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Expanding Dimensions Of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ Policy

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“You can change friends, but not neighbours.”

– Atal Bihari Vajpayee

With the changing dynamics of international politics and global equations metamorphosing from bi-polar (post the collapse of Soviet Union) to a multi-polar world, India has been playing a vital role in the region. India’s foreign policy was always non-muscular, non-interventionalist and un-exploitative. But in the altered scenario, India is facing stiff competition from China over the superiority in the region and growing Islamic fundamentalism affecting the entire South Asian nations. The genuine questions that arise are what should be India’s foreign policy towards her immediate neighbours and how to tame the Pakistan-China axis?

India And The Region

National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s commitment towards India’s immediate neighbourhood was visible when the leaders of all SAARC nations were invited for the swearing ceremony of Narendra Modi as India’s Prime Minister in 2014. Immediately after assuming the office, PM Modi visited Bhutan in his maiden foreign visit and had also travelled to Nepal on multiple occasions.

He even stopped at Pakistan and met the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as a goodwill gesture to enhance peace and cooperation in the region. The government had also committed itself to various projects in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Iran and Maldives. Friendly summits were also organised along with China to strengthen diplomatic relations between the hostile neighbours.

The Indian government has also committed itself to various projects in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Iran and Maldives.

India’s interest in the region traces back to the Nehruvian days. In the days of the cold war, India’s position of non-alignment was aimed at stopping any form of colonisation. Foreseeing a possible conflict with China even a ‘Panchsheel’ doctrine was mutually agreed upon, but the expansionist tendencies of China had cost India the 1962 war and the Aksai-Chin territory.

India had fought four wars with Pakistan in the years 1948, 1965, 1971 and 1998, even though India could defeat Pakistan in all successive wars, these constant conflicts reflect the unstable relationship between both nations. India’s involvement in the 1971 war eventually resulted in the formation of Bangladesh, but the rising Islamic fundamentalism has created anti-India sentiments among the common people.

For a greater economic and cultural cooperation, South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was founded in 1985 comprising of India’s immediate neighbours. But the organization failed to achieve its target since the two major powers within SAARC, i.e., India and Pakistan, couldn’t agree on almost all occasions. This jeopardizing of dialogue process has pushed India to strengthen further another initiative called Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectorial Economic and Technical Cooperation (BIMSTEC) virtually excluding Pakistan. The advantage of India in the region is the historical and cultural ties between India and these nations.

India’s Neighbourhood Worries

China had always been a threat to India’s geopolitical interest in the region. With a booming economy, China is able to roll out financial assistance and ambitious projects to smaller economies. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) envisioned by China aims at connecting all the nations of the region by road. The peripheries of this project, including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, poses a challenge to India since it passes through the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). China also invested heavily in Nepal, India’s longest-standing ally. It needs to be noted that the agenda behind issuing large scale grants to poorer counties seems to be a ‘debt trap’, a neo-colonising strategy of China to which these counties fall prey to.

China is also posing a security challenge to India by forming a strategy called ‘String of Pearls’ in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) extending from the Chinese mainland to Port Sudan in the Horn of Africa. India enjoys a special benefit due to its 7,500 km long coastline. Now, the Chinese want to encircle India with its naval bases and ports operated by them in friendly countries, examples being the Gwadar port in Pakistan and Hambantota port in Sri Lanka. The recent Chinese standoffs with the Indian army at Doklam and their unwillingness to recognise Arunachal Pradesh as a part of India are bone of contention between India and China.

The rise of radical Islam and the anti-India rhetoric associated with it is yet another major worry for India. With the possibility of Afghanistan falling into the hands of the Taliban, the fear looms large. Pakistan has been using Jihad as a proxy weapon against India. The rise of Wahabbian ideas is even evident in Bangladesh; as a result, even several of the army men are radicalised. The killing of an Indian army man by Bangladeshi border security force proves this argument. Infusing of a large amount of money and speedy commissioning of projects are also in China’s advantage.

The advantage of India in the region is the historical and cultural ties between India and these nations.

Modi Government’s Foreign Policy

Multiple domestic factors influence any governments’ international policy. Some of those factors are political stability, economic growth, technological advancement and the global political scenario. With the NDA getting a simple majority of its own in 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, India’s global positioning has been constant and unaltered. The government also appointed S Jaishankar, a veteran diplomat, as the External Affairs Minister to professionalise India’s foreign approach further.

Presently, India’s foreign policy is crafted by the establishment keeping in mind the presence of hostile neighbours, Pakistan and China. It is therefore important to establish a strong relationship with the extended neighbours, excluding the two. India adopted new strategies to resist the looming threat from China in the region. Modi government’s doctrine of SAGAR (Security and Growth for all in the Region) is to counter the Chinese strategy of dominating IOR with ‘String of Pearls’. India is also releasing financial assistance to its neighbours for development projects such as Line of Credit (LoC) through Export-Import (EXIM) Bank, which facilitates India’s export and import activities.

Terrorism and religious extremism have been key challenges in the South Asian region. Afghanistan is worst hit with these crises. Due to its geographical location as a gateway to Central Asia, India has both strategic and economic interest in the nation. India financed and built a new parliament building for Afghanistan which was inaugurated by PM Modi in 2015. In 2016, he also inaugurated Afghanistan–India Friendship dam in the Herat province underlying India’s commitment to rebuild the war-torn nation.

For the other projects, India has provided financial assistance of $3 billion over the years. India had also partnered with Iran to counter China’s access to Gwadar port of Pakistan. India pledged $85 million for the development of Chabahar port, and a three-way Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between India-Afghanistan-Iran worth $21 billion Chabahar-Hajigak corridor.

Myanmar has a key part in NDA government’s ‘Act East’ policy since the nation is India’s ‘land bridge’ to south-east nations. During the five-year tenure of NDA 1, a sum of Rs 1,300 crore was allotted for Myanmar for various projects. India is also wary of the proposed China-Myanmar Economic Corridor as part of the BRI. NDA 1 extended two LoCs worth $6.5 billion to Bangladesh which goes into community-level development projects, construction of educational institutions and so on.

China has been trying to woo Nepal with multiple infrastructural projects away from India. Being an inevitable partner, India spends on an average 230 crore annually for various projects in Nepal. The government was quick to grand $1 billion LoC following the earthquake in 2015. India also highlights the cultural similarities between Nepal and India. Bhutan is a key partner of India and as a buffer state to China has its strategic importance.

India has been developing hydropower plants in Bhutan and had also donated $4.7 billion from 2000-2017 as an aid to Bhutan. With the change of government in Maldives and declaration of their ‘India First Policy’, the relationship is projected to improve substantially. NDA 1 had also given financial assistance of $1.4 in its tenure. India’s relationship with Sri Lanka had been in shady lines due to the latter’s pro-China tilt. But the geographical location of Sri Lanka is significant for India’s security and economic interests.

Conclusion

India had always been projected as a soft power in the global political discourse. But post 2014 ere marks a transition of India to a hard power determined to position itself as an alternative to China. India is a key strategic partner of the United States and its allies in the Asia-pacific region. It is also important from the part of India that the neighbourhood soil is not used for anti-India activities. To prevent any such adventurism, India has carried out cross-border military actions in both Pakistan and Myanmar to target terror camps. To counter China’s influence, India should boost its own economy and strengthen its military might.

China has been trying to appropriate the Buddhist legacy through propaganda. Buddha, Bollywood and Cricket can be effectively used for people to people connection in South Asia, which eventually fosters diplomatic relations. With the government’s target of making India a $5 trillion economy and reconstructing institutions to make it more competitive, India has the potential to ouster Chinese influence in the region.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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