By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi (NM), addressed a joint session of the US Congress in Washington recently. US lifted a visa ban, imposed on NM in 2005 after Human Rights groups accused him of not acting to save Muslims in his state of Gujrat during Hindu Muslim riots in 2002 when he was Chief Minister, after he was sworn in as Prime Minister. Since then, US President Barak Obama and NM have met with each other seven times, unprecedented in Indo – US relations. NM, in his 45 minute address, which bewildered many due to the heavy regional accent, was yet received by a packed Congress with several standing ovations. The speech was full of praise for America. NM echoed thoughts of a former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpajee by referring to US as “natural allies”. He went on to state, “In the fall of 2008, when the Congress passed the India US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, it changed the very colours of leaves of our relationship. We thank you for being there when the partners needed you most. You have also stood by us in times of sorrow. India will never forget the solidarity shown by the US Congress when terrorists from across our border attacked Mumbai in 2008”. NM concluded stating, “In my final thoughts and words, let me precise that our relationship is primed for a momentous future. The constraints of the past are behind us and foundations for the future are firmly in place. In the lines of Walt Whitman, the orchestra have sufficiently tuned the instruments; the baton has given the signal. And to that, if I might add, there is a new Symphony in play.”
India, since independence, has a track record of aligning itself with big and powerful nations depending on its own circumstances. It was the first Asian nation to extend diplomatic recognition to Communist China on 01 January 1950 followed by the symphony Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai (India & China are brothers). The two countries went to war in 1962 over a territorial dispute. It then entered into a Friendship & Co-operation Treaty with Russia (then Soviet Union) in 1971 under which Russia was obliged to defend India in case of any external aggression. It also provided India with the protection of a nuclear umbrella. In December 1971, Russia dispatched a nuclear armed flotilla from Vladivostok to counter the US 7th Fleet moving into Bay of Bengal and several British naval craft sailing into India’s western coast during the height of the 1971 Indo-Pak war. The symphony therefrom was Hindi Russi Bhai Bhai (India & Russia are brothers). For all intent and purposes, the current symphony would seem to be Hindi Amiriki Bhai Bhai (India & America are brothers).
India had been seeking admission to Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
MTCR is a voluntary association of 34 countries. The group aims to slow the spread of missiles and other unmanned delivery technology that could be used for chemical, biological and nuclear attacks. The regime urges members, which include most of the world’s major missile manufacturers, to restrict exports of missiles and related technologies capable of carrying a 500 kg payload at least 300 km, or delivering any type of weapon of mass destruction (WMD). Countries desirous of membership must obtain concurrence from existing members. Rules relevant to nuclear commerce are decided by MTCR members. Membership will eventually enable India to trade in nuclear equipment. India is being allowed to retain its missile arsenal by US. With the support and blessings of US, India’s membership is expected to materialize formally, possibly as early as July.
US has continuously blocked membership for China on grounds some Chinese companies are secretly supplying technology to North Korea.
The 1968 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) defines “nuclear weapons states” as those that tested devices before January 1, 1967. India first tested May 18, 1974. The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) controls access to sensitive nuclear technology. The NSG works under the principle of unanimity and even one country’s negative vote will negate India’s bid. The NSG looks after critical issues relating to the nuclear sector. Its members are allowed to trade in and export nuclear technology. Membership in NSG will enable India to make its voice heard in the area of nuclear commerce and the ability to sell nuclear equipment. China, who is a member of NSG currently oppose India’s admission.
The question to be posed is if India has earned the right or deserves a place in key decision making world bodies and forums. It would qualify on a criteria based on such para meters as world’s second largest population, largest democracy etc. However, what also need to be factored in is if India has behaved as a peaceful and responsible nation since 1947.
From a regional perspective, India’s quest for a place at the top table at international forums including permanent membership in the UN Security Council is bound to make some of its immediate neighbours uncomfortable. Relations with Pakistan, let alone being cordial are nowhere near satisfactory. The two countries have fought four bitter wars since 1947. Repeated efforts to jump start Indo – Pak relations have failed so far for varied reasons which cannot be assigned to any one country. Pakistan fear Indian membership in NSG will eventually give India an increased amount of material for its military nuclear programme and thus further increase a nuclear arms race in the sub-continent. Relations with other South Asian neighbours too have been contentious. Relations with Sri Lanka were poor for decades after India supported a terrorist group seeking a separate state in Sri Lanka. Relations have improved since January 2015 with the change of government in Colombo. Despite warming of relations, India, in a high handed manner has so far refused to address the issue of Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters with total disregard to international maritime law. The current government in Sri Lanka has remained mostly silent for sake of good relations. Good relations do not mean passive and silent acceptance of diktats from big neighbours. It could easily change with a change of governments. Landlocked Nepal dependent on India for all its supplies transported overland via India have had supplies cut off on several occasions when it acted against the wishes of India. A crisis developed recently due to objections from two minority communities to the newly passed constitution. It resulted in unruly mobs blocking parts of the Indo – Nepal border which contain entry / exit points between the two countries. India too objected to the constitution and played a role in the disruptions. Not too long ago, Indian troops stormed into Myanmar without the consent of Myanmar authorities in pursuit of Indian terrorists, violating Myanmar’s sovereignty. Indo – Bangladeshi relations over the years have gone through the unilateral diversion of the Ganges water by India at Farakka Barrage and other waterways, Land, Border, Maritime and Boundary disputes. India is presently unhappy with developments in Maldives, especially with what some observes term as a ‘China tilt’ in Maldivian foreign policy and the political turmoil and rights restrictions since the ousting of former President Mohamed Nasheed.
India’s efforts to foster closer relations with neighbours unfortunately contain a coercive factor which is seen by some neighbours as Indian hegemony. Despite public back slapping during meetings of leaders especially since the advent of the Modi government, development of institutional relations with South Asian neighbours on a long term basis remains remote. India is selective in efforts towards improving multilateral cooperation within SAARC. One such instance was its refusal to permit Sri Lanka to raise the issue of the violation of its air space and territorial integrity in 1987 at a SAARC summit. Indian Air Force transporters accompanied by fighter jets dropped food and medicine in Jaffna. India claimed it was bi-lateral issue whereas SAAC was a multilateral forum. For example, it would be unthinkable for Germany to violate small Belgium’s air space and for the issue not to be raised both at EU and NATO. Trading figures with most neighbours are lopsided and stacked in favour of India in billions of dollars.
India’s hegemonic stance in no way helps good neighbourly relations. It must embark in a path whereby discontentment on the part of the weaker neighbours need be addressed in a just, fair and equitable manner on a long term basis. Towards this end, it needs to make compromises, which may at times be unfavourable.
India has to demonstrate its suitability to sit at the top table of UNSC, MTCR, NSG and other important world bodies by abandoning its hegemonic stance. It must adopt a more balanced and accommodating doctrine on a long term basis towards its smaller and weaker neighbours. Then and only then can it legitimately claim a place as a world leader.