Ensuring good neighbourliness


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THE vision and policies of the Indian National Congress towards South Asia can be traced to the pre-independence era, particularly from the 2nd to the 4th decade of the last century. This vision and policies have undergone transformation over the last 56 years in response to political, economic and technological developments in the South Asian region. The changing nature of inter-state equations in South Asia and the patterns of great power influence on the countries of this region, also impacted on the policies and vision of the Congress Party. It is obvious that these undercurrents and influences are not a static phenomenon.

The vision and policies of the Congress Party regarding our proximate neighbourhood acquired added importance because the party remained more or less continuously in power from 1946 to 1996. So the vision and policies were not only those of the political party but also of the government of the Republic, constituting the foundation of India’s regional relations, regional security policies and policies related to various aspects of regional cooperation.

Before proceeding to a chronological analysis and assessment of the party’s South Asian vision and policies, it is pertinent to spell out how they are critical to internal governance in India. Nation states in our region from Pakistan to Bangladesh and from Bangladesh to Sri Lanka and Maldives constitute a somewhat unique geo-social, geo-ethnic, geo-religious and geo-linguistic area. In many ways the region had a unified subcontinental identity for nearly 200 years before it divided itself into independent nation states. Out of the seven countries in the region, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Maldives were part of a unified British governmental jurisdiction; Nepal and Bhutan, though with differing identities, were integral parts of the political arrangements of the British imperium. Political interaction in the subcontinental region was, therefore, a generally unified and orchestrated phenomenon under colonial rule.

The osmosis of history made India central to the processes of South Asia’s political, strategic, economic and demographic developments because of its territorial size, population, diversities, economic strength, technological capacities and military power. Geography contributed to the process. The borders of other South Asian nation states touch India’s frontiers. None of them however have a direct land, marine or river border with each other. India shares ethnicities, languages, religions and cultural traditions with all the other states of the South Asian region.



This overlapping creates a substantive negative challenge to India’s relations with its South Asian neighbours. Given the asymmetry of India and its neighbours which are smaller, these countries feel that their separate identities, even if they are not absorbed into larger identity of India, can be overwhelmed by those ingredients of Indian national identity which constitute the fundamental elements of the national identity of other South Asian countries, whether in terms of religion, language and ethnic-cultural factors.

It is due to this political chemistry that instability or crises within India in the processes of internal governance can generate profound apprehensions among India’s neighbours. India’s policies and attitudes towards its neighbours are an equally impactful factor, affecting the stability, sense of security and the processes of national consolidation in other countries of the South Asian region. Some elaboration of this assessment is necessary.

Physical proximity invariably results in interaction. This, however, need not necessarily be positive in content. Interaction can be negative, even adversarial, as our experience has shown. In the course of time, the futility and wastage of an adversarial relationship will be realised by countries in South Asia as revealed by experience and developments in different parts of the world, especially since the early 1970s, when there was a thaw in the Cold War culminating in a total transformation of the global scenario after 1987.

The point is that the geographical parameters of regional or subregional cooperation are not determined by logic or public perceptions about national or regional boundaries, but by political inclinations and economic requirements. In this context, there is ambiguity in defining the South Asian region. The enthusiasm and willingness of various countries to be part of a South Asian arrangement, therefore, depends more on economic and political considerations. Pakistan wants to be part of West Asia! Bangladesh and Sri Lanka wanted be part of South East Asia at some points of time.



In addition, there is a dichotomy between the size of the national economies of the region and their resource and technological bases. In this context, India falls in a category by itself. Pakistan and Bangladesh have large economies in terms of geography and population. In contrast, Bhutan and Nepal have unidimensional smaller economies. Sri Lanka has developed a more diversified economy.

Ethno-cultural affinity or similarity could provide intellectual, emotional and social impetus to regional cooperation. There are both positive and negative elements affecting this factor in South Asia. Linguistic, ethnic, religious and cultural traits of the people of South Asia transcend the national frontiers of the seven member countries. Peoples of these countries also share the same religions. All this should be a potent impulse for cooperation.

Paradoxically, it is the very commonality of the ethno-cultural and religious heritage that has created problems about national political identity amongst India’s neighbours, especially Pakistan and more recently Bangladesh. Despite a shared socio-cultural and religious inheritance, the assertion of a separate political identity necessitates and results in countries in the region pulling back from processes of economic and socio-cultural cooperation. The apprehension of being merged with or marginalized by India remains an obstacle in the process of consolidating regional cooperation.



While these are the abiding predicaments in India’s interaction with its South Asian neighbours, the awareness about these predications in fashioning our regional foreign policy emerged only from the period when Rajiv Gandhi became the prime minister towards the end of 1984. The previous three and a half decades were underpinned by a different vision and consequently regional policy orientations. The phenomenon was rooted in the ethos of the Congress Party and the freedom struggle.

Most of Asia barring Japan was under colonial and imperial rule till the end of the Second World War. There were nascent freedom movements in all Asian countries especially in what is today the South Asian region. The Indian freedom movement and the socio-cultural renaissance of the late 19th and early 20th century generated by Indian intellectuals led to the world’s largest, vibrant and active freedom movement created and conducted by the Indian National Congress.

Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were of the view that India could not achieve independence in isolation. They considered the Indian freedom struggle to be both a part of, and a catalyst for, the struggle for independence from colonialism and imperial rule of other countries in the Asian region. They felt that India should both energise and participate in the parallel struggles for freedom going on in other parts of Asia, stretching from Indonesia in the South, to the Gulf and West Asia in the North.

As a consequence, leaders of the INC established contact with leaders of the freedom movements of other Asian countries from the late ’20s of the last century. Jawaharlal Nehru’s participation in the Conference of Oppressed Nationalities in Brussels in 1927 was the first watershed in the process, after which contacts with leaders of the freedom movements of Asian countries were maintained more or less on a continuous basis right up to the point when India achieved independence in 1947.



There was a background to this internationalism in India’s foreign policy orientations. It is generally forgotten that the INC organised a boycott of Japanese goods and sent a medical mission to China under Dr Kotnis in support of Chinese people’s resistance against Japanese aggression. India’s response to the Balfour Declaration aimed at displacing the Palestinian Arabs from their homeland was to give full support to the Palestinian people long before Israel came into existence. The Tripura session of the Indian National Congress in 1939 affirmed in a resolution that world peace and progress depended on the imperative destruction of Nazim and Fascism.

Jawaharlal Nehru summed up both the vision and the policy outlook of India when he declared in 1942: ‘In India you and I are working for our own freedom. But we are thinking not of freeing India alone. We envisage a free and independent India that will work for the freedom of all the countries.’

What then were the attitudes and foreign policy orientations of India in 1946? At the intellectual and psychological levels, there was a profound sense of collective identity and definite recognition of a collective sense of self about India as a country which would support and encourage freedom struggles of all other countries. The geographical size, the demographic and natural resources of India were considered contributory factors to India’s importance and its international role for the above purpose.



This sense of importance was accentuated by a pride in India’s civilizational past. The moral high ground and assumption of an international role of India stated by figures such as Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi influenced articulate sections of the Indian public opinion giving them a perception of India’s role with a missionary purpose in the inter national community. India was envisioned as a messenger of peace and as a catalyst for creating a just and moral world order.

This vision also involved a conviction that India’s influence need not be based on military power or economic riches. A commitment to freedom based on commitment to democracy, predicated on safeguarding diversity and individual freedoms in civil societies were the terms of reference of India’s vision and foreign policy orientations. Encouraging cooperative relationships and impulses of democracy were the terms of reference for international relations. Democracy, peaceful resolution of issues, economic cooperation aimed at the well-being of peoples of Asia, respect for human rights, categorical opposition to imperialism, colonialism and all forms of discrimination, and strengthening political multilateralism through the UN, were the basic principles of the Indian vision which was translated into India’s regional foreign policy, particularly during the first decade after independence till early ’60s. The Congress, both as the supreme national political party and as the party governing India, was the conceiver and implementor of this vision and policy.

The first step towards assuming the catalytic and leadership role was taken by convening the Asian Relations Conference in Delhi on 23 March 1947. Political leaders from practically all Asian countries, most of them still under foreign rule, attended this conference. The indivisibility of peace, security and development in the international context was categorically asserted by Jawaharlal Nehru. Speaking at this conference Nehru said: ‘Peace can only come when all countries are free and also when human beings everywhere have freedom, security and opportunity. Peace and freedom therefore have to be considered both in their political and economic aspects.’



Two additional ingredients in the vision and policies were secularism (separation of religion from politics) and not joining either bloc engaged in the Cold War. Congress’s hope was that newly emerging independent states of Asia would be democratic, avoid religious extremism and be resistant to centrifugal ethnic, linguistic or religious impulses in their societies which could erode the composite cultural, multi-ethnic and territorial identities of the nation states in South Asia. These diversities were a basic characteristic of all the countries in the South Asian region.

India’s approach was to uphold diversity and plurality in all nation states. Rejecting, and expecting other Asian countries to reject, participation in the Cold War had a rationale. The disintegration of the alliance between ‘democratic’ and the ‘progressive’ forces resulting in the Cold War between western democracies and East European countries led by the Soviet Union were disappointments to the Congress and the Government of India. Congress leadership legitimately became apprehensive about India becoming subject to extraneous external influences if India and other countries were to take sides in this ideological confrontation.

Nehru’s view was that India and other neighbouring countries should keep away from Cold War power politics, remain committed to their own democratic terms of reference for national consolidation, and cooperate with all countries regardless of their respective ideological and political affiliations in order to maintain regional and international peace and meet their respective national interests. It is this approach which evolved into non-alignment and ultimately became the Non-aligned Movement. India decided to not only become non-aligned itself but desired other South Asian countries, if not all the Asian countries, to be non-aligned in their foreign policies. This was not just a vision but also the operational orientation of India’s foreign policy in regional and global terms.



There was also the feeling that India had a leadership role at the regional level on contemporaneous politico-cultural grounds because Congress under Nehru felt that it had a moral stance in international politics. The reasons on the basis of which we presumed a leadership role for ourselves were: India being the first country among the former colonies to achieve freedom and India’s active support to other freedom struggles in Asia resulted in the success of the latter. India expected to be a focus of attention and a reference point of all policies and attitudes of other Asian countries.



Second, Congress presumed that India’s contributions to the culture and civilization of other Asian countries constituted a linkage with these countries because of which they would look up to India as a point of origin of the socio-cultural foundations of their respective national identities and that this linkage would form the terms of reference of their domestic and foreign policies. The spread of major spiritual and religious thought and resulting cultural movements throughout Asia mostly occurred through the subcontinental land mass. This phenomenon merited a special position for India in the post-colonial period amongst the independent countries which broke out of the thrall of colonialism.

India undoubtedly succeeded in this role in the Asian region till the Bandung Conference of 1955. India supported the freedom struggle of Indonesia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Despite the war with Pakistan on Kashmir in 1948, minimum levels of equilibrium and stability were maintained in India-Pakistan relations. India was not just a superior but an active participant in the freeing of Nepal from the despotic rule of the Ranas. India forged a more moderate and egalitarian relationship with Bhutan, moving away from pattern of relations which the British Indian government had with these states.

India’s Asian vision and policies unravelled, perhaps disintegrated, when India suffered a military defeat by China in the boundary war of 1962. The first negative indications of regional responses to India’s vision and policies were revealed during the Bandung Conference in 1955. The Chinese and Sri Lankan (then Ceylon) delegations expressed resentment about the didactic role sought to be played by India to shape the Cold War world. A deeper analysis of this resentment and later developments reveals that Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision and approach was perhaps innocent of the realities of inter-state relations, India not having much direct experience of realpolitik and complex strategic predicaments which nation states face had an idealistic approach towards security and power equations.



At the time of achieving independence India did not face any major threat to its territorial integrity or security. The first presumption was that since India had no expansionist or aggressive designs against any other country, it would not face any threats. Second, that since it was not taking sides in the Cold War and wanted friendly relations with all countries, Cold War equations would not have any negative implications for India. The third assessment was that the just political and moral terms of reference adopted by the leading powers at the end of the Second World War, leading to the establishment of the UN, provided a moral and procedural basis for resolving conflicts and tensions through negotiations and peaceful means on the merits of the points or disputes at issue.

The manner in which the Kashmir war was dealt with by the United Nations was the first lesson that India learnt that her predications mentioned above were not valid. Curiously and mistakenly, India also felt self-confident about itself as an inheritor of the British position of power in South Asia, which was not so in reality. We had given ourselves a democratic republican constitution. Britain accepting India as a member of Commonwealth despite India declaring herself a Republic, created an illusion of Indian indispensability in the international scheme of things. A stable administration and a standing army, particularly the latter having been part of the victorious allied forces in the Second World War, instilled in India a feeling that she should be considered a power to be reckoned with in Asia, especially in South Asian affairs. Since at that time our resources were better, both qualitatively and quantitatively, in relation to other countries in the region, there was certain complacency about security and strategic matters in our minds.

This sense of complacency or security as well as the expectation that South Asian countries would share the ideological and political orientations in their foreign policies as envisaged by the Congress, remained unfulfilled. This happened due to a number of reasons which are worth a recall.



Pakistan as well as most South Asian countries joined the western powers in the Cold War. Pakistan and these countries became part of the system of military alliances forged by the United States against the Soviet Union and China from Baghdad to Bangkok (CENTO and SEATO). Nearer home, Pakistan signed separate agreements of defence and for defence supplies with the United States in 1954-55.

Second, China’s defeating India during the 1962 border war qualitatively diminished India’s credibility as an Asian power. The shattering of Sino-Indian relations and Pakistan’s forging of military and political alliances with China signalled the elemental realities of power policies and national interests being more influential governing factors in the Asian region. It also signalled the breakdown of a vision of Asian unity, harmony and resurgence which had animated India’s foreign policy.

Two wars with Pakistan, in 1965 and 1971, diminished the prospects of South Asian cooperation and at the same time destroyed the two-nation theory on the basis of which Pakistan was created. Ethno-linguistic centrifugal forces now emerged in the civil societies of South Asian countries. These phenomena changed the vision and policies of secularism and sanctity of pluralistic nation states envisaged by India as a cornerstone of its regional policy.



President Zia-ur-Rehman of Bangladesh took an initiative in January 1981 to counter the tensions and contradictions affecting inter-state relations in the South Asian region by suggesting the creation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). India’s initial response was that this could be an exercise of the smaller neighbours joining or ganging up to generate pressures on disputes which they had with India. It, nevertheless, joined the Association which was formally inaugurated in December 1985. The Association was to avoid discussion of bilateral controversies and disputes. Member states were to focus on bilateral and multilateral cooperation in economic, technological, cultural and social spheres.

SAARC has been in existence now for nearly 18 years. India genuinely wanted this regional grouping to be an instrumentality to decrease tension, increase cooperation and to create stability in and between South Asian states.

The Congress as the ruling party wanted to specially encourage economic cooperation and trade, which could lead to the creation of a South Asian Preferential Trade Arrangement, climaxing with the creation of a South Asian Economic Community. Progress could not be made in this regard because of Pakistan’s insistence that it would not join the effort unless the Kashmir issue was solved to its satisfaction and the somewhat unilateral commercial and economic demands of countries like Bangladesh and Nepal. This situation continues as a existentialist reality. The idealistic vision of creating a harmonious South Asian region in India’s foreign policy has undergone qualitative transformation responsive to the evolving realities over the last two and half decades beginning from the mid-70s of the last century.



The pluralistic nation states of South Asia are all subject to centrifugal ethno-linguistic and subnational pressures affecting their unity and stability. Bhutan is afflicted by the tension between its Nepalese and Bhutanese nationals. Nepal faces the increasing presence of Muslims from different parts of the subcontinent. Bangladesh is ill at ease with its large Hindu minority. Pakistan is subject to cogitational aspirations of the Pathans, Baluchis, Sindhis and Mohajirs resenting the domination of Punjabis in Pakistani politics. Sri Lanka suffers from a two-decade long separatist movement of Tamils against the Sinhalese. Even Maldives has been subject to coups against President Gayoom’s long rule. India’s trials and tribulations in this respect, whether they are about Jammu and Kashmir or the North East, need no elaboration.

Tensions raised by this phenomenon create difficulties in inter-state relations but equally important generate instabilities in each of the states of the region, affecting governance and development. The original vision of the Congress of national consolidation of the states of the region based on harmonious relations, meaningful cooperation and collective success in development, has now been replaced by the need of crisis management, preservation of the diversities and pluralities of the nation states in the region and the prevention of centrifugal forces in one country generating disturbances and instability in the other countries, especially in India because of the point made earlier. That is of India’s neighbours having overlapping ethnic, linguistic and religious identities with people of India.



The task has become more difficult for the Congress because of the narrow Hindutva-centric ideologies and orientations of the BJP-led government which has generated criticism, apprehensions and resentment amongst India’s neighbours where civil societies are not characterised by large Hindu minorities (except in Nepal). The Congress vision of upholding diversities and pluralities as a cementing factor in different nation states of South Asia is subject to challenge. Coping with this challenge involves the first step of restoring the secular, pluralistic terms of reference as an operational force of political process and governance within India. Only after restoring this inner cohesion can India influence its neighbours to orient their policies on positive lines of political harmony overarching the social, cultural and linguistic diversities of their respective civil societies.

The other realities to be taken cognition of are the nuclear weaponisation of India and Pakistan, problems related to the sharing of water and energy resources, the threat of transborder terrorism and religious fanaticism, and the demographic pressures on land in different states of the region leading to the phenomenon of illegal migration, given the spiralling populations. Overarching these predicaments, current and prospective, are the trends generated by a unipolar world dominated by the USA.



Given the prospect of a Pax Americana primarily geared to the national interests of the United States regardless of its implications for other countries and an absence of a balancing force in world order, there is need to structure political and strategic equations with other nation states who share India’s concerns about a unipolar world and have levels of economic political and military power, which in combination with other like-minded countries can become a balancing factor.

The vision of the Congress Party and its policies is in the process of fashioning a response to the above challenges. There must be some crystalisation of this required vision and terms of reference of regional policies by the time the next general elections in India are held in 2004. One cannot be didactic or prescriptive about what the vision should be or what orientations the policy should take, but some fundamental considerations which should influence the vision and policies can be stated.

Cohesiveness in terms of the institutional framework of the power of the region, shared ideas about the organisation of government and shared values about shaping the political system of countries in the region add to the prospects of cooperation. We in South Asia, have to strive towards realising this cohesion.

The most important consideration impinging on regional or sub-regional cooperation in any part of the world is a commonality of perceptions concerning the manner in which regional stability can be ensured, and a shared approach to strategic and security issues affecting the region. Objectivity requires that India clinically analyse the attitude of its neighbours towards it while deciding on the manner and extent to which it should participate in the regional cooperative effort. While Bhutan and Nepal have no palpable reservations about India in matters relating to strategic and security concerns, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka do. Whether or not these reservations and concerns on their part are valid or justified is beside the point.

It follows, therefore, that until a number of complex bilateral political issues between India and its neighbours are resolved, these countries will continue to look for balancing equations with other countries outside the region and, to that extent, their willingness to participate in the regional cooperation effort will be both limited and inhibited in the foreseeable future.



Prospects of security have to be assessed in a comprehensive manner, both in terms of the security concerns of individual states and in the regional context. While security concerns of the individual states may be rooted in the nature of inter-state relations within the region and in the political and territorial issues which stand unresolved, countries of South Asia face a number of challenges in terms of broader issues.

Traditionally, states have been inclined to deal with security issues by political or diplomatic tactics that are competitive or confrontational, or through the application of incrementally coercive force culminating in military force. But if people in South Asian countries through a process of political education and enlightenment are persuaded to move away from norms of confrontation and application of coercive force, a more creative system of managing both national and regional security could be forged. A beginning can be made in areas of security that are not subject to direct competitive political or territorial threat perceptions.

Threats from political/ideological factors, security against supra-national integration, threats to society and law and order from fundamentalist forces form part of political security. They need to be examined in their local, regional and global security dimensions. Is there a possibility of such threats getting out of hand and becoming a security risk of a high order? Can regional mobilisation take place against the threat of a state’s destabilisation through political subversion.



Political compulsions affect the prospects of South Asian security negatively. First and foremost is the asymmetry between India and its South Asian neighbours in terms of demography, natural resources levels of economic development, technological capacities and military strength. India has to make a special effort to remedy the threat perceptions amongst its neighbours, which are a logical consequence of this asymmetry. Second, nuclear weaponisation of India and Pakistan has profoundly affected the security environment of the region, not only in terms of regional security perceptions but also in terms of the strategic response of important nuclear powers like the US, the Russian Federation and China.

It is important that India and Pakistan undertake early negotiations within the framework of the Lahore Memorandum of February 1999 to formulate proposals for mutual nuclear restraint and to implement them. It is also essential that India structure a relationship with China, Russia and the US to stabilise the strategic environment in the context of the nuclear weaponisation of the region. The influence that these important countries can exert on Pakistan to come to an understanding with India on this specific issue is, and should remain, a matter of high priority.

Threats from cross-border terrorism, narco crimes, violent religious extremism and so on, pose a common challenge to all South Asian countries including Pakistan. A systematic and continuous effort should be made to forge inter-state South Asian regional cooperation to counter and eliminate these threats.

The demographic pressure on land in all the countries of the region will generate migration which individual governments may not be able to contain in the coming decades. This can create social tensions and economic instability if not managed through mutual cooperation. It would be pertinent for our governments to initiate early discussions to make arrangements for an economic community and an integrated economic region that would enable travel, free movement of goods and services and the movement of peoples on the basis of consent and cooperation within the region for specific periods for specific socio-economic purposes.



The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation should revise its agenda and charter to facilitate discussions on all political, economic and territorial issues that create tensions between countries of the region. The terms of reference for discussing these issues should be calibrated in a manner where unity and territorial integrity of individual states of the region are not challenged in the process. The objective should be limited to examining possible compromises without affecting the vital interests of SAARC members, and to acknowledging the fact that there will be differences of perceptions between different countries on these vital interests.

Broadening the agenda of SAARC to cover collective security issues and institutionally strengthening the organisation to galvanise cooperation between South Asian states are objectives which should be seriously adopted by member states to ensure durable security in the region.

The South Asia experiment in the creation and consolidation of nation states has different origins, different impulses and different limitations. South Asian nation states originated from the processes of imperial consolidation of the colonial period. Each such state had a plural ethnic, religious and linguistic demography that is in the process of being cemented through comparatively new concepts of national identity. The limitations are many, more so because what South Asia is trying to do in a span of 50 or 10 years was done in Europe over a period of nearly three and a half centuries.



In fact, South Asian nation states are subject to a profound contradiction. Their collective historical memory is one of fragmented ethno-linguistic and religious societies, with smaller territorial identities being overcome by imperial integration and colonial rule. So, the impulse is towards the creation of strong nation states. On the other hand, ethnic, cultural linguistic and religious identities have the strength of tradition and history that transcend the emergence of nation states on the international scene. These identities have reinvigorated in the new atmosphere of freedom and self-rule that has characterised South Asia since the end of the World War II. There are situations where the impulses toward building a strong nation state are challenged by narrower aspirations of ethnic and sub-national identities.

That is the contradiction that the South Asian states and people have to resolve now.