Published: Thursday, March 14, 2013

Uneasy neighbourhood

It is not unusual for Pakistani leaders to visit the dargah at Ajmer Sharif during their term of office, to pay tribute and make obeisance at what is the premier shrine of this part of the world. Transcending political vagaries and disputes, Ajmer continues to draw crowds of pilgrims not from India alone but also from Pakistan and Bangladesh, including some of the principal leaders of these countries.

High-level pilgrimages have on occasion given an opportunity for relatively informal, protocol-free meetings between the visitors and their Indian counterparts, helping to reopen channels of communication and encouraging dialogue.

The latest such visit was that of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Raja Parvez Ashraf who was in Ajmer a few days ago, but this time there was no suggestion that his coming was regarded in New Delhi as an opportunity for re-engagement between the two countries. On the contrary, it was made apparent that while the visitor could not be denied access, his visit was being treated as a purely private affair.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself clarified in Parliament that there could be no normalisation of bilateral relations so long as Pakistan’s terror machine remained active. Thus New Delhi limited itself to providing necessary protocol facilities for Raja Parvez Ashraf and made no attempt to take advantage of his presence on Indian soil for discussions with his counterpart.

To rub it in, a senior cleric at the dargah refused to meet the Pakistani visitor, citing political reasons that do not normally figure in clerical discourse. Relations between India and Pakistan are never simple and it is arguable that the Pak PM’s visit represented an opportunity that could have been turned to mutual advantage, but that did not happen and relations remain uneasy.

Elsewhere in the region, too, old problems have welled up yet again and unresolved issues have returned to foment current difficulties. The situation in Bangladesh is especially testing. For weeks now, unprecedented crowds have occupied a central area of the city to demand befitting punishment for those who had collaborated with the Pakistan army in committing crimes against humanity during Bangladesh’s War of Liberation in 1971.

Many of those culpable have escaped until now, shielded by shifting political fortune, but now the demand for cleansing and retribution has become uncontainable.

The social media have played their part, spreading the word and encouraging activism to a hitherto unimaginable level. Partisans of the other side have responded by staging demonstrations of their own that try to match the turnout of those in quest of justice. It is not surprising that with such vast crowds out on the streets there should have been clashes and loss of life, though there has been no effective diversion of the initial demand to bring the guilty to book.

Several themes and issues have been highlighted by the thronging crowds and fundamental questions have been raised. One of these, and a most meaningful one, relates to the basic secular nature of the state, about which opinion is not uniform. During the liberation of Bangladesh, many atrocities were committed by religious extremists, and the baleful effect of these acts on that country’s social fabric has never been exorcised.

So there is a larger struggle within the confrontations on the streets, a contest for the right to acknowledge the realities of the liberation struggle and to shape the essential features of the state. India, of course, supports secularism but it has been chary of overtly taking sides in what looks like an internal conflict in a neighbouring country.

However, such conflicts tend to spill over and have an impact across formal borders, nor can the external affairs of one country be sealed off from those of its neighbours or even from its own internal political dynamics — witness the inability of New Delhi to deliver on the agreement to share the waters of the Teesta in the face of opposition from West Bengal. There are thus many complications to be taken into account and no easy path before New Delhi.

Other parts of South Asia are beset with no less intractable problems.

The prolonged political crisis in Nepal seems to stretch on and on, with insufficient common ground between the different groups and individuals engaged in trying to find a way forward. At one stage, some years ago, India had been actively involved in bridging the gaps, with considerable success, but circumstances have changed and a repeat of the earlier intervention does not currently appear feasible.

Despite the continued goodwill between them, the two countries are not doing much to cooperate meaningfully in development projects that would benefit both: Nepal’s abundant water resources remain largely untouched though, wisely utilised, they could transform the country, as has happened in neighbouring Bhutan. These and other similar matters are old questions but there seems little to suggest that new answers are being sought.

Relations between India and Sri Lanka have been complicated by revelations about human rights violations by the Sri Lanka authorities in the closing stages of the Tamil insurgency. India has not failed to respond to the situation and has called for direct talks between Colombo and Tamil leaders, being urged on by Tamil sentiment in India demanding a fairer deal in Sri Lanka. How far Colombo is prepared to respond to the friendly advice offered by India remains to be seen — in the past it has not taken kindly to attempts by others to speak about the ethnic problem, and it well may be that the latest attempt by India will achieve little.

There are other problems in South Asia — for instance, in Maldives — but what has been recounted here is sufficient to show that this has become a markedly uneasy neighbourhood for India. There has never been any shortage of problems in the region but today India seems beset on all sides. To be noted is the extent to which the demands of coalition politics have given the states a greater role in neighbourhood affairs — sometimes with useful intentions, as with the demand from the North-east for access to SE Asia, at other times with minatory intent, as in the demand for intervention in Sri Lanka’s Tamil issue. In either case the decision-making framework can be significantly altered.

With so much in disarray, India has deemed it best to respond in muted fashion. This may be as well, for there is no room for unwarranted activism. Yet an aspiring power like India cannot permit difficult situations to develop along its borders without trying to settle them. That is an unavoidable part of the role it seeks for the future.

The writer is India’s former foreign secretary.

© The Staesman (India). All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with Asia News Network.