Befriending India’s Smaller Neighbours

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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took his first foreign trip almost 60 days after his swearing-in. Last week, Dr. Singh visited Thailand for the BIMSTEC meeting. BIMSTEC is a regional grouping that clubs Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan together. BIMSTEC is largely seen as an alternative to SAARC, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which is always held hostage by difference between India and Pakistan.

New Delhi needs far better relations than it enjoys with its neighbours at the moment. What Delhi’s South Block doesn’t realise is the fact that India is looked upon as a regional bully in the neighbouring countries. It’s a complete lack of understanding of its neighbours that has led to this impression. Why should the people in Hindu-Nepal have any enmity with India?

With a Pakistan-centric South Asian policy, India has all but ignored all its other neighbours. Among India’s neighbours, Sri Lanka has the best relationship with India. Though ties were strained in the 1980s, things have never looked better between the two countries. A Free Trade agreement already exists and further cooperation is being developed especially in the areas of convergence like tea production and marketing. The Indian public has finally discovered the joys of drinking Dilmah fruit tea every morning.

Sri Lanka granted Indian citizens a visa-on-arrival facility from 2002 and as a result Indians tourists and shoppers have flocked the Emerald Isle. Sri Lanka receives more tourists from India than from any other country. Tourism has managed to build several suspensions bridges of friendship across the Palk Strait. Sri Lanka has been appealing to the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to offer Sri Lankan nationals visa-on-arrival. The fact that 99.83% of visa applications are successful in Colombo is testament that v-o-a can be extended to Sri Lankans. .

Sri Lanka also wants to restart a ferry service from Tamil Nadu or Kerala to Colombo. This is to make the journey to India, where most of Buddhist pilgrimage places lie, more accessible to poorer Sri Lankans. Former Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee even spoke of restarting the Trincomalee-Rameshwaram train service, which was operative until the 1960s. These proposals needed to looked at seriously and followed up as they are to the benefit of both countries.

India also enjoys a good relationship with the isolated Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan. The Bhutanese Royal Guards recently evicted Indian insurgents from Bhutan. The Assamese insurgents had been using Bhutanese territory to launch guerrilla war fare against India for the last 30 years. The eviction of these terrorists marked a new high in Indo-Bhutan ties. Indians are the only foreigners who are allowed to visit Bhutan as individual travellers and without paying for expensive visas. Bhutanese subjects also enjoy special privileges in India and are allowed to work and reside in India as well even join the Indian Administrative Service.

India has a delicate association with its other Himalayan neighbour, Nepal. On the face of it, all looks well. The countries have a common religion, open borders and free movement of currency. There are no restrictions on living or employment in each other’s countries. However, the Nepali media is always bashing India. Several Nepali politicians have alleged that India is supporting the Maoist insurgency. However baseless these allegations might be, India needs to take a strong position on the democratisation of Nepal.

From time to time, the neighbours have had flare-ups. Rajiv Gandhi’s 1989-blockade of Nepal caused many a suffering for ordinary Nepalese. India has been long demanding that Nepal curtail the activities of Pakistani Intelligence sleuths using Kathmandu as a base for anti-India activities.

Cultural, religious and linguistic homogeneity needs to the base of a good India-Nepal relationship. The tourism industry in both countries has benefited by joint marketing efforts. A poor Nepal will be a liability for India. India needs to take a more pro-active role in the development of Nepal. A joint-economic zone in the border areas would be a catalyst for a boom on both sides of the border.

Bangladesh was created by India in 1971 from what was the erstwhile East Pakistan. Unfortunately the country was held hostage by three decades of poor governance and is probably the poorest country in the world. India has always been the perfect scapegoat for its problems.

While, there are more than 15 million illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India, Dhaka’s political elite blatantly denies their presence in India. It is impossible for India to evict the illegal Bangladeshis as a majority of them claim to be Bengali Muslims from West Bengal.

As is the case with Nepal, India needs to make a large investment in Bangladesh’s development. If Dhaka grants Indians living in the Northeast states transit rights, Bangladesh’s transport and hotel industry would witness an unprecedented boom.

Bangladesh can demand labour access to India markets as a fair trade-off for transit rites. This would legalise the stay of Bangladeshis in India. Northeast Indians would save a tremendous amount of time and money by going to central India via Bangladesh compared to the travails of a journey through the narrow Siliguri corridor.

BIMSTEC is an excellent initiative in these days of globalisation. If India can iron out its differences with its smaller neighbours, then the neglected North East could become a hub of economic activity and a model of development. As India has absolutely no territorial disputes with its smaller neighbours, it should let the language of economics and development do the talking when dealing with its neighbours.

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