Comment

Putting out the West Asian fire

“The leadership of the Central Asian States should look to India to provide them with answers on how to insulate their Muslim populations from radical Islamist threats.” Picture shows Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Uzbekistan counterpart Shavkat Miromonovich Mirziyoyev In Tashkent.

“The leadership of the Central Asian States should look to India to provide them with answers on how to insulate their Muslim populations from radical Islamist threats.” Picture shows Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Uzbekistan counterpart Shavkat Miromonovich Mirziyoyev In Tashkent.   | Photo Credit: PTI

Narendra Modi’s visit to the five Central Asian States presents an excellent opportunity for India to nurture peace in a region being swept by radical extremist winds

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s eight-day visit to the five Central Asian States — Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan — is taking place at the most opportune juncture, for Mr. Modi has indicated that he proposes to focus on the radical Islamist threat to the region. Given the kind of extremist winds sweeping across the region, the Muslim populations of these states face uncertain times. States such as Tajikistan are especially vulnerable, as many from the ranks of their security agencies are beginning to join the Islamic State (IS).

The threats that these states face from radical Islamist elements are, indeed, real. At the same time, it is also significant that the leadership of these Central Asian States should look to India to provide them with answers on how to insulate their Muslim populations from these kinds of threats. India’s success, to date, in insulating its own Muslim population from such radicalism has gained wide acceptance, even as the so-called ‘counter radicalisation’ programmes followed in the West are proving to be a failure.

Showcasing strengths

This should prove to be an excellent opportunity for India to showcase its strengths, while extending a hand of friendship to a bloc of countries that have consistently sided with it over the years. India also needs as many allies as possible at this time, to ward off the potential challenge posed by the widening embrace of radical Islam. As it is, Afghanistan, a country in which India had invested heavily for an entire decade (employing the ‘soft power’ of developmental assistance), is on the verge of falling into the Taliban-IS net.

Pakistan already poses many problems for India. The latest danger, however, is that it demonstrates an intrinsic inability to withstand the forces of radical Islam. Coming on top of a pronounced state weakness to take appropriate decisions even where it confronts problems of a grave magnitude, Pakistan cannot be expected to act as a buffer when it comes to checking an irredentist challenge from West Asia. Meanwhile, Pakistan continues to engage in ‘perilous risk taking’, and a ‘Don Quixotic type tilt’ at imaginary windmills (India), instead of taking precautions not to be consumed by the ever-widening sectarian fire.

As Mr. Modi travels through Central Asia, he also needs to think about what is taking place further to the West. West Asia is passing through one of the most turbulent phases in its history, and it needs to figure far more prominently in India’s foreign policy priorities. Reflection would reveal that there is a grave challenge to India of a new and specific kind from this region. India is, however, clearly out of the loop as far as developments there are concerned.

This is a region with which India has always had the closest of relations. Today, however, India is increasingly seen as a bystander, or worse, an outsider. If Mr. Modi is serious in playing a messianic role, then he should immediately take steps to try and resurrect our relations with West Asia. The current turmoil in West Asia impacts India in various ways. First, the post-Arab Spring fracturing of West Asian States into ethnic and sectarian fiefs has geo-political and geo-strategic implications. Second, India is marginalised from a region from which it obtains 70 per cent of its oil — this has economic implications. Third, the region is home to around 7 million Indians, and the region’s Foreign Exchange remittances add substantially to India’s Foreign Exchange Reserves. Also, less apparent, but possibly more critical, is that as a country with one of the largest Muslim population in the world, India cannot be oblivious to the fact that it could be infected by the same virus sweeping across West Asia, if radical extremist fires are not doused soon.

As religious wars destroy Syria and Iraq, Libya gets increasingly drawn into the vortex of the IS, chaos takes place in Yemen, and epic struggles take place between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, India must not remain on the sidelines, as it has been a factor in the politics and history of countries in West Asia for a long time. With many states currently having to deal with a new uber-Wahhabi model of Islam, and with the IS and the latest al-Qaeda offshoots seeking to redraw the contours of West Asia by replacing history with sectarian geography, India must act for its own security and stability.

The international community must conceive of new paradigms of thought and action, and India should play its appointed role in this endeavour. The persistent bombing by the U.S. and allied forces on IS hideouts has proved to be of little avail. The world may be a better place with the killing of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Nasser-al-Wuhayshi, and militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, but their replacements have already been announced and the ‘struggle’ goes on unchecked. The number of recruits to terrorist outfits has only increased.

Not only is the IS growing rapidly, but its success has also spawned many new al-Qaeda proxies who flaunt different labels. Across West Asia, wars are being fought not only between state armies and non-state outfits like the IS, but increasingly between non-state militias, each backed by various countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Gulf states.

This shows that the situation is deteriorating dangerously. Bigotry has led to genocide on a fairly extensive scale, with emphasis being on the elimination of religious minorities. This, in turn, is breeding a violent and totalitarian culture, as seen in the past weeks’ events where, following an IS directive, jihadis carried out attacks in Tunisia (on foreign tourists), Kuwait (against Shia Muslims) and France. The IS has also attacked several military check points in Egypt’s North Sinai killing 70 people, possibly one of the biggest militant attacks in Egypt’s modern history.

Instability in West Asia adversely affects India. With the number of militant outfits growing rapidly and a steady increase in the number of recruits to their ranks, all inspired by a belief in reviving Islam’s ‘pristine glory’, India must not live in the hope that Muslims in the country will not fall a victim to such inducements. The West has failed to put out the religious fires burning in West Asia. India previously had an image in West Asia, which was unrivalled by any other power. An attempt should be made to revive this spirit. Mr. Modi must use all the levers available to nurture peace in West Asia — using India’s moral strength, spiritual influence and its current position in the comity of world nations.

(M.K. Narayanan is former national security adviser and former Governor of West Bengal.)

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Printable version | Mar 29, 2020 9:08:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/prime-minister-narendra-modis-central-asia-visit/article7396013.ece

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