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OP-ED: South Asia in transition

  • Published at 07:50 pm August 28th, 2020
Modi
Photo: REUTERS

Has India underestimated its neighbours for too long?

Since the partition of 47, South Asia has been going through ups and downs on the grounds of suppression and freedom. Yet, presently, the region is in transition, now more than ever. 

It is the tragedy of history perhaps that, as the proverb goes, history teaches mankind but not everyone takes lessons from history. Outwardly, India, the big brother, often called so by the media due to their superiority complex, is the tragic character at present who is facing one of the biggest crises with its neighbours alongside their broken economy and other alarming public issues. 

China, having borders with several South Asian countries and a partner of many mega projects, is taking as much benefit as it can out of it. India used to dominate solely in South Asia due to its highly invested in military, its economic and foreign ties with most countries in the world compared to other peers, and crucial border lines among the neighbouring countries. 

But, recently, that has changed. Their controversial public policies such as Hindutva with extreme nationalism has ignited instability in the region and created xenophobia through communal discrimination, eventually disturbing the interfaith harmony in the entirety of South Asia. 

In transition

However, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan approaching Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina through a telephone call on July 22, 2020 certainly is testament to this transition and is signalling the light at the end of the tunnel of the long-term closed relationship between the two countries. 

This recent humble gesture of the Pakistani PM perhaps touched the heart of Bangladeshi citizens positively. It should be noted that China is one of Pakistan’s closest allies and has traditionally invested in Pakistan to gear up their economy. 

Recently, Bangladesh also gained tax-free privilege to export 97% of its products in the Chinese market. Pakistan seemingly takes Bangladesh as one of the potential markets for their products as well as part of its strategy to deal with India. 

Comparatively, the Dhaka-Beijing relationship is closer and friendlier than Dhaka-Delhi at present. Recently, Foreign Minister of Bangladesh AK Abdul Momen said, on the issue of border killings, that the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) must use non-lethal weapons while guarding the border with Bangladesh. 

He added that the BSF can arrest and bring our citizens to us if they are found violating the law, but killing them is unacceptable. It is one of the hardest statements coming from any Bangladeshi diplomat in the past decade. 

BSF has killed 294 Bangladeshis in the last 10 years whereas Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) has always been kind to the Indians found in Bangladesh’s territory. BSF actions have always been seen as an unfriendly gesture from Bangladesh’s biggest and most powerful neighbour in the delta. 

Interfaith harmony

Historically, South Asia has been known for its great harmony where all kinds of faiths and ethnicities have lived together with the utmost respect and tolerance. Even during the colonialization of the British, there was not much communal clash among the people, rather diverse people came and fought together against all kinds of oppression at the time. 

In fact, despite being a Muslim majority country, there are numerous symbols of interfaith harmony in Bangladesh. Looking back at history, it is stated by the emblems of different faiths such as Mahasthangarh and Moinamati. 

Both are the oldest Buddhist archaeological sites in Bangladesh. Such harmony remained stable during the British Raj. Similarly, it was true for other South Asian nations, with thousands of similar examples. 

But things are changing rapidly. The BJP came into power and Narendra Modi, who was also allegedly involved in the communal riots in Gujarat during his time as chief minister, became the prime minister of the biggest democratic country in the world. 

His primary intention was to establish Hindutva and its aggressive nationalism from the beginning of his election manifesto, even though, constitutionally, India is a secular country. The situation has continued to worsen for the more than 240 million Muslims in the country. 

Now, we are witnessing numerous communal clashes where minorities are being deprived of their basic rights. This year, it was taken to another level when the National Citizen Act was passed at the national assembly of India on the basis of religion. 

Such systematic discrimination has undoubtedly ignited hatred and instability in the South Asian region. This also shows how India, as the world’s second most populous country, has turned into an arrogant state and has begun neglecting and underestimating its neighbours.

Souring relationships

One after another, India’s relationship with its neighbours have become bitter. Last year, the Pulwama incident took New Delhi-Islamabad almost to a frontline war until it stopped at the last moment. Lately, the Nepali government has also been having border disputes with India, and the Nepalese are not pleased by the inappropriate and irresponsible way the Indian government and media have conducted themselves. It ended up banning all the Indian TV channels telecasted in Nepal. 

The Sri Lankan government led by Prime Minister Mahindra Rajapaksa also has a complicated relationship with India, and is being supported by China. Additionally, Sri Lanka is already under the Chinese debt trap, for which they had to hand over their Hambantota harbour in a 99-year lease. 

Bhutan has also joined the list, as India is losing its influence on this smaller nation which does not have any diplomatic relationships with China yet, but there are talks and they might at any moment move in favour of a Beijing-Thimphu partnership. 

Lastly, Bangladesh has been India’s friendliest neighbour since its independence in 1971. Evidently, Bangladesh always keeps giving all its facilities and privileges to India, but India has not returned the favour.  

Rather, it has been the opposite, with issues regarding water allocation, land disputes, the Rohingya, border killings, etc. The people of this country are not happy about India’s treatment of Bangladesh. 

They have begun to ask their government to respond to the arrogance of the Indian authority. The Indian governments have always neglected and underestimated their neighbours. Now, they might have to face the consequences.

Between New Delhi and Beijing 

The Galwan Valley conflict between China and India took lives from both sides. China produces 85% of the weapons for the defense in their country whereas India exports around 90% of their total weapons. 

The US might help them get rid of this tension, but it will come at huge cost to India. It is not wise for them to involve themselves in a war right now. India’s unemployment rate is one of the highest in South Asia, especially youth unemployment, which is higher than that of Bangladesh. GDP is also comparatively low. 

So, economically and strategically, its South Asia peers are tending take China’s help for their own development and as a source of investment. 

Since Bangladesh is one of the fastest growing countries in the world, it should utilize the ongoing conflicts in the region and make the most of it, but with wisdom. In diplomacy, there is nothing called trust. 

It would be wise to step forward strategically. In fact, Bangladesh is in the ideal situation to make the best utilization and have great relationships with its South Asian peers. As China’s investment and debt trap is known to many and experienced by some, each South Asian peer should think twice before going onto it. It is worth noting that South Asia is extremely significant for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI-Silk Road). 

Yes, South Asia is in transition, with India facing the consequences of neglecting and underestimating its neigbours. China stands to be the beneficiary in this transition as Saarc has not actively functioned for a long time. 

The burning question remains: How will the South Asian players handle this transition and make the most out of it? 

Md Talebur Islam Rupom is International scholar in Master of Communication Studies (Ongoing) at Diponegoro University, Indonesia. 

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