An Introduction to South Asia

An Introduction to South Asia
6 June 2000

This page is designed as a monthly news brief having focus on human and cooperative security issues in South Asia. The inaugural briefing highlights the security setup and strategic atmosphere in the region that have a direct bearing on the inhabitants.

It must be understood that in terms of geography, culture, religion, political system, economic development, demographic profile etc, the South Asian nations present as diverse a picture as the rest of the world taken together. The only thing common to the countries of the region may be the legacy of the British Rule. This legacy however has not prevented the independent nations to define and design institutions for governance distinctly different from the traditional democratic system with an overdose of welfare economics. Political expediency had dictated the nature and shape of the external relations of the countries of the region in the post World War – cold war era the same way as it is reshaping the relationships in the era of globalisation. The fact remains that, geographical contiguity has not helped the countries of the region to evolve a common identity for them selves. Economic backwardness, poverty, illiteracy and prevalence of large scale social inequality have shaped the pattern of development and influenced the policy choices. The development initiatives often lacked direction and have often been away from the international main stream. The lop-sided development initiatives have failed to address the concerns for the environment as well.

Mutual antagonisms dominated the pattern of relations among the countries of the region which in effect shaped the alignment patterns with countries in the rest of the world. The region is borne with congenital trouble spots. International players have taken advantage of the inherent weaknesses to further their respective strategic agendas in the region. The region has been a witness to bitter power struggles, external hostilities, subversive cross border terrorism, separatist movements threatening internal stability of the concerned states. There were at least three major hostile engagements between the two major powers in the region, i.e. India and Pakistan, the countries having superiority in conventional as well as nuclear arms capability over other South Asian nations. In fact, any conflagration involving India and Pakistan has direct security implications for other countries of the region especially in view of the nuclear capability of the players concerned, high rate of volatility in managing mutual relations along with dogmatic political set up and invisible role of terrorist organisations having nefarious destabilising dispositions. Between India and Pakistan, Kashmir issue continues to remain the major bane of contention apart from their traditional rivalry for regional supremacy.

After decades of secrecy, there was a sudden manifestation to gate-crash into the exclusive domain of ‘nuclear haves’ by India with Pokharan-II tests followed by tests by Pakistan. A shocked world woke up to the cold realisation of nuclear proliferation flourishing in a highly volatile area where emotions and dogma rather than political maturity determine the sphere of state activity. A regime of sanctions was followed by intense world pressure for restraint urging both the countries to sign CTBT. This ambition by South Asia’s two leading players to acquire extra-regional capability was not taken to be a stabilising factor by other countries in the region. ( “South Asian security will not be same again”.. “nuclear tests would be felt in all areas of South Asian cooperation including trade and commerce”; Official reaction to the tests from the Sri Lankan foreign ministry which also echoed the sentiments of other nations. )

Between the adventures in Pokharan and Chagai Hills of 1998 and the return of the ‘Tigers’ in Sri Lanka’s strife torn northern province – Jaffna, the strategic environment in South Asia has undergone a complete metamorphosis. The major catalyst for the fermentation was provided by engagements again by South Asia’s congenital warring nations – India and Pakistan in Kargil over Kashmir. Kargil eventually threw open a number of issues for both India and Pakistan to ponder. As a direct consequence, it put Kashmir on the world agenda. It made the perception clear that as long as India and Pakistan retain nuclear weapons, they can no longer cite bi-lateralism to resist international attention on Kashmir. The engagement also gave the sub-continental rivals an opportunity to abhor fixed notions about immutability of cold-war US –Pakistan, US-China, and China-Pakistan relationships.

The military take over of the civilian regime in Pakistan and the hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane demanding the release of Pakistani terrorists enforced the world perception that South Asia remains the hot spot of post cold war world politics. As President Clinton would summarise the concern, “you have got two nuclear powers there who are somewhat uncertain about one another.” This was the justification put forth when Clinton edged toward Pakistan visit with the ostensible necessity to break the ‘cycle of mistrust and violence’

With gradual easing of sanctions, India and Pakistan are being drawn into the ambit of international pressure for nuclear non-proliferation leading to formal acquiescence to the CTBT. The significant indicators emerging from recent policy pronouncement are that India is seriously engaged in evolving a ‘broad political consensus on the issue’( Prime Minister Vajpayee speaking in Lisbon, quoted in The Hindu, 29th June 2000). India takes the lead in nuclear non-proliferation by its voluntary moratorium on nuclear weapons programme including tests and by its willingness to move towards a de jure formalisation of this obligation of the CTBT. (The Hindu; 28 June 2000)

Non- proliferation in South Asia has received a set back as well with the discovery that Pakistan’s Nuclear arsenal is far larger than that of India-( five times larger ) ( instead of 10 to 15 nuclear weapons, the new estimate puts Pakistan being in possession of 25 to 100 bombs along with missile and air delivery systems, Asian Age; 14 June 2000 quoting US military and intelligence reports ) Though India made light of the reports ( we are alert to the developments that have a bearing on our security capabilities- MEA quoted in The Hindu; 9 June 2000) the fact that China continued to assist Pakistan to upgrade its nuclear capability ( The Business Line; 14 June 2000) that obviates Pakistan’s necessity for further testing ( Times of India; 9 June 2000) must remain a serious cause of concern.

The Indo-Pakistan Talks, universally considered vital for brokering peace in the region has stalled due to distinct lack of will, with both sides busy throwing a host of mutually unacceptable conditions at each other and getting the same rejected.( India rejected Pakistan’s offer of a restraint regime for nuclear and conventional weapons : The Hindu 14 June 2000). Both sides are looking for ‘proper environment for talks’.

In Sri Lanka, the Tamil separatist movement led by the LTTE appeared to be sitting on brink of a major victory against government forces in Jaffna peninsula. Sri Lanka’s appeal for external assistance met with positive responses from countries like Israel and Pakistan and a stance of non-commitment from India. India paradoxically is the only country directly affected by the conflict and faces the prospect of large scale refugee influx. India’s indecision is born more out of domestic compulsions mired in the intricacies of coalition politics than out of a reluctance to commit itself through the IPKF route. India’s response so far apart from a pledge for humanitarian assistance and financial commitment has been to facilitate negotiations and for this reason it is in active league with Norway. Nevertheless, this manifest reluctance has left the door open for other countries hostile to India to enter Sri Lanka. ( Asian Age 13 May, 2000)

The security environment in the northern part of the region which suffered a set back due to hijacking is looking up after the resumption of the flights to Nepal. Concerns are still afoot, however on the face of media reports alleging ISI links of some leading personalities in Katmandu. ( The Hindu; 24 June 2000) against the back ground of Indian National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra’s extraction of assurance from Nepal that ISI would not be allowed to operate through Nepalese soil. ( Indian Express; 6 June 2000)

On the eve of the beginning of the implementation of the WTO agreement the South Asian nations need to increase cooperation in developing mechanisms to encourage increased cross border economic activity along with resolution of mutual conflicts. ( M. K. Alagh in The Hindu 26 June 2000).