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Region or subcontinent?

In his press conference on January 3, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke of his regret that because of Musharraf’s unexpected ouster from power, the promise of a “breakthrough” in back-channel negotiations on Kashmir had remained unfulfilled. Delhi’s disappointment at having failed to wrap up the deal is hardly news, nor is it a secret that India has been very keen to pick up the thread of those negotiations.

There was also nothing new in Manmohan’s statement that he is willing to visit Pakistan “when conditions are appropriate to achieve solid results”. This has been the refrain of his response to the numerous invitations he has received from successive Pakistani leaders.

The press conference was nevertheless memorable because of another sentence his speech-writers slipped into his prepared opening statement and which seems hardly to have been noticed in Pakistan. “We will continue to seek better relations with our immediate neighbours”, Manmohan said, “knowing that the destiny of the Indian Subcontinent is linked through a shared history and a shared geography”. In this seemingly innocuous sentence, Manmohan packed several loaded terms pointing to India’s long-cherished dream of bringing the region under its domination.

A ‘shared geography’? Yes, Pakistan and India have a common dependence on the monsoons and the Indus river system. But that has been a reason for discord rather than harmony, as shown by recurring disputes over river waters and the emerging problem of trans-border atmospheric pollution, caused mainly by the burning of coal in India. In any case, geographical proximity does not erase the political, ethnic, cultural and religious lines which form the basis of nationhood and which in the case of Pakistan and India has been a source of friction rather than concord.

Similarly, our ‘shared history’ has been one of conflict and bloodshed going back to more than a thousand years. That is hardly something for Pakistan and India to build on. Instead of dwelling upon that unhappy past, what they should be doing is free themselves from their historical baggage and go their separate ways.

From speaking of “shared history” and “shared geography”, it was a small step for Manmohan to link the destiny of India and its “immediate neighbours”. What that ‘destiny’ should look like in India’s view is betrayed by his labelling of the South Asian region as the “Indian Subcontinent”, although India is just one of the seven countries that make up that region.

Properly speaking, ‘subcontinent’ is a geographical term, but India has tried to twist the expression to make it fit its political ambition to establish hegemony over the region. In deference to Indian wishes, Washington also now increasingly refers to South Asia as “the subcontinent”, as Obama did pointedly in his remarks to the press after his two meetings with the Pakistani and Indian prime ministers in Washington last year.

In an article published in November 2011, Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, had gone even further and spoken of the “Indian Subcontinent”. The Indians, of course, were delighted. Regrettably, Pakistan did not lodge any protest.

The peculiar political terminology coined by India does not stop there. Indian officials rarely use the term South Asia. Countries of South Asia are instead often referred to as India’s ‘immediate neighbours’. Those that are a little farther from the ‘immediate neighbours’ fall in India’s ‘extended neighbourhood’, somewhat like Russia’s ‘near abroad’.

The way India is trying in the 21st century to emulate the colonial powers of the 19th century might look mildly amusing to most people. But India is dead serious in this venture. It now also has the encouragement of Washington in playing a policeman’s role in the smaller South Asian countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, as well as in Bangladesh. In a speech in Madras in 2011, Clinton called upon India to step up and assume this responsibility.

In that speech, she also encouraged India to play a bigger role in the East Asia and Pacific region. India, she said, straddled the waters from the Indian to the Pacific Ocean and was, with the US, a steward of those waterways. Hillary Clinton’s assertion that India sits astride these waters may be a stretch in the geographic sense, but her call on India to be more assertive in staking out a role for itself in those seas found an enthusiastic echo in India’s strategic community.

In another speech in 2010 on America’s engagement in the Asia-Pacific, Clinton had spoken of the importance of the “Indo-Pacific basin” to global trade and commerce and of expanding cooperation with the Indian navy in the Pacific. The term “Indo-Pacific” has since then been given wide currency by India’s armchair strategists to encapsulate the country’s new-fangled ambitions in the Pacific Ocean. In the words of Shyam Saran, a former foreign secretary of India, from a geopolitical perspective the concept “represents the inclusion of the Western Pacific within the range of India’s security interests, thus stretching beyond the traditional focus on the Indian Ocean theatre”.

Turning those ambitions into reality has been a more challenging task. About two weeks after Clinton’s Madras speech, an Indian amphibious assault vessel, INS Airavat, sent from the Andamans to Vietnam on a goodwill visit, was challenged in the South China Sea by the Chinese navy and asked to leave Chinese waters. Both sides later played down the incident but the message seems not to have been lost.

India’s efforts to play the role of overlord in its smaller “immediate neighbours” have also not been an unqualified success. These countries have sought to counter Indian meddling by building up ties with Beijing. Nepal has the great advantage that it shares a long land border with China. But others like Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bhutan have also tried this path, with varying degrees of success. In Sri Lanka, where Delhi has long sought to exploit the issue of Tamil separatism to expand its influence, India has steadily been losing ground to China.

In Bangladesh, India has banked heavily on its traditionally close ties with the Awami League. Delhi’s partisanship for Hasina Wajid in the current political crisis in the country is no longer a secret. While the rest of the world has refused to recognise last week’s electoral exercise in Bangladesh, Delhi has upheld its legitimacy and has implicitly criticised Khaleda Zia’s party for allegedly condoning violence against the country’s Hindu minority.

At one time, especially in the aftermath of the 1971 war, India used to nurse hegemonic designs over Pakistan as well. According to a WikiLeaks telegram sent by the US Embassy in Delhi in 1974, Indira Gandhi claimed that she had resisted pressures to destroy Pakistan in 1971. The telegram also said that the Indians believed the burden of improving relations rested with Pakistan “which must adjust to Indian power and influence”.

Whatever the situation might have been in 1974, the acquisition of nuclear weapons capability by Pakistan changed it radically and with the nuclear tests of 1998, the Indian dream of dominating Pakistan was buried forever.

Also, India’s current ‘power and influence’ has been artificially pumped up by Washington in its campaign to make India a global power and does not rest on intrinsic strength. Without the nuclear deal of 2005 and other steps taken by Washington to boost India’s standing and capabilities, the country would not be trying to flex its muscles the way it loves to do these days.

While Pakistan itself does not have to worry about Indian hegemony, our national interests require that we should not remain silent when India meddles in the affairs of other countries of South Asia, as it is doing currently in Bangladesh.

Also, we must ban the word ‘subcontinent’ from our political vocabulary. It is a geographical expression and must remain so. Besides, we must make it known to the world that the use of the term ‘Indian Subcontinent’ to describe the South Asian region is completely unacceptable.

The writer is a former member of the Pakistan Foreign Service. Email: asifezdi@yahoo.com

Asif Ezdi, "Region or subcontinent?," The News. 2014-01-13.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political process , Political relations , Political leaders , International relations , International issues , Security policy , PM Manmohan , Khaleda Zia , President Obama , Hasina Wajid , Hillary Clinton , United States , Sri Lanka , Pakistan , Kashmir , Washington , India , Delhi , Asia , Russia , China