Panel Discussion at Synergia Conclave, ‘How India is Meeting its Neighbourhood Challenge’, Bengaluru, 17-19 Oct 2019
Talk by Dr. Arvind Gupta, Director, VIF

Shared history, culture, geography, common boundaries, the legacy of the colonial rule, and economic linkages are some of the factors that define India and its neighbours. On top of that, the asymmetry in size and population between India and its neighbours is a powerful driver that has shaped India’s relations with its neighbours.

India was shrunk by the partition

The history of India’s relations with its neighbours has been chequered. The partition of India in 1947 and invasion of Tibet by the Chinese in 1950 were the two landmark events which truncated India’s connectivity to the regions of Central Asia, Tibet et cetera. Colonial rulers and also curtailed India’s maritime connectivity to the Gulf and Africa on one side, and to Southeast Asia, China and beyond. The Indian Ocean became a region of contestation amongst the great military powers.

They look toward China (except Bhutan)

India has generally emphasised the primacy of bilateralism and its relationship with its neighbourhood. This has caused problem for its smaller neighbours. Thus, they often regard India as a ‘big brother’, and in order to balance India they have looked elsewhere. The United States has been a powerful external affairs factor. China is now emerging as another factor in South Asia.

The challenge before India has been how to deal with its neighbours without being seen as overbearing, and at the same time, persuade the neighbours to be sensitive to its concerns. It was prime minister Inder Gujral who propounded the thesis of non-reciprocity in bilateral relations. The exception was with respect to Pakistan which has an altogether different relationship with India as compared to those of others. India’s view of its neighbourhood is changing. India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, launched by Prime Minister Modi, places emphasis on connectivity in its broadest sense. Gradually, the insistence on reciprocity is being opened up. It has been realised that connecting with the neighbourhood is in national interest.

An important conceptual change that is occurring is that India is not willing to be confined to the South Asia corner. As India grows, its interests grow, and several regions not far from India, also termed as strategic neighbourhood, come into play. It must be realised that the strategic boundaries of India lie far beyond the political boundaries. India’s historical frontier has been the Hindukush in the West.

Salience of maritime is growing

The importance of maritime connectivity and maritime security is being recognized. The importance of the Sea Lanes of Communication and the Indian Ocean on national security and prosperity cannot be overstated. Choke points like the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca Strait are in the immediate vicinity of India. The safety and security is therefore a part of India’s neighbourhood concept.

India is a civilisational state with a vast cultural footprint

India is not just a nation state, it is a civilisational state with a vast cultural footprint. India’s cultural footprint can be felt in the Gulf, in the Arab world, on the East Coast of Africa, in Southeast Asia, as well as in China, Japan and South Korea.

Regionalism has remained under-developed

Regional organisations in South Asia have yet to take roots. Although the SAARC was conceptualised in 1983, its potential has not been realised due to a variety of factors. Sub-regionalism is now accepted in the South Asian context. The rise of BIMSTEC is a relatively new phenomena. It brings together South Asian and Southeast Asian countries together in a regional grouping centered around common interests in the Bay of Bengal region. India will have to invest a lot in the success of BIMSTEC.

China is increasingly becoming a factor in India’s neighbourhood

The Belt and Road Initiative, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and the connectivity that China is building in the Bay of Bengal region is going to influence India’s relations with its neighbours. Although India’s neighbours are looking at India in relatively more positive light, there are apprehensions about India having not done enough. There are efforts to hedge and balance against India by invoking China which is very much a factor in South Asian politics.

India’s capability to deliver in the neighbourhood is being tested

India’s intentions are noble but its ability to deliver on projects has been questionable. In the recent past, India has extended substantial assistance and lines of credit to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan. A number of connectivity projects have also been built, particularly in the area of power, river transport, roads et cetera. However, connectivity projects are still in infancy, and often delayed. Improving delivery will be the most important challenge before India in its neighbourhood policy.

Security issues remain at the core of India’s neighbourhood policy

Security interests are extremely important. India and its neighbours are collaborating more and more on security issues including counter-terrorism, drug trafficking, narcotics, border management, maritime security et cetera. The cooperation between the security agencies Indian Armed Forces with their counterparts in the neighbourhood is also growing. More and more joint trainings, exercises et cetera are taking place. The confidence building measures have led to improved trust. Non-conventional security threats are being addressed by India and its neighbours.


South Asian people are deeply religious. Pilgrimages, setting up of religious tourism circuits, Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic dialogues, studies et cetera can play a positive role in bringing people together.

Text Books: Mutual perceptions need to be improved

Although the people of South Asia have shared history and culture, our knowledge about each other is deficient. Part of the reason is the distrust of the past. Textbooks which shape the young minds have given very divergent versions of the history. We need to change that situation. There ought to be greater understandings about each other’s languages, history, culture, cuisine. People-to-People contacts are crucial for the success of India’s neighbourhood policy. In this area a lot more work needs to be done. To begin with, there ought to be freer movement of people through easier visa regimes, work permits.


In the end, it is important that there should be common understandings both at official and non-official levels about the developmental and security challenges faced by the countries of the region. There would still be divergences which need to be managed properly.

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