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Illuminating perspectives


Understandably, a lavish spread of illuminating thoughts and revealing insights was temptingly laid out at a recent two-day regional conference here on "Comprehensive Security in South Asia" jointly organized by the Institute of Foreign Affairs (IFA) and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) in which this columnist, among others, participated.

Unfortunately, no more than a few spoonfuls of that delicious feast can be provided for introspection in this space via a sampling of that sumptuous mental repast. Due to space constraints only excerpts of four conference papers - three Indian and one Bhutanese - have been included.

C.V. Ranganathan, a former Indian envoy to China and France, offered some very penetrating observations in his paper. These that I believe deserve careful consideration by our foreign/security policy community. Ranganathan opened with an overview of India-China relations beginning with the admission that "the state of India-China relations from the fifties to at least the late seventies cast a malign shadow on South Asia."

The Deng Xiaoping reform period in China beginning in 1978 changed all that. Deng's basic policy of consciously working for a peaceful neighborhood led to a sea change in China's external relations with her erstwhile enemies the USA and the former Soviet Union and with most countries of Southeast Asia through the eighties. "India too benefited from this in restoring friendship with China."

After tracing some major landmarks in that process, he mentioned Kargil where he recalled "China called for respect of established de-facto lines of control." Furthermore, "China is against forcible regime changes. With stability at home being the overall rubric under which socio-economic development can take place, China is very averse to instability in her neighborhood caused by extremist or fundamentalist movements. Such movements have spillover effects on China itself." That observation should, I maintain, merit close attention by our politicos, pundits and revolutionaries.

Ranganathan's observations on terrorism in South Asia, too, need to be mulled over: "Bases from which terrorists can operate against neighbors are provided in countries who wish to destabilize them for the achievement of political objectives. Experience has shown that those who provide such bases are themselves overwhelmed by threats to their domestic security and harmony. Trans border targets could shift to domestic ones." Viola!

Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar (retd.)'s paper on "military confidence building measures in the India-Pakistan context" was also educative not merely for a listing of the various confidence building measures (CBMs) that have been in play between India and Pakistan over the years. (Although Nambiar did not turn up due to logistical problems, his paper was distributed to participants.)

Describing Pakistan President Musharraf's order on 26 November 2003 for a cease-fire on the Line of Control (LOC) in Kashmir, which was immediately responded by the Indian establishment, as "one of the two most significant military CBMs put into place, Nambiar states that "a strong section of the strategic community in India" took the view that it was "a clever tactical move to enable the Pakistani forces to focus their efforts without distraction with the situation on the Western front."

His paper goes on to claim that Musharraf was under "severe pressure" from the US to undertake operations against Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area. He also speculates that US pressure might, in turn, have caused India to respond positively to Musharraf's cease-fire initiative.

Equally fascinating is Nambiar's thesis, thus explained: "It is somewhat ironic but true that in any assessment, analysis or prognosis today, Pakistan and General Musharraf are more or less synonymous. That is not the case with India where neither the Prime Minister, nor the Chief of Army Staff has such unbridled power and authority. They are answerable to the establishment."

From that, he logically comes to this conclusion: "It is in this context that an individual in the personality of General Musharraf becomes so important for the credibility of the process. We in India may draw some satisfaction from the fact that General Musharraf sees himself as Pakistan's man of destiny; and may therefore be prepared and willing to display statesmanship that someone with less pretensions would be reluctant to display."

Continuing his paper goes on to state: "He seems determined to take Pakistan to its rightful place within the comity of nations. This he cannot do without coming to terms with the sub-continent; which really means ending or at least easing the confrontation with India. Unless of course he believes that he can be successful in breaking up the Republic of India or achieving parity with India politically, economically and militarily."

Suba Chandran's paper (read in his absence by a replacement) on "Intra-state armed conflicts in South Asia: Impact on regional security" is also most enlightening based as it is on considerable research and backed by solid documentation. Here are some general observations. First, armed conflicts in South Asia have been primarily intrastate rather than interstate since the 1950s. Since the late 1980s, South Asia has been witnessing a sudden growth in intrastate conflicts.

Second, intrastate armed conflicts in South Asia are not monolithic in nature. They differ in their nature, causes of birth, intensity, etc. Third, interstate armed conflicts in South Asia do not have the same intensity of armed violence since 1991. Chandran also attempts to explain why intrastate conflicts in South Asia are more and protracted than interstate conflicts. Among the reasons, he identifies are problems of nation- building and the fact that, unlike in interstate conflicts, in most cases, there are more than two actors in any intrastate conflict. Is this not the case in Nepal, too?

Bhutanese researcher Tashi Choden's paper was a paean to Indo-Bhutan relations and notable for not containing even a word about the Bhutanese refugee problem, although India figures in that messy business very prominently, if not formally up-front. What, however, this commentator found more noteworthy was her hostility towards China, Bhutan's immediate neighbor to the north.

Thus, this is her explanation for Bhutan's lop-sided relationship with India: "The geopolitical scene in the entire Himalayan region and Indian sub-continent underwent great change following the proclamation of the People's Republic of China in 1949 and the takeover of Tibet by the People's Liberation Army in 1950. These events, plus the presence of Chinese troops near Bhutan's border, the annexation of Bhutanese enclaves in Tibet and Chinese claims all led Bhutan to re-evaluate its traditional policy of isolation; the need to develop its lines of communication with India became an urgent necessity. Consequently, Bhutan was more inclined to develop relations with India."

Her paper does not explain, one, how China annexed Bhutanese enclaves in Tibet before formalization of her 1949 treaty with India since, by her own admission, China "tookover" Tibet only the following year! Moreover, after having lamented that "19th century Bhutan saw the loss of the Assam and the Bengal Duars to British India" (not restored to Bhutan by India in the 1949 Treaty), is it not a little curious that Thimphu should have chosen of her free will to cast her lot with the very country that, even today, is in possession of "the Assam and Bengal Duars"?

Note: This article was published in The Kathmandu Post (24 November 2004)

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