India's Lack of Respect for its South Asian Neighbours is Now Mutual

The arrogant big brother attitude that disparages and belittles the nations at its borders will leave India isolated in any face-off with a big power.

In a letter to Edwina Mountbatten in 1950, C. Rajagopalachari, the last governor-general of India before the nation became a republic, wrote, “A country without material, men or money – the three means of power – is now fast coming to be recognised as the biggest moral power in the civilised world … her word listened to with respect in the councils of the great.”

Is India still the reservoir of that moral influence? Recently it was widely reported that Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, has not met India’s high commissioner despite repeated requests for a meeting in the last four months. Eventually, foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla had to rush to Dhaka to mend ties. Many commentators say Bangladesh is tilting toward China. This is also true for Sri Lanka and Nepal. As one after another of India’s immediate neighbours in South Asia turn away from India, it is time to contemplate where the country’s foreign policy might be failing us and the expectations of our neighbours?

Big brother arrogance

In school, I recall being taught that India is a ‘big brother’ to its smaller neighbours. Whether this ‘smaller’ meant geographical size or was a metaphor alluding to an inferior status remains lost. The entire academic grounding of international relations calls for a serious reckoning. When we don’t view our neighbours as equals and assume an air of superiority, even though it may come from a supposed sense of responsibility for the region, it automatically negates any possibility of friendship. Rather, it becomes a relationship of ‘give and take’ or one that tenuously hangs on to historical and cultural associations.

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Of late, our preoccupation has become China and the millions that it is spending on South Asia, disregarding the predicament this creates for our neighbours. The India or China cleft stick leaves them subject to scorn by either of the two powers in Asia. With each of our South Asian neighbours, the potential for accommodating bilateral relations is immense. But our relations with nearly all of them are predominantly discordant, which should mortify us as a nation aspiring to be a global power.

Geographical map of South Asia. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CIA, Public Domain

How has this come about? It is the culmination of decades of insensitivity towards the cultural uniqueness and predilections of the nations that abut India. In our references to Bangladesh, there is often an arrogance rising from the fact that India was the midwife of its caesarian birth and expects eternal gratitude in return.

Closer economic ties and people-to-people relations would be more beneficial in strengthening the cultural ties that already prevail. Remarks from among the political class which alluded to the supposed one crore undocumented Muslim immigrants in West Bengal who are “thriving” on the government’s Rs 2 per kg subsidised rice and are involved in arson should have been censured for their lack of sensitivity by the larger political establishment. Statements like “half of Bangladesh will be empty (vacant) if India offers citizenship to them (Bangladeshis)” reek of an arrogance that is distasteful in its implications. In the face of these repugnant announcements by politicians, it becomes difficult for the leaders of our neighbouring nations to consider warmer relations.

From friends to antagonists

At the height of India’s spat with Nepal in late May, Nepalese foreign minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali’s view was that Nepal had been pursuing the foreign secretary-level mechanism that was mandated by the prime ministers of the two countries to work on outstanding boundary issues. But that “did not happen, as there was no confirmation from the Indian side.” Indian Army chief M.N. Naravane’s remarks on Kathmandu acting on the “behest of someone” over the Lipulekh issue were needlessly unrestrained.

There are indications that Bhutan might be tempted to partner with China over the settling of border disputes. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent sealing of the international borders, the simple matter of accepting Bhutanese currencies in India has become a nuisance for traders in eastern Bhutan who deal in both Indian and Bhutanese currencies. If these minor irritants are left unresolved, it begins to hurt India’s soft power diplomacy.

India may have lacked comprehension of Sri Lanka’s unease with groupings like the “Quad” and concepts like the “Indo-Pacific” association which could imply taking sides against China. Amidst the current coronavirus pandemic, Sri Lanka has made three requests to India for a postponement of its debt repayment, a debt moratorium and for a currency swap facility. India holds only about 2% of Sri Lanka’s total foreign debt of approximately $55 billion, yet no decision has been taken more than four months after the request was made personally by Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It shouldn’t then be a surprise if Sri Lanka seeks reprieve from China.

India sets much store by BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), in juxtaposition to the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) regional grouping, but this has not delivered much success either. Its summits have been woefully infrequent and its permanent secretariat in Dhaka is chronically understaffed and underfunded. Apart from Thailand as the other most influential member, India has a special responsibility in terms of financing, leadership, and connectivity towards this regional grouping, especially because it is often touted as a rebound from SAARC. Without tangible benefits for the other nations, it becomes just another forum for anti-terrorism rhetoric, with no real worth.

News of India extending financial support for infrastructural projects in the Maldives was tail-pieced with views that it was done to pre-empt any Chinese move to woo the country.

PM Narendra Modi and Sri Lankan PM Mahinda Rajapaksha in New Delhi. Photo: PTI/Files

The enemy factor

For a very long time, India’s rivalry with Pakistan and the resultant hyphenated identity marked the impression the country made internationally. With poised diplomatic engagement, the slant of an antagonistic hyphenated India-Pakistan relationship was dissolved at the start of this millennium, only to be supplanted now with a hostile India-China relationship.

This India-China conflict reverberates in the rest of South Asia, changing existing equations. But while India may not be able to match China’s deep pockets, this can be outclassed by creating trust and engaging in non-prescriptive development assistance. And despite China’s spending capacity, India is uniquely placed to appreciate the disparities and paradoxes of the region because it shares borders with all the other South Asian nations.

Some foreign policy analysts have argued that India cannot ‘help its size or strength’ and ‘we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.’ But setting aside policy decisions, the need of the hour is finer receptivity towards the dispositions of our neighbouring nations. Propagandistic content on social media platforms whose purpose is to create a mob mentality on foreign policy issues needs to be handled with care. Recently, minister of external affairs S. Jaishankar agreed that the “sharp positioning” of the Nepalese leadership may have been “magnified by the media“. As long as serious bilateral issues are kicked around and ‘forwarded’ lightly on social media apps, a subliminal appreciation of the neighbourhood’s cultural and strategic links will fail to develop.

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A need for trust and faith

India looms as the largest nation in South Asia and in many ways the subcontinent is defined by her. It is natural that our neighbours feel insecure about their “independence and identity“. Setting aside the obsession with the huge amounts that China is investing in our neighbourhood, let’s begin by simply respecting the complexities of our South Asian neighbours. It may be prudent to revisit the aspects of the Gujral doctrine, which emphasise the need for good faith and trust as the basis of India’s relations with its South Asian neighbours.

To be a true leader in the region, it’s time for India to stop the berating and the belittling. In the pursuit of better regional relations, the foremost aspect would be to inculcate respect for our South Asian neighbours in our political establishment, which filters into the collective psyche of the nation.

Vaishali Basu Sharma has worked as a consultant with the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) for several years. She is presently associated with the think tank Policy Perspectives Foundation.