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Updated: February 18, 2014 04:37 IST

Neighbourhood watch: security imperatives in the vicinity

Arvind Sivaramakrishnan
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India's Security Environment: Proceedings of Select Seminars Held by Asia Centre Bangalore 2007-12: Asia Centre Bangalore in association with Konark Publishers, 206, I Floor, Shahpur Jat, Peacock Lane, New Delhi-110049. Rs. 895.
Special Arrangement
India's Security Environment: Proceedings of Select Seminars Held by Asia Centre Bangalore 2007-12: Asia Centre Bangalore in association with Konark Publishers, 206, I Floor, Shahpur Jat, Peacock Lane, New Delhi-110049. Rs. 895.

The detail on India’s immediate vicinity is excellent, and conveys the imperatives for India to develop relations with all its neighbours despite the difficulty of doing that judiciously.

Since it opened in 1996, the Asia Centre Bangalore has hosted over 30 seminars on a range of geopolitical issues facing India in the new world order — or lack of it — that was emerging when the Centre was founded. These transcripts of 15 seminars clearly show the challenges India’s security environment poses for national policy both domestic and foreign, and do so by covering a range of concerns, from those arising in India’s immediate neighbourhood through its relations with Russia and the United States respectively to those which obtain with China and Japan, as well as selected multilateral systems.

The detail on India’s immediate vicinity is excellent, and conveys the imperatives for India to develop relations with all its neighbours despite the difficulty of doing that judiciously. Afghanistan, for example, is a nation of minorities; although several contributors argue for expanded ground-level Indian engagement throughout the country, cultivating any one group or faction there would be dangerous and self-defeating. Participants are not afraid to criticise India either; although the material on Myanmar is permeated with anxiety about China’s intentions, one contributor points out that having failed to back democracy in Myanmar when the National League for Democracy had 80 per cent of parliamentary seats there, New Delhi now proclaims support for the NLD and its six MPs. Similarly, while several favour India’s attempts to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) because Pakistan is a member, former ambassador B.R. Muthu Kumar cautions that India must not carry its Pakistan baggage everywhere and that good bilateral relations between India and SCO countries are just as valuable as membership.

Realist assumptions

Informed critical evaluation also characterises the separate discussions on Nepal and Bangladesh, with widespread agreement that both are more important to India than many realise and that Indians need to be better informed about them than they have been so far; the articulated accounts of political life in both countries provide incisive analyses of the ways domestic pressures can affect relations with India.

The strategic aspects of India’s respective relations with the United States, Russia, China, and Pakistan receive close attention. The discussions reveal realist and often positivist assumptions, but many of the participants nevertheless argue for positions which draw upon quite other conceptions of states and relations between them. The relevant stands include strong caveats against India’s devising foreign policy according to U.S. wishes; in respect of Iran — to name but one example — the caveats rely as much on the long cultural links and historical commonalities between India and Iran as they do on the highly favourable oil and gas terms Tehran offers India.

Some of the issues may be irresoluble; rivalry and competition with China are expected in all dealings, and speakers contrast the attention Chinese scholars give India (one contributor reports listening to Chinese research scholars discussing Kabir with one another in flawless Bhojpuri) unfavourably with many Indian scholars’ neglect of China. Continued engagement is, however, emphasised throughout, though there is no mention of the huge increase in Indian imports of everyday Chinese goods over the last fifteen years or so and what seems to be a lack of reciprocal exports.

The seminar on Pakistan is equally inconclusive, but what does emerge clearly is the country’s military complexity, with the U.S. staging drone attacks in the north-west – and killing civilians in the process - while the military continues to see itself as the custodian of the state, in which capacity it has political and economic interests to preserve and promote; those, furthermore, give it an incentive to prevent the Taliban from becoming a threat to the Pakistani state. While being critical of the Pakistan’s leaders, participants note that the military has professional strengths, and that the Organization of Islamic Countries has provided Pakistan with comparatively little support over the years. Given the political difficulties of Indo-Pakistan relations, a heartening element is the mention of cultural links as a way of improving mutual understanding.

The passages on Russia provide pertinent reminders that India had excellent relations with the Soviet Union, and that Russia is still a world leader in a wide range of technological fields and complex weapons systems. In addition, India has some leverage in this relationship, as it accounts for a quarter of Russia’s arms exports, though at least one contributor emphasises the need for India to bring more technical knowhow to the design table.

Other topics covered include energy security, the Indian Ocean, and India’s Look East policy. As this is a collection of spoken contributions, allowance can be made for a degree of incompleteness, but the volume nevertheless covers topics sufficiently thoroughly to reach points where other approaches can develop. For example, the seminar on energy focuses exclusively on natural resources for exploitation and on Indian access to these; this opens the possibility that energy security might be better ensured by lower and wiser production and consumption – not least by even modest improvements to India’s chaotic electricity generation and distribution systems.

Similarly, the discussions on terrorism could lead towards studies of terrorism as a response, if an antipolitical one, to the often violent suppression of legitimate grievance – itself a political failure; further seminars could also look at the way tighter security usually means greater domestic repression, with the risk that dissent and disagreement become treason. That way lies Fascism. In addition, it might be rewarding to examine the example set by France and Germany, which after precipitating – twice in a quarter of a century - the greatest mass slaughter yet known decided enough was enough and created the world’s most envied condominium. The former Foreign Secretary A.P. Venkateswaran makes a related and telling point with a reminder of India’s willingness to work towards the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction on an equal and non-discriminatory basis; as he says, total security for the few means total insecurity for the rest. This book can teach readers a lot.

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