South Asia is a natural strategic unit founded by the great chain of mountains-the Himalayas, Karakorum, Hidukush in the north and by the Indian Ocean in the south, east and west. Historically from the earliest times, the peoples of this region have been intimately linked by race, culture, religion, and sometimes by political allegiance. Political boundaries have not been constant in South Asia. Empires have grown and fallen.
There have been different foci of political authority, though Delhi has the longest history of being the imperial capital. The British Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth century encompassed not only what is known as the region of south Asia but also some region which is now-a-days part of West and Southeast Asia regions. It was during this period that the political boundaries were drawn over contiguous cultural landmass. The territorial boundaries of the seven courtiers of the region are thus colonial creations.
The most conspicuous feature on the face of South Asia is India, a veritable powerhouse in the region. In size, population, natural resources, level of economic development standard of education, scientific and technological progress, gross national product and evolution of democratic political institutions, India is a relative giant.
In absolute terms, therefore, India is a big country surrounded by small ones, with the exception of China. Further, both as a consequence of geography and history every country in South Asia is intimately connected with India. The same ethnic and religious groups to which their peoples belong are also found in India, which is vast and heterogeneous country. Social organization and style of managing the environment are similar between each South Asian country and its adjoining part in India; for example, between Nagaland northern Burma, West Bengal and Bangladesh, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. Formal boundaries do not, and indeed cannot, contain the cultural overlap, there are matrimonial alliances, family ties and social associations across borders between India and all of its South Asian neighbours. For better or this intermingling of peoples, cultures, and religions imparts a familial quality to inter-state relations in South Asia. This is in contrast to other geographical region including Europe.
Families are often disrupted by sibling rivalry and the identity problems of family members; so also in South Asia. Sibling rivalry, with its intricate causes and bitter consequences, characterises many public stances adopted by India, Pakistan and Bangladesh towards each other which have the longest history of shared political allegiance.
To a large extent the ruling elites of Bangladesh, Pakistan and India resemble sibling rivals. They contested for the affection and material rewards handed out first by the British colonialists, and then by the imperial substitutes, the new super powers, to the detriment of their ties with each other. While the sources of conflict in a region with multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies are manifold, broadly, they can be traced to the colonial legacies, particularly, the drawing of political boundaries on a common cultural landmass and economic space and to the political dynamics in these post-colonial phase.
The two geo-political features of the region, Indo-centrism and the asymmetry of power and resources among states in the South Asia have their own role in shaping the security dynamics in the region. In South Asia, British colonialism not only acted as a unifying force but also as a force creating dissonance and division. While it brought the South Asian countries j within the common colonial system, colonialism simultaneously sowed several seeds of discord which continue to plague interstate relations in South Asia even today.
The differences between India and Pakistan over the two-nation theory and between Sri Lanka and India over the nationality of Tamil plantation workers are only two outstanding examples of dissensions among South Asian states which owe their origin to British rule.
The final hasty retreat of the J British and the ensuing bitterness generated between the ruling elides of the two major countries of the region gravely disrupted the traditional complementarity and cohesion. In the post-colonial phase, the political dynamics in the countries of the region have been different owing to differences in the evolution of the forces of nationalism, the socio-cultural set up and the inherited economic structures.
In India and Sri Lanka politics have remained generally stable and evolved smoothly. Other countries of the region have witnessed a cycle of democratic distortions and resurgence. Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh witnessed erosion of democratic processes and assertion of authoritarian I governments in 1958, 1960 and 1975. Bhutan has always remained a monarchy, though there are now signs of democratic processes being introduced.
There was a democratic resurgence in all these countries in the early 1990s, but forces of regression have again been on the ascendance in Pakistan and Nepal. While such political divergences act as hurdles in strengthening regional cooperation, the emergence of sectarian forces in South Asian countries in the recent past is vitiating the intra-state and inter-state relations: It is difficult to precisely identify the factors that led to the rise of authoritarian and sectarian forces. But, one should note that the search for powerful the authoritarian forces (like in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan) and struggle for democratic power (as in India and Sri Lanka) has led to the mobilisation of sectarian constituencies.
The rise of sectarian forces in the multiethnic and multi-religious societies of South Asia has alienated the minorities resulting in the rise of ethnic and separatist movements. In Sri Lanka, the Tamil insurgency since the early 1980s that poses a challenge to Sri Lankan unity and integrity has resulted from the politics of ethnic consolidation of the Sinhalese in the political system. In Pakistan, the separation of Bangladesh was the consequence of the dominance of Punjabi ethnicity under the grab of the Islamic state.
Similarly, the sense of deprivation in North Western Frontier Province, Baluchistan and Sindh as well as the rise of the Shia and Sunni sectarian conflict are the result of alienation caused by over centralisation and sectarianism. In Bangladesh, the Chakma unrest is a reflection of Bengali and Islamic assertion. In Nepal, the Terai movement of the Maoist insurgency of the late 1990s is manifestations of protest against the dominance of hill people, and against a Hindu state, respectively.
In India, the unrest and ethnic turmoil in the northeast is a clear evidence of the failure of even a secular state to integrate its socially divergent groups. Clearly, nation-building process is still an unfinished task in the region. Almost all the countries in the region face the threat of political disintegration. Given the ethnic and religious overlap in the region, ethnic, religious and linguistic conflicts in one country invariably have an impact in the other country of the region.
The contiguous and open boundaries allow easy flow of people, goods and ideas across the borders interfering with economic and political relations. Most of the internal security crises that plague South Asian states have a cross-border dimension, and many are inter-related. Whether it is the Maoist insurgency in Nepal, the persistent ethnic problem in Sri Lanka, the increasing use of Bangladeshi territory by Islamist extremists, the proliferation of small arms, or the menace of drug trafficking and narco-terrorism, each has significant transnational dimensions. States in the region, often accuse each other of covertly or overtly lending support to separatist and the dissident movements. Indo-centrism – With none of the South Asian countries sharing borders with each other, except with and through India, the region is geopolitically Indocentric in character.
One consequence of this is that India’s intra-regional interactions are inherently bilateral. India cannot avoid interactions with its neighbours, while none of its neighbours have a similar compulsion to interact with the other South Asian country, except India. It is, therefore, not surprising that India figures prominently in the inter-state problems of the region.
The asymmetry in size, population, power and resources between India and rest of the countries of South Asia is another feature of the region that has a bearing on inter-state relations in the region. The predominance of India in the region has had an intimidating impact on its small neighbours. India’s neighbours have often perceived India as a big brother seeking to translate its physical domination of the region into a political and economic one. They have often raised concerns over motives of Indian actions.
Though the Indian troops intervened in Sri Lanka (1971 and again in 1987-89), in Bangladesh (1971) and in Maldives (1989) and returned upon completion of their mission, these interventions were seen by the neighbouring countries as benign and on the other occasions as hostile. ‘Hostile interventions’ have raised the spectre of Indian hegemony, but ‘benign interventions’ have been welcomed as aiding the cause of regime security.
On its part, India at one time, was concerned over the possible ganging up of the neighbours to embarrass, if not emasculate its regional pre-eminence. Such mutual suspicions and fears arising from the asymmetry in the region has also been an obstacle in the strengthening regional cooperation.
Almost all the countries of the region suspect that both in bilateral and regional economic engagements, the larger and stronger economy of India will secure more benefit at their cost. While India has a sub-continental approach to its security, its neighbours have much restricted visions that are coloured by their local views rather than their perception as members of the South Asia region.
Indian security concerns are related not just to the conflicts in the region, but to events in Central Asia, the Indian Ocean and to the changing world environment. India has sought to play an independent role consistent with its policy of nonalignment, avoided joining the Cold War alliances, and sought to minimise the role of the external powers in the region.
On the other hand, its neighbours have sought to counter balance the regional predominance of India by cultivating extra-regional powers. India figures prominently in the security concerns of its neighbours. Conflict with India has wholly defined the security debate in Pakistan. In Sri Lanka the security debate has been defined by its Tamil problem and by the Indian presence in the north.
The security concerns in Nepal centre on its efforts to balance India and China on its southern and northern borders and by perceived threat to its identity from the civilisation similarities between itself and India. And much to the consternation of India, external powers have often exploited the regional strategic dissonance to promote their specific interests in the region and around.
While the United States has taken advantage of Indo-Pakistan differences from the early 1950s, China took advantage of the Indo-Nepal tensions resulting from consequences of King Mahendra’s dismissal of democracy in the Himalayan Kingdom in 1962.
The haphazard emergence of a variety of conflicting international strategic interests in the post-Cold War exacerbated regional tensions. Among the factors that shaped the security relations in South Asia since the 1980s is the nuclear issue.