Neighbourhood Views of India

Sharmila Joshi, Editor
Gateway House, Indian Council on Global Relations
A Review by Susan Froetschel, February 23, 2013

When divorce hits a home, neighbors and friends of the couple are forced to pick sides.  Friendship with the warring parties isn’t easy. No longer married, the couple must take on the task of reconciliation, that is, if they want to maintain relations with children, friends and neighbors, reinforcing old friendships and forming new ones.

Such has been the challenge for South Asia, since India and other states gained independence from colonists, since Pakistan broke off from India in 1947, and since Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan in 1971. Each breakup led to new and contested borders, with ups and downs of foreign relations resembling an intense Bollywood movie about one neighborhood’s string of divorces. Neighbors may try to resist taking one side or the other, but can’t help it. 

Every move is scrutinized. Any neighborly exchange with India tilts relations with Pakistan – and increasingly this happens with China, too. China and India fought a short, but bitter border war in 1962.

After a while, one spouse or the other gets overcomes anger and seeks advice from friends and neighbors in an effort to end animosity. That happened in December 1985 with the launch of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation by founding members Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Afghanistan joined in 2007. And renewing ties is essentially the goal of Neighbourhood Views of India – a collection of essays from Gateway House that examines India’s bilateral relations with fellow SAARC members. Essayists were selected from each member state to assess attitudes and identify specific actions to improve cooperation. The collection marks SAARC’s 27th anniversary and is intended to represent a starting place for improving relations after a century of bitter divisions, the consequences of poverty, colonization, religion, traditional wars and the Cold War, as well as independence movements.

The challenges for India as a SAARC member are many, as described by Neelam Deo, co-founder and director of Gateway House, in the foreword. Accounting for 80 percent of the SAARC economy and 60 percent of the land area, India can’t help but overwhelm other members. Some of India’s states have closer ties with neighboring countries than they do with their own central government.

Many readers will turn to the Pakistan essay first. “Historically, a popular perception persists that India has never accepted Pakistan as a reality and would not miss an opportunity to unravel Pakistan,” notes Ayesha Siddiqa, author and independent social scientist based in Islamabad. She urges settling boundary issues quickly and suggests that would move the relationship to “higher planes of cooperation.”   

Of course, few historic endeavors in the region can escape being viewed from the perspective of the Pakistan-India partition. For example, in the essay from Bangladesh, journalist Mahfuz Anam, recalls US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s 1971 visit to Beijing and labels his flight from a secret air base in Pakistan as “spine-chilling.” 

Still, relationships among SAARC members are rooted in a shared ancient history and culture rather than modern achievements like corporate trade or missiles. “In the mind of the ordinary Bhutanese, India as a society where Buddhism originated, takes precedence over notions of India as superpower,” explains Karma Ura, president of the Centre for Bhutan Studies. Cultural influence often outweighs economic or security initiatives. For example, India cinema has inspired civil rights throughout the region. Health care, education exchanges and other forms of soft power – as well as the individual character of soldiers, tourists or traders – have lingering effects. Ura, recalling Nehru’s foot journey to Paro through mountain valleys and passes, urges leaders to spend more time together for lasting connections, suggesting that had Nehru come by helicopter, the trip would be less remembered.

As the world’s largest democracy, India has a great responsibility to show that such a system is viable and influential. After power unexpectedly shifted from Mohamed Nasheed to Mohamed Waheed in the Maldives, “many have expressed shock at the speed at which India ‘abandoned’ … a close partner,” writes freelance writer Yameen Rasheed. India’s quick switch to Waheed did not sway the new coalition toward India, he claims, adding that instead India “lost the clout and undivided attention of Maldivian leaders.”

Along the same lines, India is Afghanistan’s biggest regional donor and funder of reconstruction and could be expected to act if the Taliban were to take over the country once again – to protect its own investments, if not democracy. Wazhma Frogh, co-founder and executive director of the Research Institute for Women, Peace and Security critiques India’s non-alignment policy. “Afghans also expect India to now discard the Pakistan lens and regard Afghanistan as a strategic economic and regional partner, as a sovereign nation,” she writes. “Afghanistan and India must become equally important to each other, with or without Pakistan.”

Of course, not all interventions are welcome. Pakistan worries about India fueling insurgency in Baluchistan, supporting an unfriendly regime in Kabul and generally destabilizing Pakistan. Many in Sri Lanka blame India for “aggravating” the dispute between the Sinhalese and Tamils, explains Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research and professor of security studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Such conflicts and interventions taken on the sly have shaken trust in the SAARC neighborhood. Writing about Nepal, journalist Yubaraj Ghimire urges transparency in foreign policy to restore trust. Friendships and alliances will evolve with conditions – continuity, stability, positive exchanges in trade, travel and culture are essential.  Negotiations over resources – like water – are particularly sensitive. Personal assurances that future governments won’t backtrack on agreements is not enough – treaties and formal legal arrangements are in order.  

A challenge for democracy – and with a small book, too, as each writer single-handedly represents his or her nation and its wish list – is that domestic politics in SAARC countries are also fractured, influenced immensely by decades-old rivalries among neighbors. The opposition party counters the party in power by embracing opposite stances in foreign relations as a convenient wedge issue to whip up nationalism and more. 

Conciseness, specific recommendations and personal anecdotes lend sincerity to this publication, but also a pessimistic mood about a neighborhood overcoming differences and achieving greatness. Ghimire posits a bleak future for SAARC, as long the impression remains that the Indo-Pak divide over Kashmir is “intractable,” as suggested by S.M. Rana in an essay for Rupa Publications. Ghimire concludes, “As a result, regional diplomacy will largely continue to be a bilateral affair.”

SAARC member countries have a stake in minimizing differences and cooperating to lift the region as a whole, and Deo urges SAARC governments “to imagine a different future.”  

Susan Froetschel joined the staff of YaleGlobal Online in 2005 and is the author of Fear of Beauty, set in Afghanistan.

Neighbourhood Views is a collection of essays marking SAARC’s 27th anniversary, crafted to examine India’s relations with the other seven member states and offer recommendations.