Nepal Joins The Chinese Checkers Game

India’s obsession with Pakistan continues. After a short break in between, we are back to square one, more so after August 5, when Delhi stripped Kashmir of its special status and divided the state into two Union Territories. Expectedly Pakistan went to town on Kashmir. It is an excellent stick with which to beat India and expose Delhi’s “perfidy.’’

So all bilateral visits are now eyed through the Pakistan/ Kashmir prism. And President Xi Jinping’s visit to Chennai for the second informal summit with Prime Minister Modi was no exception. Some questioned why Xi was invited since Beijing had expectedly sided with Pakistan on Kashmir. Was it necessary for Modi to go out of his way to entertain the leader of a country who has been sleeping with the enemy since independence?

The spectacular cultural show with the Shore temple in the background and the walk through of three monuments in Mahabalipuram was completely unnecessary as China would continue to bat for Pakistan. While China and Pakistan had always been close strategic allies, now an economic dimension has come into play, making the alliance far stronger. Pakistan’s Gwadar port in Balochistan is at the heart of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Xi had already committed USD 60 billion for the massive infrastructure project s. So ties have gotten even closer.

Now there is talk of China having a military detachment to guard its infrastructure projects around Gwadar. A Chinese force in Balochistan will be an added worry for India. India has refused to be part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative on the grounds that some of the projects planned would pass through PoK, which India claims is part of its territory. So it is a question of sovereignty.  

India’s decision to continue engagement with China is a correct one. It is important for leaders to keep exchanging views especially in today’s volatile world. The foreign ministry is well aware that China will not abandon Pakistan. But there is a world outside the all-consuming India-Pakistan narrative, and it is this that New Delhi hopes to tap.

Officials say they know that China will back Pakistan but that does not mean India has to stop contacts with China. Diplomacy does not work like that. The effort is to keep it just at that level and not let it develop further than that. The establishment knows that despite talk of an Asian century where India and China are working together, the two are natural rivals in Asia.

Though China is working towards replacing US as the world’s only super power of 2050, it is also making sure that in Asia it is the sole regional boss. India may have ambitions but its economy and defence needs much work to be done before it can even think of challenging China. In such a case, the only alternative is to work with other nations who also wish to contain China. India is doing just that and China recognizes the signals. Delhi need not declare it from the roof top.

The strategic shift in US-India ties, which began with the civil nuclear agreement of 2005 between Manmohan Singh and George W Bush was aimed precisely at that. That process was carried on by Singh and Barak Obama and later with Narendra Modi. The Trump-Modi equation also has much to do with Washington’s desire to use a major country in Asia like India, to contain China’s rising military and economic might in Asia. Renaming the Pacific Command as Indo-Pacific is a signal to China. India’s defence agreements with the US is also progressing with the signing of two important military pacts. The Malabar exercises between India-US and Japan is also viewed with suspicion by China.

To top it all, the elevation of the US-Australia-India-Japan quadrilateral (“quad’’ for short) security dialogue to a political level with foreign ministers of the four nations meeting on the sidelines of the UNGA in September was decidedly seen in Beijing as a move against China. But that has not stopped Beijing from accepting India’s invite. This is the way the world works.

China has been closely watching the growing warmth between India and the US with some concern, but can do little to stop it. In the same way many in China believe that the quad is an instrument to contain China in the Indo-Pacific, and this arc of democratic nations can one day become a defence alliance. China is naturally wary of these moves. “Respecting each other’s sensitivities’’ a phrase that has come up both in Wuhan and Chennai would mean India’s tango with US and its allies for China, while for India it would be Beijing’s embrace of Pakistan. It works both ways.

So if China’s strategic interests call for closer co operation with Pakistan against India, it will do so. India too has sent out signals with its growing closeness with the US, Japan and Australia. This does not mean that India and China will not go ahead and work together in areas which benefit both nations.

 Ironically, despite the massive media hype about Pakistan, and naturally Kashmir, casting a shadow on the Wuhan spirit, Kashmir did not come up in the conversation between Modi and Xi, according to foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale.  He spoke to reporters at the end of the informal summit. But added that Xi briefed Modi on Imran Khan’s recent visit to Beijing. Khan must have spoken about the situation in Kashmir, but the MEA insists that the K word did not come up.

Whatever was said will possibly remain with the PM and his MEA team. The two leaders concentrated on bilateral ties and ways to enhance relations between Asia’s two largest nations. Trade deficit between India and China has long been a concern for Indian leaders. Since the days of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Delhi has been asking China to open its markets for Indian pharma and other products. Despite repeated promises including in Wuhan, nothing much has changed in the ground.

This time, however, Modi and Xi are trying to work out a new mechanism to solve the problem. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman and her Chinese counterpart will meet later in the year to see what can be done. The Indian side appear satisfied with the outcome of the summit. A third informal summit is expected to take place in China. The PM himself said the “Chennai Connect” would take forward the Wuhan Spirit. While critics thrash China for its Pakistan connect, what should be of greater concern is its move in Nepal.

President Xi flew to Kathmandu from Chennai and received a tumultuous welcome. The entire cabinet, led by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli were there to receive him. China is planning to build a railway track from Tibet to Nepal. While Nepal has always played the China card against India, Oli is now looking for strategic autonomy in its foreign policy.

Simply put, he wants to wean Nepal away from over dependence on India and make overture to China. Beijing has grasped this with both hands and is moving swiftly to contain Indian influence in Nepal. While Pakistan is already in China’s sphere of influence, Delhi has to ensure that Beijing is contained in Nepal, a country with an open border with India.

Is India Giving The Devil A Foothold In Kashmir?

The international community has given India a long rope on Kashmir. But with the lockdown in the Valley, murmurs on human rights have begun and are likely to gather momentum

India’s decision to scrap Kashmir’s special status and bifurcate the state has been a shot in the arm for Prime Minister Imran Khan. It has given Pakistan the perfect opportunity to exploit Delhi’s action to its advantage.

India-Pakistan ties will continue to deteriorate. It could go out of hand if there is a major terror strike in Kashmir. Delhi is bound to retaliate and the world community would scramble to restraint the two nuclear armed neighbours. In such a case US President Donald Trump will certainly try to weight in. He has been waiting in the wings nudging both sides to talk.

China is likely to bat for “all weather friend” Pakistan in such an event. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is at the centre of President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. The two countries are now bound not just by strategic ties but vital economic considerations.

Indian and Chinese troops have got into a scuffle in Ladakh this week and is a hint of more aggressive patrolling by China on the border. It possibly has nothing to do with Ladakh becoming a union territory, but China had objected to the Indian move soon after March 5. China already occupies 38,000 sq km of Aksai Chin as well as 5,800 sq km in Shaksgam Valley of J&K. India has constantly made the point that the CPEC runs through Indian territory which Pakistan occupied illegally in 1947.

It was mainly due to China’s efforts that the United Nationals Security Council held a closed door discussion on Kashmir last month. At the end of the Chinese foreign minister Wang Wang Yi’s recent visit to Pakistan, Kashmir was part of the joint statement. All this is not surprising. It will be interesting to see how far China is willing to go in support of Pakistan on Kashmir. Much will also depend on how the second informal summit between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping pans out later this year. As of now Xi is scheduled to come in October, tentative dates are 11-14, though a formal announcement.

There is no silver lining in sight for India and Pakistan for now. India’s talks and terror cannot go hand in hand, now has Pakistan’s insisting on no dialogue unless Kashmir’s former status is restored. There is no way that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government will do so. Abolishing article 370, is part of the BJP’s ideological commitment.

The international community has given India a long rope on Kashmir. Some in India are crowing that Pakistan has been unable to get the world community to condemn India. That is correct. But human rights issues are looming over the government and despite claims that the internet and mobile services are partially lifted and the curfew like situation will eventually end, the ground reality is different. The murmur on human rights has already begun, and is likely to gather momentum.

Islamabad has been on the backfoot for nearly a decade trying to deflect accusations about the terror networks operating from its soil. Islamabad efforts to hammer the point that it has borne the brunt of terror strikes on its people and security forces did not get much traction. This is mainly because it is well known that Rawalpindi has used terror outfits against both India and Afghanistan. Also both the US and NATO forces had first-hand experience of Pakistan’s double dealing.

Now Islamabad is getting a chance to point fingers at India’s action in Kashmir. For once the world is willing to listen, as Pakistan’s foreign minister as well as its diplomats are putting across their views on Kashmir in America, US and the Gulf to expose India.

At the UN, Pakistan will hope to catch the world’s eye on Kashmir. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be addressing UNGA on the 27th of this month. Pakistan’s leader Imran Khan will speak after Modi’s address. He will certainly talk forcefully on the past UN resolutions in Kashmir, and point to flagrant violations of people’s rights in Kashmir. Much of Indian diplomacy must now necessarily be centred on defending its position on Kashmir.

India and Pakistan are back to square one, with each country attacking the other in international forums. This week it was at the Human Rights Council in Geneva where India and Pakistan clashed. Pakistan claims it got 50 countries to support a joint statement at the Human Rights Council Chief, calling for respect and protection of fundamental human rights of the people of Kashmir, lifting of curfew and ending the communication shutdown and released of those detained. It is a throwback to the late 80s and 90s when Kashmir was a constant presence in all bilateral meets in Europe and US. Indian diplomats will have to work overtime to counter Pakistan. Balochistan will be highlighted by India. It will be a grueling few months for foreign minister Jaishankar and his team.

Not that any of this matters in the long run. What is important is for the Modi government to begin talking to the people of Kashmir. Muscular policy and a strong nation is part of the BJPs ethos. But needs to be tempered with concern for their well being. The sooner the government begins to reach out with compassion to the people of Kashmir the better.

The current partial lockdown cannot continue indefinitely. The main aim of the government was to be able to tell the world that there was no major loss of life. That’s commendable, but people’s voices also need to be heard. India is still a democracy and while the rest of the country, as well the Jammu area have welcomed the government move, the voices of the valley need to be heard.

Home Minister Amit Shah has said the removal of article 370, would help the authorities to fight terrorism effectively. He plans to rid Kashmir off terrorism and bring development back to the state. At the same time the Centre hopes to introduce new faces in politics. But for this government needs to begin a dialogue with people. The sooner India begins to take some corrective measures the better it will be able to manage the diplomatic fall out over Kashmir. There is no need for the government to waste energy on convincing the people of the country. Most Indians support Prime Minister Modi’s decision. The first move was meticulously planned but what next, is a legitimate question to ask the government.

National Security Advisor Ajit Doval claims that the majority of Kashmiris are happy with the removal of special status. Who are these people? Possibly, the Hindus of the state who are ardent supporters of the BJP. But they don’t represent the views of the entire population.

Prime Minister Modi needs to take a leaf out of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s book. The PM is a great orator and should try to convince Kashmiris that India cares for them. Winning hearts and minds of Kashmiris is vital unless Delhi wants to give Kashmir in a platter to Pakistan.


Citizen Register – Is India Going The Myanmar Way?

As final Assam National Register of Citizens is released, leaving 1.9 million people stateless and homeless, a massive humanitarian tragedy is likely to confront the state

A time bomb is ticking in Assam as the state braces to cope with the fall-out from the final publication of the National Registrar of Citizens released on August 31. A massive humanitarian tragedy may confront the state as roughly 1.9 million people are likely to become stateless and homeless. The figure is from the final NRC which was released on August 31.

Is India now going the Myanmar way? The Muslim Rohingyas are stateless with no rights. Time and again they are attacked and have no access to either government health care or any other facilities provided for ordinary citizens. The plight of the Rohingya refugees have caught the imagination of the world. India risks the same outrage from the international community, unless it has thought through what it aims to do. Kashmir is already in focus. Add the plight of four million stateless people and Delhi will have a major human rights problem in hand. Will the rest of the world be as accommodating as they have been so far with Kashmir?

Neither the Centre nor the Assam government have given a clue of what they intend to do with this mass of people whose lives are being torn apart. It has been a haphazard exercise ridden with mistakes. That could be overlooked considering the huge numbers. Yet as people are at the centre of the NRC, mistakes take a deadly toll on individuals and families. There are several instances reported of the grandparents considered as Indian citizens while the sons and daughters are blacklisted as foreigners. Much depends on the official behind the desk who has enormous powers over these hapless individuals. Time and again the BJP government, both at the Centre and the state have assured people that they have the  right to appeal and that not a single genuine citizen need worry. But assurances on paper and what happens on the ground are two different things.

 Where will these people be kept? At the moment Assam has six detention camps that operate out of make-shift facilities in local prisons in Goal Para, Dibrugarh, Silcher, Tezpur, Jorhat and Kokrajhar. According to reports 10 more are going to be built. But when? And what happens to them after Saturday? According to reports in the local newspapers, Assam’s first stand-alone detention centre is being constructed in the border district of Goalpara, which will be able to keep 3,000 people. But that is a drop in the ocean considering the numbers.

 As most of the stateless are allegedly from neighbouring Bangladesh, has Dhaka been consulted? Has Sheikh Hasina’s government agreed to take back at least some of these detainees? Nobody knows. Delhi is keeping its cards close to its chest. When foreign minister S Jaishankar was in Dhaka earlier this month and asked at a news conference about the NRC, he said it was India’s internal problem and he would not answer any questions on the process.

In the past Bangladesh had said that they would take back those people who had relevant papers to show they were from that country. A majority of the stateless are poor, illiterate peasants who have no papers to prove their identity. India has excellent relations with Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government. Delhi is unlikely to do anything to upset that equation.

But what will the government do with the four million alleged foreigners. For one it is impossible to keep them under detention indefinitely. People of Assam are happy that finally foreign nationals have been identified. They have long struggled for this. The student’s agitation in the late 70s was all about protecting the identity of the local Assamese. The 1985 Assam Accord had promised to identify foreigners and deport them. Not much had happened however. The fear of being reduced to a minority in their own homes is something that has haunted the Assamese for decades. The fear was that Assam would be the second Muslim majority state after Kashmir. Ironically with the abrogation of article 370 and 35 A of the constitution, which forbids “outsiders’’ from other Indian states from buying land in the state is now no longer applicable. Kashmiris worry that in a couple of decades, the state will no longer have a Muslim majority.  Ironically in Assam the government is proposing to ensure that the Assamese majority keep their status intact.   

The only way out to deal with the alleged foreigners is to allow people to remain but ensure that they have no voting rights. This will assuage the Assamese that illegal voters will not have a say in the elections. There is concern in the local BJP unit in Assam that as much as 40 percent of the foreigners identified are Hindu Bengalis from former East Pakistan and current Bangladesh. The Amendment to the Citizenship Act was brought in with these people in mind. The amendment allows for all Hindu refugees to seek Indian citizenship. There have been demonstrations by local units of the BJP in Assam that Hindus should not be humiliated in this fashion. The government will find a way out for the Hindu Bengalis, considering that the BJP has already got the Citizenship Amendment ready to take care of that contingency. 

Can the rest of the people, identified as foreigners continue to live and operate out of Assam? A stateless population will be exposed to all kinds of atrocities, as Myanmar has proved. The BJP seems to be playing with fire, considering there is talk of having NRC across India. That would be disastrous and light the fires of social tension across the country. Will any government in its right mind push this self-destruct button?


Will Modi’s Gamble In Kashmir Pay Off?

Indian Prime Minister may have stalled the US for the moment but the world’s eyes are focused on Kashmir as India and Pakistan are on the edge. Meanwhile, a lock-down in the Valley only hurts our democratic credentials

The mood in India is celebratory. The general consensus after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with US President Donald Trump in France (the first since scrapping of Kashmir’s special status) is that this round has gone to India. Modi has drawn the line on third party mediation and told Trump where to get off.  Neither the US President nor any other nation needs to intervene in what is a purely bilateral matter between India and Pakistan. This has been the traditional Indian stand on Kashmir but in the context of Trumps recent statements, it had to be reiterated.

Considering that Trump had since his July 22 meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan spoken several times of his wish to play peace maker, there was concern in South Block at what to expect from the mercurial Trump. There was a collective sigh of relief in India at the way the conversation panned out, on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Biarritz.

Prime Minister Modi may have stalled the US President for the moment but the world’s eyes are focused on Kashmir as India and Pakistan are on the edge. With the peace talks between US and the Taliban about to be clinched in Doha, and Pakistan’s importance in the process, Imran Khan’s hands have been strengthened.

In recent years, Kashmir had been pushed out of the global narrative. Modi’s decision to abrogate article 370 and the consequent lockdown of the Valley has given Islamabad just the opportunity it wanted.

Pakistan is mobilizing all resources to bring Kashmir back to centre stage. Initially the response from the global community was muted, but gradually that graph is changing. The reason for this shift is not due to scrapping of the special status but the complete communication embargo. Bringing back a semblance of normal life to the Valley thus is the need of the hour. That is a big ask, considering the mood of the majority of Kashmiris.

Pakistan claims that it has “succeeded in internationalising the issue of Kashmir”. Prime Minister Imran Khan claimed in an address to his people, hours after the Modi-Trump meeting, “We talked to world leaders and embassies. UN for the first time since 1965, convened a meeting on Kashmir issue. Even international media has picked it up.”

Playing on the US and the rest of the world’s fears about a nuclear fallout between the two South Asian foes, Imran Khan emphasised: “If the [Kashmir] conflict moves towards war then remember both nations have nuclear weapons and no one is a winner in a nuclear war. It will have global ramifications. The superpowers of the world have a huge responsibility…whether they support us or not, Pakistan will do everything possible.”

Modi on its end has made it clear that third party mediation was not welcome. At a news conference, with Trump sitting beside him, he made it clear: “All issues between India and Pakistan are bilateral in nature and that is why we don’t bother any other country regarding them.” Modi also added that India and Pakistan were one country before Independence and that he was “confident that we can discuss our problems and solve them, together”.

How did the conversation on Kashmir go behind closed doors, is not known. The Americans team had briefed reporters ahead of the meeting that the situation in Kashmir and concerns about the communication blockade would be raised during the President’s meeting with Modi. But the Indian Prime Minister seems to have convinced Trump that the situation would not go out of hand or lead to regional instability.

Trump made this known at the joint news conference when he said: “We spoke last night about Kashmir, Prime Minister really feels that he has it under control, and now when they speak with Pakistan I’m sure that they will be able to do something that will be very good.” He also added that he was available if anyone needed his help. Does this mean that Modi had given the green signal for talks with Pakistan?

For Pakistan, Kashmir is the core issue. By scrapping Article 370, the government’s contention is that Kashmir is just another state in India. Thus, Pakistan’s claim that it is a party to the Kashmir dispute becomes redundant. New Delhi will possibly be ready to talk about Siachen, Sir Creek and other issues, but not Kashmir. From that position any kind of dialogue with Pakistan appears impossible, whatever Modi has said to Trump about talks.

Imran Khan has said in a recent interview to the New York Times, that he is no longer willing to talk to India. He had tried in earlier but New Delhi possibly regarded his attempt to mend ties as a sign of weakness. India’s response has been that terror and talks cannot go together.

Talks may be out, but the Modi government has to work at lifting restrictions in the valley. Restoring communication lines is a must as a blanket ban cannot continue indefinitely in a nation which proudly flaunts its democratic credentials.    

After all, Kashmiris are Indian citizens. They were not consulted when government decided to scrap Kashmir’s special status and are angry. The BJP has singularly failed at reaching out to the ordinary Kashmiri. Considering that opposition leaders were sent back from the airport on Saturday just proves how difficult the situation is.

It is also true that the moment restrictions are lifted, the Valley will erupt in protests which could lead to violence. Handling protests and stone-pelters would be a major challenge considering that Indian police and para military forces are ill equipped to deal with such a situation.  

A new intifada is likely to take shape in Kashmir. Separatists and jihadi groups will naturally try to exploit the situation. Besides, well known anti-India groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hizbul Mujahideen will again become active. These are the usual suspects but the ISIS and Al Qaeda sub-groups will also fish in troubled waters. The Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, linked with Al Qaeda, is working at forming a loose jihadi alliance against India, according to reports from Pakistan.

New Delhi has a tough task ahead and the next few months will show whether Modi’s gamble in Kashmir has paid off.

Terrorism In Kashmir Valley

Scrapping 370 – Can Govt Bear The Cost?

Internal dimensions look scary in Kashmir as terrorism is likely to increase in the months to come and hardcore jihadi groups will mushroom across the state

Muscular nationalism is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s USP. That policy has paid rich dividends to his party. Some would say the Uri surgical attack and the Balakot air strike, were responsible for the BJP’s comprehensive 2019 election victory.

Buoyed by the success, the government has now scrapped Article 370, and stripped Kashmir of the special status it enjoyed since 1947. Not just that, but the state has been bifurcated and made into two union territories. But, has Modi carried it too far this time? Will this bold act, hugely popular with the rest of the country, come to haunt the BJP in years to come? How this plays out in the valley and in the larger neighbourhood is yet to be determined.

Pakistan has expectedly reacted with shock and anger, calling it a violation of the UN resolution. Islamabad will mount an all-out diplomatic offensive against India. It has downgraded ties with New Delhi, asked Indian High Commissioner Ajay Bisaria to leave and suspended the Samjhauta Express. The little trade there was with India will also stop now. People in Punjab would be worried about what happens to the Kartarpur project, since the bilateral relations have reached such a low point. But that remains to be seen.

India has asked Pakistan to review its decision and said that it was done with an eye to grab international attention and present an “alarming picture to the world.’’ It is well known that the international community is concerned about a possible nuclear flash point in South Asia. Now more than ever, considering the rising tension between the two nuclear armed neighbours.

Islamabad has always maintained that Kashmir is a “disputed’’ territory and a solution to the problem must be worked out between India, Pakistan and the people of Kashmir. Prime Minister Imran Khan has predicted that the freedom movement will gain momentum in the valley. This is certainly a given considering that there has been no consultations with the people at all. Kashmir has also been in lock-down mode since Sunday.

Islamabad has already called for a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) to discuss the situation in Kashmir. The OIC will certainly issue a statement, but beyond that not much can be expected. India has worked on ties with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the prime movers of the group. The Gulf states are now engrossed with Iran, Yemen and Syria, in their immediate neighbourhood. The UAE has already backed India. “The reorganisation of states is not a unique incident in history of independent India and it was mainly aimed at reducing regional disparity and improving efficiency. It is an internal matter as stipulated by the Indian Constitution,” Dr Ahmad Al Banna, the UAE’s ambassador to India has said.

Pakistan will also take up Kashmir to the United Nations Security Council. The Human Rights Council in Geneva will also be approached. There will be a flurry of diplomatic activity with Islamabad possibly sending out envoys to world capitals to explain what India’s latest action means. Pakistan expects Kashmir to go up in flames but as of now the heavy military presence has ensured there are no protests in the valley.

Can Pakistan galvanise world opinion against India? Has Delhi handed over Kashmir in a platter to Pakistan? Can India get away with it at a time when each nation is looking out for itself and unlike in the past the liberal values — human rights and moral positions — are no longer at the core of international diplomacy. The liberal world is crumbling and the BJP government must have taken all this into account before going ahead with its latest Kashmir move.

It is but natural that Pakistan will play its Afghan card to the hilt. At a time when the US –Taliban talks have reached a crucial stage, Washington will not wish for distraction on the India-Pakistan front .Pakistan will let the US know that the situation in Kashmir would distract Islamabad and shift its focus from peace moves in Afghanistan to the India-Pakistan border.

PTI reported a State Department spokesman as saying: “The US is closely following India’s legislation regarding the new territorial status and governance of Jammu and Kashmir. We note the broader implications of these developments, including the potential for increased instability in the region.”

Hostile fire across the India-Pakistan border has continued unabated in the last few years. Tension between the nuclear armed neighbours is something Washington does not need at the moment. Prime Minister Imran Khan has already said that a terror strike in the valley now could even provoke a full scale war between the two arch rivals. This is something which will worry the Trump administration. President Donald Trump, facing elections next year wants a complete US troop pull- out before that. A military confrontation between India and Pakistan would be the last thing Washington wants at the moment when an agreement with the Taliban appears imminent. Perhaps with this in India, the US has said there was an “urgent need” for dialogue among all actors to reduce tensions and to avoid a potential military escalation in South Asia. Washington has also asked Pakistan to ensure that infiltration does not occur. This is to make sure that a military confrontation does not take place at this crucial juncture.

The US pointsman for Afghanistan, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was in Delhi on Tuesday and briefed foreign minister Jaishankar on the Taliban talks. The Indian minister must have also given the envoy a briefing on India’s recent action regarding Kashmir. Little is known about the talks. From the photograph and relaxed body language of the two, the talks appear to have gone smoothly.

China has already expressed its concern about developments in Kashmir. It has questioned the bifurcation of Ladakh. “China is seriously concerned about the current situation in Kashmir,’’ went on to say that the issue is a legacy of history between India and Pakistan. In a separate statement, the Chinese foreign ministry reacted to India’s decision to create Ladakh as a Union Territory. “China always opposes India’s inclusion of Chinese territory in the western section of the China-India boundary under its administrative jurisdiction,” it said. “This position is firm and consistent and has never changed. The recent unilateral revision of domestic laws by the Indian side continues to undermine China’s territorial sovereignty, which is unacceptable.’’

The MEA has said that the re-organization of the state is India’s internal matter and reminded China that it did not comment on its domestic issues. China faces resistance from local Muslims in Xinjiang, from Dalai Lama’s followers in Tibet, as well as pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.

With foreign minister S Jaishankar slated to visit China from the 11-13 of the month, this issue will come up for discussion. It is not yet certain how this will pan out with China. But with a trade war on with the US, President Xi Jinping has other more serious issues to worry over.

Two major regional players, Russia and Iran have not yet commented on the latest government move. The world’s appetite for liberation wars, or moral rights and wrongs are no longer as they were earlier. Pakistan’s own credibility is low. Considering all this, while there will be some amount of criticism of India’s actions in Kashmir and China will needle India with this whenever necessary, it will not abruptly overturn the gains of the Wuhan spirit.

More important perhaps is the internal dimensions of the new Kashmir policy. Kashmir valley can be held down by force but at a massive cost. Terrorist attacks will increase in the months and years to come. Hard core jihadi groups will mushroom across the state. The young people have demonstrated earlier how they can face the might of the Indian state. Stone throwing school children will perhaps now take up arms. Kashmiris will feel they have nothing to lose. Few in the valley believe that development will come to the state now that the contentious article 370 is out of the way.

AS Dulat, former RAW chief and the man late prime minister Vajpayee used to help the peace process said in a recent interview that Kashmiris have once again been let down by India. Pakistan will naturally take advantage and continue to stoke the fire. Keeping down a sullen alienated population will not be an easy task for India’s security forces.

Pakistan-US Ties

Trump Has Pushed India-Pak Dialogue Further Away

Donald Trump’s strategy on South Asia is not long term; it is focused only on getting his troops out of Afghanistan. Pakistan will use this trump card to get itself out of its current quagmire

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s first meeting with President Donald Trump was an unqualified success from Islamabad’s point of view. After raving and ranting against Pakistan’s perfidy, Trump was on a charm offensive when Khan arrived at the White House.

Will the rapprochement between the US and Pakistan change equations in South Asia, particularly its ties with India? Much will depend on how much Pakistan can influence the Taliban and whether a political deal materializes in Afghanistan. For now India has to wait and watch how the situation pans out.

Significantly, Pakistan’s Prime Minister was accompanied by both army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and ISI boss Faiz Hameed for the crucial meeting to reset ties. This perhaps to emphasise that the civilian and military leaders were on the same page and eager to stabilize Pakistan.

The talks centred round Afghanistan as Trump focused on getting Pakistan’s support for a peace deal to “extricate’’ American troops from that country. Trump’s one point agenda at the moment is to quit Afghanistan before Presidential elections next year, to notch up his election promise of ensuring that America is not the world’s policemen, nor is he interested in spreading democracy in far of regions. To do this, he wants Pakistan’s help and Islamabad will play its Afghan card to the hilt in getting Trump to endorse its position vise-a-vise India.

What was a diplomatic victory for Pakistan was mention of Kashmir. The US President declaring he was willing to act as mediator between India and Pakistan. To make things worse Trump said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself had asked him to do so. Hours later India refuted the US President’s claims. This was dismissed by those in the know as a usual Trump-speak with little to do with actual fact. No Indian Prime Minister, be it Modi or anyone else, will ever ask for third party intervention on Kashmir. Mediation is Pakistan’s calling card, not India’s.

The warm meeting at the White House and Trumps take on Kashmir is of some significance to India. For one, Delhi’s rhetoric on isolating Pakistan has come a cropper. Anyway, right from the start the wording was wrong. A country like Pakistan with a population of over 208 million, cannot be isolated from the world. What Delhi meant was that it would talk to the major world powers to show up Pakistan’s role as a terror hub. It was not a difficult task as the world was ready to be convinced.

The US and NATO allies had already experienced Pakistan’s double standards on terror in Afghanistan. At the time when the US and Pakistan were working closely to arm and train the Mujahideen to fight Russian occupation of Afghanistan, the US and its allies were stone deaf to Indian arguments on Pakistan based terror groups working against India in Kashmir and aiming to bleed India through these terror outfits. Is there a chance that the old narrative would occur again? Unlikely, as the Pakistan army has exposed itself blatantly in Afghanistan. But Trump can block all this out if necessary to get cooperation on the Taliban. And Islamabad knows that.

Afghanistan will be used smartly by Pakistan to get itself out of its current quagmire. Trump’s strategy is not long term. For the moment he is focused on getting his troops out of Afghanistan, and for that he is willing to play ball with Imran Khan. If Pakistan cannot deliver Trump may revert back to his old ways and blame Pakistan, but for now he will give Islamabad a long rope. Yet having had excellent ties in the past, and worked closely with the Pakistan army, many lawmakers in the US, especially the revived Pakistan Caucus in the US, believe that by withdrawing from that country, America has left a vacuum which is being filled by China. They would bat for more engagement.

Trump has little interest in Kashmir or charges of human rights abuse there. But he would be open to the idea of India and Pakistan resuming their stalled dialogue to reassure the GHQ in Rawalpindi,that they need not worry about India, but concentrate on getting the Taliban to talk to the Afghan government representatives. So there will be pressure for India and Pakistan to normalize ties. At the moment Narendra Modi will do little, as he would draw flak from the opposion as well as hardliners within his support base. The mediation request that Trump spoke of would be revived if he does so immediately.

But Modi is not averse to the idea of talks. He tried his hand at peace making during his first tenure. Delhi would like to wait and watch to see if Pakistan’s crack down on terror outfits is for real and not because of the fear of the Paris based Financial Action Task Force, placing the country on the black list. Pakistan’s case will come up for review in October. Few in India believe that Imran Khan could be in any position to make much of a difference. So Modi would be merely wasting his time and energy by engaging with Islamabad. Many within the RSS and BJP believe that the only way to deal with Pakistan is to strengthen India’s defences and hit back hard whenever a terror attack occurs. For the rest of the time, Pakistan can be ignored.

That is a limiting view. The world wants India to engage with Pakistan. Apart from the US, China, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Russia and the EU all want temperatures to come down between the two nuclear armed neighbours. A South Asia where India and Pakistan have normal ties, the region would be much more stable.

But even if talks are resumed, would it lead to any breakthrough? For the moment it is hard to imagine. Positions on either side are cast in stone on Kashmir. A blue print is actually already in place to initiate the process. President Pervez Musharraf was pragmatic enough to agree to the Loc becoming the border, better trade and connectivity between the two Kashmir’s and more people to people contacts would be a good way to begin. But before Musharraf could work on the formula, the lawyers agitation distracted him and the proposals were never seriously discussed afterwards. Successive Pakistani governments have thrashed the idea and Musharraf since being out of power has also disowned it.

Whether a final solution emerges or not, dialogue must be resumed. Firing across the LoC must stop. Civilians on both sides are sadly affected. India should not continue to oppose SAARC. It is not fair to the rest of the member states.

The government needs to focus on jobs and development if Modi’s ambitions of making India a five trillion dollar economy is to be achieved in the next few years. He and the entire country need to focus on the economy. That can happen only when the neighbourhood is at peace.

Indo-US relations

New Delhi Will Never Cede Its Strategic Interests

India-US relations are on track but with Donald Trump at the helm, there will be flare-ups now and then; this is where the real test for Jaishankar and his MEA team lies

Will President Donald Trump’s obsession for reworking trade deals affect India-US ties? Is Trump ignoring the big picture for a quick fix solution to please his support base and losing the good will of new friends like India and old allies France and Germany in Europe?

The Modi-Trump meeting last week focused on both trade and Iran, two things uppermost in the US President’s mind at the moment. No breakthrough was expected on any of the niggling issues that has troubled ties between the two countries in recent months. But after all the hard work put in by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to smoothen a bilateral platform, Donald Trump once again sullied the atmosphere.

The US President tweeted about high India’s high tariffs before leaving Washington for the G20 summit in Japan, where a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi was scheduled: “I look forward to speaking with Prime Minister Modi about the fact that India, for years having put very high Tariffs against the United States, just recently increased the Tariffs even further. This is unacceptable and the Tariffs must be withdrawn!”

But India and the world is now used to Trump’s style of diplomacy, and taken this in its stride. Perhaps this is Trump’s way of putting pressure on Modi ahead of their meeting. Trump should know that Narendra Modi, now riding a popularity wave in India will obviously not be cowed down.

Pompeo’s trip to India was an attempt to smoothen the wrinkles in ties. Much of this has to do with President Donald Trump’s political message to his support base, to re-work trade ties and ensure that America is not taken for a ride. Meaning every other President before Trump has not bothered to look after America’s trade interests. In the process Trump has lumped Delhi with Beijing, though America’s trade deficit with India is a mere $24.2 billion (2018 figures), compared to $621 billion with China the same year. Putting India and China in the same bracket, as Trump keeps doing in his numerous tweets on trade issues is foolish to say the least.

The Trump administration increased tariff on aluminum and steel last year impacted India’s export to the US. India did not retaliate. Washington earlier this year ended the duty-free import from India under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP). That was done in the middle of the election campaign. India responded recently by increasing tariff on 28 items, mostly agricultural products that it imports from the US. This has angered President Trump.

Significantly, Eliot Engel, Chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote to Pompeo ahead of his Delhi trip saying that the Trump administration seemed to be coercing India on various issues instead of sitting across the table and negotiating with Delhi. As Engel pointed out, while most of the statements made about being defence partner and friends with India were all good, the administration’s actions did not match its laudatory comments. Both the Republican and Democrats support stronger ties with India.

 In his public statements, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made all the right noises to flatter and disarm India as Jaishankar prepared the groundwork for the Modi-Trump meeting.

In fact, the process started when Pompeo delivered a major speech at the India-US business forum ahead of his two-day visit to India. Pompeo quoted Modi’s election slogan “Modi hai tu Mumkin Hai.’ And translated it as “Modi makes it possible. I’m looking forward to exploring what’s possible between our two peoples.” Flattering Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a good way to start the dialogue.

But no one need be fooled by the sweet talk, as the US drives a hard bargain. Pompeo put enormous pressure on India to concede. The Secretary of State known as a hawk on Iran, is hoping to shore up support for the US position as war clouds loom over West Asia. He described Iran as the “biggest sponsor of terror”, a claim that Delhi certainly does not agree with. Iran came up for detailed discussion during his talks with Jaishankar. India raised the issue of oil supplies. Aware of the consequences of doing business with Iran, India has stopped buying oil from Tehran.

The good news is that the two sides are taking stock of the hiccups in relations and are ready to discuss them further. “On some outstanding issues related to trade, I pushed for a constructive and pragmatic view. The real test of our intentions will be our ability to deal with this,” Dr Jaishankar said, at a news conference with Pompeo after talks on Thursday.

But India has clearly drawn the red lines. On certain issues which affect India’s strategic interests there would be no compromise. That message has gone out clearly to Washington.

But it is not just trade. Political issues like Iran and purchase of S400 missile defence system from Russia goes against American interests. Jaishankar has made it clear that India will not change its stand on five billion dollar S400 purchase order from Russia.

Luckily, Washington does not hold all the cards. At a time when the US-China trade war is on and Trump’s aggressive stand on Iran and the threat of war which can disrupt oil supplies through the Strait of Hormuz is making all countries nervous. Prime Minister Modi is not just meeting Trump on the sidelines of the G20, meetings are also lined up with China’s Xi Jinping as well as a meeting of BRICS leaders, which means Russia’s Vladimir Putin and President’s of South Africa and Brazil. A Chinese official was also reported as saying that Xi will discuss US protectionist policies and how the world can counter this at the BRICS informal get together on the sidelines of G20. India and China, together with France and Germany are vocal critics of Trumps protectionist trade policies.

Modi’s meeting with Xi is important, and a Wuhan type of informal summit is being planned later this year in India. Perhaps as a signal to China, Jaishankar made the point. “We had also a talk of – over lunch on the Indo-Pacific. On the Indo-Pacific, the point – the big point I made was that the Indo-Pacific is for something, not against somebody. And that something is peace, security, stability, prosperity, and rules.” This is certainly India’s attempt to reassure China that Delhi is not ganging up with the US against Beijing.

In brief India-US relations are expanding in ways which were not conceivable in earlier decades. The momentum which began with the landmark civil nuclear deal is gathering speed. But India, much like the US will look out for its strategic interests and guard its space. America knows well that India is no push-over. India however also knows that having US on your side opens doors. The Modi government is looking to US for investments. So during negotiations localization of data, the new e-commerce rules that affect US companies like Amazon and Walmart, will come up for discussion. The US and India will agree on certain issues but not on all. There will be give and take on trade. The relations are on track yet there will be flare-ups now and then which Jaishankar and his MEA team will have to fire fight. Overall however ties are on course.

New Foreign Minister Sworn In

Foreign Policy Challenges For New Govt

As the world faces US-China trade war and looks at a possible limited conflict between Washington and Tehran, Indian diplomacy will require to avoid the minefield

With a massive electoral mandate under his belt, and no strong opposition to thwart him, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is all set to begin his next five-year term on a high.

However, the challenges ahead are daunting. Getting manufacturing up and creating jobs for millions of aspirants remain high on the agenda. Reforms are the other. Without the next generation economic reforms, India’s growth story will remain stunted. A robust economy which attracts foreign investors is a must for a nation’s global profile. For that, Modi and his team will have to take forward the reform agenda, clean up the banking system and the labour laws to attract more investments. Unless the economy gears up and India performs well, the country’s hopes of becoming a major player in the world stage will remain a pipe dream.

Foreign policy will require careful handling. Former foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar is the best man to lead the team at this critical juncture. He knows exactly what the challenges are, is completely in sync with both the Prime Minister and Ajit Doval, the National Security Advisor. He is familiar with US politics and was ambassador to China and knows the system well there. He is a Russian language speaker. Also served both in Japan and Singapore. What is more Jaishankar is also familiar with trade negotiations.

ALSO READ: BIMSTEC Invites: New Delhi’s Pragmatism

Neighbourhood First is a good policy which will be carried forward this time around. It is fine to have an alternative to SAARC with the BIMSTEC grouping. But Delhi should also give some thought to end its boycott. India cannot indefinitely stop SAARC summits. It is also time to accept that China will pour in funds into South Asia and not get into a panic about encirclement. Instead, Delhi needs to focus on forging closer political ties with its neighbours and build stakes across South Asia, so that leaders of smaller countries will think twice before upsetting the applecart. India should take a leaf out of its own experience in Afghanistan and try to win hearts and minds in the neighbourhood. Modi will be travelling to the Maldives later this month. The challenge is handling US, China and Iran at this critical juncture.

A trade war between the US and China is casting a long shadow over the world economy. Rising tensions between Iran and US, which may eventually lead to a military confrontation, will hit India hard. Oil prices are holding for now, but could rise steeply in case of even a limited war. With US sanctions on Iran now ironclad with no exceptions, Indian diplomacy will need to be extremely nimble to avoid the minefields.

ALSO READ: Modi 2.0 Must Tackle Real Issues

The big question in Modi’s second term would be whether India will move decisively to the US camp or remain engaged with all sides and work towards a bi polar world. Pressure is on not just from the US, but a large section of the Indian establishment, to get into the US sphere of influence. The pro-US lobby in India believe that being on the side of the only Super Power will open doors for India, including a permanent seat in an expanded UN Security Council. It is a win win situation for India as it also falls in line with India’s strategic interests to checkmate China’s rising political, economic and military might in Asia.

Delhi has to also deal with a troublesome Pakistan, and ensure the backing of major powers for its action against Islamabad if necessary. Luckily for India, Pakistan’s image as a backer of terror outfits is known to the world. All this falls into place if India aligns more deeply with the US, according to those who believe that Delhi must for its own strategic interests move closer to Washington.

These sections believe that Delhi lost out in the early days after independence by remaining aloof from the US. Nations like Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines zoomed ahead economically and were referred to as the Asian Tigers. Despite its relative decline, US remains and way ahead of other countries and will remain in the top slot. It is the world’s dominant economy, its cutting edge technology and its financial markets remain strong.

ALSO READ: Af Peace Talks – India Must Keep Its Food In Door

It is a win win situation for both countries as there is rare consensus between squabbling Republicans and Democrats that India and US need to forge closer ties to contain China’s ambitions to replace the US as the world’s only super power by 2050. A helping hand from America will help India become a global power much faster.

They point to how the US helped to ensure that China withdraw the technical hold on Masood Azhar being designated a global terrorist. America took much of the credit for turning China around on Azhar. But France and Britain also played a role. There are no free lunches and the US will extract a price for its help. The pressure is already on over Iran. Many believe that India cannot continuously walk the tightrope. It will have to make a choice, especially with a President like Donald Trump at the helm. The pro America lobby want say India cannot play both sides any longer. It needs to make a choice and become an almost but not quite a NATO partner.

Yet there are bilateral problems arising from Donald Trump’s America First policy, which see’s every concession given by the US in the past as a mistake. On Thursday, US announced that

India will lose access to preferential trade terms with the U.S. under the latter’s Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program. This will pinch India, and the differences need to be ironed out. Despite these hiccups, which the US is having with most countries

Unfortunately for India, countries like Russia and Iran regarded as enemy nations by the US, are New Delhi’s friends and traditional allies. Indian and US interests do not match and India cannot afford to toe the US line when it goes against its strategic interests. Modi must continue to carefully balance ties with US with India’s core interests like relations with Russia and Iran. Just because Trump wants to bring Iran to its knees and push Tehran to rework the nuclear deal, India and other countries have to suffer.

Take India’s problems arising from Trump’s decision to slap sanctions on countries buying Iranian oil. India’s ties with Iran go beyond oil. It has always had civilisational links and worked together during the Taliban rule to prop up the Northern Alliance. The Chabahar port in Iran is of strategic importance to India as it opens a lifeline to both Afghanistan and Central Asian countries for Indian products. Delhi’s involvement in the Chabahar Port was to by-pass Pakistan as that country does not allow Indian goods to pass through its territory. Political relations with Iran will be affected if India stops importing oil from Iran because of US sanctions. India’s exports through Chabahar will naturally then take a hit. Trump had slapped sanctions on Iran last November but gave a six month waiver to eight countries, including India. That period has now ended.

Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was in India bang in the middle of elections to discuss the sanctions with Sushma Swaraj. He was told that the new government would have to deal with it. Due to banking sanctions imposed by the US for doing business with Iran, India and Iran have been carrying out trade through a rupee account in UCO Bank which has limited exposure in the US. This was done earlier too when Iran was under sanctions. India deposits payments in rupees in Iran’s account for the oil purchased and that is then used to make payments to Indian exporters of goods to Iran. Modi needs to play ball with both Iran and US and come up a winner.

The advantage is that the US is as keen to woo India. Washington would be in a better position to balance out China in Asia with India on its side. India also has a huge market for American companies. In the last decade or so India and bought arms worth $15 billion from the US and more is on the cards. Washington would certainly not want India to join the loose alliance of China, Russia and Iran that is taking shape. So it is not as if India does not have leverage.

So far Narendra Modi has played his cards well. In his first term Narendra Modi was able to befriend the mercurial Donald Trump, sign two of the foundation pacts needed to put into force the India-US defence co-operation agreement, signed earlier during the Manmohan Singh regime and take forward the partnership with the US. Yet he went against the US in closing the purchase of five billion dollar S-400 Triumf surface to air missile defence system with Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite threat of sanctions.

The first delivery of the missile system is slated for 2020. Sanction will likely kick in then. In the meantime the US is hoping to get Delhi to opt for a US built missile shield. By all accounts Modi will continue to play ball with every important country and not lean over completely to America. The Prime Minister is aware of Russia’s crucial support for the Indian position in the past, when US backed Pakistan to the hilt. Last time when the two met at their annual summit in Delhi, Modi made it plain “India gives the highest priority to ties with Russia, in fact in a changing world, our ties have become more important.” The Prime Minister will be meeting. Russian President Vladimir Putin, China’s President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Shanghai Co operation Organisation meeting in n Kyrgyztan’s capital Bishkek on June 13-14. Pakistan’s Imran Khan would also be attending.

India’s neighbours Pakistan and China will continue to occupy the government. The absence of Pakistan‘s Prime Minister Imran Khan for Modi’s inauguration is a stark reminder of the bad blood between the two nuclear armed neighbours. After Pulwama, the Balakot strike, Pakistan’s counter show of strength, and the high decibel rhetoric unleashed by Modi against Pakistan, a cooling off period is necessary. This does not however mean that Modi will not have another shot at peace making with Pakistan. Modi is likely to try again. Perhaps in Bishkek it will be only a handshake, but the PM who loves to be feted internationally, will make an attempt to go down in history as a peace maker.

Imran Khan has said earlier that Narendra Modi would be in a better position to make peace with Pakistan than the Congress. He is bang on. The BJP would take to the streets to oppose any deal made by the Congress with Pakistan. Remember the BJP opposition to the Indo-US civil nuclear deal signed by Manmohan Singh in 2006? Conventional wisdom is that only a hardline BJP government in India and a military dictatorship in Pakistan can strike a peace deal. Prime Minister Imran Khan is making the right noises. It is also known that he is backed by the military. In fact the army wanted Nawaz Sharif out and the PTI in. Army despite its public statements is not comfortable with peace moves. Much will depend on whether the financial action task force (FATF) which has placed Pakistan in the grey zone moves it to the black list. That would make it harder for international financial institutions to lend money to Pakistan and further damage its economy. If that happens the army will not stand in the way of talks with India.

Engaging Pakistan without a change of policy in Kashmir is unlikely to work. Mod must overhaul the current mindless Kashmir policy. But with Amit Shah as home minister, a strong arm policy in Kashmir is likely to continue.

Perhaps even more important than Pakistan will be Delhi’s ties with China. India and China are rivals in Asia and have a complex relationship. Modi obviously wants to continue mending fences with China. Reports of an informal Wuhan type summit between Modi and Xi, in Varanasi, is being talked of for later this year. Getting the equation right with China is pivotal. Chinese companies are already doing good business in India and will be looking for more as America dries up as a market. India can use Chinese expertise for its infrastructure and take a call on the Belt and Road Initiative and work together when it suits India’s interests. Political ties with China will also help in bargaining with the developed world at international forums. BRICS and RIS groupings are already in place. Delhi needs to make the best of these outfits to push India’s agenda on both development and terrorism. Keeping one toe firmly on the US camp helps to keep the Chinese unsettled. All this is easier said than done, but in a changing world India needs to keep a foothold on all camps and make sure its strategic interests are not compromised.

Colombo's Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith

Easter Blasts Will Open New Fault Lines In Sri Lanka

Post-Easter terror strikes, Sinhala hotheads are bound to target minorities and a period of communal tension appears to be on the cards for Sri Lanka

Easter Sunday’s well-coordinated terror strikes, which ripped through three churches and high-end hotels in Sri Lanka, killing over 300 people, were a bolt from the blue for most of the world. The violence in the island nation was always ethnic, not religious. The Easter massacre bear a remarkable resemblance to copy-cat ISIS and Al Qaeda operations. After two days of counting the dead, ISIS finally claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Sri Lankan government has identified all the bombers as Sri Lankan citizens but authorities suspect foreign links. The sophistication of the serial blasts and the coordinates point to some level of international plot inspired by radical Islamic ideology and the world wide jihadi movement. Suicide bombers were used earlier by the LTTE while battling government forces in the past, but the targeting of Christians and the fact that five star hotels were attacked, clearly points to an attempt to kill westerners.

Whether the Sri Lankan investigators connect the dots or not, the fact remains that the local bombers would have been inspired by the international jihadi propaganda. There are numerous instances of lone wolf and group attacks across the Europe, Africa and Asia by those who wish to clone Al Qaeda and ISIS and hit out at Christians.

The Easter Sunday terror has come at a time when Sri Lanka was witnessing a period of peace and stability after decades of bloodletting during the ethnic conflict between Tamil rebels and security forces. This new threat could once again open old wounds in the island nation. The Tamil minority in the north and east are unhappy with all the tall promises made by Sirisena-Ranil Wickremasinghe government which remain unfulfilled. Tamils want closure to decades of abuse by bringing to book those responsible for largescale human rights violation during the military campaign that wiped out the LTTE leadership in 2009. It is suspected that elements that continue to support the LTTE may try to use the current mayhem to cooperate with local Islamic radicals in future. But it is more likely that with the government naming the local terror group Thowfeek Jamaath as the main perpetrators of the Easter Sunday strikes, a fresh fault line or communal discord between the majority Buddhists (over 70% of the population) and the minority Muslims. This outfit was also responsible for defacing Buddhist statues some time back.

Sinhala chauvinism which is at the heart of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, was at its peak after the victory over the LTTE. Led by none other than President Mahinda Rajapaksa, triumphalism was all pervasive. A section of Sinhala-Buddhists, with newly acquired confidence, often got aggressive with minority groups. In the decade after the defeat of the LTTE, incidents of attacks on Muslims and Christians were reported intermittently.  

Such things were unheard of in the past. In 2013, a Buddhist mob attacked a mosque in Colombo injuring 12 worshippers. There was communal tension for a while but the government was able to contain the situation. Buddhist monks once tried to disrupt a church service earlier this year. More than two dozen such incidents were reported including attempts to stop the service this year itself. Last year, 86 cases of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians were reported by the National Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka.

In the past, when the focus was primarily on the ethnic divide between Sinhalese and Tamils, Muslims and Christians faced little problem. In fact the 9.7% of Muslim minority in the Buddhist island nation is well integrated with both the majority Sinhala and Tamil communities.  Muslims in Sri Lanka are mainly Tamil speaking. During decades of ethnic conflict, the Muslims largely kept equidistance from both sides, though some collaborated with the government. Others were caught in the conflict between the state and the LTTE.  In the late 70s and 80s, the Israelis who were close to the United National Party, were called in to assist the Lankan intelligence agencies and train Tamil-speaking Muslims to spy on the LTTE. At that time, India was worried about the spread of Israeli and American influence in its immediate neighbourhood, especially as there was talk about the US setting up a listening post in Eastern Sri Lanka.  

During that period, there were instances of LTTE attacks on new Muslim and Sinhala settlements in the Eastern province, where the government was hoping to dilute the Tamil majority status. Likewise the Christians, most of them Roman Catholics, who form 7.4% of the population, are also well integrated with both the Sinhalese and the Tamils.  Thus the attack on Christians is unlikely to be owing to any local circumstances despite minor incidents earlier mentioned.   

Clearly, like many Muslim youth across the world, the talk of the Caliphate by ISIS did ignite the imagination of Muslim boys in Sri Lanka. A few of them, around 33-35 travelled to Syria to fight with the ISIS warriors. The numbers were small compared to other countries; 6,000 went from Tunisia and 1,500 from France. With the collapse of the Caliphate and the ISIS on the backfoot through Syria and Iraq, many of the fighters are looking for safe and distant havens. South Asia is a good choice. Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Afghanistan and Pakistan are places to regroup.

While it is not known if any of the Sri Lankan Muslims involved in Sunday’s bloodbath were youngsters who may have returned from ISIS camps, there have been reports in recent years of some degree of radicalization of Muslim youngsters in Sri Lanka. Also, Saudi Arabia has been pouring in funds for mosques in the island state as the kingdom had been doing across South Asia. All this is helping to stamp the Islamic identity of Muslims of Sri Lanka. These factors will come into play in the next few months as Sri Lanka grapples with the current crisis.

It is difficult to predict how the situation finally pans out. The government has handled the situation well so far. It has clamped down on rumours and half-baked assumptions so as not to inflame passions or cause attacks on hapless Muslims. Yet, Sinhala hotheads are bound to strike back and therein lies the real worry of the government and the region. A period of communal tension appears to be on the cards for Sri Lanka. Will this Jihadi fight spill over to India and the rest of the South Asian neighbourhood is a question which would be worrying authorities in New Delhi. Maldives, a predominantly Sunni Muslim country, already has ISIS sympathizers and activists lurking in the shadows. Will these forces unite and shift their operations to India’s neighbourhood is a horrible prospect.


Why Foreign Policy Is Never An Electoral Issue?

It is surprising that for a country like India, which likes to project itself as a global power, the foreign policy narrative during elections remains limited to Pakistan

For a nation which sees itself as a future global power, it is surprising that foreign policy is never a major talking point in the election season. What goes as foreign policy is a national security narrative focused mainly on Pakistan, terrorism and the need for a strong leader like Narendra Modi to keep India safe.

This buys into the domestic tirade against an “unpatriotic opposition” which plays to Pakistan’s tune. Indeed, this is not the first time that Pakistan comes into play during election season. The “Mia Musharraf” jibe at the Congress party was after all popularised by Narendra Modi in 2014. However, the mainstay of BJP campaign theme that year was not Pakistan, but development and good governance.

Having failed to deliver credibly on any of its poll promises made in 2014, the BJP has pounced on nationalism as the recipe to return to power. The Pulwama terror attack which killed 42 CRPF men in South Kashmir could not have come at a better time. The suicide attack outraged the country. India’s bombing of the Jaish-e Mohammed centre at Balakot gave a fillip to the BJP’s strong leader narrative. The IAF hero who was captured when his plane was shot down over PoK and his subsequent return home, enthralled the urban Indians glued before their television sets to soak up every bit of the action details.

Much of this ultra-nationalism passes off as a foreign policy achievement for the BJP in its election campaign now, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself declaring that India had got inside the enemy’s territory and hit hard. While there is still debate on the amount of losses incurred on Pakistan, the super efficient BJP election machine has ensured that all this is of no consequence. Modi’s connect with the voters is perfect. Anyone questioning the state narrative is anti-national. The opposition dare not raise any doubts for fear of being dubbed as enemies of India.

While foreign policy is rarely an electoral issue for most developing countries, the relations with neighbouring countries often raised to bolster own and vilify the opponents. South Asian nations are a case in point. For a while in Bangaldesh, India was used by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Khaled Zia much in the way Pakistan is being by the BJP. Sheikh Hasina was constantly attacked for being an Indian stooge. In Nepal’s last elections, the fact that Prime Minister Oli took on India for its blockade of Nepal in 2015 played a significant part in winning elections for the Communists.

India’s foreign policy has seen a continuation of the Nehruvian vision by successive governments. Even though critics have torn into Nehru’s non alignment movement, we have continued with our lip service to it. The Congress manifesto this year “affirms its firm belief in the continued relevance of the policy of friendship, peaceful co-existence, non-alignment, independence of thought and action, and increased bilateral engagement in its relations with other countries of the world” reads the party’s manifesto in response to a muscular policy allegedly adopted by the Modi government.

The one new idea offered by the Congress is establishment of a National Council on Foreign Policy, where members of the Cabinet Committee on Security would me domain experts to advise the government from time to time. The rest is pretty much the same. There is not much difference between the policies of the BJP and Congress on external affairs.

The biggest tactical shift in India’s foreign policy was brought in by the Manmohan Singh government in 2006 by signing the India-US civil nuclear deal. But the UPA government hesitated to take this either to its logical conclusion or posit it as an achievement before the electorate. The ground for changing equation with the US was set in motion by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee with the  Strobe Talbot-Jaswant Singh dialogue. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has further enhanced the Indo-US partnership by signing three of the four foundation defence agreements which would help the Indian and US troops to operate together. But do such important strategic policy decision make it to the poll campaign banners? Hardly.

In the Indian foreign policy and security establishment, as well as people psyche, there is concern about moving too close to the US. So while Delhi is cautiously moving towards the US camp, it is hesitant to take the final leap. We have little idea of either the BJP or the Congress take on this. The US is keen for India to jointly patrol the South China Sea, in a show of cooperative action against Chinese assertiveness in the region. Yet like the previous UPA government, the NDA has also so far not agreed to it for fear of escalating tension with its giant Asian neighbour.

So far both the Congress and the BJP has continued with the policy of going ahead with co operation with China despite the boundary issue not having being resolved. All this is pragmatic but now with the Belt and Road Initiative of President Xi Jinping, the question is should Delhi continue to stay away? The answers are not simple but need to be debated in public. Should India go ahead and take part in certain projects which would enhance connectivitiy or oppose the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor? Does India have a realistic chance of getting back POK? All of India’s neighbours except Bhutan, have signed in. Italy has too. That should be an eye opener. The foreign policy debate in India should have been much more robust. Can India continue to ignore SAARC? How long will this boycott continue?  But on every question on SAARC, Pakistan props up and the debate goes nowhere till relations improve. We need Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi to talk all this though.

There are reasons why foreign policy is not a part of the election discourse. In a country still struggling to lift millions of people from grinding poverty, unemployment, caste and religious divisions, foreign policy does not resonate among the general voters. It is a subject confined to strategic experts and academic and power circles. India is not an advanced democracy like either Britain or the US or France. It is a democracy in the sense it holds national and state elections every five years and very little else. Questions of human rights, transparency and seldom raised except by intellectuals and activists. It does not concern the general public.

It would be of some concern to people living in border villages along the LoC who are suffering Pakistani artillery in Kashmir or Punjab. In Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Manipur and Assam, the one point agenda is to detect and deport the alleged Bangladeshi migrants who have entered the north east. All together these states carry less than 40 Lok Sabha seats in a 543-member of the Lower House. For the states that carry the lion’s share of constituencies, like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, or Madhya Pradesh or Andhra Pradesh, where villagers struggle to make ends meet, does India’s foreign policy really impact their lives?

Thus, it will be quite some time before foreign policy discourses become part of India’s election debate. Till that happens, the electoral debate will circle around either ‘jumlas’ or basic livelihood issues.