08 December 2006

A bit of France, a bit of Britain

Madrid11.net, a project of opendemocracy.net, interviewed me recently on recent developments in Indian foreign policy. They asked whether I thought India would be to the United States in Asia a bit like what France is in Europe, aligned to Washington but also sticking to its own guns. My answer -- India will be both France and Britain...

8 December 2006

Security in focus: India

In recent years, much has been made of India's creeping ascent to importance on the global stage. With its booming economy and expanding foreign interests, the world's second largest country has already convinced many of its"superpower" destiny.

Despite India's global ambitions, the country remains in a region rife with tensions and uncertainty. Brahma Chellaney and Siddharth Varadarajan, two leading Indian policy analysts, explore the country's strategic concerns and internal threats.

On the strategic relationship with China


Hu Jintao's recent visit to India produced a substantial trade agreement and murmurs of future strategic and even civil nuclear cooperation. Is China merely gardening in its backyard or does Hu's visit herald a new era in Sino-Indian relations?

Brahma Chellaney:

During Hu’s visit to India, the underlying wariness or even suspicion of each other’s intentions was not absent. Yet both sides felt the need to publicly play down the competitive dynamics of their relationship and put the accent on cooperation. The visit, although low in substance, yielded a rhetoric-laden joint statement with nice jingles, such as “all-round mutually beneficial cooperation".

It makes sense for India to stress cooperation while working to narrow the power disparity with China and seeking power equilibrium in Asia through strategic partnerships with other democracies, including the U.S. To China, an accent on cooperation chimes with its larger strategy to advertise its "peaceful rise".

Given their underlying strategic dissonance, however, India and China are likely to remain business partners rather than become friends.

That is why the proclaimed “India-China strategic and cooperative partnership for peace and prosperity” remains devoid of content, and the new reference to joint civil nuclear cooperation is unlikely to translate into actual cooperation. The two sides can only showcase their fast-growing trade, expected to top $20 billion this year. But Japan and China, with 10 times higher volume of trade, are discovering that when strategic animosities remain untreated, interdependent commercial ties do not guarantee moderation and restraint.

Siddharth Varadarajan:

The Chinese are very serious about mending fences with India. This is not just because the economic relationship between the two has become big business but also because they know the United States is using Indian insecurity and paranoia about China to push its own strategic interests in Asia. It is for this reason, I believe, that China is eventually unlikely to block the Indo-US nuclear deal at the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

India remains wary of the Sino-Pak relationship but much of this wariness stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of Chinese foreign policy and strategic thinking. Indians believe Chinese assistance to Pakistan is tantamount to "containing" India. In fact, the Chinese regard Pakistan as a crucial swing state in the region since it also has a close military relationship with the United States. Chinese assistance to Pakistan, such as the development of Gwadar or the sale of military hardware, is aimed at strengthening China's reach in a region through which more than half of its energy imports pass.

Indians should not over-react to this relationship or regard Chinese weapons sales to Pakistan as anti-Indian any more than they see US weapons sales to India as an anti-Indian act.

On relations with the United States


A recent article in YaleGlobal suggested that following Hu's visit, India is less likely to become a US-allied "hedge" against China than the "France of Asia" – sharing similar values with the US but pursuing its own foreign policy agenda. Would you agree with that assessment?


India will be a bit like France and a bit like Britain. Let me explain what I mean. As Asian integration progresses and India slowly rises in economic and strategic significance, the United States hopes India will play in Asia a similar role to what Britain plays in Europe: in and out at the same time, modulating the design and utility of Asian architecture to ensure vital US interests are not affected.

In American eyes, only India can play such a role in the long-term, given the demographic realities in Japan and the uncertain role (in US eyes) that an eventually reunified (and nuclear) Korea would play.

To the extent to which the emphasis on "balance of power" dominates official thinking and the corporate sector increasingly influences foreign policy, India will play this role in terms of Asia's emerging institutions. At the same time, India's democratic polity and the interests of certain key sectors of the economy - such as energy - will not allow its rulers to enter into the more fanciful entanglements that being a "Britain in Asia" implies. Shades of "France" were visible in 2003 when India refused to send troops to Iraq. India is also being a "France" when it joins hands with China to buy oil fields in Syria and Sudan. But "Britain" is always lurking below the surface.

On internal security threats


In November, the government published the findings of a study that showed that Indian Muslims lagged far behind their compatriots in almost all major socioeconomic indicators. In the wake of the Mumbai bombings, what implications, if any, does this carry for Indian security? Can Muslim social alienation be tackled by Muslim quotas?


Historical reasons for the Muslims’ backwardness should not be forgotten. When India was partitioned, the well-to-do Muslims migrated to Pakistan, leaving behind their poorer brethren.

Caste-based quotas have proved controversial and divisive. Religion-based quotas could further fragment Indian society and undermine the task of building social cohesion. The latter would also demand an amendment of the Constitution, which forbids introduction of quotas based on religious affiliation


The marginalisation of the Muslim is one of India's most pressing problems. There is undoubtedly a security dimension but that tends to be overblown.

India implements limited quotas in higher education and government jobs for socially discriminated sections of its population, primarily the Scheduled Castes and tribes, as well as other backward classes. However, Muslims who fall within these socially disadvantaged categories are denied the benefits of quotas. This is discriminatory and unfair.

For the wider Muslim community, however, it is clear that quotas can at best be a palliative. The government, instead, needs actively to tackle discrimination in recruitment, housing, law enforcement, public expenditure on health and education, credit and so on - all of which are rampant and completely unchecked. At the same time, targeted expenditure aimed at bringing underprivileged sections of the population better or equal access to good education is a must.


While Mao is long dead in China, Maoists are on the up in the subcontinent. Recent agreements in Kathmandu have brought to end the region's more publicised Maoist insurgency. Will Indian Maoists be emboldened to make more noise in hope of future political concessions? How serious a security threat does the Indian Maoist insurgency pose?


In Nepal, it is too early to conclude that the Maoist insurrection is over. Despite the peace deal, the tough part now begins. The deal’s implementation poses major challenges, with the reestablishment of peace hinging on several questions: Will the Maoists play by the rules of democracy, or make the most of their new central role to try and usher in a proletariat dictatorship? Will they honor the deal by disbanding the parallel administration they run in many rural districts, or will they continue to levy taxes and mete out savage punishment upon those who fall foul of them? Will the Maoists exploit the culture of violence they have instilled in the impoverished countryside to secure a dominant position in the Constitutional Assembly to be elected next year?

There are links between the Nepalese Maoists and Indian Maoists, with the developments in Nepal coming as a shot in the arm to the Indian Maoists. It is not an accident that the Maoists are the strongest in the most backward districts of India. This calls for better governance and more rapid economic development in those areas.


The Indian Maoists have been denouncing their Nepali comrades for having compromised and given up the strategic goal of capturing power through armed struggle. On the other hand, [Nepali Maoist leader] Prachanda has been telling his Indian comrades that they should learn from Nepal's experiences and come forward to take part in "competitive politics".

The Indian Maoists are not willing to listen because they see their own strength growing, their areas of operation expanding. As neoliberal economic policies bring more and more remote areas under their sway through forcible land acquisition and displacement of settled tribal and peasant populations, the Maoists are able to find a steady stream of recruits. The Indian state's reaction has been to treat them as the most important threat to the country's security.

This is a mistake because the Maoist movement has developed out of social inequalities and imbalances and should not be treated as a law and order problem or a terrorist problem.


Is trouble still brewing in the northeast? Indian officials revealed recently that United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) leaders had travelled to Islamabad in search of assistance. Is this a sign of strength or desperation (ULFA, after all, has begun recruiting from impoverished Bangladeshi families)?


Though a peace process of sorts is on thanks to the mediation of prominent Assamese civil society personalities, matters are not helped by the approach of the Indian security forces or the ULFA leadership.

The security forces are reluctant to enter into a ceasefire arrangement. As for the ULFA leadership, they have long since completed the transition from being a politically oriented (if somewhat misguided) organisation to a lumpenised gang who have no qualms about using violence against civilians and noncombatants. As a result, their credibility is ebbing within Assam.


While the situation has improved in parts of India’s northeast, it has deteriorated in Assam because of the resurgence of the ULFA. The federal government pursues a disjointed approach towards the northeast. Where insurgent groups have kept their word not to target security forces, the government has dragged its feet on follow-up steps, as in Nagaland. But where guerrillas continue to attack police and the Army, New Delhi has precipitately extended an olive branch.

If ULFA remains “in the grip of the ISI agency” of Pakistan, as the Prime Minister admitted last week, why did New Delhi unilaterally cease counter-insurgency operations against that outfit for six weeks from 13 August? The spate of terrorist bombings in Assam is a direct consequence of that ceasefire, which allowed ULFA to regroup and rearm.

The government’s approach seeks to treat the northeast as a development-related problem that demands more funds. Without a comprehensive, integrated approach, however, not only will much of the funds, including the latest Rs. 200 billion planned outlay, continue to be siphoned off by those benefiting from the insurgencies, but it will also be difficult to mainstream those who feel they remain on the margins of the Indian state.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

Siddharth Varadarajan is strategic affairs editor of The Hindu, a leading English-language national daily. He is also based in New Delhi.

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