Sambandh: Reconnecting India and the Region


Posted on February 8, 2020  /  0 Comments

Notes from a talk given by Prof. Rohan Samarajiva at “Launch & Panel Discussion | Sambandh: Reconnecting India and the Region

  • Saran’s notion of dense interdependencies provides a good framework for the connectivity project: “Politically, our neighbourhood policy is now based on the recognition that what can best secure India’s interests in the region would be building a web of “dense interdependencies” with our neighbours. We must give our neighbours a stake in our own economic prosperity. This would impart a certain stability in our relations. . . . You have a policy, which puts in place a multiple series of interests which are binding the countries together. So, even if there are political changes, there is a certain stability which is given to the relationship, because there are those kind of very strong interdependencies, whether they are on the economic side, whether it is in terms of the sharing of river waters, whether it is in terms of our energy interdependence.”[1]
  • Saran recognizes the problem of asymmetry: “Again, I come back to the point that barriers are not from our side. We have told our neighbours, we are prepared to go as far as you are prepared to go, what your comfort levels are, because we are a very large country, we have large resources, our room for manoeuvre is more, so, really, it is a question of how much comfort level our neighbours have, and, hopefully, as our linkages with our neighbourhood increase, the sense of shared prosperity, or the sense of having opportunities in India rather than looking at India as a threat or dominating power would begin to take hold. So, I think we have to continue soldiering on, and try and see whether we can over time change this kind of thinking in our neighbourhood.”
    • The question that must be asked is why the neighbors are cautious. What is causing them to fear interdependency with India?  If the argument is that connectivity locks in the relationship and reduced volatility, is it not reasonable for the weaker party in the relationship to be concerned about the nature of what they are being locked in to?  For example, ask the following questions:  How long can India do without electricity supplied by Bhutan?  How long can Bhutan do without the income from electricity sold to India?  India’s alleged blockade of Nepal in 2015 raised red flags in the minds of many.  True interdependency requires the costs of disruption to be substantial on both sides.  Is this possible regarding relations with India?
    • An example of interdependency that may impose more or less symmetrical costs is the current role of the port of Colombo in India’s trading system.[2]
  • The region? South Asia?  Diplomacy may require fuzziness, but scholarship requires precision.
    • What is meant is all the countries that have land borders with India, except China and Pakistan and Maldives and Sri Lanka.
    • Do land borders matter that much in the 21st century? Did they matter that much in the days of sail?  India’s Malabar Coast was closer to Sri Lanka than the Coromandel Coast in many regards due to wind patterns.
    • Need to think through the Bay of Bengal (formerly known as the Chola Sea) and the broadly defined littoral states of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
    • Also need to think through Gulf countries. If the connectivity indicators show strong linkages with GCC countries, what is to be done?  What is adjacent depends on the technology.  Braudel posited multiple world systems within Europe; does that kind of focus on adjacency make sense now?
  • May want to emphasize the project is about Connectivity 2.0, not about reconnecting. Perhaps neighbors may not want to recreate what existed in the past.
    • The current narrative posits India as the Actor and the regional countries as the acted-upon. May want to avoid this.
    • Disconnection in the aftermath of the withdrawal of the UK was driven perhaps more by the other countries than by India.[3]
    • The principal factor was the massive movement of people from India to other countries during the Raj, as well documented by Amitav Ghosh in the Ibis Trilogy and by Sunil Amrith in Crossing the Bay of Bengal. Free movement was not possible only to Thailand.  There were reactions from all other countries.
    • The problem was exacerbated by the Panikkar Doctrine and by “fifth column” arguments such as those promoted even today by writers such as Chellaney.[4]

[1] https://www.mea.gov.in/Speeches-Statements.htm?dtl/2342/

[2] Samarajiva, R. (2014 September 24).  Sri Lanka’s hub strategies reassessed.  Daily FT.  https://www.mfa.gov.lk/sri-lankas-hub-strategies-reassessed/

[3] See for example: Ceylon Citizenship Act No. 18 of 1948 which deprived Tamils of (recent) Indian Origin of citizenship and made them stateless.

[4] https://www.forbes.com/2009/10/08/tamil-tigers-rajiv-gandhi-opinions-contributors-sri-lanka.html#4a83367632ed

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