India’s presence on the world scene has become distinctly more pronounced in recent years. The accession to the prime ministership of Narendra Modi in 2014 raised India’s profile to an extent not seen since the days of Indira Gandhi in the 1970’s. Modi is a highly popular and charismatic figure who enhances his image with often flamboyant costumes. He projected that image during well-publicized visits to major world capitals, including Washington and Beijing. And it did not hurt that India was recording the highest rates of economic growth anywhere and was well on its way to becoming the world’s most populous country. But there is one fly in the ointment, and that is that India enjoys deplorable relations with its three major neighbours – China, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
India and China have been at loggerheads since 1950. In that year, China invaded, occupied and annexed Tibet. This caused great dismay in India, which had long seen Tibet as a highly useful buffer state between itself and China. Matters took a turn for the worse when in 1959 the Dalai Lama fled to India and was welcomed there as a highly respected spiritual leader. He and his followers were allowed to establish themselves in the region of Darjeeling in northeast India, and they remain there to this day. For China, this was totally unacceptable. The Chinese regard the Dalai Lama as a dangerous separatist intent on undermining China’s national unity and territorial integrity. Things deteriorated yet further when the two countries fought a brief border war in 1962. In that war, the Chinese inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Indian army and remained thereafter in occupation of a substantial band of Indian territory. The Chinese went on from there to lay claim to the entire Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh on the grounds that it had once been part of southern Tibet. Despite years of efforts by politicians, diplomats and topographers, these territorial disputes remain unresolved and have recently given rise to clashes between Indian and Chinese forces.
Of far more recent vintage is a geostrategic competition between China and India for influence and control in the Indian Ocean. Using a strategy often referred to as “the string of pearls,” China has taken advantage of its economic clout to establish itself in several countries surrounding the Ocean. These countries include Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Most recently, China has established a naval base in Djibouti at the far western reach of the Indian Ocean. Most worrisome of all of those developments for the Indians are the inroads China has made into its arch-enemy Pakistan. Under the cover of its Belt and Road initiative, China is injecting some $58 billion worth of investments into Pakistan. As part of a plan known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, China is sponsoring the development of the port of Gwadar. While what is taking place so far is infrastructure development for a civilian facility, the Indians are convinced that the Chinese eventually intend to convert Gwadar into a naval base. In the meantime, both countries are beefing up the number of warships they are deploying in the Indian Ocean.
Somewhat less tangible is the long-standing ideological competition between India and China. On achieving independence from Britain in 1947, India chose to become a multi-party parliamentary democracy. On coming into existence at the end of a prolonged civil war in 1949, the People’s Republic of China chose to become a one-party communist state. Ever since, the two countries have strived to demonstrate that their system of government is superior to that of its rival. In the realm of economic development, there was relatively little to choose between the two from the 1950s to the 1980s. Both countries wallowed in desperate poverty. But then the Chinese economic miracle began to take off. Registering remarkable rates of economic growth, China was able to raise hundreds of millions of people from extreme poverty. India’s path to economic recovery was far slower and more haphazard. Today, even though the two countries have roughly the same population, China’s GDP is more than four times that of India, and China has become the world’s second-largest economy. This has provided China with ideological boasting rights that the Indians deeply resent.
If India’s relationship with China is characterized by some deeply rooted hostilities, that is as nothing compared to its hostile relationship with Pakistan. The partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 resulted in both countries being born in the midst of a bloodbath that claimed as many as one million lives. Many Indian nationalists were never reconciled to the creation of the state of Pakistan, and still today irredentist sentiments continue to prevail in many quarters in New Delhi. Then, of course, there was the ideological divide. India was established as a secular state, whereas Pakistan was officially a Muslim state. India chose the path of non-alignment in world affairs, whereas Pakistan allied itself with the western powers, most notably the United States. These ideological differences have given rise to much bad blood over the years.
Then, of course, there is the issue of Kashmir. Left unallocated in the British partition plan of 1947, the territory of Jammu and Kashmir has been at the centre of relations between India and Pakistan ever since. They have fought two full-blown wars over it, and endless armed skirmishes along the Line of Control separating the two parts of the territory continue to this day. Until recently, Kashmir enjoyed a special status and a degree of autonomy within the Indian union. That was ended last year by the Hindu nationalist government now in power in New Delhi. Kashmir is now simply a split territory administered directly by the federal government. This move resulted in strong protests in Pakistan, where hostility toward India was intensified yet further. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi shows no sign of trying to reduce its hostility towards Pakistan. Quite the contrary, it continues to bait Pakistan in its political rhetoric.
India’s relations with Bangladesh have never been quite as contentious as those with China and Pakistan. There is, however, one issue that dominates relations between the two countries: immigration. Since the days when Bangladesh became an independent nation in 1971, millions of Bengalis have migrated to and established themselves in India. In some of India’s northeastern states, they constitute a fairly substantial proportion of the population. Their presence has been the source of endless disputes with native-born Indians. In some instances, those disputes have given rise to armed clashes. The Indian government has repeatedly tried to get the Bangladeshi government to exercise more control over the border, but to no avail. A recently enacted and highly controversial Indian law opening the way to citizenship to refugees from neighbouring countries was clearly aimed at Bangladesh. The law provides for people from all religious denominations except Muslims to enjoy this privilege. This law is clearly discriminating and flies in the face of India’s constitution, which promotes secularism as the state ideology. While its enactment prompted mass demonstrations in India, it also soured India’s relations with primarily Muslim countries such as Bangladesh. The Hindu nationalist government of Modi shows no sign of backing down on this issue.
As India strives to establish a more weighty position for itself on the world stage, it is clearly hobbled by the state of its relations with its major neighbours. To correct this situation, India would have to adopt some imaginative and magnanimous policies aimed at reconciliation. This is probably too much to expect from a populist and narrow nationalist such as Narendra Modi.
Louis A. Delvoie is a retired Canadian diplomat who served abroad as an ambassador and high commissioner.