Reflections on Republic Day: There can be no Asian Century without India-Pakistan-China amity

Continuing conflict between India, Pakistan and China benefit none of these countries. It also prevents rise of India and indeed Asia. Peace is imperative for the Asian Century

Reflections on Republic Day: There can be no Asian Century without India-Pakistan-China amity

Sudheendra Kulkarni

The Republic of India is 71 years old today. 26th January, a day of great national pride for all Indians, is a worthy crown to India’s glorious freedom struggle that won independence from the British colonial rule on 15th August 1947. While joyful celebrations are in order, we cannot overlook the reality that our Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic is facing many challenges.

Our claim to being a socialist republic is mocked by the widest ever wealth disparities we see in today’s India. The most economically insecure section of our society is, ironically, the one that provides food security to India. The prolonged farmers’ movement, which will hold a mammoth “Tractor Rally’ today, is a dramatic manifestation of the crisis in Indian agriculture. Similarly, our claim to being a secular republic is today facing a sinister challenge posed by the Sangh Parivar, which is determined to transform our nation into a Hindu Rashtra. If it succeeds, non-Hindus will have an unequal status and India will change unrecognizably.

But there is yet another less-discussed challenge — the flawed and failed neighbourhood policy of our republic. The problems this has created for India and our neighbourhood are self-evident. Our country continues to be hobbled by friction with our neighbours, more with some, less with others. South Asia, the world’s most populous region, in which India ought to have emerged as the natural leader and harmony-promoter because of its size and civilisational antiquity, is beset with so many disharmonies. Among the least economically integrated regions in the world, it is home to the largest number of poor people on the planet. The level of intra-regional cooperation is among the lowest globally.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is in a coma. Owing to the unending India-Pakistan enmity, it has not had a summit meeting since 2014. And because of India-China rivalry, we are facing growing difficulties in our ties with other neighbours — Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Myanmar and Maldives.

All in all, the sad reality is that South Asia has failed to reach its full potential of progress, prosperity and human welfare. Even though ours is the second most populous nation globally — and will become the most populous within the coming decade — we are constrained from playing our rightful role in improving the state of affairs in South Asia, Asia and the world because of the persisting troubles we have with our neighbours.

What is hindering India’s rise?

Why should this bother us? Here is why. As the world enters the third decade of the 21st century, the global order is undergoing rapid changes, which are unparalleled in scale and impact since the end of the Second World War. The economic and political domination of the West is fast declining. The centre of gravity of the new world order is shifting to Asia. The rise of Asia is seen most prominently in the rise of China as the second largest economy in the world, and one within striking distance of overtaking America to occupy the top slot. China is also becoming a major power in new technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, whose mastery will determine which nations will become leaders and which remain laggards in future.

India is by no means a laggard. Our country has made a lot of progress in many fields in the past few decades. It has become one of the important poles in the emerging multipolar world order. Yet, undeniably, India’s performance falls far short of its manifest potential as well as its enormous needs. Our economic growth has become both slower and more uneven, especially after Narendra Modi became prime minister in May 2014. Our social development continues to be marred by many inequalities and injustices. Even though there are several domestic reasons for this, it is obvious that India’s own rise in Asia and the world is severely hampered by our inability to resolve our problems with our two large neighbours and normalise our relations with them.

No doubt, both Pakistan and China have contributed to these problems. Yet, we cannot pretend to be blameless. An objective discussion on the roots of these problems, and how to resolve them peacefully, has not become a priority to India’s political and intellectual establishment. Wrong notions of nationalism and nation-state, lack of internal socio-political unity on our foreign policy, and failure to evolve our own strategic national vision for India’s place and purpose in the changing world order — a point which Rahul Gandhi forcefully highlighted in his impressive press conference on January 19 — have clouded our thinking about these problems, and impaired our ability to overcome them.

The roots of India’s problems with Pakistan and China lie in the fact that our three countries inherited them from our colonial past. We were not our own masters, and hence in no position to control of our affairs and shape our destiny. Rather than trying to solve them through mutual trust, compromise and accommodation, and thus entering a new era of cooperation, development and shared prosperity, New Delhi, Islamabad and Beijing have further compounded inherited problems.

Hindutva’s own toxic ‘Two Nation’ theory

With Pakistan, our relations were embittered right from the beginning because of the tragic manner in which undivided India was partitioned with the exit of the British rulers in 1947. The dispute over Kashmir, which is at the core of the hostility between India and Pakistan, became an unfinished agenda of partition. Unfortunately, both India and Pakistan have developed a mutually conflicting understanding of how and why Kashmir is an incomplete task of history. Both insist that all of Kashmir belongs to them, and neither believes that the dispute over this beautiful gift from heaven can be resolved by making it a confederal bridge between the two countries. This is where the basic flaw in our two nationalisms lies. Healthy nationalism does not need enemies. But self-styled ‘thekedars’ of nationalism in both India and Pakistan have a compulsive need to project the “other” as their enemy. And they have made Kashmir their bloody battlefield.

Our failure to think of a just, humane, innovative and mutually acceptable solution to this problem stems from the inability and unwillingness of both Indians and Pakistanis to reconcile and harmonise our respective notions of nationalism. Even though we have lived together in the same land mass for centuries, and even though we share the same diversities, we have now chosen to think that the Idea of India and the Idea of Pakistan are mutually exclusive and antagonistic.

This misconception is a continuation of the Muslim League’s toxic ‘Two Nation’ theory which argued that Hindus and Muslims constitute two separate nations that cannot co-exist peacefully. What the rabidly communal Hindutva forces are now doing in India is simply a mirror image of what the Muslim League did before partition.

The day we realise that the nationalisms of India and Pakistan can be inclusive and mutually supportive, it will become obvious to us that we can remain two separate nations and yet be two good neighbours. It will also become obvious to us that the key to good-neighborly relations between India and Pakistan lies in our firm commitment to guarantee equal rights to their respective minorities. Belief in our shared civilizational ancestry and realization of the win-win benefits for all through mutual cooperation will itself show us the way to find a democratic solution to the Kashmir dispute — a solution acceptable to India and Pakistan, and also acceptable to the people of Kashmir.

Evidently, in this enlightened notion of nationalism anchored in brotherhood and human values, there can be no place for religious extremism and terrorism by non-state actors, nor for brutalities and human rights violations inflicted by the militaries of our increasingly coercive nation-states. All the more so, because none of the great religions to which the people of India and Pakistan belong — Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Christianity, Buddhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism — sanctions enmity and hatred, much less bloodshed. On the contrary, all of them call for human unity, fraternity and solidarity.

There is no military solution to boundary dispute with China

Resolving the boundary dispute with China, which is at the core of India’s fraught relations with its increasingly assertive and belligerent northern neighbor, is another unfinished task of history. It too has its roots in a past when neither a colonially enslaved India nor a China ravaged by imperialist depredations could determine and demarcate the boundary. Some opportunities did present themselves in the 1950s and early 1960s to end this dispute through mutual compromise. Sadly, these were squandered. When a disease is left uncured, its effects are bound to surface menacingly every now and then. We are seeing it in the prolonged and continuing standoff between the armies of India and China at Line of Actual Control (which is itself undetermined) in Ladakh. The killing of 20 Indian soldiers at Galwan Valley in June last year, besides highlighting the deadly potential of this military confrontation, has made resolution of the boundary dispute far more difficult.

The political establishments in both India and China must coolly think about a serious question: Is there a military solution to the boundary dispute? The answer is obvious. Neither China can realise all its territorial claims by defeating India in a war, nor can India do the same. Any war will be calamitous for both countries. When this is the unalterable reality, the only option is for the political leaders in both New Delhi and Beijing to engage in sustained a dialogue not only on how to arrive at a permanent settlement of the boundary dispute, but also how to expand and deepen win-win cooperation?

After all, cooperation creates trust, and trust helps in finding solutions to contentious issues. We must also remember here that, as two ancient civilizational nations, both India and China have inherited a large reservoir of spiritual wisdom. This wisdom, if only we care to tap it, will surely guide our two countries in the right direction. It was Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of our Nation and one of the wisest men the world has produced in modern times, who wrote in 1942: “I long for the day when a free India and a free China will co-operate together in friendship and brotherhood for their own good and for the good of Asia and the world.”

Not ‘Two Front War’, we need ‘Two Front Peace’

The primary yardstick for judging the soundness of any foreign policy is whether it helps a nation overcome its historically inherited problems with its neighbours. Sadly, on this touchstone, the foreign policy of Narendra Modi’s government has been a spectacular failure.

If we look at the trajectory of India-Pakistan and India-China relations, it is obvious they have descended to a dangerously low level since Narendra Modi’s ascent to power in 2014. He has in fact reversed some of the positive moves his two predecessors, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh, had made to improve relations with Pakistan — especially by trying to find a fair and out-of-the-box solution to the Kashmir issue. The dictatorial and patently unconstitutional manner in which his government has revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, bifurcated and downgraded the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and is now attempting to change the demographic profile of Kashmir, has worsened the situation in the state.

Indeed, the Modi government’s singular “achievement” is that, with its constant and belligerent talk of India being ready for a simultaneous “two-front” war, it has contributed to the strengthening of Beijing-Islamabad axis against New Delhi. Worse still, it has assiduously welcomed an outside power — Trump’s America — to meddle in the problems of our region in the delusional belief that this would contain China’s rise.

Quite apart from eroding India’s independence in crafting its own foreign and security policy, this has had the opposite effect of further antagonizing China. No power on earth can stop China’s rise, just as no power on earth (including China) can stop India’s rise. The right-wing ruling classes in a desperate and deeply insecure America, fearing the loss of their global dominance, are trying to train their guns at a rising China. Modi has offered them India’s shoulders to place their guns. For the purpose of gaining Donald Trump’s favours, Modi went to absurd lengths to appease America’s recently defeated and disgraced president.

We should not pin our hopes on Modi realising his mistakes and correcting his foreign policy for achieving ‘Two-Front Peace’, which is absolutely critical for India’s national renewal — and for the rise of South Asia and Asia. After all, the conflicts with China and (especially) Pakistan serve as convenient alibi for the BJP to drum up hyper-nationalist sentiments and divert attention away from India’s own pressing problems. Ominously, they strengthen the militarist mindset in our politics and society. Therefore, it is the responsibility of all the non-BJP forces to work with single-minded determination to create a new cooperative IndiaPakistan-China triangle, which as Gandhiji had believed, will bring peace, hope and light to the whole world.

(Sudheendra Kulkarni served as an aide to former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is the founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia -- Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. Views expressed are personal)

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Published: 25 Jan 2021, 8:07 AM