So, did China transgress into our territory? The Ministry of Defence first tells us it did, puts it on record with specific dates and details, then pulls the information down from its website the next day. Either the MoD got the facts wrong or was told to pull it down, especially after the prime minister told an all-party meeting that no one had either come in or is on Indian territory. As we wait for an explanation that may never come, one thing is clear: There is confusion in our diplomacy with China, which remains determined to push its boundaries.
We are caught in what strategic experts call the “Thucydides Trap” — the condition that war is likely if a new power feels threatened by the rise of another. That term, from ancient Greece for the tension between Athens and Sparta, as enunciated by Thucydides, is commonly used for US-China relations but can be easily transposed to India versus China.
For, there is a disconnect between what Beijing says and what it does. It kept calling the situation “stable and controllable” as 20 of our soldiers were martyred. Our PM and defence minister visited Ladakh and addressed the nation from there but we haven’t heard one word from Chinese President Xi Jinping. He has left it to his Foreign office spokespersons to respond.
Diplomacy with Beijing, as many countries have realised, is as credible as dry water or wooden iron. So it won’t be a surprise if the Chinese withdrawal from Galwan and other points of friction is accompanied by permanent occupation in Depsang and Pangong Tso.
Therein lies the crux of the problem — it is about much more than China. China isn’t interested in nibbling away some land along the Line of Actual Control, it wants its footprints in the entire region.
It’s more than an accident of geography that India shares her borders with all other South Asian nations. No other South Asian countries, except Afghanistan and Pakistan, share a border with any other South Asian nation.
This is our asset and the value of this asset is determined by our neighbours and our investment in the relationship with them. In May 2014, amid pomp and grandeur, hype and hoopla, newly-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited the heads of all the SAARC countries for his swearing-in ceremony. Look where we are now, merely six years down the road. That sense of camaraderie has evaporated. What was presented as a strong signal of regional solidarity is faint and flickering.
China is an overwhelming presence in each of our neighbouring countries. When the prime minister warned against expansionism, the irony wasn’t lost on many — China’s expansionism in the region is directly proportional to the deterioration of our relationship with our neighbours. Our neighbours, including Nepal, are all young emerging democracies developing new institutions but they find a growing appeal in the authoritarian paradigm of Beijing than India’s democratic one.
It was the late Indira Gandhi who said: “The nations of our region can prosper only by treating one another as sovereign equals.” She said that friendship does not mean identical views but a basic framework of respect based on equality and trust in which there is sympathy for each other’s difficulties. This was behind former Prime Minister I K Gujral’s doctrine, too, in which India made unilateral concessions to neighbouring countries with regard to trade and travel without expecting reciprocal treatment. Over decades, even by cleaving through the wall of our adversities, we have been accumulating trust and goodwill among our neighbours. That is now being frittered away.
Almost all our neighbours now nurse grudges.
Never in our contemporary history has Nepal gone down such an acrimonious path. With our only neighbouring Hindu country, the spiritual link is frayed over a dispute related to 400 sq km of Indian territory at Kala Pani. So much so that Nepal is even asking for a review of the 1947 agreement on Gurkhas.
The flashpoint came on May 8, the day the 80-km road was inaugurated by the defence minister. But the New Delhi-Kathmandu chill set in since the blockade of 2015, when China saw an opportunity and rushed in. Since May 8, we have seen a sudden upsurge of hostility with Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli openly adversarial; Nepal border guards firing upon Indian residents; Kathmandu staying away from the multilateral BIMSTEC counterterrorism exercise; refusing to accept the US-sponsored Millenium Challenge Cooperation Grant which was supposed to upgrade Nepal’s electricity transmission system and connect it to the Indian power grid. We all know that the Chinese envoy in Kathmandu is proactive, intervening to resolve the internal bickering of the ruling Communist party to bring stability.
Take Bangladesh, a country that called the bluff of Jinnah’s two-nation theory, its war of liberation fought by both Hindus and Muslims for a distinct cultural and linguistic identity. That revolution, led by Bangabandhu Mujibur Rahman, had the full support of the Indian people. I know what that history means, I am an MP from Murshidabad. My district has 71 lakh people, 66 per cent of whom are Muslims and 33 per cent Hindus. In absolute terms, it has the largest Muslim concentration in the country. I insisted and was successful in persuading my colleague Pranab Mukherjee to contest the Lok Sabha election from my district. Pranab da was dithering but the people overwhelmingly voted for him in the 2004 general election and he won. It is a fact that despite fervent calls by M A Jinnah, the Muslim population of the district never desired to move to Pakistan and no communal riots occurred here during Partition.
This same Muslim population is now fearful of the new citizenship law, the NRC and the NPR — this trinity puts their existence at stake, that is the refrain. Where do they go if they can’t pass the test? This concern reverberates in Bangladesh. No less a person than the Union Home Minister said that illegal migrants will be picked up like termites and thrown away. Where? India has assured Bangladesh that the NRC is an internal issue but the tone of domestic politics — where Bangladeshi Muslims are painted as arch enemies eroding India — have set off deep disquiet in Dhaka.
We should not forget that since 2009, when Sheikh Hasina assumed power in Bangladesh, she has waged a zero-tolerance campaign against terrorist outfits inimical to India. Bangladesh is burdened with more than 10 lakh Rohingya refugees and yet there is simmering discontent about its relations with India. The foreign minister of Bangladesh cancelled his visit. PM Modi was invited to the inaugural ceremony of “Mujib Borso” (Mujibur Rahman’s centennial birth anniversary) but that was cancelled in the wake of the corona pandemic. The purported visit was vehemently opposed by various organisations in Bangladesh, much to the discomfiture of India. Certainly, these aren’t good signs and there is a fear that China is waiting to rush in.
We need to explore innovative long-term efficacious and durable initiatives to mend fences in the neighbourhood and provide them with the comfort to look beyond the sphere of Chinese influence.
Some of the low-hanging fruit that can be plucked: BBIN (Bangla, Bhutan, India, Nepal) signed a motor vehicles agreement which should be speedily implemented; the India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway needs a renewed push; medical tourism, education, arts and culture — the entire thrust of soft power — can be used to generate and renew connections between the aspirational youth of all the countries.
From Indira Gandhi to Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Manmohan Singh, all prime ministers have stressed that the more stable and cordial our relationship with our neighbours, the more sustained will be our progress. At a time when the pandemic has forced us to retreat behind walls, we need to look back and take lessons from history so that we can forge a more peaceful future for the young generation in not only our country but the entire region.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 12 under the title “Mending Fences with Neighbors”. Chowdhury is leader of the Congress in Lok Sabha and chairperson, Public Accounts Committee
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