India’s Relations With Its Neighbours: Conundrums To Contend With

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By Anjora Sarangi:

“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” a phrase, even more pertinent when it comes to a nation’s relationship with its neighbours. To have an inimical neighbourhood is to be in constant fear of tension and conflict. It means suspension of important activities and diversion of economic military and political forces towards the resolution of disputes. Such tensions not only remain localised and regional, but have international repercussions as well which can be disastrous for the nation’s foreign policy. Therefore, for most countries, the management of political relations with its neighbours becomes of utmost importance.

India as a geographical entity has a unique disposition. The region houses nations with varied characters in terms of their size, resources and strength which are juxtaposed with each other. These nations include China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Maldives and Sri Lanka.

India has had a long and troubled history with Pakistan and it remains so, even today. The Kashmir question is at the heart of animosity. Pakistan exports terrorism to India which has been a huge roadblock, the recent example being the Mumbai blasts in 2008. There is great instability, political volatility and internal violence in the nation. Economic cooperation between the neighbours is minimum; disputes exist over illegal immigration, human trafficking and trading routes. Nevertheless, large scale hostilities have mostly been avoided since 1971 and the current nuclear capability of the two nations has almost ruled out an all-out war.

Though there is booming trade between India and China, there is also a lingering mistrust. China’s increasingly assertive rise has challenged India’s own regional dominance. China has been seen to continuously counterbalance India by lending military and political support to Pakistan. Though the Indo-China border war of 1962, security dilemma, economic and political rivalries have been a major setback, relations have gradually improved after 1988 with a series of high level visits to each other’s capitals.

Indo-Sri Lankan relations have been fluctuating through the years. India’s intervention in the Lankan Civil War for peacekeeping efforts through the IPKF (Indian Peace keeping Force) in1987 proved to be costly when it culminated in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE prompting India to adopt a non-interventionist role in the nation. Now focus has shifted to economic cooperation. Though the internal civil war in Sri Lanka seems to have abated, events have led it to move a stride closer to China, Pakistan and Israel for military and political support.

The troubled state of Afghanistan shares a congenial relationship with India as on today. Though relations had weakened during the Afghan Civil Wars and rule by Taliban in the 1990s, the Indian government’s efforts in assisting the overthrow of Taliban and providing humanitarian and reconstruction aid has paved a way for renewed friendly ties.

India had signed separate Treaties of Friendship with both Bhutan and Nepal emphasising non-interference in one another’s internal affairs, but unlike with Bhutan, Indo-Nepalese relations have been fraught with difficulties. Today, Bhutan enjoys preferential aid, transit facilities, benefits and generous aid from India. Nepal, however, often feels economically disempowered. India has intervened in the political process of Nepal on several occasions. Maoist politics has been a vital bone of contention. Nepal often complains about Indian nosiness.

India was instrumental in the Bangladeshi independence from Pakistan in 1971. However, the two countries do not share very cordial relations. Among the major issues of conflicts are of border management, problems of water sharing, trade, illegal migration and terrorism.

India was one of the largest supporters of Burmese Independence and Indo-Burmese relations were strong after 1948 until the overthrow of the democratic government by the military. In the recent years India has renewed ties due to geopolitical concerns and is snuggling up to the military junta. India and Maldives share amiable, close and multidimensional relations. India was among the 1st to recognise Maldives after its independence in 1965.

It can be seen that unlike the US, India is not a convincing hegemonic force in its region. The most amicable relationship of India is with the two smallest nations of Bhutan and Maldives. No big country is liked by its neighbours and though most countries are dwarfed by India’s size, population, economic strength, they are reluctant to bow down to Indian predominance. India’s efforts in SAARC are feeble. India’s policy in South Asia has improved in tone and quality in the past few years. This is the neighbourhood conundrum that the nation must address in fighting this uphill battle to become a global power.

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