Unstable South Asia
Every country in India's immediate neighbourhood is in some sort of political crisis, and
every single one of them affects India's own internal security
Even as SAARC countries routinely lambast Indian
hegemony, the truth is that India has few options to
address these multiple crises just across its borders.
But stability in India's immediate vicinity is both in
India's interests as well as desirable in its own
right. Following is an analysis of major factors that
threaten peace and stability in India's
neighbourhood and South Asia as a whole.
There is thus a clear need for India to develop
foreign policy options that can bring peace and
stability to the region. These options range from active diplomacy to military intervention,
and must be conducted under the umbrella of an assertive foreign policy doctrine that
articulates India's intentions to act in favour of restoring stability. This approach is likely to
raise hackles in South Asian capital cities, but raised hackles are normal in the subcontinent.
South Asia is in a hole despite India's hands-off attitude to regional security. It can get worse.
Besides, China is in the process of securing access both to the Arabian Sea and the Bay of
Bengal. Further consolidation of these powers into the South Asian context will just
complicate matters further.
India has to take the initiative in bringing peace in South Asia without appearing overbearing
to its smaller neighbours. Pakistan remains a problem and will continue to do so in the near
future but good neighbourly relations with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and others are not
difficult to achieve. An India with friendly relations with these countries will expose Pakistan
as the odd man out in South Asia.
The political stalemate in Pakistan emanating from the Zardari-Sharif confrontation has
renewed fears of another bout of instability in India's nuclear armed neighbour.
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The open support to Taliban in tribal-areas of Pakistan's frontier has now been formalised in
a deal the zealots struck with the Pakistan government. This worrying development is just
one manifestation of the messy federal structure of Pakistan. While its own provinces are
fighting for some form of self-determination, Islamabad continues to pursue its dogmatic
agenda in Kashmir - an escalation of cross-border infiltration has been accompanied by the
strengthening of pro-Pakistani elements among Kashmiri separatists.
The recent mutiny of Bangladesh Rifles troops has unnerved the newly sworn Sheikh Hasina
government. The mutineers surrendered but not before killing several of their officers and
plunging the country in a state of crisis. Bangladesh would have descended into a paroxysm
of internal violence giving ample opportunities for Islamic fundamentalists to seize power, or
at least exploit the political vacuum to pursue their intolerant agenda. Dhaka is no stranger to
army rule and civilian administrations have always led a precarious existence there. A regime
tolerant of Islamic fundamentalists in Dhaka is a nightmare for India. In recent years
Bangladesh has become a haven for terrorists who have carried out mayhems in India. This
was facilitated by previous Bangladesh Peoples Party (BNP) regime's policy of appeasement
of fundamentalists there. Threats to internal security of India are compounded by the
emergence of another an unfriendly country in its neighbourhood.
Sri Lanka remains in a continuous state of war between the Sinhalese administration in
Colombo and the minority Tamils in the north and the east. The LTTE is on the brink of
decimation but and end of the terrorist grouping is not an end to the ethnic crisis that has
bedevilled the island nation for more than half a century. The Tamils retain a strong sense of
grievance of being treated as second class citizens by the numerically superior natives. The
country is unlikely to see peace and normalcy unless their sense of hurt is addressed.
Maoist guerrillas ended their armed confrontation with the army and participated in general
elections last year. They now run the government in Kathmandu but tensions between them
and other political forces in the country continue to simmer. The Maoists took reins of power
in Kathmandu despite not winning even half of the popular vote in the country. Their first
major step after coming to power was to send the monarchy packing and declare Nepal a
Republic. This has brought them in direct confrontation with forces sympathetic to the
royalists. The monarchy does retain its sphere of influence that is subdued for now but may
challenge the Maoists if the latter are fail to deliver on their promises for the Nepalese
people. Mainstream politicians have not distinguished themselves by rising above partisan
rivalries and getting round to providing leadership in the past.
Pakistan: Forever on the brink
Barely a year after the country celebrated its return to democracy, Pakistan is ensnared in a
new political crisis.
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The political chaos has forced the government's attention away from a deadly fundamentalist
insurgency in its tribal areas and an economy that's on the verge of collapse.
Justice Chaudhry reinstated
Pakistan's fired chief justice was reinstated after the government bowed to protesters'
demands following days of massive demonstrations. Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad
Chaudhry will not renew his oath of office. A growing protest movement spearheaded by
former PM and Zardari's friend turned foe, Nawaz Sharif, had demanded that Chaudhry and
other judges that Musharraf fired be re-seated. Buckling under pressure, the government of
current President Asif Ali Zardari agreed. Along with Chaudhry, most of the sixty others who
had been fired have also returned to their posts.
Judiciary and Musharraf
General Pervez Musharraf had assumed power in a bloodless coup. He stepped down in
August 2008 just as a coalition comprised of parties opposed to him stepped up efforts to oust
him. The General had fired about 60 judges when he declared a state of emergency in
November 2007. The fired judges included 14 of 18 judges who sat on the Supreme Court,
including Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.
Musharraf sacked the judges because he feared they were preparing to rule against the
legitimacy of his third term in office. He had been re-elected president by a parliament
stacked with his supporters.
Sharif was looking at an opportunity to attack
Zardari who was determined to frustrate the
former Prime Minister's political ambitions. In
February 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that
Sharif cannot hold public office, citing a criminal
record that dates to the late 1990s. The court also
stripped Sharif's brother, Shahbaz, from his post
as chief minister of Punjab–the Sharif party's
The Sharifs condemned the court's decision as politically motivated. They accuse the court of
acting at the behest of Zardari. Adding to their outrage, Zardari suspended Punjab's
parliament and imposed executive rule there for two months. The Zardari administration said
the executive rule was needed to maintain stability in the province.
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The case against Sharif dates to the late 1990s, when he was prime minister. At the time,
Musharraf was military chief. And Sharif feared Musharraf was plotting his ouster. When
Musharraf was returning home from an overseas trip, Sharif refused the airliner to land. That
order eventually led to Sharif's conviction for hijacking and treason when Musharraf took
power in a bloodless coup. He went into exile instead of prison, but returned to Pakistan to
challenge Musharraf's rule in late 2007. However, the election commission barred Sharif
from the parliamentary race. His brother, Shahbaz, was shut out because of financial
irregularities, the commission said. The Supreme Court upheld the commission's decisions.
Why Zardari fears Chaudhary & Co.
After sweeping into power in parliamentary elections last year, the ruling Pakistan Peoples
Party promised to reinstate the judges within 30 days of taking office. The deadline came and
went. One reason behind the delay may be that the Supreme Court was expected to look into
the controversial amnesty granted to former PPP leader Benazir Bhutto and her husband and
current party head, Zardari, for corruption charges.
When Bhutto was prime minister, Zardari was accused many times of corruption, stealing
from government coffers and accepting kickbacks. Pakistanis derisively labeled him "Mr. 10
percent." Zardari said the cases were politically motivated. He spent several years in jail on
the charges but was never convicted. Bhutto herself faced corruption charges in at least five
cases, but was not convicted.
In October 2007, with his popularity plummeting and under pressure from the West to hold
elections, Musharraf allowed Bhutto to return from exile and participate by granting her and
her husband amnesty. Bhutto was assassinated during a campaign rally. Her husband became
head of the party and the new president of Pakistan.
Pakistan's descent into chaos
The renewed tensions threaten to take the focus away from the government's attempts to
quash an escalating pro-Taliban insurgency in the country. At the same time, Pakistan's
economy is in shambles. The worsening security situation is part of the reason. Rising food
and oil prices have also contributed to the crisis.
In November 2008, the International Monetary Fund approved a $7.6 billion loan to Pakistan
to help the country avoid an economic collapse. Many in Pakistan worry that the latest
turmoil could once again force the army on to the streets if it worsens. In its 61-year history,
Pakistan has been under army rule more than half the time. For now, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani has
said he will not interfere in political matters.
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The war in Afghanistan is spilling over into Pakistan, where the Taliban have long had a
foothold in the tribal areas along the mountainous border. Its supporters have been battling
Pakistani troops in the region for more than two years, and the United States is believed to be
responsible for periodic airstrikes that target suspected militant leaders.
Sharia (Islamic law) courts have opened in Pakistan's northwest Swat valley region as part of
a peace agreement signed between tribal leaders and the government in February 2009. The
deal has sparked fears among some analysts that conceding this much authority to extremists
will only expand their power, risking further national instability and making it more difficult
for the central government to exert its authority.
Pakistani authorities got some concessions in return for allowing Sharia in Swat, once a top
tourist destination. Militants have agreed not to display their weapons in public, although it's
unclear whether they are also required to turn them in. And officials have pledged that girls
will be allowed to attend schools. Militants had burned down several educational institutions
for girls in the region.
But some analysts said this issue is more complex than it appears. The area has long been a
conservative religious stronghold extending back to British rule, which ended in 1947. There
are fundamental contradictions Pakistan has not fully grappled with such as the balance
between secularism and religion in a country officials named the "Islamic Republic of
The Pakistani authorities say the deal with their own Taliban in Swat is a search for the
resolution of domestic problems. In fact, however, they make more and more concessions to
the Taliban, and will finally have themselves cornered. If the Pakistani authorities continue
their policy of concessions to the radicals they will finally loose control of the country's other
Bangladesh: rocked by BDR mutiny
Bangladesh border guards surrendered after their two-day mutiny in the capital, Dhaka in
March 2009. Some 700 guards are in custody and a manhunt is on for 1,000 more "guards
and accomplices". Some 140 officers are thought to have been killed, along with 20 civilians.
The revolt started at the headquarters of Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) in the Pilkhana area of
Dhaka. The BDR are a paramilitary force, officially part of the home ministry, responsible
for Bangladesh's border security. They also perform anti-smuggling work and are required to
help civil and military authorities as directed by the government. The BDR has 70,000 men
stationed at 42 camps across the country, including 40,000 along the country's 4,000km
(2,500-mile) border with India and Burma.
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The BDR mutineers were not asking for any political change. The mutiny was reportedly
sparked off by the refusal of senior officers to consider more pay and better conditions for the
The mutineers also wanted the BDR command and officers to be drawn from their own ranks
rather than from the regular army – most BDR officers are seconded from the army for two to
The mutineers also complained about pay and conditions. The average BDR guard earns
about $70 a month, which is equivalent to the wages of a low-ranking government clerk. An
ordinary BDR guard doesn't get decent pay or food and spends a lot of time living in harsh,
The mutiny is likely to have a lasting impact on Bangladeshi politics. Prime Minister Sheikh
Hasina was sworn in at the start of the year after two years of an army-backed interim
government. Sheikh Hasina has promised to address concerns over pay and conditions
Bangladesh's 37-year history has been a turbulent one, with many incidents of political
turmoil and violence. The country has a population of more than 140 million - 40% of whom
are below the poverty line - and it is dependent on foreign aid and investment. There are fears
that further political unrest could deter investors and donor countries.
Sri Lanka: A nation battered by civil war
Having announced the capture of Mullaitivu, the last of the
Tamil Tigers' north-eastern strongholds, the Sri Lankan
army says that it is very close to defeating the rebels after
years of war. The fall of Mullaitivu follows the recent
captures by government forces of Kilinochchi and the Jaffna
peninsula. Thousands of people – troops, Tamil Tiger rebels
and Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim civilians – are estimated to
have been killed since fighting escalated after 2005.
Thousands more have been displaced. Seldom has the Sri
Lankan civil war been as hard-fought as it is now. The army
is pushing to defeat the rebels as soon as possible
The Tigers started fighting in the 1970s for a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka's north
and east. They argued that the Tamils had been discriminated against by successive majority
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The capture of Mullaitivu so soon after the rebels' de facto capital of Kilinochchi was taken
is a huge symbolic victory for the army.
As hostilities in the north-east have intensified, fears have risen for civilians caught up in the
conflict. Lakhs of thousands of people have been made homeless in recent months, mainly in
the north where the military has made inroads into areas under Tamil Tiger control after
seizing control of many eastern areas last year. Relief agencies have warned that feeding the
displaced is becoming increasingly difficult. Confrontation between the LTTE and Sri
Lankan troops increased after President Mahinda Rajapaksa's hard-line election campaign in
November 2005, when he ruled out autonomy for Tamils in the north and east and promised
to review the peace process.
In between then and now the military offensive against the rebels has been ratcheted up, with
the government formally abandoning a six-year-old Norwegian brokered ceasefire at the
beginning of 2008. Some analysts argued that the rebels provoked the government into
retaliation and war by staging attacks despite the truce, but others said they wanted to
negotiate from a position of strength.
With its advances in the east in 2007 and progress in the north in 2008, most of Sri Lanka is
now under government control. But even though the army is now in a commanding position
after taking Mullativu, Kilinochchi and Jaffna, the rebels have shown on innumerable
occasions their capacity to fight a guerrilla war through the use of suicide bombings,
assassinations and even aerial attacks carried out by planes operating from secret jungle
The Sri Lankan government believes it is very close to decimating the LTTE and is unwilling
to heed to demands from the international community for a negotiated solution to the ethnic
crisis with the aggrieved Tamil minority.
Nepal: Maoists force royalist generals to retire
A decision by the Maoist-led government of Nepal
to enforce the retirement of eight army generals has
been strongly criticised by the main opposition. The
military wanted to extend their terms of service by
another three years but their efforts to do so were
rebuffed by the defence ministry.
The army and the Maoists fought against each other
for 10 years until 2006. Under the terms of a UN
agreement, both the People's Liberation Army and
the regular army exist side by side.
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The "parallel military" issue is one of the biggest unresolved issues of the peace process: with
debate still raging as to whether and how former Maoist fighters should be integrated into the
armed forces. The government was trying to gain complete control over the military by
pushing through the enforced retirements. Other political forces in the country, which are part
of the governing coalition, may join the campaign against the enforced retirements. If that
happens, Nepal will face rising tension and renewed instability. In February the leader of the
Maoist former rebel army in Nepal said that the government had no plans to sack the head of
the national army. The Maoist military chief Nanda Kishor Pun, known as Comrade Pasang,
appeared to defuse tensions between the Maoist defence minister and Gen Rukmangad
Katuwal, the royalist chief of the Nepal Army.
Gen Katuwal recently went on a recruitment drive which the Maoists and the United Nations
said was a breach of the peace accords. "The Maoists are not trying to remove him. But the
Maoists want to change the army and bring it under civilian control, to have it obey the
government's orders," Pasang said. Many of the 19,000 former rebel fighters, currently
demobilised in camps, want to join the army. But Gen Katuwal said that he would not accept
"politically indoctrinated soldiers" into army ranks.
India: South Asia's beacon of hope
India is an exception among the countries that gained independence from colonial rule in the
last century. It has not experienced a spell of military rule due to the vision of its founding
fathers, who devised an effective model for civilian control of the military. Parliament,
through the Union cabinet and the defence ministry, has the last word on military policy. The
Indian army is an apolitical entity known for its professionalism. India is the only country in
the region where democracy is firmly entrenched and the supremacy of civilian rule stands no
chance of being challenged.
Bringing peace and stability in South Asia requires India to demonstrate its intent and build
its capability to secure regional stability. India has to do so not because of a jingoistic urge to
dominate its neighbours and bring them under its hegemony, but because regional instability
works against its own national interests. India should pursue a carrots and sticks policy in
achieving its foreign policy objectives in South Asia. Opening its markets for goods from
neighbouring markets without insisting on reciprocity is one way of improving Delhi's
standing among its poorer neighbours.
A South Asia that starts enjoying the fruits of free trade and regional integration is more
likely to realise the perils of confrontation. New Delhi should be generous in sharing the
water resources on its borders. Delhi's 'Big Brother' image needs to be dispelled. India can
become the engine of growth and prosperity on South Asia. New Delhi needs to play its cards