The façade crumbles

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 22, 2018
Children account for 58 per cent of the Rohingya refugees Photo: Reuters

The ballot or the...?: On election-eve in Myanmar, there were worries in neighbouring countries about the Rohingya Muslims looking towards the sea for salvation rather than the ballot box. Photo: Reuters

Sukumar Muralidharan

Sukumar Muralidharan   -  Business Line

Tensions in the neighbourhood show that all is not well in the “third republic”

Recent weeks have seen India step out in style to create new bonds with Africa, laying out a generous credit line of $10 billion as inducement for boosting business with the continent. The third India-Africa Forum Summit late in October was suffused with much mutual goodwill, with visiting leaders invoking India’s inspirational role in liberation movements across their continent. Unfortunately, they drew on political traditions that the current Indian leadership does not much care for.

An urban mythology has emerged around the current Indian regime, crediting it with a foreign policy distinct from all things past. Indeed, coming after Nehru’s equidistance from all power blocs and the pragmatic engagements of the 1990s, the current regime’s strategy of expanding India’s spheres of influence, is portrayed as a paradigm shift. Borrowing its idiom from French history, which marks out every constitutional change by a number, India’s current foreign policy orientation has been described as the “third republic”.

In the flourish of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in last year, India’s neighbourhood was marked as first priority in foreign engagements. Yet, in now reaching out to Africa — and indeed in seeking a footprint in diverse parts of the world — India is trying to step over an increasingly turbulent neighbourhood.

Myanmar went to the polls on November 8 in the first general election in a quarter century. Though represented as a milestone in banishing fear and restoring freedom, scepticism was rife about the intent of the military junta sponsoring the election. The junta retains a quarter of the seats in parliament and with constitutional changes requiring a three-fourth vote, possibilities of further reform are severely constricted.

The disenfranchisement of large ethnic minorities, principally the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s western provinces, has now become official, with even Nobel peace laureate and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi unwilling to make their case for citizenship. On election eve, there were worries in neighbouring countries about another refugee flight, about the Rohingya looking towards the sea for salvation rather than the ballot box.

It normally is good policy, when a country embarks on democratic renewal, to impose the statute of limitations on myths of origin. Whether the Rohingya are indigenous to the western Rakhine province or immigrants from regions that are today Bangladesh would seem immaterial to the contours a new republican compact. If true, the immigration theory would apply to the dim and distant past. And reversing the legacy of the past could set off chain reactions of lasting damage.

In June 2012, ethnic violence broke out between the Rohingya and Buddhists in Rakhine province, leading to a state of emergency. Killings were relatively few, but a hundred thousand were displaced. The following month, Bodo militias in the Indian state of Assam began attacking Muslims branded illegal immigrants. Again, the scale of displacement was vast. Within weeks, violence broke out in Cox’s Bazaar district of Bangladesh, with Buddhist habitations and temples being pillaged and burnt.

The cycle of violence spread westwards to Mumbai, where protests by a fundamentalist group escalated into a major affray in which two were killed and police deployments attacked. Rumours soon began circulating through cellphone and social media about a horrible vendetta being planned for people of north-eastern origin, triggering a shocking mass flight from Indian cities normally too busy to think about ethnicities.

Clearly an honourable accommodation of diversity would be far more manageable for the aspiring democratic dispensation in Myanmar than continuing exclusion. That is a bit of advice India is well-placed to give, but prefers not to because its engagement with the neighbourhood seems increasingly driven by a security agenda. Myanmar’s current course points towards escalating tensions with Bangladesh, where a determinedly secularist government is already facing domestic unrest from Islamist forces. And that holds the potential of triggering localised conflicts across vast swathes of Indian territory.

India’s most intimate neighbourhood relationship with Nepal is also in a rocky phase. An honest and candid gaze inwards would have shown that constitution-making, particularly in the matter of power-sharing between rival regional and ethnic claims, is never easy. India took years settling the principles and, in the realm of practice, the process still continues. Yet in seeking to impose a power-sharing deal favouring the people of the terai or the southern plains, India demands that Nepal do as it says rather than does. There is no explanation, other than the narrow and unstated security agenda of creating a “buffer within a buffer” against China. And the subsequent blockade on supplies into Nepal, supposedly “informal”, has caused great hardship in the landlocked country and a sharp escalation in ill-will towards India.

Maladroit politics in Jammu and Kashmir has created a growing rift between the principal regions of India’s most complex state and a rising tide of militant sentiment. The continuing transactions in overheated rhetoric with Pakistan and the paralysis of dialogue — and, increasingly, of cultural ties — do little to improve matters.

In the tiny Maldives, a state of emergency prevails, with an incumbent Vice-President joining convicted former president Mohammad Nasheed in prison on terrorism charges. India had signalled its displeasure at Nasheed’s persecution by excluding the Maldives from the Prime Minister’s itinerary when he went on a grand tour of the Indian Ocean neighbourhood in March. The message though, seems to have eluded its intended audience.

Rifts in the neighbourhood come at a time when the international press is increasingly taking adverse notice of the extremist forces gaining ground in India under the benign gaze of Prime Minister Modi. The moral pedestal is crumbling, as too is the illusion of a “third republic”.

Sukumar Muralidharan is an independent writer and researcher based in Gurgaon and Shimla

Published on November 13, 2015

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