Regional tug of war

Sanjay Kapoor

On May 5, the Indian space agency fired a meteorological and communication satellite to provide mapping and early warning to countries of South Asia including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Afghanistan, and the Maldives. Pakistan was missing from the sweep of the satellite’s sub-continental gaze as it wanted to collaborate in building the project rather than being a beneficiary of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s gift to neighbours. The decision of Pakistan to stay away from what was earlier conceived as a South Asia project was its own, but it was also a manifestation of the strong centrifugal forces that are reordering South Asia due to the unending conflict between India and Pakistan. In other words, South Asia is cracking up with Pakistan being pulled in different directions: at times by the Gulf and at other times by China.

In fact, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that links Pakistan’s Gwadar port to Kashgar in Xinjiang province of China, helped by a gargantuan $62 billion budget, decisively wrenches the country away from the South Asian axis towards Central Asia. The physical infrastructure that has been created between the two countries due to the economic corridor has reinforced Pakistan’s industrial growth poles that were located after the Partition along the Indus river basin. Much to India’s chagrin, the post-1947 development course has blocked its traditional land routes to Central Asia and ensured that Kabuliwallahs no longer frequent Indian homes with dry fruits and other offerings like carpets. Now the turbulence in the Kashmir Valley has allowed its carpet and shawl makers to explore the entire country as their market without being challenged by anyone from Afghanistan or beyond.

In some ways, Pakistan does not really need India as much as it needed it before CPEC came into existence. Before this massive project was announced as part of the Belt and Road initiative of the Chinese government, Pakistan, realising that its Indus basin-based industrial development was in danger was very keen to restore trade ties with India. Since the BJP came to power and CPEC was put in place, there is a perceptible move on the part of India to ease out Pakistan, which uses terror as a “state policy”, as well as by China, too, to unglue South Asia.

Since 2014, the Indian PM has made a high visibility trip to Pakistan, a promise to carry on with dialogue in Ufa and nothing thereafter – except silence broken by terror attacks on each other’s assets. India has blamed Pakistan for the attack at the Uri border and the more recent mutilation of Indian soldiers’ bodies. All these incidents have been used to build public opinion that there is no real use in talking with Pakistan, which is a “rogue” state. India made a serious diplomatic investment to isolate Pakistan, but it did not work where it should have. The Chinese presence encouraged Russia to realign with Pakistan and explore whether it could use this as a springboard to rebuild its influence in Afghanistan where it had intervened in 1979. These new opportunities for Pakistan were not really anticipated by India that had worked hard to sideline Pakistan in South Asia. Within the South Asian framework, it had succeeded somewhat when the Indian government began to give precedence to sub-regional networks like BBIN or Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal. On the face of it, these new groupings look fine, but the manner in which think tanks and government agencies are going about questioning geographical and cultural affinities, it is a matter of time before the new generation of Indians and Pakistanis find that there is little in common between them except food and cricket.

This is serious food for thought, but who is really bothered in a government populated by people who feel polluted merely by shaking hands with a Dalit or someone from the minority community? If Indians and Pakistanis do not talk with each other then it will be a great loss to the syncretic culture of South Asia that has influenced its music, poetry, food, architecture and so much more. This unrelenting animosity will result in playing into the hands of those who have worked hard to ensure that Pakistan, due to its religious following, has an Arab or Central Asian identity and not linked to that of South Asia. The reason for the Partition will come alive if this hostility or distance grows. It will also allow many of the religious fanatics in India to build the argument that Islam is an ethnic construct and not a religious one and therefore they should be allowed to go to their land. This business of isolating neighbours and reordering geography has worrying implications and it would be wise of India to strengthen SAARC and an inclusive South Asian identity. If they fail then China and Saudi Arabia would be the winner and India a serious loser.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2017