India must draw inspiration from its own founding principles to actively support friendly, peaceful and secular forces in the region

Various developments in our region challenge us to think about a regional doctrine to replace the abandoned “Indira doctrine” and “Gujral doctrine.” We can take a cue from the strengths and weakness of these doctrines and apply them to the changing strategic environment.

What should the geographical reach of such a regional doctrine be? That depends on the degree to which developments in the country/region can either benefit or harm us. There is general agreement that developments in South Asia (Afghanistan to Myanmar, Nepal to Sri Lanka) have this potential. Whether the Maldives in the Arabian Sea has this potential is less clear. What about other more distant island nations in the Indian Ocean? This depends partly on the amount of resources we are able to commit to the overall task and our strategic reach and also on the presence of larger, stronger potentially hostile external powers operating in the Indian Ocean (a circumscribed version of the “Indira doctrine”). By these criteria, the Maldives could be included within the region of operation of the doctrine, while other islands may be added over time as capabilities and potential threats grow.

Our own culture, secular traditions and democratic principles must form the bedrock of any external doctrine. The basic thrust of the doctrine must be to actively support friendly, peaceful, secular, democratic forces in the region. This would include civil society organisations, political forces and parties that believe in a peaceful democratic future for their own country and for peaceful, friendly and cooperative relations with neighbouring countries (including India). One operational consequence would be for Indian elites, the media, and public to clearly and openly back genuinely pro-peace, political parties in these countries.

On the other hand government per se should not “unabashedly back pro-India political parties” in these countries, as this could be counterproductive in promoting friendly, peace-loving forces in these countries. If and when such friendly parties are in power, the Indian government should however, provide asymmetric inter-governmental benefits to assure them and their supporters of the benefits of their positive approach (a selective version of the Gujral doctrine).

Confronting extremism

The second aspect of this doctrine must be a hard-headed strategy for opposing dictatorial and militaristic forces that have no compunctions about using violence against their own citizens, or supporting terrorists or engaging in hostile actions against neighbours such as India. This requires us to undermine fundamentalist/extremist elements and organisations, whether religious or ideological, which have a philosophy, ideology or history of violence. We have to rid ourselves of our extreme squeamishness in confronting those without moral or social compunctions about harbouring, sheltering, training and financing militant groups which use violence against innocent civilians (in any country in the region). We must be prepared to use every feasible means to thwart such forces. We must also undermine their supporters — political parties which provide open or tacit support, countries or organisations outside the region that provide funds and safe heavens. Again, it is essential that the Indian elite, media and public adopt a clear and open stand against extremist forces, organisations, elements in supposedly moderate political parties and organs of the government (e.g. an army). They must have an equally clear stand against genocide and terrorist killing of innocent civilians. Though the government’s stand should be equally unabashed with respect to hostile non-government organisations, its public posture towards extremist forces within the government (of these countries) would have to be more nuanced. It is more important for the government to act quietly and forcefully against such institutions than to talk a lot about it. There is one important exception.

The government should take a more active role in international forums in exposing genocide and ethnic cleansing by an anti-India governing party or organ of government, perhaps through an announced policy. For instance, India should have supported international efforts to expose the genocide in East Pakistan/Bangladesh and to punish the guilty, including elements of General Tikka Khan’s army (à la Justice Hamood-Ur-Rahman Commission) and its agents and collaborators in the Jamat-e-islami (Razakars).

Role for civil society

The main modality for supporting positive forces and opposing negative ones in the region should be civil society organisations funded or supported by the government. These would need to have a clear programme for study and analysis of neighbouring countries to identify the positive and negative forces, the socio-political dynamics and the organisations that need to be supported or ostracised. Based on this analysis they would have to work out country strategies to support the positive forces and oppose and undermine the negative forces in each country. They may need to hire development experts, former diplomats and intelligence experts with knowledge and expertise in these countries to formulate and implement these strategies. This knowledge and expertise would also be invaluable in government decision making in emergencies.

Though this doctrine will help in the medium to long term, in the short run, national interest should play a dominant role in deciding how to deal with an army-led Pakistan (Musharraf after his coup), a military-led Myanmar (with its sole friend, China), or democratic countries veering towards oligarchy. We must ignore the self-interested advice of western human rights activists who have never been able to stop their own countries from coddling dictators who have made things difficult for neighbouring countries.

(The writer is president, Chintan (Empowerment through Knowledge), former chief economic adviser, Finance Ministry, and former ED and ambassador to the IMF.)

More In: Comment | Opinion