By Gaurab Shumsher Thapa, Kathmandu
20 May 2020
A tempest is brewing for India. While the entire world is reeling from the most intractable crisis in recent human history, India’s other woes are mounting. A toxic mix of misfortune, vengeful external interests and its hegemonic hubris coupled with strategic myopia is proving to be a combustible recipe. As a result, India today fights on multiple fronts.
Like most countries, India too has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. A billion people have been in lock down for close to two months. This is creating adverse impact on multiple realms. As of today, over hundred thousand COVID-19 cases have been confirmed while several thousand have already perished. That number is expected to rise sharply mainly because of India’s large population living in dense conditions and with insufficient healthcare facilities.
As a consequence of the protracted lockdown and global economic recession, India is likely to suffer enormously. The economic downturn wrought by the pandemic is expected to be unparalleled. Unemployment has already soared exponentially. Reportedly, 122 million jobs have been lost in April alone and that is expected rise in the days ahead. Due to job losses of Indians abroad, remittance too is expected to decline precipitously. Before coronavirus, 22% of India’s total population lived in poverty. That percentage is estimated to rise significantly following the pandemic.
While India battles the pandemic, another ominous “battle front” is becoming disquietingly active. Very recently, Chinese and Indian troops had a tense stand offs at the Naku La Pass in Sikkim and Galwan valley in Ladakh region. Although the Indian Army Chief General M. M. Naravane tried to downplay the incident claiming that such incidents were common along the volatile borders, the actual situation is quite tense. Both countries have reportedly rushed reinforcements to the frontlines, sensing imminent threat. The two nuclear powers have numerous unsettled border disputes and the recent escalation of tensions is alarming.
With heavy shelling along the Line of Control (LOC) in two sectors of Jammu and Kashmir’s Poonch district over the last few days, India’s border with Pakistan is also not quiet either. Today is reportedly the fifth consecutive day of shelling since 15 May.
To make matters worse, a super cyclone ‘Amphan’- the strongest storm ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal is expected to make a landfall on the eastern coast of India very soon. This cyclone could not have struck at a worse time. The pandemic was already draining and straining the Indian polity. Depending on what sort of damage the cyclone will inflict, a natural calamity of this magnitude is certainly an additional stressor to India’s current fragility.
Amidst all this, India is also facing a raging Naxalite armed insurgency. In March, insurgents ambushed and killed 17 security personnel in Chhatisgarh. Similarly, two policemen were killed in the state of Maharashtra a couple of days ago. The former government led by Manmohan Singh had categorized the Naxalite insurgency a top national security threat. There is no indication of this insurgency abating anytime soon. Instead, this insurgency is expected to feed on the grievances wrought by the pandemic and blaze further.
Then, there is the situation in Jammu and Kashmir which remains very fragile. Currently, the restrictions imposed in Kashmir have been overshadowed by the pandemic. Post pandemic period could be the turning point for Kashmir and a showdown is not far from the horizon. Floodgates of public frustration, restlessness and resentment could very likely be unleashed and it could potentially result in another round of massive unrest and instability in the region.
It is not only the Muslims in Kashmir but the divide between the Muslim minority and the Hindu majority was already widening perilously before the pandemic. The passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December 2019 bred fear and resentment amongst the Muslim minority in India. The amended citizenship law, and a nationwide citizenship verification process through a National Population Register (NPR) aimed at identifying illegal migrants has led to a rise in fear and anger amongst India’s Muslim minority. During this pandemic, disinformation and allegation against Muslims spreading the virus is fueling further resentment and widening the fissures.
As if the South Asian giant already does not have enough challenges, another front has opened up after the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) last month slammed India through an official statement. OIC with 57 members is the second-largest intergovernmental organisation after the United Nations. The statement urges India to take urgent steps to protect the rights of its minority Muslims and to undertake steps to prevent incidents of Islamophobia. The statement further condemned the “recent and alarming violence against Muslims in India.” This has come in the wake of communal clashes that took place in Delhi recently. The Indian government in response issued a statement denying these charges and has asked OIC to refrain from commenting on internal matters of the country. On top of all this, for the first time since 2004, the annual report released by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has named India as a “country of particular concern” and placed it alongside Pakistan, China and North Korea. The report alleges “the national government used its strengthened parliamentary majority to institute national level policies violating religious freedom across India, especially for Muslims. India, however, claimed the report was “biased” and a “new level of misrepresentation.”
Equally worrying is the fact that world’s most dreaded terrorist group has pronounced India as a target. Its propaganda reportedly suggests that it is bent on exploiting the Hindu-Muslim divide in India to its advantage to get a stronger foothold across the Indian subcontinent. During the investigations carried out by Sri-Lankan authorities in the aftermath of Colombo bombings, it was reportedly revealed that there was a much bigger plan being hatched to carry out suicide bombings across India. The Indian affiliate of the ISIS is a group named as the ‘Janood-ul-Khalifa-e-Hind’ (the army of Caliph) has reportedly also established links with the Naxalites and other terror groups in Pakistan.
These seemingly new fronts are not the only battlegrounds India is having to engage in. Larger geopolitical maneuvers to diminish and destroy India’s powerful status quo in the region are still churning in full swing.
First, China’s “String of Pearls” strategy to strangle India is becoming more pronounced and palpable. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative as well as China’s cosying up with Nepal, Sri-Lanka and Bangladesh are all illustrative of what China wants to accomplish in South Asia. The Doklam incident further demonstrates China’s intent and attempt to make in-roads into Bhutan (currently an Indian protectorate). In the meantime, the Pakistan grand strategy of bleeding India with a thousand cuts continues to remain in motion. With China and Pakistan aligned in multiple realms, it is obvious that there is strategic convergence between these two countries. One is intent on choking it while the other hell bent on bleeding it. Both are committed to creating a synergy to attaining their strategic objectives.
And now, Nepal.
The Himalayan nation has become the latest “front” of the world’s largest democracy. Nepal and India are now officially in dispute due to the latter’s construction of a frontier road. The inauguration of the link road through a territory historically claimed by Nepal has stoked Kathmandu’s ire. The strategic roadway leads up to the Lipulek Pass near the Tibet border which India claims will greatly facilitate trade and Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrimage. The territories including Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipulek have been historically claimed by Nepal. Nepal’s Foreign Ministry came out with a strong statement urging India to stop activities in Nepal’s territory and handed over a diplomatic demarche to the Indian ambassador. India retorted by stating that the road was its own territory.
Nepal has now rattled India by publishing an updated map encompassing these territories. Addressing the parliament yesterday, Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli reiterated Nepal’s claim to these territories and stated that the “government’s intention to bring back those territories from India’s illegal occupation was unwavering.”
India and Nepal share an intimate bond like no two countries in the world do. Often referred to as the “Bread, Bride and Boots” bond, this relationship is unique, umbilical and unparalleled. These are the only two countries with Hindu majorities in the world. Cross border marriages are common. Around 50,000 Nepalese men serve in the Gurkha regiment of the Indian Army. No two neighboring countries have such arrangement of allowing men to go and serve in the neighbor’s Army. Nepal is possibly the largest contributor to India’s national economy through remittance as well. Although India ranks Nepal as the 7th largest country for remittance contribution, given the open border between the two countries and low skilled Indian labor that flood the Nepali labor market, more than 90% of the amount travels across undetected in the pockets of these laborers. Therefore, the official records and skewed and in actual terms, Nepal is either first if not second largest remittance provider.
The unsavory manner in which the relationship between the two Hindu majority nations has been nose-diving over the years is astoundingly baffling.
More worrying is the multiple fronts that have simultaneously opened up against the Indian polity. And the ignorance displayed by the haughty pundits in Delhi is lamentable. Their inability to decipher the larger picture and comprehend the gravity of the assault being mounted on India through multiple fronts is bound to have a calamitous impact on India. But most importantly, the dire insecurity and instability those multiple fronts will foment in India will have catastrophic consequences for the region and beyond.