India’s increasingly combustible neighborhood

The Tyranny of India’s Geography

Brahma Chellaney

Covert magazine,
June 1-14, 2009

The arc of failing or troubled states in which India is wedged is becoming more
combustible than ever. To India’s
west, the situation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt is getting from bad to
worse. Rapid Talibanization and spreading militancy threaten to devour Pakistan.
To compound matters, the political border between Afghanistan
and Pakistan
has now ceased to exist in practice. The so-called Durand Line, in any event,
was a British-colonial invention that left the large Pashtun community divided
into two. Today, that line exists only in maps. On the ground, it has little
political, ethnic and economic relevance. Its disappearance seems irreversible.
The international reluctance to come to terms with this reality is because of
the fundamental, far-reaching issues such action would throw open. It is
simpler to just keep up the pretense of wanting to stabilize Pakistan and Afghanistan within their existing
political frontiers.

To India’s east are the problem states of Burma and
Bangladesh — the first facing a humanitarian disaster in the face of widening
U.S.-led sanctions and the ruthlessness of its military regime, and the second
in danger of becoming another Pakistan owing to a rising tide of Islamic
fundamentalism there. Bangladesh is not a Brunei
or a Bhutan
but the world’s seventh most populous nation.
In addition to the
millions of Bangladeshis that already have settled in India illegally, many Bangladeshis have moved
internally from rural areas to Dhaka as “climate refugees,” driven out by
floods, cyclones and saltwater incursion from the Bay of
Bengal. India
is likely to get not only more economic refugees from Bangladesh, but also an influx of
climate refugees due to global warming.

For India, the ethnic expansion of Bangladesh beyond its
political borders not only sets up enduring trans-border links but it also
makes New Delhi’s already-complex task of border management more onerous. As highlighted
by Indian census figures, Indian districts bordering Bangladesh have become
Bangladeshi-majority areas. It is perhaps the first time in modern history that
a country has expanded its ethnic frontiers without expanding its political

The troubled situation in Burma
has brought thousands of political and ethnic refugees to India, now an important hub of the
pro-democracy campaign by exiles. Even as the junta has scheduled national
elections in 2010, Burma
remains one of the world’s most isolated and sanctioned nations. The U.S.-led
sanctions approach is actually pushing Burma
into the strategic lap of China,
which values that country as an entryway to the Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. Having strategically penetrated
resource-rich Burma, Beijing is busy completing the Irrawaddy Corridor
involving road, river, rail and energy-transport links between its Yunnan province and Burmese
ports. For India,
such links constitute strategic pressure on the eastern flank.

To India’s
south, the Sri Lankan military’s bloody triumph over the Tamil Tigers has left
an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe. Even amid military success, Colombo seems unable to
define peace or outline a political solution to the Tamils’ long-standing
cultural and political grievances. India can hardly overlook the fact
that what tilted the military balance in favour of Sri Lankan forces was the
infusion of Chinese weapon systems — from Jian-7 fighterjets to anti-aircraft
guns. For China, a major quid pro quo to such arms supplies has been the
contract for Hambantota, the billion-dollar port Chinese engineers are building
on Sri Lanka’s southeast. In fact, with Chinese encouragement, Pakistan — despite its own faltering economy —
has boosted its annual military assistance loans to Sri Lanka to nearly $100 million.

To India’s
north, Nepal
remains internally torn and, consequently, a happy hunting ground for Pakistani
and Chinese intelligence. Nepal
is not just another neighbour for India but a symbiotically linked
state with close cultural affinity and open borders that permit passport-free
passage. The Indo-Nepal equation is deeper than between any two European Union
members. Indeed, ever since the Chinese annexation of Tibet eliminated the outer buffer, Nepal has served as an inner buffer between India and China. The fall of the Maoist-led
government is just the latest chapter in a blemished and rocky experiment since
1990 to build democracy in Nepal.

Given such a troubled neighborhood, it is hardly a surprise
that India’s
internal security is coming under growing pressure.

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