Perspectives on India’s relations with smaller neighbours
by R Hariharan on 11 Jun 2018 0 Comment

[This is an edited compilation of answers to questions raised by an Indian research scholar on India’s relations with its smaller neighbours.]


Q: What are the misconceptions about India in South Asia, when it comes to security related issues as a threat to State Sovereignty? Why do these perceptions exist? And how can India move past these misperceptions?


A: India’s cultural, religious, ethnic and linguistic soft power dominates the entire South Asian region from Afghanistan in the West to Myanmar in the East and from Nepal in the North to Sri Lanka in the South. Its shared historical, political and commercial links spread over two thousand years overwhelms India’s smaller neighbours.


With India clocking over 7 percent growth and emerging as the fastest developing economy in the world, next only to China, its increasing military power and advances in science and technology makes it a dominant power not only in South Asia, but also in the Indian Ocean Region. At times India’s overbearing conduct in dealing with smaller neighbours, due to its domestic political compulsions or in its own strategic interest, has created the image of acting like a “Big brother” among smaller countries like Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. So smaller neighbours of India are wary of Indian domination subsuming their own identity.


India’s military interventions that led to the creation of Bangladesh (1971) and to ensure ethnic peace in Sri Lanka (1987-90) have shown that India is capable of using its military power to achieve its strategic objectives. This has created a latent feeling of insecurity among sections of society who are wary of their own distinct identity, religion, culture and economy being overwhelmed by India. Political parties in these countries have exploited the anti-India sections among the population to their own advantage; governments in these countries have also leveraged it to gain maximum advantage while dealing with India.


With China making inroads in South Asia, latent anti-India feelings are exploited by China to further its interests. So India has to factor neighbours sensitivities, not only on aspects of security, but in all dealings more than ever before to retain its influence in the region.


Q: Rajen Harshe (South Asia analyst) similarly points out that while the strategic community in India tends to construe India’s military interventions in neighbouring countries in defensive terms, this is not the perception of its neighbours. He argues that India’s neighbours, particularly smaller neighbours, “have viewed such interventions in terms of the outward projection and demonstration of India’s military might.”(Harshe, 1999) He further adds, “To put it more sharply, India’s military interventions in Bangladesh (1971), Sri Lanka (1987-9) and Maldives (1988) have only added to the insecurity as well as fear of Indian hegemony among India’s neighbours. Do you agree? Is this fair? And how do we move past this?


A: While from India’s perspective, its military interventions were justified on the basis of its own security interests and concerns, this was not how others saw it. I don’t agree with Mr Rajen Harshe’s contention or understand how he gauged the neighbourhood perceptions. Unless there is empirical evidence, I will question such conclusions. It is absurd to call Indian military intervention in Maldives in 1988, at the request of the President to prevent a coup by mercenaries, as Indian show of force. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, troops were sent at the invitation of President Jayewardene (in terms of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement) as he feared the Tamil militants (particularly the LTTE) might refuse to lay down arms after the Sri Lanka army was sent back to the barracks.


I don’t know which “others” you refer to, I presume it is some academic. Nations always intervene in another country, directly or indirectly, to safeguard their own national security interests or to achieve a strategic security objective like protecting their areas of strategic influence. In India’s case, areas of strategic influence include Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar and Indian Ocean Region including Maldives, Seychelles and Mauritius.


Generally, nations intervene in what is called in strategic terms as “spheres of influence.” So the so-called “justification” is invariably to satisfy international community, lest it draws flak from superpower manoeuvres in the UN Security Council. This is how conflicts take place when big powers intervene in countries, even in far off places.


Q: In Sri Lanka, India had concerns over the influx of Tamil Refugees, as it did in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971. India was also apprehensive about external powers in Sri Lanka, such as China, Pakistan, Israel and even the US. However, with hindsight, some feel “India’s peace keeping action proved counter-productive, alienating the Tamil community, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government.” (Mukherjee & Malone, 2011)


A: India and Sri Lanka are geo-strategically linked together, like Nepal and Bangladesh.  India and Sri Lanka relations have always related to three major issues: the status of people of Indian origin in Sri Lanka, geo-strategic security of the region including the Indian Ocean, and the Tamil populations’ quest for democratic rights. Issue relating to Tamils of Indian origin occupied a large space in India’s policy horizon till the 1974 Sirimavo-Gandhi pact on their citizenship issue was signed.


The geo-strategic issue dominated Indian thinking in the Cold War era. It was overtaken by the Tamil issue when the ‘Black July’ pogrom against Tamils was carried out in July 1983. This triggered a large flow of Tamil refugees to Tamil Nadu. This coincided with the end of single party rule in New Delhi. The new era of coalition rule at the Centre increased the influence of rival Dravidian parties of Tamil Nadu as useful allies of national parties. This suited the Congress party that had developed cracks in its monolithic framework.


India’s strategic concerns laced with desire to help Sri Lanka amicably resolve the Tamil issue culminated in the signing of the India-Sri Lanka Agreement 1987. It reflected the holistic Indian approach to building strong bonds between the two countries because it halted the Tamil separatist insurgency while underwriting Sri Lanka unity. At the same it ensured the Sri Lanka constitution is amended to create provincial councils in traditional areas of Tamil habitation with partial powers in recognition of their distinct identity, culture and language. To call ISLA a failure is debatable, even after India’s unhappy experience during its military intervention from 1987 to 1990 that ended in fighting with the LTTE.


After the LTTE assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in 1992, India’s focus shifted to a more benign and less active approach to the Tamil question. There is no question of alienation of India among Tamils; even now Tamil politicians always seek India’s support just as the government seeks to resolve ethnic crisis.


QIn the creation of Bangladesh, India’s role “was widely viewed internationally and in the region as primarily an attempt to dismember an arch rival.” (Mukherjee & Malone, 2011)  Moreover, contrary to India’s expectations, “the assistance it rendered to Bangladesh did not win it an ally but rather produced a neighbour that has often proved prickly and resentful.” (Mukherjee & Malone, 2011)


A: I totally disagree with this viewpoint. The Indian intervention in 1971 should be viewed in the backdrop of the Partition of India and the creation of Pakistan. India did not render “assistance” to win an ally in Bangladesh, nor is it a “prickly ally”. To describe the umbilical relations of the two neighbours in such terms would be trivialising them. India waged war in East Pakistan with multiple objectives:

-        To strategically reduce the potential threat posed by a united Pakistan on India’s vulnerable Eastern flank.

-        To support assertion of Bengali identity and independence against Pakistan’s military authoritarianism, after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman found Bengalis democratic claim for sharing power in Pakistan was not recognised, despite their parliamentary majority.

-        The massive military crackdown by Pakistan army in the eastern wing resulted in a human tragedy with ten million refugees seeking sanctuary in India. Mrs Indira Gandhi sought international assistance to tackle the situation politically. The US, then an ally of Pakistan, under President Richard Nixon’s dispensation saw it in terms of Cold War and forced the military option upon India.

(See the Anderson Papers: (columnist) for details.)


Q: Why do India’s neighbours see it as more threatening than China? Or is this not so? Why do they lean towards China, is it just balance of power, which happens all the time international relations?


A: I don’t know whom you are quoting to say neighbours see India as more threatening. If you mean the neighbours feel threatened by India’s huge size army next door and fast growing economy dominating them, then I would agree. Yes, they are unnerved by India’s sheer size. China’s size does not intimidate them the same way because China is a few thousand kilometres miles away. While I understand their concerns, neighbourhood is not by choice but by geography. They also understand it, so they try to manage with India’s presence.


Of course, it is only natural that India’s neighbours try to balance their relations with two big powers, but at times they play India and China against each other to garner maximum advantage. This is what all nations, including India and China, do all the time.


Q: How do we resolve this?


A: Foreign policy formulations of India should be viewed holistically; one cannot have special foreign policy only for neighbours because it has to fit in India’s national vision. So we need to understand how Prime Minister Modi is strategizing India’s neighbourhood policy.


Stephanie M L Heng, a visiting fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation, writing on India’s foreign policy formulation last year, said: “Today, most countries use a combination of soft power and hard power, together called ‘smart power.’ Since Modi became prime minister in May 2014, India has employed such a blend, but with a strong focus on soft power.


Prime Minister Modi, though seen as a strongman at home, has sought to position his efforts abroad as diplomacy by consensus – not bullying – which India’s smaller neighbours have complained of in the past. Modi explaining his strategy in July 2014 said: “Look foreign policy is not about changing mindsets… foreign policy is about finding the common meeting points. Where do our interests converge and how much? We have to sit and talk with every country.”


According to Dhruva Jaishankar of Brookings, Modi’s public articulations, combined with nature, outcomes, and timings of Modi’s diplomatic activities, offer a clear picture of India’s priorities and strategic objectives. They are essentially five-fold:


-        Prioritizing an integrated neighbourhood; “Neighbourhood First.”

-        Leveraging international partnerships to promote India’s domestic development.

-        Ensuring  a stable and multipolar balance of power in the Indo-Pacific; “Act East”

-        Dissuading Pakistan from supporting terrorism.

-        Advancing Indian representation and leadership on matter of global governance.

I agree with him.



South Asia Analysis Group Paper No 5386 dated 5 June 2018

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