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Sunday, January 07, 2001

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Where big can be bothersome

For all its size, India cannot achieve its larger objectives without eliciting willing cooperation from smaller neighbours... A `big brother' approach is entirely misplaced, writes ATUL ANEJA.

THE RECENT anti-India riots, sparked by a fabricated charge that the Indian actor, Hritik Roshan, made derogatory remarks about Nepal, is a reflection of the hostility with which most people in the Himalayan kingdom perceive this country. It is, however, misleading to assume that the rioting in Kathmandu was a spontaneous upsurge. A highly complex set of factors appears to be behind the street violence in the Nepali capital. The fuse was apparently lit by a combination of the underworld and the ISI which exploited the latent anti-India sentiment accumulated in Nepal over the years.

It is now a matter of record that India's street level image among its other neighbours, in Bangladesh and to a lesser extent in Sri Lanka, is not particularly positive.

Anti-India sentiment in Nepal is partly driven by history. The root of the problem lies in the settlement of Indians in the Terai region of Nepal - the agriculturally productive flatlands which border Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.``Indigenous'' Nepalese residing mostly in the hill areas have resented their presence. They feel the Terai population exercises a disproportionate influence over Nepali politics and economy.

According to one estimate, around four million Indians have shifted to Nepal in the last 35 to 40 years. While Hindus are the majority, the Muslim population in the Terai is not negligible either. Nearly 97 per cent of Nepal's seven lakh Muslims reside in the Terai. While a majority of the muslims work on the farms, they also form a sizeable chunk of traders in Nepalgunj on the India-Nepal border. The Indian origin population continues to enjoy extensive links with people, some of them with questionable backgrounds, on the Indian mainland.

Migration of skilled or semi-skilled Indians or those establishing small and medium sized businesses have been treated with suspicion in Nepal in the past. In fact, concerned by the flow of Indians into Nepal, the Government in Kathmandu had set up a task force in the early 1980s to look into the ``problem''. The recommendations of this task force were, however, never implemented.

The presence of smugglers in large numbers in Nepal has imparted a new edge to the anti-India feelings. Kathmandu watchers point out that smuggling and prostitution have been the biggest revenue earning pursuits in Nepal over the years. In fact, there have been reports that large numbers of Nepali politicians and bureaucrats have been directly or indirectly linked to the gold smuggling syndicates operating in the country.

Smuggling operations did not have a particularly anti-India slant in the past. But equations changed drastically after the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the subsequent retaliation spearheaded by a section of the underworld in the form of the Mumbai blasts. The Mumbai blasts, in fact, divided the underworld on communal lines. Kingpins of the Dawood Ibrahim gang migrated first to Dubai after the blasts. But as the investigations in Mumbai gathered momentum, the Government in UAE apparently found it inconvenient to prolong their stay. It was from Dubai that veterans of the Mumbai underworld shifted to Karachi and Kathmandu.

In Kathmandu, the Mumbai underworld established close contacts with the highly influential local smuggling network. Firmly anti- India, it is a section of the underworld which linked up with the Pakistani ISI network in the region and beyond. Consequently, the Nepali smugglers and their backers, while not particularly opposed to India, were dragged into the ISI network.

With the ISI-underworld nexus in place, the character of smuggling from Nepal also changed. For instance, a Sikh militant in 1998 was apprehended with 30 kg of RDX at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan airport.

The underworld-ISI network has worked against India in Nepal with determination. Investments have especially been made in the media, in order to influence public opinion. Mirza Dilshad Beg, known for his connections with the ISI, ran the influential Space-Time cable network. He was ultimately assassinated, allegedly by the Chhota Rajan gang which had emerged as a rival to Dawood after the Mumbai blasts. The Space-Time network is now reportedly headed by Jamim Shah, of ethnic Kashmiri lineage. This cable network is believed to have been involved in giving wide publicity to Hritik Roshan's alleged remarks which acquired explosive dimensions.

India has also become useful for focalising economic frustration, especially among the Nepali youth. Not surprisingly, the students belonging to leftist organisation who took to the streets targeted commercial establishments owned by Indians. These included enterprises and cinema halls, some of which were owned by the Indian origin Marwari community. In other words, there now exists in Nepal a powerful infrastructure which can exploit the existing negativism against India.

Communalisation of the Terai, a result of the Babri Masjid demolition, is likely to expand the anti-India constituency in Nepal. According to one study, divisions between Hindus and Muslims have sharpened in some of Nepal's urban centres after 1992. The Vishwa Hindu Sangh (VHS), the Islamic Yuva Sangh (IYS) and the Muslim Ekta Sangh (MES) have contributed to this schism, which has become perceptible in Nepalgung. It will not be surprising if the growing divide is exploited by vested interests in a manner detrimental to India's national interests.

In Bangladesh too, the undercurrent of hostility towards India is palpable. In the past, New Delhi's stand on the sharing of the Ganga waters had been a permanent rallying point which stoked the fire of anti-Indianism. Problems in border trade had also given an economic dimension to this.

Though the relationship has greatly improved after the coming to power of the Awami League Government of Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh is still hesitant about agreeing to India's key requests. India is keen to buy gas from Bangladesh and wants to acquire transit rights through the mainland to reach the Northeastern States. In both cases, Bangladesh, on account of suspicions about India at the grasroot and political level, is hesitating.

India's troubled relationship and the weak state machinery's in some of the neighbouring countries have been exploited by insurgents and their supporters. The Indian Army's Operation Rhino in Assam pushed the key leaders of the United Liberation Front of Asom to Bangladesh. The ULFA leaders since the early 1990s have reportedly visited Chang Mai in Thailand in order to obtain arms. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam who have acquired fast boats have emerged as the key couriers for taking delivery of weapons, usually in the high seas, and delivering them to the required destinations in the Northeast. Weapons are finally funnelled through Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh and taken to Dwaki in Meghalaya for dispersal to the ULFA, while Haflong in Assam is the staging post for delivery to the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (I-M).

The response of the Indian establishment to the challenge posed by negative public sentiment in its neighbourhood has been weak and reactive. Part of the problem lies in the establishment's inability to craft a pragmatic approach which would promote its clearly defined larger geopolitical interests. In the case of Nepal, India, especially after the Sino-Indian war, can ill- afford to see the emergence of Kathmandu as a Chinese bastion. A Chinese stronghold so close to India's political heartland will be unacceptable.

While its strategic bottomline remains fixed, India's attitudinal approach to Nepal for promoting it, needs to be radically re- defined. The Indian foreign office and the security establishment, for instance, cannot imperially treat Nepal as a protectorate.

While the sheer facts of geography, economics and population will make India a dominant player in the equation with the neighbours, it cannot achieve its larger strategic objectives without willing cooperation from its smaller neighbours. A clinical appreciation of the ground situation will lead to the conclusion that in promoting India's larger strategic interests, forging equations of inter-dependence with its smaller neighbours will be the key.

Practitioners of Indian foreign policy often forget that neighbouring countries though smaller in size do have a restricted but effective counter-leverage over New Delhi. As witnessed by India for over a decade, neighbouring countries can become bases for waging a punishing low intensity terrorist war. An attitudinal fixation of treating neighbours as inferiors, symptomised in a ``big brother'' approach is therefore entirely misplaced.

In the case of Bangladesh, New Delhi has to recognise the importance of its location. Bangladesh is the land bridge between South and Southeast Asia, where it has vital long-term interests. Geography therefore defines its importance. India to draw physical links with South East Asia may have to chart out a route through Bangladesh and Myanmar. Bangladesh which has also large reserves of gas is likely to become a major player in India's energy security calculus. Besides, special relations with Bangladesh are required to promote India's security interests.

Given the complex historical, economic and security dimensions which lead to anti-Indianism in the neighbourhood, the Indian embassies and intelligence network have to be revamped. In the case of Nepal, for instance, diplomacy cannot remain confined to the Nepali elite. There is a need to take an ideological counter- campaign to the masses. For instance, India's standpoint has to be projected before the Nepali public, through a coherent media campaign conducted by dedicated professionals. It is unforgivable that, unlike Pakistan, the Indian establishment does not have assured and matching influence over a section of the Nepalese media to pull this off.

With Pakistan's penetration in the neighbourhood deepening, the need for synergy between the intelligence community and the foreign office establishment becomes indispensable. Early warning and an agile response will immediately help in defusing crises before they erupt on the streets.

But in the long run, a fresh approach based on mutual respect and anchored in existing realities will have to be forged with neighbours.

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