Originally Published 2004-11-08 04:50:48 Published on Nov 08, 2004
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government headed by Mr. A. B. Vajpayee had made India increasingly invisible in its neighbourhood. It was content to play second fiddle to the US in Nepal and Sri Lanka, let Norway, the European Union and Japan play a more active role in Sri Lanka, maintained a silence on the growing confrontation between President Abdul Gayoom of the Maldives and the pro-democracy activists
Greater Indian Visibility in its Neighbourhood
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government headed by Mr. A. B. Vajpayee had made India increasingly invisible in its neighbourhood. It was content to play second fiddle to the US in Nepal and Sri Lanka, let Norway, the European Union and Japan play a more active role in Sri Lanka, maintained a silence on the growing confrontation between President Abdul Gayoom of the Maldives and the pro-democracy activists there and avoided too close an embrace of the military Government in Myanmar lest its action be misunderstood in the West, particularly in Washington DC. At the same time, it allowed India#146;s traditional contacts with its objective allies in the non-Punjabi sections of Pakistan#146;s political circles and civil society wither away. Over the years, these contacts had been carefully built up and nurtured by the successive Governments of the Congress (I) right from the day Mrs. Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister for the first time in 1966.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Ever since coming to power six months ago, the present Government headed by Dr. Manmohan Singh has been quietly trying to reverse this voluntary ceding of Indian influence in its neighbourhood by the NDA Government to the USA and other Western powers due to its over-emphasis on the importance of a strategic relationship with the US, its over-anxiety for their support in India#146;s bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council and in bringing pressure on Pakistan to stop its sponsorship of terrorism in Indian territory.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> India has vital security interests in Myanmar, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. India#146;s ability to restore peace in its insurgency-afflicted North-East depends on the co-operation of the Myanmarese Government and its success in establishing an effective administrative and military presence in Northern Myanmar, which forms an important buffer between India#146;s North-east and the Yunnan Province of China. It is also in India#146;s interest to counter the growing Chinese influence in Myanmar, even if it means embracing the military government in Yangon.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> India cannot be a silent spectator of the Maoists of Nepal winning in their military confrontation with the Government. The details of the networking between the Nepalese Maoists and their counterparts, who continue to wage an armed struggle in eight States of India, are well-known. Even though Beijing presently supports the Nepalese Government in its confrontation with the Maoists, their success could strategically strengthen Chinese influence in Nepal at India#146;s expense.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The emergence of Bangladesh as the new hub of pro-bin Laden jihadi terrorism has serious implications not only for India#146;s North-East, but also for law and order and communal and religious harmony in the rest of India. India cannot be a silent spectator of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) succeeding in its ill-concealed objective of forcing the Sri Lankan Government to accept a solution which would, in effect, turn Sri Lanka into one nation, with two States, two Armies and two Navies, with the LTTE#146;s so-called Navy controlling the seas in the neighbourhood of India.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Despite being a Sunni Muslim country, the Maldives under President Gayoom has historically looked upto India as its well-wisher and benefactor and tried to keep external influences, which could be detrimental to India, away from it. The confrontation between the Gayoom Government and the pro-democracy elements headed by the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) has potential seeds of instability which could be exploited by jihadi elements based in Pakistan. There is an indication in the report of the USA#146;s 9/11 Commission that among the various overseas terrorist strikes considered, but abandoned by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM), who orchestrated the 9/11 strikes in the USA, was one in the Maldives. Despite its concerns over the absence of genuine democracy in the Maldives, India has reasons to be gratified over Gayoom#146;s success in keeping Wahabist and other extremist influence away from the Maldives.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The entire Pakistani civil society is not inimical to India. The compulsive animosity towards India is a characteristic feature of large sections of its Punjabi component and the Pakistan Army and civil establishment, largely dominated by Punjabis. The Sindhis, the Mohajirs (migrants from India), the Balochs, large sections of the Pashtuns and the Seraikis of southern Punjab have traditionally been better disposed towards India and do not share the obsessive animosity of the Punjabis and the Army.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> It had, therefore, been the policy of the Congress (I) Governments, which were in power till 1996, to encourage contacts with these non-Punjabi friends of India in Pakistan. Many of their leaders from Sindh, Balochistan and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) used to openly visit India and meet the leaders and people of India.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> This policy was reversed from 1997 and the emphasis of the post-1996 non-Congress (I) governments turned to making overtures to the Punjabi segment of the Pakistani civil society at the expense of the carefully-built up ties with the non-Punjabi segments.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Slowly, but steadily, without openly criticising the increased involvement of the West in India#146;s neighbourhood or expressing its concern over it, the Government of Dr. Manmohan Singh has quietly sought to regain the influence which India had traditionally enjoyed in this region. It has not made secret of its willingness to help Nepal in dealing with the military threat posed by the Maoists without getting involved in the moves for a political dialogue between the Nepalese Government and the Maoists. It gave a red carpet welcome to Gen.Than Shwe, Myanmar#146;s military dictator, and reached an agreement with him on joint counter-insurgency co-operation without worrying about Western sensitivities.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> It has vigorously and openly gone ahead with the negotiations for a mutual defence agreement with Colombo and expressed its willingness to respond positively to the Sri Lankan Government#146;s requirements of military equipment to strengthen itself against the LTTE. Since the new Government came to power, there have been two high-profile visits to Colombo by India#146;s Chief of the Naval Staff (CONS), Admiral Arun Prakash, and Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), Gen.Nirmal Chander Vij. The visit of the CONS saw some blunt statements from him on India#146;s concerns over the LTTE#146;s intentions in the port of Trincomallee and over the destabilising potential of its so-called Navy.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> While the visit of Gen.Vij to Sri Lanka received considerable publicity in the media, not equally well-publicised was his equally significant visit to Male, the capital of the Maldives, from Colombo and his courtesy call on President Gayoom on November 4. There was a certain historic symbolism to the visit. It coincided with the 16th anniversary of the event in 1988 when the Indian Navy, on the orders of the late Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minster, rushed to the assistance of the Gayoom Government, which faced a threat of overthrow from foreign mercenaries.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> President Gayoom did not hesitate to draw the attention of his people to the symbolism of the visit. A statement issued by his office said: "The President and General Vij discussed the historic close friendly relations that exist between the Maldives and India, and ways to enhance these relations in the years ahead. Noting that the Indian Chief of Army Staff's visit to the Maldives had coincided with the commemoration of 3 November 1988, when the Maldives with the help of Indian troops successfully fended off an attempted invasion by foreign mercenaries, the President thanked the Indian Government for their rapid response on that day in assisting the Government of Maldives, to protect the country and its people from the invaders. General Nirmal Chander Vij said that it was a great pleasure to have had the opportunity to meet with the President, and thanked the President for granting him an audience. He also congratulated the President for the tremendous progress that the Maldives had achieved under his leadership."&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The visit and the courtesy call were meant to underline the fact that despite Gayoom#146;s on-going confrontation with the pro-democracy activists, India felt comfortable with his leadership of the Maldives. He has lifted on October 10, 2004 the State of Emergency which he had imposed following public demonstrations by his opponents in August and agreed to allow a team of Commonwealth monitors to monitor the forthcoming elections to the local Parliament (Majlis), which are due before December 31. At the same time, he has not released his political opponents whom he had jailed after the demonstrations of August. Many of them are reported to be on hunger-strike to protest against their ill-treatment. There are reports that while continuing a policy of open silence on the developments in the country, India has been quietly nudging Gayoom to be more accommodating in his confrontation with his opponents.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> In the case of Pakistan, the Manmohan Singh Government and the Congress (I) have been trying to re-pick the threads of friendship with the non-Punjabi segments of Pakistan#146;s civil society. Well-known Pashtun and Sindhi leaders have already started visiting India to renew their old friendships in the Indian civil society and with Indian political leaders. The current visit of Altaf Hussain, the London-based charismatic Mohajir leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), to New Delhi to attend a conference organised by a national daily is very significant. The newspaper could not have invited him without a discreet nod from the Government.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> In the past, even Congress (I) Governments had hesitated to allow him to visit India due to two reasons. First, the confrontation between the Mohajirs, the migrants to Sindh from India, and the Sindhis, the sons of the soil, who looked upon the Mohajirs as interlopers. India has had very close relations with the Sindhis. Second, the fear that if Altaf Hussain was allowed to visit India, the Punjabi officers of the Pakistan Army might take it out on the Mohajirs, many of whom have relatives in India.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The confrontation between the Sindhis and the Mohajirs has since subsided and Gen.Pervez Musharraf, himself a Mohajir whose family migrated to Pakistan when he was young, is dependent on the support of the MQM for continuing to have his political surrogates in power in Islamabad and to retain the post of COAS. These developments have removed the past inhibitions, which came in the way of a visit by Altaf Hussain.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> The new Government is yet to renew India#146;s ties of friendship with the Baloch people. Its reticence, somewhat valid, is apparently due to the on-going Baloch resistance movement in Balochistan and periodic allegations in the Pakistani media of possible Indian involvement in the movement. These naturally dictate a more cautious policy.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> Only in the case of Bangladesh, has the new Government not yet been able to find a coherent and visible response for understandable reasons. The Congress (I) and the Government headed by Mrs. Indira Gandhi had played an active role in helping the people of Bangladesh achieve independence from Pakistan. Begum Khalida Zia, the present Prime Minister and many members of her Government, had very little role to play in the independence movement. In fact, some of them had actively collaborated with the Pakistan Army and intelligence in their attempts to suppress the independence struggle. As a result, Dacca is likely to have greater animosity towards a Government led by the Congress (I) than towards its predecessor.&nbsp; <br /> <br /> . <br /> <br /> Courtesy: South Asia Analysis Group, New Delhi, Paper No. 1159, November 8, 2004. <br /> <br /> <em>* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Observer Research Foundation.</em>
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