Security Issues in Southern Asia

-Inder Malhotra, former Editor, Times of India



In discussing the security issues in the region, within the framework of the global megatrends, the expression Southern Asia is used advisedly. For, the more current phrase, South Asia, is inadequate. India's security concerns and geo-strategic stakes extend far beyond the South Asian confines.

China is the largest and most powerful neighbour of India as it is of several South Asian countries. Afghanistan, where a savage civil war with disastrous international ramifications continues more than eight years after the withdrawal of the last Russian soldier, is clearly a part of the Southern Asian security architecture. So is Myanmar, formerly called Burma. Indonesia's northernmost tip is only 89 miles from the southern extremity of the Andamans and Nicobar chain of India's offshore islands.

Similarly, the Russian Federation is not far from the Indian subcontinent. The Central Asian Republics of the former Soviet Union, with their vast wealth of oil, natural gas and minerals and their age-old ties with the subcontinent, are even closer.

Equally obvious is the proximity of the Persian Gulf and to the north-western quadrant of the Indian Ocean which is under the US Central Command and the Fifth Fleet.


By far the most notable point about Southern Asia is that is has been wholly free from any inter-state war for a quarter of a century. In the same period, there has been at least one war in South-East Asia (1979) and two in West Asia, the first between Iran and Iraq (1980-87) and the second, the "mother of all wars" in 1991.

After the brief border war between India and China in the high Himalayas in 1962, the last armed clash between the two countries took place in 1967. Thereafter, except for an episodic eruption of tension in 1987, peace and tranquillity have prevailed along what is called the Line of Actual Control (LAC), pending a settlement of the boundary in question. This process has been greatly strengthened as a result of the two agreements of 1993 and 1996. A number of confidence building measures (CBMs) are in place and more are under discussion. Some redeployment of force has already taken place and an across-the-board troop reduction all along the LAC is on the agenda.

Apocalyptic predictions of an India-Pakistan war, probably over Kashmir, quickly escalating into a nuclear exchange, have been belied. The two countries have not taken to the battlefield since the end, in December 1971, of the war for the liberation of Bangladesh. A proxy war in Kashmir has, of course, gone on for eight years because of the insurgency there being constantly backed by trans-border supply of arms and infiltration of trained insurgents. However, the insurgency seems to have passed its peak and could be winding down. With the holding of elections and the formation of a democratically elected government in Jammu and Kashmir, there is ground for the growing hopes that the political process will gather momentum and the insurgency contained, as has happened earlier in the neighbouring state of Punjab.

Another positive development of great importance is the decision of India and Pakistan to resume their dialogue that was abruptly ruptured more than three years ago by the former Pakistani Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto. Nawaz Sharif's landslide victory in the recent elections in Pakistan, during which he expressed himself in favour of peace and amity with India, surely has something to do with the changes in the earlier situation. Hurdles on the road to rapprochement must not be underestimated, as recent statements in both Islamabad and New Delhi indicate. But the very fact that the two countries, for three years not even on talking terms, are prepared to engage themselves in "wide-ranging and comprehensive talks" on all issues of concern to them is encouraging.

On no other issue has there been so much misinformation and motivated propaganda as on South Asia being "flashpoint" of possible nuclear conflagration. The canard that India and Pakistan were on the "verge" of a nuclear exchange in the spring of 1990 has been categorically repudiated by General Aslam Beg and General V.N. Sharma, Army Chiefs of Pakistan and India respectively at the time, and by William Clarke, the then US Ambassador to India. Of late, serious US scholars of South Asia have recognised that the mutual deterrent nuclear capability of the two countries may be a factor for stability, as is underscored by the recent report on India and Pakistan by a task force sponsored by the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

A striking improvement in India's relations with its immediate neighbours other than Pakistan has been a notable achievement in recent months. Major water sharing agreements have been signed with Bangladesh, on the one hand, and with Nepal, on the other. A further agreement among India, Bangladesh and Bhutan is under negotiation. Bangladesh has also taken steps to create conditions for the return to their homes of Chakma tribals driven to India over the years.

All these welcome events have been attributed to what has come to be known as the "Gujral Doctrine", named after the Indian Foreign Minister, Inder Kumar Gujral. Besides reaffirming traditional elements in Indian policy, Gujral has been saying that in its dealings with its smaller neighbours, India need not insist on reciprocity in every case.

SAARC, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, continues to be an instrument for establishing better relations in South Asia and, despite its relatively slow growth in the past, has made progress in the last two years. There is an overall agreement on a South Asia Preferential Trade Arrangement (SAPTA) among six of the seven SAARC countries, the only exception being Pakistan. Even Pakistan subscribes in principle, but not yet in practice, to the substantial tariff reductions in relation to a large number of items that the other six countries have introduced. The same is the situation about the move from preferential trade arrangements to a South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA).

Given the geographical configuration of the SAARC area, arrangements for sectoral cooperation in different parts of the subcontinent are also being evolved. For instance, in the east, there can be economic cooperation among India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal; and in the south among Maldives, Sri Lanka and India. Pakistan objects to this "sub-regional" pattern and even claims that this runs counter to the SAARC spirit. Others believe, however, that sectoral schemes are sound, and that there is no intention to "isolate" Pakistan. Gujral, whose doctrine has been criticised by the Pakistani media, has declared that schemes for cooperation between Pakistan and the western Indian states of Punjab and Rajasthan would be most welcome.

India looks upon SAARC and the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) not as competitive but as complementary organisations. Indeed, these two are seen as part of a chain that extends to the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the east. As is well-known, India is a full dialogue partner of ASEAN and a member of the security-related ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). The support for Indian membership of APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation entity, is growing.

As elsewhere, so in South Asia, economic liberalisation, embarked on by most countries, and the stabilisation of democracy in Bangladesh and Nepal have provided the impetus for economic and political cooperation, and there is every hope that this trend will grow. In Pakistan also the recent elections and their outcome are seen as an advance in the democratic process. But even today the Pakistani democracy remains circumscribed by the power and influence of the Army and the "permanent establishment."

The Defence and National Security Council was formed by the Pakistani President after the new elections had been announced. Most Pakistanis consider the formation of this Council--whose members are the President (as Supreme Commander of the armed forces), the Prime Minister, Ministers of Defence, Foreign Affairs and Finance, the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee and the three Service Chiefs--to be an irreversible step to formalise and perpetuate the role of the armed forces in Pakistan's governance. At the same time, it appears that the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, under which three Pakistani Presidents have dismissed four successive governments, will not be repealed even though Nawaz Sharif has the requisite two-thirds majority in Parliament to be able to do so. This should also explain why any government in Islamabad finds it difficult to reduce defence expenditure (6.5 per cent of GDP as against 2.3 per cent in India) despite strong pressure from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

However, to the extent democracy takes root in the region in general, and in Pakistan in particular, the trend is bound to be towards economic and political cooperation rather than warfare. Countries tied together in a fabric of economic cooperation and partnership are unlikely to declare war on one another even though tensions among them may persist. In short, inter-state wars can be virtually ruled out in Southern Asia. Even so, serious problems of security exist in almost all countries of the region, and these arise from both domestic and external factors. To take up the domestic well springs of the problem, these can be discussed under two broad heads.

Religion, Ethnicity and Politics

How lethal the mixture of religion and politics can be, especially when religious extremism or fundamentalism is sought to be used as an instrument of subversion, is being witnessed almost every day in places as far apart as Algeria, Bosnia, Chechnya, and so on. Perhaps the worst example of religious extremism is provided by Afghanistan, two-thirds of which is under the control of the Pakistan-trained and Pakistan-backed Taliban. This organisation has imposed on area under its control a form of Islamic fundamentalism that has come as a shock even to those Muslims who believe themselves to be very orthodox.

The wide world is also becoming increasingly aware that ethno-nationalism has become the most potent danger to the stability and integrity of multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-cultural nation-states. The collapse of the Soviet Union, the break up of the Yugoslavia federation and the split between the Czech and Slovak republics speak loudly for themselves. But the problem is not unknown in developed countries of the West. Violent separatist movements continue in Northern Ireland, Quebec in Canada and the Basque region of Spain.

While the rest of the world has faced the problems arising from religious extremism and ethno-nationalism relatively recently, the Indian subcontinent became their victim from the day the colonial rule there ended in 1947. The subcontinent's partition, at the time of independence, was an exercise in managing enthno-nationalist problems through territorial arrangements based on democratic principles. But this was unfortunately complicated by a claim that religion was the main, if not the sole, determinant of national identity. The two-nation theory was the name of the game. It was advocated first by the Muslim League in pre-partition India and was later adopted as national ideology by Pakistan after it was created. This was somewhat similar to the Zionist principle without the imperative underlying the Jewish Diaspora and the sufferings of the Jews over millenia.

Inevitability, the doctrine of nationhood depending almost entirely on religion came into conflict with other criteria for defending ethnic and national identities. The contradiction finally led to the secession from Pakistan of its eastern wing which is now the independent republic of Bangladesh.

The two-nation theory has been at the root of the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir, with Pakistan insisting that religion alone should determine Kashmir's future, and secular India, with a vast Muslim population of its own, opposing the plea.

Bangladesh was not alone in rejecting the two-nation theory. Different ethnicities in Pakistan itself are doing so, too. Muhajirs (migrants from India and their descendants) are locked in a conflict with the natives of the Pakistani province of Sindh. There is resentment against Punjabi domination also in Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province. Making religion the sole basis for nationality has also led to other excesses. For instance, a section of the Pakistani Muslim population, calling itself Ahmediya or Qadiani, has been legislated out of the pale of Islam and converted into a minority against its wishes.

The fierce and escalating sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis now extends all over Pakistan. In recent months, leaders of rival sects have been assassinated, the faithful praying in mosques have been shot at indiscriminately, and Iranian Cultural Centres in several Pakistani towns have been burnt down, obviously because of the belief that Iran helps the Shias. There is an equally strong feeling among the Shias and others that Sunni extremists are being backed by the Wahabi rulers of Saudi Arabia.

The sectarian violence apart, Pakistan has been, like India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, a victim of ethnic insurgencies. Karachi, the capital of Sindh as well as Pakistan's largest city and only major port has been, over recent years, the venue of bloodshed reminiscent of that in Lebanon during the Seventies and the Eighties. This insurgency has now abated, largely because the main organisation of the migrants, the Mohajir Qaumi Movement, having taken part in the recent elections, shares power in Sindh with Nawaz Sharif's Muslim League.

Of all South Asian countries, Sri Lanka has suffered the most because the ethnic insurgency there led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This insurgency, remarkable for its virulence, has gone on since 1973. The government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga has offered a package of autonomy and devolution to the Tamils, but this evidently falls short of the LTTE's demands. The insurgency, therefore, continues. India, as Sri Lanka's neighbour, is committed to Sri Lanka's unity and integrity. The Indian Peace-Keeping Force, which went to the island republic at Colombo's request, suffered more than a thousand casualties while quelling the LTTE.

There was a time when the Indian Tamils were also conducting a secessionist movement. This was overcome by Indian commitment to democracy, federalism and secularism. The Tamil leader who used to burn the Indian Constitution eventually became the state's Chief Minister. Tamils have held high office including that of the republic's President, Army Chief, and so on.

Similarly, a rash of other insurgencies, from the sensitive north-eastern region to Punjab have been contained with a large measure of success, if not completely. The task has not been easy, but it has somehow been performed. The expectation now is that the situation in Kashmir may also be stabilised. However, the problem here, as in the case of ethnic and other insurgencies elsewhere, usually gets aggravated by trans-border support to the insurgents.

Spread of Small Arms, Narcotics Trade and Terrorism

In the late Fifties and the Sixties, Naga and Mizo insurgents in the Indian north-east were given arms by Pakistan (through its eastern wing, now Bangladesh) and by Mao's China. This ended with the liberation of Bangladesh and with Deng Xiaoping's ascension to power in Beijing. Soon afterwards, however, the Afghan war wrought havoc by flooding the region, principally Pakistan, with small arms in mind-boggling quantities. Of the nearly three million Kalashnikovs and other weapons supplied by the US and Saudi Arabia, not many reached Afghanistan. Huge quantities were diverted to Punjab and Kashmir and other parts of the subcontinent.

Inextricably interlinked with the spread of small arms and landmines are the trends in narcotics, on the one hand, and terrorism, on the other. Once again, the Afghan war has greatly fuelled the two vicious activities. Not for nothing has the term narco-terrorism come into vogue. Powerful syndicates of drug traffickers find terrorists and insurgents a convenient cover for their lucrative activities while to the terrorists, druglords are a source of useful financial help. Some terrorist groups have sought to increase their clout by muscling into the drug trade.

Several Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports have exposed links between the drug trade and the Pakistani establishment. Within Pakistan also there have been accusations of the same nature. Benazir Bhutto, for instance, alleged direct links between druglords and the caretaker Prime Minister at the time of the recent election, Meraj Khalid. It is also common knowledge that Army officers once suggested to the then Prime Minister that drug money could be used to finance covert operations. The Pakistani media has disclosed that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the Pakistani military's intelligence agency, received from commercial banks "donations" which were really laundered drug money. It was used by the ISI, at least partly to finance insurgencies. A number of druglords, like a number of terrorists, have been extradited by Pakistan to the US at American demand.

The scourge of terrorism across the world has drawn strength from two other factors: improved technology, including that for communication, and ample facilities for specialised training. Modern light arms and difficult-to-detect plastic explosives have greatly enhanced the terrorist's capacity to inflict damage. As for training facilities, these have increased because of demobilisation of forces in many countries and because several intelligence agencies have found it expedient to set up training establishments on their own or through front organisations. Some of the LTTE hardcore cadres were trained by both Mossad and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). An even greater irony is that Kansi, the Pakistani who shot CIA operatives at Langely in 1993 (and was later extradited) had worked for the CIA in Afghanistan. Rasmi Yusuf, involved in the World Trade Centre bombing had received training at a camp run jointly by the CIA and the ISI during the Afghan war.

One of the worst acts of terrorism was a series of bomb blasts in the city of Bombay in 1993 at 19 different targets at the same time. The prime accused in this dastardly case, Dawood, is in Dubai along with some of his lieutenants. However, a former central Minister of India, Kalpnath Rai, has been sentenced to ten years' rigorous imprisonment for harbouring some of Dawood's men.

It also needs to be mentioned that events like Bombay's serial bomb blasts or even the kidnapping of four foreigners by Kashmiri militants belonging to the Pakistan-based Harkatul Ansar, are usually played down by the Western world. But there is much hype over the World Trade Centre bombing, the Oklahoma Federal Building blast and the Atlanta Olympic Park explosion.

External Factors and the Subcontinent

In all wars in the subcontinent--1962, 1965 and 1971--China, Russia or the Soviet Union as it then was, and the United States were involved directly or indirectly. Even in peace-time, local and regional tensions were exacerbated by the Cold War. There is nothing to show that with the end of the Cold War, the security situation in the subcontinent will not be affected by the interplay between these three powers. China, be it repeated, is India's neighbour and also a major player in Asia and the world, being a nuclear weapon power and a permanent member of the Security Council, with a veto. It also has the fastest growing economy. Russia's stakes in the region have not disappeared because of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. And as for America, it is clear that it is behaving like the world's sheriff. It is determined to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to the borders of Russia despite the most vehement Russian protests, last repeated at the Helsinki Summit. The US is telling its European allies that they must obey its national law on trade with Cuba. It is at loggerheads with Germany over something called Scientology. Its disputes with China over human rights and trade issues are well known. Nor is it reluctant to tell its Japanese allies what to do or not to do.

The Nuclear Issue and Missiles

To India and Pakistan, America's message is that they should "first cap, then reduce over time and eventually eliminate" their nuclear capabilities. It also wants them not to embark on the production or deployment of ballistic missiles, regardless of the fact that of the 40 countries that possess these missiles, no fewer than 13 are close to India. On the nuclear issue, the report of the Council on Foreign Relations indicates some fresh thinking within the strategic community in the US. But official American policy remains unchanged.

As stated earlier, relations between India and China are improving, should improve further and hopefully will. However, the relationship between the two cannot be one-dimensional. Planners of Indian security have to take note of not only China's great and growing military power, including nuclear might, but also of what it is doing with that power.

China's support to Pakistan's nuclear missiles programmes is well known and is acknowledged by the US. American intelligence agencies have also said repeatedly that China has given Pakistan M-11 missiles. (It has sold missiles to others, including Saudi Arabia, but that is a different story). The US has done nothing about this clear violation of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). What is India expected to do under these circumstances?

Ideally, Indian security interests would be well served if the country could operate in a non-nuclear environment. But no such environment exists. What is more, earlier hopes that the environment could some day be made non-nuclear have been dashed to the ground. This is so because the five nuclear weapon powers, hell-bent on perpetuating their nuclear monopoly and hegemony, have flatly rejected the idea of total elimination of nuclear weapons through a phased programme in a reasonable time-frame.

It is in this context that the official Indian policy is not to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), not to subscribe to the NPT that India never signed and not to give up its nuclear option. Public opinion is much ahead of the government and many, including a clear majority of the members of Parliament, would be happier if the option is exercised so that there remains no doubt about India's limited and rescessed deterrent.

As for likely Pakistani apprehension on this score, major confidence building measures have been agreed to and others can be discussed now that the dialogue is being resumed. The two countries are treaty-bound not to attack each other's nuclear installations. India has since suggested that the mutual prohibition can be extended to population centres, major industries and other locations of economic interest. India is ready also to sign an agreement with Pakistan that neither country would use its nuclear capability against the other. Failing this, India could give this undertaking unilaterally.

In this connection it may be added in parenthesis that recently China refused to entertain an American suggestion that both countries should stop targetting each other's cities. For China wanted the US to first accept the principle of no first use of nuclear weapons. This the US did not accept.

However, to revert to the nuclear situation in South Asia, it needs emphasising that the report of the Council on Foreign Relations acknowledges the stabilising quality of Indian and Pakistani nuclear capabilities. Some in Pakistan have begun to wonder aloud whether by making its nuclear capability explicit that country cannot make substantial economies in its defence expenditure without jeopardising its security.

Likely Overall Scenario

Since a nuclear weapon free world is not feasible because of the obduracy of the nuclear haves and the failure of the nuclear have-nots to unite behind the demand for elimination of nuclear weapons, a further spread of nuclear weaponry cannot be ruled out. A pertinent question, for example, is whether in the first decade of the next century, Japan will necessary remain non-nuclear.

Basically, as viewed from the subcontinent at present, a situation of potential rivalry between the US and China appears to be developing. Already people are talking of a New Cold War, focussed on China. In any case, China is the only power to be able to stand up to America both militarily and economically. The Russia-China strategic alliance is also an important straw in the wind. It enables China to import military hardware and advanced military technology from Russia and to pay for it from its phenomenal trade surpluses with America. The US drive to establish control over Central Asia's oil and gas and to get them to the sea without having to pass through either Russia or Iran must cause concern to China for two reasons: China's increasing need for Central Asian hydrocarbons, and Chinese fears of disorder in Xinjiang and Tibet.

When China fired a fusillade of missiles straddling Taiwan, the US made a show of sending its warships to the region. But no ship ventured to sail into the area where the Chinese exercises were being conducted. China's Asian neighbours drew the necessary lesson. Now if a situation of US-China bipolarity does arise in the world that should really be moving towards polycentrism, if not multipolarity, the impact on Asian countries should not be difficult to imagine. After all, they live in close proximity to China, while America, for all its reach, is far away.

If such a configuration does become a reality, India's response will have to be reliance on its old policy of non-alignment. The efficiency of this policy should not be doubted because the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) has fallen on lean days. The policy predated the formation of the languishing organisation by 15 years, and its essence, independence of judgement and no entanglement in the rivalries of others, remains as valid today as it was when Jawaharlal Nehru first enunciated this policy on September 6, 1946.