The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia

India Under Strain Across South Asia  

India’s regional relations are almost all in states of distress. That’s a big problem for New Delhi.

India Under Strain Across South Asia  
Credit: MEAIndia / Flickr

India’s standing in its South Asian neighborhood is under some strain. New Delhi is facing trouble not only in its relations with its traditional adversary, Pakistan, but also Nepal, Bangladesh and possibly Sri Lanka, too, just as it is facing pressure from China along the Tibet border. The Maldives is possibly the only relatively bright spot for India in the region at present.

In May this year, Nepali Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli surprised India by releasing a new political map claiming a part of Indian territory. The new map shows the Kalapani, Limpiyadhura, and Lipulekh areas in the Indian state of Uttarakhand as belonging to Nepal.  These areas are shown as part of Byas rural municipality in Nepal’s Sudurpaschim province.  Speaking to the media, Padma Kumari Aryal, the minister for land management, cooperatives, and poverty alleviation, said that the map will come into effect immediately and added that “The areas including Gunji, Navi and Kuti near Kalapani, which had been left out in earlier maps, are also included in the new map.” 

India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) responded by calling it a “unilateral act” that “is not based on historical facts and evidence.” The Indian statement rejected the claim, calling “contrary to the bilateral understanding to resolve the outstanding boundary issues through diplomatic dialogue.” Nepal’s action followed large protests in Kathmandu after Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh opened an 80-kilometer road between Dharchula and Lipulekh in Uttarakhand, part of India’s effort to improve its infrastructure along the Tibet border. Indian Army Chief General M.M. Naravane suggested that Nepal was possibly acting on behalf of “someone else,” a not-so-veiled reference to China, creating more anger in Nepal.  

The new map has now been endorsed by Nepal’s Parliament and the Oli government is planning to send the map to the United Nations and other multilateral institutions. Meanwhile, Oli appears to be making a bad situation worse by talking about India’s efforts to remove him from office. This escalation has worried even members of his own party, with one saying that if India asks for concrete evidence “we will have to prove it or face the consequences.” Oli has made other controversial anti-India statements recently including a reference to the “Indian virus” being “more lethal than the Chinese or Italian viruses.” Although he was talking about workers carrying the virus from India to Nepal and trying to suggest a possible difference in the strain of the virus, it was an inelegant formulation that has not gone down well in New Delhi.

Following the India-Nepal map row, Pakistan is testing the waters by issuing a new political map of its own. On the eve of the first anniversary of India’s revoking the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan released a new political map, containing the whole of Jammu and Kashmir as well as parts of Gujarat. Calling it a “historical occasion,” Prime Minister Imran Khan said, “The political map reflects our national aspiration and supports our principled stance on Kashmir dispute.”

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This has clearly irked India and New Delhi dismissed it as “ridiculous assertions” with “neither legal validity nor international credibility.” The Indian MEA in a statement called it “an exercise in political absurdity” and that it “confirms reality of Pakistan’s obsession with territorial aggrandisement supported by cross-border terrorism.” Manish Tewari, a member of parliament from the opposition Congress party, said in a tweet that this is essentially “a Geostrategic statement by China.” He added that, “Coming as it does after Nepal’s new map it is China’s way of rubbing in India’s isolation in it’s Neighbhourhood (sic). Wouldn’t be surprised if one or two others in neighbourhood walk down this absurd street.” 

India is facing difficulties with Bangladesh, too. India had managed its relations with Bangladesh quite well during Modi’s first term, but that is not the case anymore. The India Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which is seen as targeting Muslims, especially migrants from Bangladesh, has cratered relations. The Sheikh Hasina government has been clear about how Bangladesh views CAA, and the reference to Bangladeshi migrants as “termites” by India’s home minister created understandable anger. Demonstrating Dhaka’s displeasure, a scheduled visit by Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen was cancelled by Dhaka at the very last minute. The CAA has put Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim country that was friendly to India and the Modi government, in a difficult position. Bangladesh also worries about possible reverse migration, because there could be an exodus of Muslim migrants escaping persecution in India, especially from the northeastern state of Assam. 

With the Rajapaksas back in office, Sri Lanka, another South Asian neighbor, may also be a cause for worry in New Delhi. The Rajapaksas are seen to be close to China, and there are reports suggesting that China is keen for Sri Lanka to distance itself from India and its other partners such as Japan. Austin Fernando, former Sri Lankan high commissioner to India, argued in a recent essay that India’s over-cautious approach is partly to blame for the situation. The Sri Lankan government’s recent decision to halt a Japan-funded light rail project is one indicator that all is not well. Bandula Gunewardene, Sri Lanka’s information minister, stated that it was an expensive proposition with low returns. Similarly, the India-Japan collaboration on Sri Lanka’s East Container Terminal (ECT) project in Colombo is on shaky grounds. The three countries had signed an Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) only a year ago but there is no guarantee that this project will go ahead, at least with India and Japan as partners.

With much of its neighborhood relations in various degrees of distress, India is making its pitch in the Maldives to restrict China’s growing influence. According to Indian media reports, India is planning to announce a “substantial financial assistance package” to the Maldives in order for Male to address the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The real goal appears to be strategic: to curtail China’s growing footprint. In July, Sunjay Sudhir, Indian high commissioner in the Maldives, gave the country a symbolic check for carrying out nine projects in the Maldives through the High Impact Community Development Projects (HICDP) scheme. Under this scheme, India has signed several MoUs to develop fish-processing units, set up tourism zones, and establish a bottled water plant. The current package comes after India had given the Maldives $400 million under an extended currency swap arrangement to help manage its liquidity crisis. India has also provided the Maldives with an additional $1.4 billion as budgetary aid to battle the economic impact from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Whether these assistance packages will sustain India’s role and influence in the Maldives remains to be seen. For the moment, it appears to be so. India enjoys considerable goodwill in the country after the 2018 elections, with the election of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. India does have friends in the Maldives. Mohamed Nasheed, speaker and former president, recently said in Male that the Maldives must be wise in making smart choices, and “join hands with India” for growth and prosperity. Highlighting the Maldives’ important geographical importance, he added, “I am also certain that Maldivians and their elected leaders will be wise and make shrewd and sensible decisions regarding our foreign policy and our relationship with our closest allies and neighbors, the closest and dearest of whom is India.” 

New Delhi will try hard to improve its relations with other neighbors, but for now, it has to be satisfied with just the Maldives.