Leave the Indus treaty alone

It is unwise for New Delhi to play up the water threat

Last week CNN-IBN called me while I was driving back home, and asked if they could put me on live television to comment on what the producer said was “India’s threat to cut off Pakistan’s water supply under the Indus River Water treaty”. Had I not been stationary at the traffic signal when I heard this, my reaction might have harmed innocent motorists on the road. Despite my reluctance—as I had not familiarised with the facts—the producer patched me to the programme. I made three points.

First, the threat of cutting off water targets the Pakistani people and not the military-jihadi complex that is India’s irreconcilable adversary. Further, this mis-targeting strengthens the military-jihadi complex because it strengthens the latter’s position as the defender of the Pakistani people, who will unite around it.

Second, cutting off water is tantamount to an act of war and India will be seen as the aggressor. Even then, it would be unwise for New Delhi to go to war in response to a terrorist attack on a military camp near the Line of Control.

Third, the best that can be said about the hints of cutting off water is if it were “deliberate irrationalism”, calculated to persuade the adversary that New Delhi is not rational and can respond in grossly disproportionate ways.

Upon reaching home, I found out that the producer had taken an almost mischievous hint by the MEA spokesman and framed it into one of New Delhi actually threatening to cut off water to Pakistan. Even so, New Delhi seems to be weighing this option enough to warrant a briefing to the Prime Minister today.

It would be unwise for New Delhi to proceed in the direction of holding out reneging on the Indus Water Treaty as a coercive threat. Mainly because such talk is superfluous. A person holding a gun to your head does not have to declare that he has a gun pointed towards your head.

While the Pakistani people benefit from the Indus Waters Treaty—and India’s scrupulous observance of its terms even during major wars—the Pakistani military establishment and jihadi groups would love for New Delhi to dangle this threat. The establishment would lose no time to play up the threat that India poses to the survival of Pakistan and quickly find a way to turn “differences” into “disputes” (these terms have specific meanings under the Treaty) and take it to the Court of Arbitration. If the Court rules against India—and it is likely to, if India were to “cut off water”—then a reference to the UN Security Council will be the next step. Now, the UNSC might lack enough power to compel India to keep to terms New Delhi does not wish to, but to do all this in the current circumstances would be an overkill (self-overkill, that is).

While all this is happening, the jihadi groups would lose no time in openly mobilising, with official support, and engaging in collecting funds, minds and warm bodies. It makes little sense for New Delhi to energise an industry that is not doing too well in Pakistan.

All this is even before considering the possibility of what might the Pakistani military establishment do should India threaten to cut off water supplies. There is no doubt that India is military prepared to dominate Pakistan at all levels of escalation. The question is: can this be done with relatively lower cost to itself?

Narendra Modi’s words over the weekend inject wisdom into the hysterical jingoism that dominated the public discourse last week. He suggested that India can defeat Pakistan by winning the development race. He also drew the distinction between the Pakistani leadership and the Pakistani people. Readers of this blog will know that this is what I have long advocated. Of course, this must be accompanied by defensive measures, political overtures to close the affective divide in Jammu & Kashmir and tactical military sort of things that are best not spoken about.

As for the Indus treaty, it is in India’s interests to hold out a model where difficult issues can be sorted out as technical matters rather than highly emotive political ones. It is one of the best examples of India’s bona fides. It is not in the national interest to throw away this wicket.

From the archives: Sharing the Indus (January 2005) and the Dam difference is over (February 2007).

This needs diplomacy

Going overboard on local law enforcement is not the way to go

There have been two broad sets of reactions in India and among Indians to the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, on underpaying the domestic helper.

First, there has been a fierce nationalistic response, supporting retaliatory measures against US diplomats in India. This has not only staunchly backed the Indian government’s surprisingly swift actions in suspending import clearances for the US embassy’s liquor supplies and removing traffic barriers that the embassy installed outside its premises. There is a clamour among such quarters for even more.

Now, while it is important that New Delhi send strong signals to the Washington that India will not tolerate its diplomats—albeit one accused of an offence—being treated as dangerous criminals, the reactionary perspective ignores the risks to the painstakingly built bilateral relationship between the two countries.

Second, there are those who argue that Ms Khobragade is in the wrong and her absconding domestic helper is the one who is truly wronged. Some have argued that the Indian bureaucracy is too used to privilege at home and should not expect such perquisites as domestic helpers abroad, that they should “do their own dishes, like everyone else.” Furthermore, they contend, would the foreign service act with such alacrity if an ordinary citizen had been arrested?

Going by media reports there are grounds to accept that the authorities have a case against Ms Khobragade. Whether or not she enjoys diplomatic immunity, if it is established she has committed an offence, it is right that consequences should follow. NRIs and Indians might reasonably resent what they see as privilege and less reasonably use stereotypes to pronounce judgement on Ms Khobragade, but these are peripheral to the issue. The Indian government is obliged to take care of its employees abroad—not least a consular officer charged with the responsibility of taking care of citizens’ interests abroad!—just like any other employer.

Between liberal democratic rule-of-law countries like India and the United States, such matters are best handled in courts of law (see an earlier post on the case of the Italian marines). This is complicated in Ms Khobragade’s case, as both Indian and US courts are involved. Even so, letting the legal process determine a solution would have been and is still probably the best course of action. What complicated matters is the manner in which Ms Khobragade was arrested and treated by US authorities. She is a diplomat, the nature of her alleged offence is more in the nature of a breach of contract than a violent crime, and despite what is popularly claimed, the US authorities do treat different people differently (ask Prince Bandar for details).

The bigger problem with the “US enforces its laws seriously” argument is that Indian authorities can do it too. That would make things ugly indeed because there are quite a few statutes in our books whose strict interpretation could place more than a few foreign diplomats in prison, and ordinary treatment in Indian prisons is not, to put it mildly, pleasant. For instance, a senior BJP leader has demanded that the government invoke Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code—that renders illegal many quotidian sexual acts between consenting adults—against US diplomats. Even if it sounds over the top, it demonstrates that riding the legalistic high-horse won’t help. [We strongly disagree with Section 377, just as many Americans disagree with minimum wage laws.]

Therefore, diplomacy needs to kick in to make the situation conducive to a legal solution. Unless this happens, legalistic processes can escalate the matter into a situation where it becomes difficult for either side to give in or back off. Foreign relations are too important to be left to district attorneys, traffic policemen and customs officers. We can say with some confidence that no serious person in Washington or New Delhi wants Ms Khobragade’s case to undermine bilateral relations. Now that both sides have made their points, it is time for the political leaders to intervene and arrest the process.

My colleague V Anantha Nageswaran noted that the speed and force with which New Delhi acted against the United States on a minor issue like this stands out against the reluctance the Indian government demonstrates while handling Chinese or Pakistani transgressions. Of course, grandstanding against the West comes naturally to New Delhi but could it also be that the bilateral relationship is on such a footing today that our foreign policy establishment presumes that this won’t affect the big picture?

Even so, the UPA government and the Obama administration will be jointly responsible if this incident is any more than a temporary irritant in the bilateral relationship.

Related Link: An ugly diplomatic exchange — My storified comments on Twitter.

Book chapter: On humanitarian intervention & democracy promotion

India’s middle path

shapingtheemergingworld2x3_2x3I have contributed one chapter in “Shaping the Emerging World – India and the Multilateral Order“, a book edited by WPS Sidhu, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Bruce Jones, and published by Brookings. According to the promotional material, it is, for “…anyone interested in the future of India’s burgeoning economy, twenty-two scholars have developed one of the most comprehensive volumes to date on India…” The list of authors has such stars as Shyam Saran, C Raja Mohan, Sanjaya Baru, Devesh Kapur, David Malone, Christophe Jaffrelot, Srinath Raghavan and Kanti Bajpai.

I’m sure the editors must have had something in mind when they tapped me to write a chapter on India and international norms: Responsibility to Protect (R2P), genocide prevention, human rights and democracy, as they must surely have been aware of my scepticism towards such norms and value promotion agendas. I wrote the chapter at an interesting time, when India had been on the UN Security Council and a number of countries in North Africa and the Middle East went into a wave of political transformation. Given that I was a critic of some of India’s positions at the UNSC during that period, the result is a chapter that is almost entirely devoid of romance. (That’s a good thing, in case you were thinking otherwise).

Here are a couple of excerpts from my chapter:

The doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations declared in speech in October 2012, “is the most important challenge that the international community, anchored in the United Nations, is going to face.”1 Arguing that the initial suspicion of many developing countries towards the newest norm in international relations was misplaced, he supported the need for a “collective response by the international community to ensure that mass atrocities like genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity do not take place.” Explaining why India had abstained in a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution authorising military intervention in the Libyan civil war of 2011, he judged the implementation of the doctrine “gives R2P a bad name.”

The Indian diplomat’s arguments are a good example of India’s attitude towards international norms infringing on state sovereignty in furtherance of human security, human rights or liberal democratic goals. This chapter argues that India takes a middle path, supporting the evolution of human rights and democratic norms, but exercising caution in the manner of their implementation. It delves into the foundations of India’s policy approach towards two sets of norms: those concerning human security and those pertaining to liberal democracy. It interrogates these norms as they have evolved and examines them from an Indian perspective. It concludes by exploring how Indian foreign policy in the context of these norms might change as it emerges into a more powerful player in international politics.

Constitutional values, a democratic political culture and a diverse, plural society make India generally supportive of defending the world’s people from oppression, promoting human rights and democracy. New Delhi’s foreign policy orientation is at the very least consistent with a rules-based international order and is underpinned by liberal democratic values. The Indian republic’s subscription of liberal international norms, however, has been tempered both by competing norms and by reservations on the nature of international interventions. The result is a foreign policy that treads a middle path.

Even as Indian foreign policy made the transition from Nehru’s utopianism to the pragmatic realism of the post-Cold War governments, it never abandoned commitment to values. Normatively, New Delhi strikes a middle path. India is committed to genocide prevention, R2P, human rights and liberal democracy in principle, but has serious reservations regarding their practical implementation. The commitment is born out of its own national values. The reservations are borne out by its experience too.

India has been supporting multilateral efforts – or has acted unilaterally, on occasion – in response to international emergencies. It has been less enthusiastic in enterprises promoting liberal democratic norms, for it is a state primarily concerned with maintaining its own national unity, social transformation and economic development.

To what extent will India deviate from the middle path if it comes a bigger power in the international system? This chapter contends that the answer depends on whether the UN reforms itself to better reflect contemporary global balance of power, on the nature of India’s geopolitical footprint and on the extent of internationalism in Indian civil society. Broad trends indicate that it is likely that the Indian nation will become increasingly global-minded and internationalist, even if at a pace that is sometimes frustrating and other other times exhilarating. So the chances of the Indian republic becoming a rule-taker in the international system will improve to the extent that it is better accommodating into the rule-making circles of a reformed UN. A richer, more powerful India may yet be a stronger defender of human security around the world, if not simultaneously a champion of liberal democracy. [Shaping the Emerging World]

Pax Indica: Work permits for Bangladeshi migrants

Illegal immigration can only be tackled by allowing legal migration

In an email exchange last week, Sanjoy Hazarika, author of one of the best books on India’s North East, told me that he has been advocating work permits for the last two decades. The proposal needs a serious consideration now.

[The] blunt, impractical and half-heartedly implemented measures we have used to address the problem have only worsened it. Attempts to force them to go back have created an illicit political protection racket that has undermined national security. Fencing is in progress, but it is impossible to erect an impenetrable barrier along the entire India-Bangladesh border. Over the years, many border officials and security personnel have become mixed up in organised networks smuggling everything from cough syrup to human beings. Indian and Bangladeshi border guards sometimes even exchange fire, indicating policy failure at so many levels. Amid all this, tens of thousands of illegal immigrants make their way into India each year.

We need a new approach. India should consider establishing a system of work permits to allow Bangladeshis to work in India, legally.

It is practically impossible to fight demographic pressure, not least given the geography of India’s North East. It is, however, possible to ensure that the flow of immigrants does not concentrate in Assam or other states adjoining Bangladesh. The real political problem is not so much the inflow, but the accumulation of illegal immigrants in one state. If work permits are subject to state-wise quotas, then it is possible to distribute the flow across Indian states. This will allow migrant workers to work in states that need them, and prevent them from crowding in certain states.

Work permits with state-wise quotas can thus address Assam’s genuine and longstanding concerns — the state can cap the number of Bangladeshi migrants it will accept. India’s national security concerns become more manageable by bringing the migration out into the open. Obviously, Bangladesh stands to benefit too, not least the immigrant who need not live a often fearful life in the twilight zone. [Read the rest at Yahoo! India]

This column benefits from the discussions I had with participants and friends at Economic Freedom Network Asia’s conference on international migration in Jakarta last week.

Post-deluge Pakistan

An assessment

At the risk of being entirely wrong, here is an assessment of the political implications of floods in Pakistan.

1. Fears of Pakistan ending up as a “failed state with nuclear weapons” are overblown. The disaster is unprecedented and the response understandably inadequate but it does not set off an explosive dynamic along political faultlines.

2. Political changes are unlikely. The disaster has further cemented the army’s popularity, allowing it to claim credit for the government’s successes (for it is a part of the government) but avoid the blame for the failures (which accrue to the civilian political leadership). Given the immense challenge of rehabilitation and reconstruction that lies ahead, General Ashfaq Kayani would have to be a conceited fool–which so far at least, he has shown no signs of being–to want to countenance a change in the political set-up. A weak, powerless and unpopular President Asif Zardari is just what he needs. Nawaz Sharif’s hopes to become the prime minister are unlikely to fructify before the next election because he is popular, has political weight and could challenge General Kayani’s hold on power.

3. Pakistan will not only receive debt waivers but also see a relaxation of conditions relating to financial assistance. While this will come as a relief for the government and the elite, it will weaken the endogenous factors that will aid recovery by delaying the implementation of important macro-economic reforms. It will also ensure the perpetuation of the current political setup because debt waivers and unconditional assistance will come much easier if there’s a facade of a democratic government. Furthermore, given that a significant part of the international assistance will be routed through international agencies and NGOs, it will not strengthen the Pakistani government’s civilian capacity.

4. Jihadi militant organisations will become more powerful but will not be allowed to increase their political profiles. This disaster, like the 2005 earthquake, is being used by organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba to bolster their credentials as a providers of social services. However, to the extent that the Pakistani government will be dependent on international assistance–and it will become more so in the immediate future—the military establishment will not allow such organisations to make a direct play for power. Let’s not forget that the LeT is a surrogate of the Pakistani military establishment, which, if it wants to, can directly seize power in a coup.

5. The military establishment will use the disaster as an alibi for downgrading its war against the Tehreek-e-Taliban-Pakistan in North Waziristan and elsewhere. Engaging in disaster relief will draw on military resources from the battle against the taliban, but there are deeper reasons for the army’s unwillingness to sustain battle against them. How quickly and to what extent it will resume the fight depends almost entirely on how much the United States can coerce the army.

6. Pakistan’s support for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan will not be interrupted. The US will find it difficult in the coming months to press the Pakistan army to cooperate in counter-insurgency operations because of the alibi. The direction of the war in Afghanistan will therefore depend on the Obama administration’s political will and determination.

7. Pakistan’s domestic stability is set to worsen. In the short-term, resettlement of internally displaced persons will complicate the ethnic and sectarian tensions in cities like Karachi, Hyderabad and Quetta. While this is likely to result in greater violence, it is unlikely to lead to collapse of the state. Instability will place an economic cost on Pakistan, damaging endogenous factors that can aid recovery.

8. The insurgency in Balochistan is likely to be contained. To the extent that the army is willing to use brute force and targeted killings to keep the lid on the conflict, and to the extent that the Baloch lack outright political support internationally, the prospects of secession are dim.

9. While radioactivity-leakage risks are low there is some risk to the security of nuclear plants, equipment and material. Such facilities are likely to have been built to withstand such contingencies. However, in the confusion that accompanies such events, there is a higher chance that physical security of nuclear installations can be breached. So far, there are no media reports flood waters affecting nuclear installations.

10.Disaster relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation will be decently funded. Despite the slow start in fundraising, despite concerns over aid distribution, the international community is unlikely to ignore humanitarian needs during the relief phase. However, it is unclear if the Pakistani government has the inclination and capacity to use the funds and goodwill to sustain its efforts beyond the short-term relief phase into the medium-term rehabilitation & reconstruction phase.

11. The US will make only small gains in popularity despite playing a leading role in relief and reconstruction. China and Saudi Arabia are likely to make disproportionately large gains. (In the short-term though, the situation is likely to be the opposite, because the narrative will be factual.)

Tailpiece: Pakistani officials and commentators would do well to avoid using the “unless the world gives money Pakistan will become a nuclear-armed failed state” bogey as it has been used so many times by so many people that it reeks of a shakedown. The humanitarian tragedy is serious enough a reason for well-meaning people and governments around the world to help.

Militants, disaster relief and policy

Should the international humanitarian response use militant groups for emergency relief?

As Pakistan grapples with a natural disaster, the charitable fronts of jihadi organisations have begun playing a significant role in providing emergency relief. Even as international humanitarian actors consider their response, it is important to understand that the way the aid is delivered affects political outcomes. Done properly, aid can bolster the capacity of the civilian government. Done wrong, it can strengthen jihadi groups, both financially and in public esteem. This is an unpublished case study I did in May 2008—and is relevant in the current circumstances.


In circumstances—like post-earthquake PAK or post-tsunami Jaffna (Sri Lanka) and Aceh (Indonesia)—non-state actors were arguably the most effective organisations. Should international actors refuse to co-operate with such organisations, even if this means blunting the humanitarian response? Alternately, can the international community escape the moral (and geo-political) consequences of rendering terrorist and radical regimes legitimate in disaster affected regions?

Towards a politically aware intervention.

A practical way to address this quandary is to evolve international consensus on responsibility for political outcomes. Purely humanitarian organisations (like the ICRC) could take a value-neutral approach towards short-term rescue and relief. Their intervention policies should be made transparent to their donors, recipients and the international community. On the other hand, governments and government-linked organisations (like USAID) could be more discriminating in their partnerships and attach conditions to bring about desired political outcomes. This means that different governments could choose their local partners and strategy according to their own values and interests.

Post-disaster events in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia call for an international humanitarian response framework that balances immediate relief with long-term political outcomes. Even as the world moves towards this, individual international actors would do well to define whether or not their mission includes responsibility for political outcomes. Ambiguity will almost certainly lead to outcomes as in Pakistan, where the strengthening of the military-mullah nexus contributed in no small part towards deepening that country’s political crisis and worsening regional and international security.

You can download the whole case study here (250 KB, PDF)

It’s caution, not obfuscation

An Australian view of the attacks on Indian students

Over at The Lowy Interpreter, Rory Medcalf writes:

Even if most of the violence against Indian students has been opportunistic street crime, some of it no doubt has had a racial edge. And if any of the latest attacks on Indians in Australia are proven to involve motives of ethnic prejudice, the governments in Canberra and – especially — Melbourne will need seriously to question their policy settings and statements.

It is difficult to explain to Indian friends that Australians typically are very cautious in the way that they talk about race and crime, for the very reason that we are proud of how far this country has come in recent decades in building ethnic harmony and equality. But this multiculturalism-induced silence is being interpreted in India as denial or obfuscation. [The Lowy Interpreter]

In general, it is just as well that the Indian government is compelled to take the security of its citizens more seriously. Yet the focus on Australia distracts attention from the region that deserves a lot of it—the Gulf. As you read this around 100 Indian labourers find themselves in the refuge of a gurudwara in Kabul, after being at the receiving end of sharp business practices in Dubai. There’s no commotion at all in the Indian media.

Australian rules

Attack victims must make their case within the bounds of Australian law

Both SM Krishna, India’s foreign minister, and Kevin Rudd, the Australian prime minister, have advised Indian students against—pardon the cliche—taking the law into their own hands. First, Mr Krishna urged the students “to be patient and show restraint…and concentrate on (studies) rather than retaliate”. Then Mr Rudd warned that “it’s unacceptable for anyone to commit an act of violence against any student of any ethnicity anywhere in Australia. It’s equally unacceptable for so-called reprisal attacks and for so-called vigilante action as well.” While Mr Rudd’s attempt to draw an equivalence between the two can be debated, what is indisputable is the fact that where there is rule-of-law, violation of the law has no justification.

But if there is rule-of-law in Australia, why do the Indian students feel the need to set-up “vigilante groups” to protect their compatriots? This is, first, a question for the Australian government and Australian society to contemplate. At the very least it suggests that the response of the Australian state after the first few attacks was found wanting.

Be that as it may: there is no excuse for violating the law. The Indian government must spare no attempt to ensure the safety and security of Indian nationals anywhere in the world. Where they are innocent victims, the government must do what is necessary to protect them and ensure that justice is done. But if they are accused or guilty of an offence, the government’s job is not to apologise or shield them, but rather, that due legal processes are followed and their rights are protected.

Tailpiece: On the matter of racism: Australia is not a racist country. There are racists in Australia, some of who attack foreigners. But it is incorrect and unfair to extend this argument and characterise the whole country as racist. There are anti-racists too and they are speaking up.

Assisting the unfortunate Pravasi Bharatiyas

The Indian government’s programmes to assist distressed workers and women overseas is a step in the right direction

Protecting Indian nationals wherever they might be in the world should be a key objective of India’s foreign policy. While India has demonstrated its commitment towards securing the lives of its nationals during major crises—like the evacuation of expatriate Indians from the Middle East during the 1990 Gulf War and the more recent conflict in Lebanon—assisting citizens in quotidian situations has not been its strong point. [Due apologies to our foreign service officers who help stranded Indian families in remote corners of the world]. Among those who most need the Indian government’s assistance are low-wage workers and women.

So it is good to see the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs do something beyond organising grand pow-wows and handing out awards to prominent non-resident Indians. Not only has it announced programmes to help distressed Indian workers and women, it has made the involvement of local NRI communities essential for their success.

The Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF) covers distressed workers in United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, Malaysia, Libya, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Syria, Lebanon, Thailand, and Iraq. The government’s financial contribution is tiny—between Rs 500,000 and Rs 1.5 million each—but constitutes seed funding. The intention is to make the fund self-sustaining through charges for consular services at Indian missions, as well as voluntary contributions by NRI communities. Similarly, the scheme to provide financial and legal assistance to Indian women deserted by their husbands in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Gulf covers expenses up to US$1000, and is administered in partnership with community NGOs. Seventeen women have been helped so far—ten from Australia alone.

It is a good idea for the government to jump start the programme and rely on community funding for its financial sustainability. More importantly, the Indian government’s role should be to back the programmes with diplomatic clout and political resolve. Putting the onus on Indian missions abroad ensures that the ambassadors have control and are accountable for the results in the areas under their care. A degree of competition among them wouldn’t hurt at all. More importantly, getting NRI communities to chip in financially helps build social capital creating avenues for the relatively well-to-do members of the community to help the more unfortunate ones. This should also lead to community monitoring, administration and performance audit of these programmes.

And once the Indian government learns enough in these selected countries, it should extend these programmes across the globe.