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India: A Diversity of Allergens

May 8, 2009

There are allergens that trouble India as well as its neighbours writes Jawed Naqvi.
By Jawed Naqvi,
May 7, 2009

Barely a decade ago India had not allowed the Saarc summit to be held in Kathmandu, insisting that Gen Pervez Musharraf should first return Pakistan to civilian rule that he had displaced in a bloodless coup. Musharraf didn’t oblige. The summit took place, but only after a year’s delay.

Moreover, the military dictator declined India’s generous offer of an air corridor, closed to Pakistani flights following the Kargil standoff. He opted instead for the China route to Kathmandu. Musharraf scored more brownie points by clasping the Indian prime minister’s hand during the summit amid thunderous applause by all the member countries. The gesture paved the way for the Agra summit without anything being conceded by Islamabad to show for India’s acceptance of it.

The wheel turned full circle for India’s neighbourhood policy this week. The outgoing Maoist rulers of Nepal blamed their exit on New Delhi’s support for an Indian-trained and discredited army chief, an appointee of the ousted king who was overthrown not too long ago by a popular uprising that ushered democracy for the first time in the landlocked and impoverished country.

India has denied the Maoists’ accusations that it wants to destabilise Nepal. Maoist leaders say New Delhi was in any case not happy with their rule over a country whose only other neighbour is China. Their fears are not misplaced. It took Madeleine Albright 45 years to acknowledge the CIA’s role in overthrowing Iran’s elected government to return the throne to the autocratic Shah.

It must be acknowledged as no mean achievement that India which is rightfully proud of its status as the world’s most populous democracy has learnt to live in an unstable neighbourhood where armies call the shots more often than civil society. So what was the point in making an exception of Gen Musharraf? Apart from eating humble pie what else did India achieve by holding the Saarc nations hostage, all to placate a momentary quirk?

Who can deny that India lives in a difficult neighbourhood, but how much of the problem is of its own making is a point to ponder. Gen H.M. Ershad, the former president of Bangladesh, hosted the first Saarc summit in 1985. He was a military usurper but Indian leader Rajiv Gandhi didn’t seem to have a problem with that. Gandhi was not uncomfortable with Gen Ziaul Haq either who represented Pakistan at the Dhaka meeting. Moreover, India looked the other way only recently when a so-called civilian-military regime took over in Bangladesh. Whose side are we on?

In 1997 Ershad emphatically said in a TV documentary on South Asia (ironically sponsored by the Indian foreign ministry) that the smaller countries surrounding India were 'allergic' to their big neighbour. They had, therefore, decided to come together to deal with India collectively. That, in a nutshell, was the driving force behind the idea of Saarc, as at least its first host saw it.

Clearly there are allergens that trouble India as well as its neighbours. We know that human allergies are nearly impossible to identify accurately and we know very little about what sets them off. But those prone to an attack learn to take evasive action. Part of India’s poor chemistry with its neighbours can be blamed on the Cold War, in which India was seen as aligned with Moscow. The others flirted with Beijing and Washington, often too seriously for New Delhi’s comfort.

Another clue to South Asian allergies is rooted in a parallel history. The Hindu carries interesting tidbits from its reports of 50 years ago, which could help locate the source of one of these elusive allergens. That issue pertained to the beginning of India’s Tibet policy, which immediately angered China and brought the ‘Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai’ euphoria between the two to a stunning halt.

The Hindu of May 6, 1959 carried two reports on the Tibet issue. One dispatch came from Washington. 'President Eisenhower told his press conference in Washington on May 5 that he could quite understand the astonishment of Mr Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian prime minister, at the increased attacks on India from Peking,' it said.

'The president was asked if he had any comment on communist China’s mounting criticism of India following the events in Tibet. The president replied that he could quite understand Mr Nehru’s astonishment and may be his sense of apparent indignation that these attacks should be made upon a nation which had tried hard to be peaceful.'

The other dispatch came from Beijing, and it quoted the New China News Agency as reporting on May 4, 1959 that 'Peking citizens' who studied Mr Nehru’s Tibet statement in parliament on April 27, had decided that the Indian prime minister 'distorted the facts of the rebellion in Tibet'. The Chinese 'citizens' also generally agreed that Nehru’s speech 'openly supported the Tibetan traitors'.Had Nehru’s intervention made a whit of a difference to China’s Tibet policy? If it did, he would be a global hero. The fact is that China has not budged at all on Tibet. However, India got embroiled in an avoidable war, that too with the country with which it eventually signed a treaty of peace and tranquillity on their Himalayan borders in 1993. Moreover, Eisenhower’s successors have been heading to China, not India, to strategise policies that could bring stability and profit to the world, including New Delhi.

India is meanwhile rising to another silly bait, this time as a make-believe foil to China because, as its advisers say, now it too has nuclear weapons to flaunt. Nothing could be more shortsighted than to play the role of a contrived bulwark against China that American think tanks and their Indian clones have assigned to New Delhi.

In 1983, Indira Gandhi was deified in the Third World for standing up to imperialism. The non-aligned summit held in New Delhi that year assigned her the responsibility of bringing Iraq and Iran to the negotiating table. India’s stature was given a further boost when Rajiv Gandhi inaugurated his vision of nuclear disarmament and led the battle against Apartheid in South Africa.

But Rajiv also symbolised the perils of dealing with insecure and mistrusting neighbours closer home. While he improved ties with Beijing, he placed an economic blockade on Nepal, evidently to force the former king to keep away from China.

That became the single most powerful factor that triggered a groundswell of anti-India sentiment in Kathmandu, which has not abated to date. He ordered Indian troops to salvage peace in Sri Lanka. The result? He was butted by a Sri Lankan Sinhalese soldier at a guard of honour and then assassinated by a Tamil suicide bomber for apparently letting down the Tamils. There is an urgent need to work on the huge diversity of allergens. The alternative is to learn to dodge the beast, and not poke it in the eye, as we seem to have done in the case of Nepal yet again.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
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