Notes from the Sub-continent
Mayuri Mukherjee

In this fortnight’s compilation of some of the big ideas being debated in the media across the Indian sub-continent, we offer a mix of foreign and domestic policy issues. Starting with Bangladesh, we look at its response to India’s publication of the National Register for Citizens in Assam; then onto Nepal, where we see how the commentariat is divided over the outcomes of the Chinese foreign minister’s recent visit to Kathmandu. In Pakistan, the attention is still very much on India’s revocation of Article 370, but whether Islamabad has succeeded in persuading the rest of the world to support its narrative on Kashmir is still an open question. Finally, in Sri Lanka, there is no doubt that presidential frontrunner Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the man of the hour but there is no consensus yet on whether he is just another avatar of his brother, the former president, or a man in his own right.

Bangladesh: Is India’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) an internal issue only?

Earlier this month, the NRC office published an updated list of citizens for Assam in a bid to weed out illegal immigrants (ostensibly from Bangladesh) in the border state. About 13 crore citizens made it on the list while 19 lakh individuals were excluded. These individuals of course have the option of taking their case to court but the possibility of at least a few of them being deported to Bangladesh has caused some concern across the border.

The Daily Star noted in its editorial that the exclusion of such a large number of people is “certainly worrisome” and the possibility that they may be “deported and pushed into Bangladesh is not far-fetched”. The newspaper was particularly peeved by the foreign ministry in Dhaka, which, it believed, did not have “a sure footing on the issue” and was therefore found echoing New Delhi’s line on the issue - which is that the NRC is India’s internal matter. A similar even if more strident line was taken by Prothom Alo which also argued in its editorial that “If a big number of people in a state next to our border suddenly become stateless, Bangladesh will certainly be affected.” It asked, “What will happen to people who lose their citizenship in the end?”

Taking this argument to the next level, former ambassador Muhammad Zamir wrote for the Dhaka Tribune that while NRC was “a human tragedy in the making” by India, “Bangladesh shouldn’t have to pay the price”. He noted that “Densely populated Bangladesh is already suffering from having to look after more than a million illegal Rohingya immigrants from the Rakhine state of Myanmar. Consequently, there is no question of Bangladesh being forced to receive more alleged infiltrators”. Instead, the writer suggested that India should “consider giving those designated as stateless people participatory presence within the Indian paradigm…” Another suggestion came from Umran Chowdhury, a legal professional, who argued in the same paper that “the proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill in India discriminates on the basis of religion and falls short of standards set by relevant international law” and, therefore, “India should harmonize its laws with the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, as well as the 1951 Refugee Convention”.

Nepal: A significant visit or a missed opportunity?

Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Nepal for three day trip from September 8th till the 10th. During this time, he met several high ranking leaders in Kathmandu and announced Chinese financial support a hospital and some tents.

Arun Kumar Subedi opined in the Khabarhub that the small change offered for these projects was in fact a “humiliating gesture” that has “embarrassed the entire Nepali populace”. Instead, he criticised the government for failing to highlight issues “such as criminal cases related to Chinese nationals, trans-border connection, trade and transit points, tourism, among others...” The Kathmandu Post was also not pleased with the outcomes of the trip. It noted that apart from generating some goodwill, “not much else has been achieved”. In its editorial, the paper summarised that no major new projects were announced, there was no progress on projects proposed under the Belt and Road initiative, and there was no confirmation on the Chinese President’s visit which has been in the pipeline for a long time. The editorial also pointed out that, Nepal had hoped that “China could provide a significant alternative route… to lessen Nepal's reliance on India as a trade and transit route” but that has not been the case - “Indian routes continue to handle almost all of Nepal's trade with third countries”.

Offering an explanation for why Kathmandu may not have been able to put any major deliverables on the table during the Chinese foreign minister’s visit, Biswas Baral wrote in the Annapurna Express that the Nepali team supposedly did not “present not a single solid proposal”. Even with regard to the flagship rail link project, Nepal’s bureaucrats reportedly did not take any initiative. “Basically, Nepal wants China to do everything: come up with project plans, prepare the DPRs, and complete the proposed projects on its own”, summarised Baral.

Other commentators, however, saw the visit as a success. Writing for Rising Nepal, Gopal Khanal noted the lack of progress on BRI projects but eventually opined that the most important question to ask about this trip was: Did it prepare a “conducive environment for Xi's milestone visit?” He believes the answer here was in the affirmative. A similarly glowing assessment came from Nandalal Tiwari - who also wrote for Rising Nepal. According to him, the visit was “extraordinary” for two reasons: “first, he announced more than a fourfold increase in Chinese assistance to Nepal…”; and “second, he shared the Chinese official concept that Nepal could be a bridge between China and India”. Tiwari believes these “two things have far-reaching significance for Nepal” as “they show that Chinese assistance to Nepal will increase, particularly in infrastructure development, and that Nepal needs to play a proactive role to establish itself as a bridge, especially in the context that India has not yet bought this idea of Nepal acting as such”.

Pakistan: International rebuke or blancmange

In Pakistan, the focus on how the international community was responding to India’s more-than-month-old decision to revoke Article 370 and bifurcate the state of Jammu & Kashmir continued to generate much analysis. The commentariat, however, seemed divided on whether Islamabad was being able to sell its point of view around the world.

Analysing the unplanned visit of the Saudi and Emirati foreign ministers to discuss the Kashmir issue with the government in Islamabad, journalist Huma Yusuf wrote in the Dawn that the message delivered by the Arab leaders was simple: “No country can take Pakistan’s position”. She noted that, “Pakistan has historically counted on the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) support on the Kashmir issue and in tensions with India more broadly. But we are a far cry from the early ’90s…. In the years since have seen a major diplomatic push by India in the Gulf, shifts in regional geopolitics, and Pakistan’s declining value to the GCC as a strategic partner”. The author suggested that Pakistan should focus on “constructive, forward-looking ways to re-engage the Gulf; for example, by upskilling our expatriate labour force”. Echoing Yusuf’s analysis of the foreign ministers’ visit, FS Aijazuddin also wrote in the Dawn that while, “The ostensible objective of their sudden, unscheduled visit was an endorsement of Pakistan’s stand on Kashmir... the final statement issued by the Arab diplomats had the aftertaste of a blancmange — bland, without bite”. Consequently, the author wondered if the ministers had a “darker, deeper purpose” - to persuade Pakistan to recognise Israel.

On the other side of the aisle, the Express Tribune found a victory for Pakistani diplomacy in the statement that Pakistan submitted to the UN, on behalf of 50 countries, “expressing concern over the illegal annexation of occupied Kashmir by India”. On a similar note, the News International also patted Islamabad on the back for finally being able to draw “global attention to the worsening situation in Indian-held Kashmir…” It pointed to the “strongly worded letter, 46 UK members of parliament have written to the UN Secretary General, expressing deep concern over the stripping of Kashmir’s autonomous status and a direct attack on its age-old right to self-governance…” as well as to the note penned by members of the European Parliament who have “written separately to the High Representative of the Union of Foreign Affairs and Security, also expressing concern on recent developments in Kashmir.”

Sri Lanka: A breath of fresh air or just old wine in a new bottle

Last week, Sri Lanka’s leading presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa addressed a high-profile gathering in Colombo where he presented a fairly detailed view of his campaign platform. Some analysts were impressed, others not so much.

Writing for the Financial Times daily, Ashoka Mihindu argued that Rajapaksa was promising “more or less the regressive policies practiced by his brother from 2005 to 2014”. For example, he argued that the candidate’s commitment to keeping state enterprises in public hands was really just about keeping them in the hands of Rajapaksa family - as was the case when Mahinda Rajapaksa was president. According to Mihindu, “A Gotabaya presidency is nothing but a return to the regression and despotism we all went through under his elder brother’s rule which was characterised by nepotism and crony capitalism”.

Writing in the same paper, columnist Raj Gonsalkorale, however, described the younger Rajapaksa’s candidacy as “both a breath of fresh air in a stale, directionless economic and social environment, and also an elevation of the need for visionary thinking amongst other candidates and political parties”. Noting that Rajapaksa’s speech and his articulation of a futuristic vision was above the usual political swill, he argued that, “whether one likes, dislikes, hates or fears Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his articulation of a vision for Sri Lanka has to be commended” – especially since it had come at a time when the absence of strategic and visionary leadership had caused many Lankans to lose faith in democracy. On a similar note, Edward Thiophilus, writing for the Lankaweb, also cheered the presidential candidate for knowing exactly what the country needs. He said, “The biggest mistake done by the yahapalana regime was neglecting the economy and national security and these two vital areas have clearly understood by Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa… all other presidential candidates are reluctant to talk about national security…”

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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