of our Neighbors are in their own Mess. Our Tax money could/should be used for better things like improving the economy and getting more globalised and connected with the world. We should not waste our time & money solving other’s Mess. Look at Iraq, Look at Lebanon ..Was the worlds best SuperPower or Israel able to change anything?

    The best approach would be to do all defensive tactics thats necessary to protect India. It should be discrete and overt, mostly behind the scenes and away from Indian Media! and when the Mess threatens to spill-over, go in and may be create a new country or two ;))

    I like China’s approach. China never threatens any country directly (apart from Taiwan) just forms “all weather friends” and throws money around to form strategic relations with local powers.

  8. Bala,

    China approaches all problems with a single focus. It tries to get things done through the soft measures, but if it fails, is prepared to use force and as of now, even US wouldnt be willing to test it. But, can India do the same.

    China is willing and is throwig Billions of Dollars at every country where it sees a strategic value, India doesnt have money to spend internally, forget about external. Only place where India has pumped in Money is Aghanistan and as of now, we have nothing much to show for it (ie, if Baluchistan fire hasnt been lit by us).

    Also, as said earlier, India not having a Veto at United Nations is a major backdraw since we cant even take strategic decisions without having to face flak at UN.


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