Friday, October 16, 2020

India’s neighbours drifting towards China: Has PM Modi’s “Neighbourhood First” policy failed?

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a 2014 SAARC Meeting | Source: Wikimedia

Back in 2014, when BJP came to power in India under the leadership of Narendra Modi, he invited the heads of government from Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Maldives, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka to his swearing-in ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.­ The move set the tone nicely for Modi’s “Neighbourhood First” foreign policy and was hailed by experts and critics alike as a positive step towards bolstering regional connectivity and improving cross border relations. Cut to 2020, and the ongoing China-India conflict has exposed plenty of problems for New Delhi regarding its relations with its neighbouring countries, particularly, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.

In recent days China has increased its investments in Asia and beyond even as India and the West have watched from close quarters. Most of the investments have revolved around Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road (BRI) Initiative , which aims to create a Sino-centric global trading network and sphere of influence. The BRI initiative is a matter of concern particularly for India because of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that is perhaps the most important project under the BRI initiative.

India has, traditionally, played a dominant role in economic and political matters concerning most of its smaller neighbours. However, with the BRI initiative, China gradually built up its political ties with countries such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, while India’s relations with these countries have become less cordial in recent years. Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, who were once considered allies to India appear to have tilted in favour of China.

The changing nature of India’s and China's relation with India’s neighbouring countries was evident in the silence of these countries when there was a serious flare-up on the India-China border. It is important to note that every South-Asian nation except Bhutan has signed on to China’s BRI. Bhutan is still following India’s lead in not joining BRI due to its own border dispute with China, for which India’s support is essential.

Nepalese Prime Minister KP Oli with PM Modi | Source: Wikimedia

Nepalese PM KP Oli had called Indian PM Narendra Modi, on 15th August, India’s seventy-third Independence anniversary. A statement by India’s Ministry of External Affairs stated, “‘The leaders expressed mutual solidarity in the context of the efforts being made to minimise the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in both countries.” However, in June 2020, the Nepalese Armed Police Force fired upon a group of Indian citizens at the India-Nepal border, killing one person and injuring two others. A third Indian who had been detained was released later. The move came in the aftermath of the Nepalese Parliament declaring the Indian territories of Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani as a part of Nepal.

Historically, India and Bangladesh have maintained close ties with each other. Modi’s rise to power in 2014 had no effect as Bangladesh’s PM Sheikh Hasina continued to maintain relations with India. In June 2015, when Modi visited Bangladesh 22 bilateral agreements were signed, including the resolution to a border issue that had existed since 1947 through a successful land boundary agreement (LBA). India also pledged $5 billion worth of investments in Bangladesh. When Sheikh Hasina visited New Delhi in April 2017, a civil nuclear tripartite pact was signed between India, Russia, and Bangladesh. Under the pact India will play an important role in establishing a nuclear power plant in Bangladesh. Even as late as March 2019, Narendra Modi had launched four projects in Bangladesh.

PM Modi, during a meeting with Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina donates the steering wheel of INS Vikrant (R11) to the Bangladesh War Museum | Source: Wikimedia

However, India’s relationship with Bangladesh turned sour post August 2019, when the BJP government implemented the NRC in Assam, a north-eastern Indian state. The process of NRC was meant to identify illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The 1.9 million people left out in the Assam NRC were a cause of concern for Bangladesh owing to the fear of a sudden influx of people forced out of the Indian state. Bangladesh thus turned to China under its “look East” policy in a bid to reduce its dependence on India. China replaced India to become the top trade partner of Bangladesh in 2015 and has provided assistance to Bangladesh through the BRI via 27 agreements signed on Xi Jinping’s visit to the nation in 2016.

“China is behaving how emerging superpowers generally tend to behave—they try to flex muscles and project power—all of which China is trying to do at the moment," says Happymon Jacob, associate professor of disarmament studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). “When that happens, states around that emerging power will either stand up against it (like India) or jump on the bandwagon (like other smaller south Asian countries)."

While China continues to make rapid strides, India is left to wonder as to how to deal with this apparent crisis surrounding its neighbouring countries. Modi’s neighbourhood first policy has certainly failed to deliver the promises it made and relations with most neighbouring countries have worsened over the past six years. New Delhi has missed out on several economic gains that would have strengthened ties with neighbouring countries and thereby would have helped to counter the growing Chinese influence in the region. It remains to be seen as to how India decides to get over this tricky situation and improves its ties with its neighbouring countries.

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October 18, 2020 6:46 PM

Bhagat Singh: The Man, The Life, And The Beliefs

Bhagat Singh is one of the ‘big names’ immortalised in the history of India’s freedom struggle and eternally cherished even after almost ninety years of his martyrdom. What makes him stand out is his popularity among the masses being almost on par with the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, despite his beliefs and actions being diametrically opposite to theirs.

Of the freedom fighters who remain mainstream in today’s India— a crowd predominantly made up of politicians with center or right of centre leanings, Bhagat Singh occupies a relatively lonely spot as a young, staunchly left-wing revolutionary who outrightly rejected Gandhi’s philosophy, and preferred direct action over politics.

Newspaper headline after Central Legislative Assembly non-lethal bombing

Bhagat Singh is most commonly and widely remembered in association with an incident where he, along with his friend and comrade B.K. Dutt dropped non-lethal smoke bombs into the Central Legislative Assembly from its balcony in 1929. They also scattered leaflets by the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA), which he was a major part of and was aided by in orchestrating the bombings. He is said to have been inspired by French anarchist Auguste Vaillant, who had bombed the Chamber of Deputies in Paris in 1893.

The bombing gathered widespread negative reaction due to the use of violence, especially from those who supported the Gandhian method. While Bhagat Singh and the HSRA wanted to protest exploitative legislatures such as the Public Safety Act and the Trades Disputes Bill, it is also widely accepted that they additionally intended to use the drama and public attention of the ensuing trial to garner attention to socialist and communist causes. Bhagat Singh and Dutt did not escape under the cover of panic and smoke despite the former carrying a pistol, and waited for the police to find and arrest them. During the trial Bhagat Singh frequently chanted a variety of slogans, such as ‘Inquilab Zindabad,’ which is even today often raised in protests across India.  

March 25th Newspaper carrying the news about execution of Bhagat Singh | Source: Tribune India

However, this was not the trial that ended in Bhagat Singh receiving his execution sentence. Before the Assembly bombings, Bhagat Singh had been involved in the shooting of police officer John Saunders, in connection to the death of freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai. At that time he and his associates had escaped, but after Bhagat Singh was awarded a life sentence for the Assembly bombing, a series of investigations led to his rearrest as part of the Saunders murder case. It was this trial— generally regarded as unjust— that led to his much protested execution sentence.

Bhagat Singh was hanged to death on the eve of March 23rd, 1931 and he was just twenty-three years old.

Despite the criticism he received for his actions, his execution sentence was widely opposed and many attempts were made to challenge it. In fact, his execution came on the eve of the Congress party’s annual convention, as protests against it worsened. He was memorialised nationwide as a martyr, and is often addressed with the honorific Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh.

Apart from being a socialist, Bhagat Singh was attracted to communist and anarchist causes as well. In ‘To Young Political Workers,’ his last testament before his death, he called for a “socialist order” and a reconstruction of society on a “new, i.e, Marxist basis.” He considered the government “a weapon in the hand of the ruling class”, which is reflected in his belief that Gandhian philosophy only meant the “replacement of one set of exploiters for another.” Additionally, he wrote a series of articles on anarchism, wanting to fight against mainstream miscontrusions of the word and explain his interest in anarchist ideology.

Bipin Chandra, who wrote the introduction to Why I am an Atheist by Bhagat Singh | Source: Wikimedia

While writing the introduction to Bhagat Singh’s remarkable essay Why I am an Atheist in 1979, Late Bipan Chandra described the Marxist leaning of Bhagat Singh and his associates in the following way;

Bhagat Singh was not only one of India’s greatest freedom fighters and revolutionary socialists, but also one of its early Marxist thinkers and ideologues. Unfortunately, this last aspect is relatively unknown with the result that all sorts of reactionaries, obscurantists and communalists have been wrongly and dishonestly trying to utilise for their own politics and ideologies the name and fame of Bhagat Singh and his comrades such as Chandra Shekhar Azad.”

Bhagat Singh is often admired and celebrated for his dedication to the cause of liberation. However his socialist, communist and anarchist beliefs were suppressed by the successive governments in Independent India. This in a way is the suppression of a revolutionary who has the potential to inspire, unite and motivate the growing population of a spectrum of activists all over India, in direct response to the fast-spreading divisiveness and intolerance in the country, often patronised by the groups and organizations professing the right-wing fascist ideology.

Bhagat Singh’s dreams of a new social order live on, not just in his writings, but also reflected in the hearts of every activist, protester, and dissenting citizen. The fight for freedom, revolution, Inquilab, may have changed in meaning, but it is far from over.

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