India has to watch out for its eastern border
Image used for representative purposes only.

Several ASEAN countries either have a long tradition of military rule or are Chinese satellites that will not play outside Beijing-set parameters.

Subir Bhaumik

With the resurgence of the Khalistan movement in the West and some indication of its revival in Punjab, India has some worries over its Western neighbourhood. But Pakistan is in a vast economic crisis, and separatist/autonomist movements are intensifying in Balochistan. Once backed by the Deep State, the North-West Frontier Province and Islamist radicals have now become Frankensteins.

But if Pakistan’s woes and some indication that nationalist elements within Afghanistan’s Taliban are warming up to India is good news on our Western front, Myanmar’s descent into civil war and a resurgent Islamist coalition in Bangladesh backed by Western powers is bad on the east. With the coming to power of a Communist-Maoist coalition government in Nepal and growing Chinese pressure on Bhutan, all is not well in India’s eastern neighbourhood.

In Myanmar, the Burmese army Tatmadaw is clearly out of depth in handling the insurgencies, and India has failed to take any proactive role in mediation, which it could have done given its links with all major stakeholders in the country. It has reposed its trust in the ASEAN’s five-point consensus to break the ice, despite apparent failure to secure a breakthrough as the military junta completed two years in power following the February 2021 coup.

Several ASEAN countries either have a long tradition of military rule or are Chinese satellites that will not play outside Beijing-set parameters. Tatmadaw depends for its survival on China, which has bagged 16 mega infrastructure projects after the coup, many of which are uncomfortably close to the Indian border.

Delhi mandarins argue that rattling the Burmese military junta may push the generals further into China’s embrace. This is why India abstained, with China and Russia, from a recent West-sponsored UN resolution on Myanmar. But the Burmese military is already firmly in China’s grip—so Delhi’s presumption is grossly misplaced.

It is time India opens dialogue with the exiled National Unity Government (NUG) and other powerful ethnic rebel armies like the Kachin Independence Organisation and the Arakan Army to create options and protect its crucial interests in border regions.

With Myanmar in severe turmoil, one can forget about India’s “Look East” outreach into Southeast Asia, another declared priority of the Modi government. With daily fighting reported in at least 11 provinces and the Burmese army suffering huge casualties even at the hands of the poorly armed People’s Defense Forces (an ethnic Burman insurgent group aligned with the NUG), all Indian connectivity projects are destined to be indefinitely delayed if not derailed completely. Even those finished cannot be commissioned.

India can send a Gandhi Peace Mission to Myanmar to engage all important stakeholders, including the army, and sell it as an exit strategy for the beleaguered generals, but South Block has decided on ‘wait-and-watch’. An aspiring power is taken seriously when it acts, not when it promotes strategic inaction. If Modi can try playing a role in the Russia-Ukraine peace process, why not in Myanmar?

In Bangladesh, India will soon face a huge dilemma as the country heads for the next parliamentary elections due in January 2024. Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League, in power since January 2009, has taken relations with India into a ‘Sonali Adhyay’ (Golden Phase), but there is uncertainty over the next elections. The Islamist Opposition—led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami—wants to oust Hasina and hold the next elections under a caretaker system. This system existed in the country before 2009 but was revoked because the 2006–08 military-backed caretaker went beyond its mandate to organise a fair poll by trying a “Minus Two” formula—this sought the elimination of both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia from active politics—with the blessings of the US.

Now Washington is backing the Islamist Opposition and has weaponised the human rights issue in Bangladesh. Its sanctions against seven top security officials have demoralised the forces in their fight against Islamist radicalism.

The Islamist Opposition and their Western sponsors allege that Hasina has won the last two elections through massive electoral fraud and, therefore, a caretaker or national government with leading civil society personalities at the top should conduct the next polls under strong global supervision.

Hasina now faces strong anti-incumbency and ever-growing corruption charges, with some crony capitalists close to her government accused of huge money laundering and bank defaults, defrauding of banks, and kickbacks from mega-infrastructure projects. The Ukraine war has further complicated matters with rising energy and food import bills and an ever-ballooning price line that has upset common people.

India wants Hasina back for good reasons but is unsure how the US-driven regime change plans will play out. Hasina has not heeded Indian advice on many key appointments, and there is a feeling in Delhi that she is turning more to China—not only for development assistance but also for political support—to neutralise Western plans. Delhi mandarins feel, not without reason, that a pro-Chinese lobby, mostly traders doing business with China, has emerged in the Awami League, and they are slowly ousting the traditional pro-Indian Bengali middle-class politicians wedded to the 1971 legacy. India’s challenge is to keep Hasina in power but also ensure the polls are globally acceptable and that the Awami League remains under control.

In Nepal, with the Prachanda-Oli government back in power and relations between China and Nepal getting warmer, as is evident in new projects with Chinese financing, the Nepalese angst at India’s support for Madhesis and the repeated economic blockades launched by them has to be undone by some firm policy moves. Bhutan is under pressure from China to open up, and Beijing is bargaining over the border issues, which Delhi needs to watch out for.

(The writer is a Former BBC journalist and author on South Asian conflicts)