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India and its neighbours: Current scenario

In their respective Independence Day speeches,President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had underlined the importance of containing external threats to safeguard the integrity of the country. While Pakistan continues to engage the Army in Kashmir and insurgents infiltrate the porous and volatile border,there have been other disturbances. News of Chinese incursions in Ladakh […]

Written by Rajdeep Sarkar | New Delhi |
Updated: April 8, 2014 4:27:06 pm

In their respective Independence Day speeches,President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had underlined the importance of containing external threats to safeguard the integrity of the country. While Pakistan continues to engage the Army in Kashmir and insurgents infiltrate the porous and volatile border,there have been other disturbances. News of Chinese incursions in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh are no new matter,as China carries on with its policy of provocatively aggressive expansion.

India is a vast geographical nation-state sharing borders,both land and maritime,with several countries. Not always are these neighbours disposed to maintaining friendly relations with India,and vice versa. Policy and utility directs the nature of interactions with these countries.

In the wake of the recent ‘fencing’ incident which involved Burmese troops erecting a fence on disputed land at Manipur,where the border lies vague and leads to confusion,here is a look at India’s relations with its considerable neighbours as they are,and have tended to be.

MYANMAR

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Myanmar is located south of the north-eastern Indian states of Manipur,Mizoram and Nagaland,and is the only land passage from India to South East Asia.

A few days ago,at the border at Moreh in Manipur,Burmese troops crossed the line and entered the Holenphai village to erect camps,claiming that the region belonged to Myanmar and that work would not be stopped until the field commander received orders otherwise from higher authorities. This is a considerably new development,and authorities from the Indo-Myanmar Border Fencing Committee (IMBFC) set up by the Indian Government said on a visit that certain sections of the border are not clearly defined and that neither India nor Myanmar individually held the answers for this,stressing on the need for comprehensive talks to settle the issue. Locals complained installing fences was dividing civilian structures and giving the Burmese an opportunity to extent their territory. The smuggling of arms and drugs across the border draw large revenues and finance illicit businesses.

In 2011,the rule of military junta in Myanmar was replaced by a civilian government and democracy,and although India was not emphatic in its support for democracy during the course of the struggle by the pro-democratic faction against the authoritarian junta,and the military retains significant influence,this opened more avenues for co-operation and conflict resolution.

Strategically,Myanmar is important to India as it looks to counter Chinese presence in South East Asia by creating its own sphere of economic zones. A project aiming to connect Kolkata with Ho Chi Minh City on the South Sea for the formation of an economic zone will have a road pass through Myanmar,Cambodia and Vietnam and work on the first phase connecting Guwahati with Mandalay is currently underway. India is also one of Myanmar’s largest export markets and the two countries collaborate in a number of bilateral treaties to promote investment,free trade and double tax avoidance.

PAKISTAN

Since bifurcation of territory which demarcated India and Pakistan in 1947,the two nations have had strained relations due to disagreements over a number of key issues,and 67 years on,India and Pakistan continue to wage war of words and actions on control of Kashmir,terrorism and infiltration through the porous border.

This year alone,India has reported 57 violations of ceasefire by Pakistan,which have amounted to the death of 8 soldiers and 1 civilian,while Pakistan has also accused Indian forces of crossing the border and mounting charges that have killed 9 soldiers and 8 civilians. Figures,thus,suggest 2013 to be experiencing the worst bout of violence in 10 years.

Newly-elected Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been emphasising peace with India as the only way forward for Pakistan,a country threatened significantly in matters of internal security. The Indian political class remains divided,with some urging continuing talks while others have sought a strong reply be made to what they see as Pakistani provocation. As a principle,the legislative assemblies of both countries have been eager to pass resolutions against what they have seen as unprovoked aggression by the enemy.

Kashmir,the focus of these skirmishes,has seen inter-communal riots and curfews,arrests and casualties in recent days at Kishtwar and other parts of Jammu. Political parties across India have made their concern clear that insurgents are being trained in Pakistan and are foraying into India with the backing of state agencies in Pakistan,a claim that has been opposed by Pakistani Government and Army. Pakistan has also refused extradition of several terror suspects whom Indian authorities want to interrogate in connection with attacks and bomb blasts in major Indian cities.

In a bid to relax tensions,both countries have agreed to free each others’ prisoners. On Saturday,Pakistan released 337 Indian prisoners as a gesture towards peace.

In a poll by the BBC in 2013,only 11% of interviewed Indians had a positive outlook on Pakistan,while 45% viewed it negatively. Pakistanis fared much the similar,with 19% with a positive outlook on India,and 54% seeing it as a negative threat.

Manmohan Singh and Nawaz Sharif are due to meet at the United Nations in New York in September,and it could turn out to be an important meeting for the respective countries sharing a border that stretches almost 3000 kilometres.

CHINA

Seen by many as potential superpowers and key states in the region,China and India have long experienced a mixed relationship. China and India have a large bilateral trade,the value expected to touch about US $ 100 billion by 2015,but statistics point toward an imbalance towards the Chinese,trade deficits of India to China soaring.

Some of India’s long standing disputes with China have been over ill-defined borders. The two areas of contention are the area of Aksai Chin,which is claimed by India as a part of Jammu and kashmir,but is administered as a part of Xinjiang province by China,with a highway connecting Tibet; and the north-eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh,which is claimed by China as a historic part of the country. The Sino-Indian War of 1962 was fought in and over these regions.

The Indian Army has reported over 600 incursions by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into the eastern as well as western sectors of dispute over the last three years,the latest of these coming when Chinese soldiers entered Arunachal Pradesh and camped for two days,crossing the border at Chaglagam in Anjaw district. This followed a three-week face-off in Ladakh in April and May,when Chinese troops entered Kashmir and set up tents,almost jeopardising a meet between leaders of states,and requiring diplomatic manoeuvering by India before finally Chinese troops pulled back.

While the Indian Government has largely played down the issue as a regular occurrence,security and intelligence reports have cautioned the ministry that the Chinese have been clearing tracts of forests in Arunachal Pradesh,which some have interpreted as a challenge to India’s sovereignty over the state. Added to this is the far better state of communication on the Chinese side,where a prominent network of roads has been built. This would enable Chinese forces to reach the border at a much quicker pace than Indian troops posted in the region.

All this has meant that the Line of Actual Control (LoAC) which continues to be disagreed over,is highly militarised and patrolled,China holding a distinct advantage should there be an escalation of tensions and any form of direct engagement.

There is also the issue of conflicting maritime interests. The Indian Ocean is a hotspot for commercial activity and control over the waters of these parts remain high on the priority for both countries. China’s aggressive policy at sea has been highlighted by its many incursions into the South Sea,whose waters it shares with Japan,and notwithstanding the latter’s objections,China has continued to send its coastguard to hover around the disputed Senkaku Island. China has also taken over the administration of a number of ports in Sri Lanka,Bangladesh and Pakistan. India has replied by entering into joint-cooperation pacts with its maritime neighbours to underscore the importance of maintaining security and surveillance,with a tri-lateral pact with Sri Lanka and Maldives to combat piracy and track merchant vessels in an Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ) coming days after China had taken over the Gwadar Port in Pakistan. Experts are increasingly seeing this as a conflict between China’s development model up against India’s security model.

After a three-year hiatus,diplomatic relations between the countries are likely to be kick-started,with hints that a resolution to the border dispute may be in the pipeline,but given the nature of Chinese diplomacy and dissemination,it seems unlikely that a lasting solution agreeable to both parties may be found in the short run.

SRI LANKA

Separated by the narrow expanse of the Palk Strait,India and Sri Lanka have shared excellent trade relations in recent years,committing to each other in both bilateral free trade agreements as well as developing interaction through such platforms as South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC).

The major dispute has been that of the alleged practice of Sri Lankan Navy shooting at Indian fishing trawlers sailing from the coast of Tamil Nadu,with a reported 530 fishermen killed in the last 30 years.  Currently,there are 130 fishing trawlers and 113 fishermen from India in Sri Lankan detention. Detained fishermen have often complained of harsh treatment given them by Navy officials,who in turn have denied allegations and have charged the fishermen of crossing the International Maritime Boundary Line (IMBL).

Sri Lanka has a considerable Tamil-speaking minority concentrated in the northern part of the island,especially the Jaffna Peninsula,that earns sympathy and moral support from the regional parties of Tamil Nadu. Suspected use of torture and human rights violations sanctioned by the government in the last chapters of the bloody and dramatic Civil War that was fought by Tamil Nationalists and the Sri Lankan Army and ended in a rout for the Army in 2009 have been condemned by pro-Tamil parties in India,some of them allies of UPA,bringing pressure upon the Central Government to vote in favour of a UN inquiry. Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalitha has gone so far as to proposing blocking Sri Lankan athletes from training for and participating in competitions in Tamil Nadu,claiming it was unacceptable to Tamil Nadu and Tamils until justice is done.

Given the precarious balance of support mechanism that enables the Central Government to hold majority with the support of regional parties,UPA faces directional dilemmas in the Sri Lankan issue,on the one hand having to contend with fuming Tamil nationalists and on the other maintaining a working relationship with Mahenda Rajapaksha’s government in Sri Lanka.

According to a 2010 Gallup poll,44% Sri Lankans had a positive outlook on India,and only 10% disapproved of it.

 

BANGLADESH

For Bangladesh,India is a land of plenty next door. Not only did it win its independence from discriminatory West Pakistan with Indian assistance in 1971,but its strategic and commercial partnership with India has yielded several valuable developments in key areas of the economy.

However,the problems of undemarcated and faulty border-drawing,resources sharing and illegal trafficking have often off-set relations.

In the news has been the issue of the Land Border Agreement (LBA),seeking to address the make-shift arrangements of previous governments to accommodate a stretch of area ill-defined at the time of partition,resulting in enclaves and populations of one country falling within the territory of the other,and a tract of Bangladeshi territory bound on all sides by Indian territory.

When Sheikh Hasina became Prime Minister of Bangladesh in 2010,she hastened efforts to re-build relations with India to benefit both countries,and among other key issues like security and combating terrorism,the resolution of the border dispute,which has been the cause of several casualties and brutalities,figured high in priority. In the ‘Tin Bigha’ corridor,Bangladeshi nationals were granted 24-hour access to Dahargram and Angorpota. It is also being acknowledged that steps taken to curb extremist influence and illegal trafficking of cattle,drugs,arms and humans,among other things,have turned for the better. India has also opened its markets to the huge garment industry of Bangladesh.

Mamata Banerjee,Chief Minister of West Bengal,however,has been non-party to the Central Government’s bid to solve the border problem,terming it unacceptable that her state should give up 17,000 sq. kms. in return for 7,000 sq. kms. She has accused the Central Government of failing to involve state governments while deciding on their fate. This came also in connection with the sharing of water from Teesta,which flows through both countries.

This has led to a breakdown in diplomatic negotiations,and Bangladeshi media has reported the frustration of the foreign ministry of being unable to strike out a deal. However,the border dispute is long standing and it seems it might require further internal negotiations before a clear line is drawn. In other areas of co-operation such as trade and intelligence,Bangladesh and India are engaged in a much more effective partnership.

 

NEPAL

India and Nepal moved closer to sharing a lot in common when Nepal adopted democracy and the federal republican structure of governance. In his recent visit to India,Nepali Prime Minister Sushil Koirala hailed a new beginning to productive relations,a new dawn of development and diplomacy,between India and Nepal. Some of the important points of discussion were the on-going peace process in Nepal,the drawing up of a Nepali national Constitution and the Constituent Assembly Election in November.

In July,former PM Madhav Kumar Nepal had visited India as well,meeting a number of high-profile dignitaries that included Congress president Sonia Gandhi,Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and BJP strongman Lal Krishna Advani.

Nepal has sought Indian help in the completion of building and development projects,and this tie-up is being seen as a continuation of older ties between the proximate nations sharing cultural,religious and social ties for centuries.

 

MALDIVES

The diplomatic and commercial relations between India and Maldives have hit an all-time low since the row over the GMR built airport erupted after a coup deposed former President Nashid and brought Waheed Hassan to power. The taking over of the airport by the government led India to put a number of sanctions on its old allies,by tightening the issuing of free visa to Maldives’ citizens.

The two countries have historically shared a friendly relationship since Maldives became an independent state in 1966,and India’s contribution in health,education and development sectors is well appreciated in the island nation below the Lakshwadeep Islands in the Arabian Sea,and Maldives has seen in India a strategic partner capable of guaranteeing security.

Post the GMR row,however,there have been reports suggesting a tide of anti-India sentiments being voiced by some members of the coalition in the Waheed government.

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