by Aditi Bhaduri
– India –
As US President Barack Obama commits a troops increase in Afghanistan and a recognition of the “good Taliban,” and as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paves the way for India’s nuclear energy program, many here anticipate that the US might pressure India to keep its traditional ally in the region, Pakistan, in good humor. Add to that the contentious territorial dispute over Kashmir and the announcement by the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) that it would soon appoint an envoy on the territory, the US’ considerable diplomatic influence could put India in a difficult position.
India has long shared traditional bonds with Afghanistan. The Indian epics describe the marriage between Queen Gandhari, a native of present day Kandahar, and the Indian King Dhritarashtra. And during the Soviet occupation, scores of Afghan families fled to India seeking asylum. But this all changed during the reign of the Taliban, which was nurtured and supported by Pakistan and has seen Afghanistan as its sphere of influence. Historically hostile to India, the Indian government responded to the Taliban’s aggression with continued support of the Northern Alliance. Once the Taliban was overthrown, India reestablished links with the Karzai government and, without contributing a single soldier, began engaging in what is widely called “aid diplomacy.”
India has invested 1.2 billion US dollars for numerous developmental projects in Afghanistan. Ranging from the construction of roads, bridges and power transmission lines to monument restoration and grassroots projects, India has managed to win the hearts of many without engaging militarily. Most notably, India’s support has helped construct the Zaranj Delaram road which now connects Afghanistan to the Iranian port of Chabahar.
Pakistan sees this aid as an attempt to undermine its strategic hold in Afghanistan. It is wary that landlocked country’s dependence on Pakistan will erode, and alleges that India is fuelling the insurgency within its borders. In late September, General Stanley McChrystal, the US Commander in Afghanistan, reported to the Pentagon that “increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions.” The Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai, who has studied in Indian universities, is also perceived to be pro-Indian.
Since the US views Pakistan as a key aid in its war against terror, many feel that this arrangement gives Pakistan greater leverage over the US to pressure India. The two suicide attacks on the Indian Embassy in Kabul (in October 2009 and in July 2008) further added urgency to India’s fears. The US and Afghan governments found evidence of Pakistan’s Inter-Services-Intelligence (ISI) involvement in last year’s attack, which killed 58 people, including three Indian diplomats. India subsequently shored up the security of its embassy so that this year’s attack did not result in any Indian casualties in Kabul. However, twelve local Afghans, lined up to receive Indian visas, lost their lives in the attack and scores of others were injured. The Taliban claimed responsibility.
Despite these complexities, most Indians feel that India should continue its engagement with Afghanistan. Madhu Kishwar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies. “If there is one major diplomatic initiative that India has had success in, it is Afghanistan,” she opines. “We have built roads, power grids, hospitals, and we should continue it. This is unlike most western countries, which are investing mostly in military and geopolitical games. No wonder Pakistanis are very upset at the success of India’s soft power.”
India has also been training many Afghan police, diplomatic, and technical personnel. Nazia, who declines to be identified fully, works for an Afghan NGO that addresses women’s empowerment. Having visited India a number of times, she agrees with Kishwar. “We are not always able to say that we want Indians in Afghanistan out of fear, but India should continue to help us.”
Writing in The Hindu on October 23rd, Shanthie Mariet D’Souza, an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis in India says “Irrespective of the decision the US takes on its future in Afghanistan, India needs to remain engaged in that country, with a clearer strategy and renewed commitment.”
The issue of Kashmir also remains a difficult one. Both Pakistan and India claim portions of Kashmir and administer policy from their respective governments, but continued clashes between separatists and military forces leave many Kashmiris hanging in the balance.
Urging the US to “push India and Pakistan to fix Kashmir,” Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal raised many eyebrows recently with his article in the International Herald Tribune. He wrote that this could be achieved “once both countries see a determined effort by the United States in that direction.” He also suggested that Saudi Arabia “can play a supporting role.”
But G. Parthasarthy, former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan and seasoned diplomat dismisses this as posturing. “This has been the Saudi position for a long time,” he counters, “but India does not take it seriously, because in private conversations representatives of the OIC countries tell us that that is simply a show – they will not contest India’s claims on Kashmir.” In fact, he feels that India should do more to highlight human rights violations in countries like Saudi Arabia at the UN Human Rights Council.
Madhu Kishwar agrees. “The Government of India has failed on the foreign policy front when it comes to taking up the issue of human rights violations in Pakistan-administered Kashmir or against Hindu minorities in countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is forever on the defensive on its treatment of its minorities, or on [Indian-administered] Kashmir,” she explains. “It really hurts me to hear sermons from Pakistan on our supposedly cruel treatment of Muslims, as if riots and massacres are the only truth about Hindu-Muslim relations. The Indian government has failed to get Pakistan grilled over the fact that they ‘solved’ the minority problem by total ethnic cleansing of Hindus and Sikhs.”
When it comes to the Kashmir territory dispute, former Director of the Indian Central Bureau of Intelligence Joginder Singh doesn’t feel there is any reason to panic. “Even though the Americans would like to see Pakistan have Kashmir it would set a bad precedent. Pakistan’s claim is only on the Muslim part of the state, whereas India thinks of the state as a whole, with its Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist populations. Secession of any territory on grounds of religion would set a bad precedent,” he explains. “Tomorrow Muslims in the US may then demand a separate state for themselves and would the US allow it?”
In spite of this continued political wrangling, many feel that India should continue its dialog with Pakistan, even though the latter has been dragging its feet in bringing the main mastermind of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks to justice.
Indians are already alarmed at the new US financial aid designated for Pakistan, especially since it is now common knowledge that Pakistan diverted much of the US’ previous military aid (earmarked for the battle against the Taliban and Al Queda in Afghanistan) to shore up its defense and military operations against India.
“The US is making a big mistake by pouring in money into Pakistan,” says Singh. “It knows that most of it is appropriated either by the army or corrupt politicians. But the US does not care for India’s interests – it sees only its own, and its vision is short-termed,” he explains in reference to the Kerry Lugar Act. “They will rue this day.”
About the Author
Aditi Bhaduri is an independent journalist and researcher based in India. With a background in international relations, specializing in the Arab-Islamic world (specifically the Israel-Palestine conflict), Russian linguistics, displacement and gender, she began her writing career by covering the Middle East for the Indian media. Currently Aditi’s work focuses on conflict, peace, displacement and gender. She acts as a gender consultant to various NGOs and started the Human Rights for Beginners program in schools in her native city of Kolkata. Aditi is also a member of several civil society initiatives in India and was on a Rotary Goodwill Exchange Program to the USA.
Aditi’s work has been published in both Indian and foreign print and electronic media. She is currently co-editing a book on displacement in Asia-Pacific. She was awarded the UNFPA-Population First LAADLI National Media Award 2008 for gender sensitive reporting and hopes to establish her own publication dedicated solely to peace journalism.