India and Neighbors 


India and its near-abroad - New humility for the hegemon | Leaders | The  Economist

by Anisur Rahman*   17 November 2020

A country´s overall relations with its neighbors indicate her image in the regional and international scene. It depicts its diplomatic portrait. India is not an exception. And India´s relevance comes here because of her present geopolitical involvements. It is not only a regional power, rather it aspires to be more than that. Before we go to the global context, we may first examine its local standings. How its close neighbors portray this vast country with more than 1.2 billion population which is only second to China. New Delhi should be able to see itself with the eyes of her neighbors. How Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Maldives, and Bhutan see them. It is important to note here that the perceptions and opinions of both the governments and the people of these countries should be taken into consideration.

Bangladesh-India Relations: India considers that Bangladesh could not be established without the help of India. Yes, India helped Bangladesh during its liberation war for which it could achieve independence relatively in a short period of time. But its independence was a matter of time only, even without India´s intervention. It was a geographical inevitability. Even Bangladesh could emerge as an independent state (Greater Bengal) as early as 1947 had the then Indian leaders belonging to the Congress and other Hindu oriented parties did not oppose it. Besides, India helped Bangladesh in its liberation struggle with the main intention of breaking down Pakistan. One of its main underlying motives was to make the new state its economic market by replacing Pakistan. And their motive has been nakedly exposed time and again since Bangladesh was established. With the exception of a short period of time when Morarji Desai was prime minister, India proved that they were willing to co-operate with only an obedient Bangladeshi government. They made their motive clear when the interim Bangladesh government was forced to sign a 7-point secret treaty with India which virtually made Bangladesh a subservient state. Under this unequal treaty, Bangladesh among other things pledged not to have an army of its own and was asked to consult with India when it deals with other countries. To make Bangladesh a subservient country they had to install an obedient government over there.. Governments during Ziaur Rahman, Abdus Satter, and Begum Khaleda Zia paid very heavy prices when they tried not to abide by Delhi´s dictation. They were toppled to some extent for their bad governance but mainly for India´s displeasure. Subramoniam Swami, former chief of Indian Institute of Strategic Studies hinted that RAW made the plot to assassinate Ziaur Rahman which was approved by Indira Gandhi. Gen H. M. Ershad and Sheikh Hasina came to power with the blessings and direct patronage of India. Everybody, including the supporters of the present fascist regime of Bangladesh, knows very well that without New Delhi´s direct interference Sheikh Hasina could not hold farcical elections without genuine voters either in 2014 or in 2018. And if India withdraws her support from Hasina or at least becomes neutral, the present Dhaka regime will not survive even six months. They will be forced out of power by the people. Yet they support Hasina and in return Hasina reiterates her allegiance to New Delhi. And thereby Sheikh Hasina clings on to power and India continues the exploitation of Bangladesh. India knows about the adverse reactions of the Bangladeshi people and is aware of strong anti-India feelings in Bangladesh. But they ignore it with their brute might. They are only after their interest, be it fair or unfair. They have secured transit/transshipment, corridor, India-brokered Hill Tracts Agreement, one-sided trade protocols Etc. In return, Bangladesh only got some big pledges which have not been fulfilled though years after years have passed. The Teesta river issue is an example in this regard.

One should not have any illusion about Hasina´s apparent neutrality and independence in the rivalry between India and China. It is a gallery show. Bangladesh can maneuver so long and so far India allows it. During the time of decisive moment, Hasina’s government will have to side with its patron. The cancellation of the Sonadia Deep Sea Project which was supposed to be implemented with Chinese help is a reminder in this regard. This gigantic project, if implemented would be the biggest project ever taken by Bangladesh – was canceled at the last moment due to India´s veto. Hasina could not withstand the Indo-US pressure. On the other hand, when Bangladesh canceled the Sonadia Deep Sea Project, Myanmar allowed China to establish a sea port not far away from the site of the Sonadia project. Bangladesh paid the price when China virtually sided with Myanmar on the Rohingya issue. Otherwise, observers believe, Beijing would have taken a more balanced approach.

It is New Delhi itself which created a tremendous anti-Indian feeling in Bangladesh. Through their obedient governments in Dhaka India has almost one-sidedly reaped the fruits both politically and economically. Take the example of trade between the two countries from FY 2016 to 2018. During these 3 FYs, the amount of Bangladesh´s Export to India in terms of million USD was 2235.3 and the amount of Import from India was 20220.6 million USD. It is the official export-import figure. Bangladesh´s actual deficit is much higher if black market trade and remittance of thousands of the Indians working in Bangladesh are included. India patronizes the Hasina-led Awami League government because it makes Bangladesh her wishing cow, called Kamdhenu, which provides milk whenever one wants and without any protest. Different quarters put the argument that since India is more developed and its economy is much bigger and diversified so its export is also proportionately bigger. They forget that Bangladesh is a market of 160 million people whereas India has a market of 1.2 billion population. Bangladesh can earn more amount of money by exporting just 1 item to India when India needs at least 7 items for earning the same amount of money from Bangladesh. In these days of free-trade, if Bangladesh is allowed to import duty-free raw materials from India and subsequently can export finished products made out of these raw materials to this neighboring country, the trade gap can be neutralized. It is possible because in Bangladesh the labor cost is much cheaper. There are so many ways of balancing trade between the two countries like Bangladesh and India. But there must be a political will. There are examples in this regard. Bangladesh has a huge trade surplus with countries like the USA, Germany, France, and U.K

India´s attitude to other neighbors is more or less the same. We may examine it here in a very nutshell.

India – Nepal Relations. India is predominantly a Hindu majority country and yet they do not have a relationship that can be called very friendly with the neighboring country Nepal which is also overwhelmingly a Hindu majority state. Their diplomatic road is bumpy since the start. The 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship is so much tilted towards the interest of India that even after several adjustments it has remained very unpopular to the Nepalese. Boundary agreements could not be ratified because of unresolved border disputes along 400 km long Kalapani area. During the ’50s when Nepal had a strained relation with China, New Delhi took advantage and became close to Kathmandu. Now, the picture has become the opposite.  After India´s humiliating defeat in the Sino-Indian war in 1962, New Delhi tried to improve relations with Kathmandu. India suspended its support to the Nepalese opposition forces, then active in New Delhi. Nepal got several concessions from India and in return, India got a monopoly on arms sale to Nepal. But it deteriorated again and India was forced to withdraw its military check-posts from disputed territories.

Nepal became alarmed and very concerned when India annexed its neighbor Sikkim. Nepal explicitly criticized the annexation. Nepalese monarchy had every reason to be concerned because of the past happenings in Kashmir and Hyderabad.

As a landlocked country, Nepal did not get adequate transit facilities from India which she was supposed to get as per international norms. In addition, India imposed a virtual economic blockade and sanctions and consequently, Nepal´s GDP plummeted.

On the political front, India put tremendous pressure. The Nepalese king was forced to introduce parliamentary democracy through which a pro-Indian government came to power in Kathmandu. Nepalese Congress became a pro-Indian party. But gradually it became unpopular and Maoist parties gained support among the people. When the pro-Indian government passed a controversial bill allowing 4 million immigrants Nepalese citizenship opposition grew further. People became afraid of demographic change. Nepalese P.M. Mano Mohan Adhikari once again demanded a review of the Indo-Nepal treaty of 1950. At the same time, Nepal was striving to improve relations with China. The increasing strength and dominance of Maoist parties in Nepal and its growing ties with China leads to further drifting away from Kathmandu from New Delhi.

Another issue which sours the relations between these two countries is human trafficking. It is estimated that around 200000 Nepalese have been trafficked to India and caused widespread dissatisfaction and annoyance in the Himalayan country.

And Nepal´s trade deficit with India is huge. In the fiscal year, 2017-2018 Nepal´s import from India amounted to USD 7.7 billion, and export to India was only 446.5 million USD.

Relations with Sri Lanka: India´s relations with Sri Lanka, it’s closest maritime neighbor which is only 30 kilometers off from the mainland, cannot be termed smooth and steady. Tamil-Sinhalese conflict is constant since the pre-independence period. India which has a big Tamil population in the South sided with the Tamils of Sri Lanka. It is an open secret that India patronized the Sri Lankan Tamils during its secessionist movement and strive for independence. It is alleged that RAW funded the “liberation army” of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) headed by Velupillai Prabhakaran. But when they understood that Tamils of India might join Tamils of Sri Lanka and could form a greater independent Tamil state, they backed down. Withdrawal of the Indian support to Sri Lankan Tamils was considered by them as a betrayal. Sri Lankan Tamil´s anger and sentiment against India became so high that the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a woman member of Tamil suicidal squad belonging to LTTE. Besides, about 1000 Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) were killed in Sri Lanka. There is a fishing dispute between Sri Lanka and India.

China-India rivalry in Sri Lanka: Because of Sri Lanka´s strategic location, it has become a focal point for both China and India. Though Sri Lanka is trying to maintain a delicate balance between them, many Indian observers think that it has tilted a bit towards China. The two ports built by China in Sri Lanka, – one in Colombo and the other one in Hambantota – are not eyed favorably by the Indian quarters. No doubt, China built these two ports as part of its Maritime Silk Route Policy. The dissatisfied opposing parties are questioning the very feasibilities of these ports. Their line of arguments is that Sri Lanka was forced to build these ports with Chinese expertise and loans. Interestingly, India is also planning to build a port in Trincomalee. This port is envisioned as an Indian counterweight to Chinese gains at Hambantota Port. In the trade sector, India has a huge surplus over Sri Lanka. In 2019, Sri Lanka´s exports to India accounted for US$ 993 million, whilst her imports from India stood at US$ 4.0 billion. The Sri Lankan people´s discontent against the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord is quite understandable since it gave India a very disproportionate advantage over Sri Lanka.

Bhutan´s relationship with India may be put aside because of the special arrangements between these neighbors. India says that Bhutan is not a protectorate of India, rather it is protected by her. But India´s overwhelming authority over Bhutan´s foreign policy and defense makes the tiny Himalayan nation immensely dependent on her giant neighbor. Indo-China relations have a precarious impact on Bhutan. Arunabh Saikia has rightly pointed out that Bhutan is being “punished for allying with India and Bhutanese feel, they have been dragged into India-China dispute.” Obviously, it is due to Thimpu´s foreign and military ties with New Delhi. China´s claim on Arunachal Pradesh extends to eastern Bhutan. Doklam point can also be a threat to Bhutan due to the Indo-China border dispute.

Relations with the Maldives: India has not a steady and consistent relationship with the small archipelagic land of Maldives. It is the lowest level of land in the world in terms of the position above sea level. The Maldives is a tiny land that has an area of only 300-kilo meters dry land though its total area is approximately 90,000 km most of which is feared to be submerged under the sea due to climate changes. The present government of Male (capital of Maldives) led by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih is considered more pro-Indian than the previous government of Abdulla Yamen which was termed more pro-Chinese.

Indo-Pakistan Relations: The adversity between these two countries is known to political observers all over the globe. It is said that if Pakistan had not become a nuclear power it would have been torn apart by India long ago. The extreme Indian psyche could not accept the very creation of Pakistan and the division of India. They accepted Pakistan very reluctantly with the conviction that it would not survive and would rejoin India. Relevantly it may be mentioned here that a section of Indian politicians had similar notions about “East Pakistan.” They thought that it would be a liability for Pakistan and it would not be a viable independent state either and hence this province too would ultimately rejoin India. Yes, Kashmir is the number 1 problem between India and Pakistan. But there is a deeper issue which is rooted in their psyche which must be overcome with deliberate steps and gradual confidence-building measures with sincerity.

Comparison with the relationship between former the Soviet Union and the then East European Countries: It will not be unfair if one compares the present relationship between India and its smaller neighbors with the relationship between the former Soviet Union and its smaller neighbors in East Europe. Everybody was aware of anti-Soviet feelings in those countries at that time though they could not express it publicly. Moscow ruthlessly quelled the mass upsurges of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. But in the long run, it did not help the Soviet Union. India must keep it in mind when it deals with her neighbors.

SAARC: Germany is the biggest economy and the most populous country in the EU. But it always tries to satisfy the genuine grievances of the smaller and economically weaker countries of the Union. India can take such a role in the SAARC. It will boost its image in the Association which has in reality become an inactive entity mainly due to India.

Relations with China: Border dispute is the main problem between India and China and it was left behind by the British colonial power. The border demarcated by Great Britain has not been accepted by China at different strategic points and stretches. Terms like Actual Line of Control, the disputed area cannot remain as they are, indefinitely. Hence they must engage in serious discussion to solve the long-standing dispute once and for all. Only a few decades ago they were at par in different sectors. But now China is much more advanced particularly economically.  Her technological advancement and military might have put herself far ahead of India. It has become a global power that is increasingly threatening the number one superpower of the world i.e. the United States of America. In comparison to China, India´s performance is mediocre. However, notwithstanding Washington´s endeavor, none likes to see India as an auxiliary force of the USA against China. India and China must find out a path to solve their outstanding problems amicably where just the interests of both countries can be preserved. If it happens none can stop their advancement.

India to Decide: It is up to India what kind of relationships she wants to have with her relatively small neighbors. Does she want to be appreciated and liked or feared and disliked? Do they want to win over the people of the neighboring countries or dictate the puppets installed by them? It must be remembered that one cannot demand respect, it must be earned. And respect is mutual. India can have its natural position if she adheres to these principles where due shares of all are recognized.


  • Anisur Rahman is a senior Bangladeshi journalist now living in Sweden.