Jaipur Literature Festival, on the Elephant in the room

“The elephant is a big, gentle creature, eating grass, eating bamboo, and fairly peaceful most of the times,” said diplomat Neelam Deo when she opened the discussion titled “Elephant in the room – India and it’s neighbours”.

Bangladeshi writer and columnist K. Anis Ahmed believed that even though India is a big elephant, it has not come to it’s own sense as a super power, as it always acts defensive in it’s relations with it’s neighbours. “India is diluting it’s potential by these defensive policies,” he said. In Bangladesh, relations with the big neighbour are by now less front page news than, trade with the EU and US.

the elephant in the roomBhutanese politician Lily Wangchhuk spoke about the connection to another small neighbour in the Northeast: “Until now, the relationship was considered sacred and unquestionable.” But when India interfered in the elections by withdrawing gas subsidies, there was criticism in quite some part of society, she said.

Speaking about his homeland Pakistan, columnist Ahmad Rafay added: “India remains engaged in the security establishment, but has yet to make inroad into society.”

How India perceives it’s own appearance in the region and what it really is, are two very different things, said Aunohita Mojumdar, editor of Himal Southasian, the only regional magazine of Southasia (that, by itself, speaks volumes). Rafay lamented that a lot of conferences and other events, where South Asians could gather, had to be held in Dubai or London, because visas for all participants for these cities were easier to get than for the region.

He also deems it a huge deficiency that there is no legal treaty, or even initiative, between India and Pakistan on who is allowed to extract water on both sides of the border. There is only the Indus water treaty which deals mostly with the question if India is allowed to built damns. “This is the area where India and Pakistan have to start talking, and not again get into the gna gna gna, like children,” Rafay said. He also finds it strange that both sides have an army on the Siachen Glacier, “a region that is uninhabitable”. And because the soldiers are there, no scientific research is possible in that sensitive region. “But sense doesn’t go beyond 15 000 feet.”

All panelists concludes that it’s high time for India to promote good neighbouring, and change it’s present policy. “In recent years, India’s relationship with it’s neighbours was largely unfriendly,” Wangchhuk said.

Whereas some saw SAARC, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, as a good platform for that, others disagreed. “I sometimes think SAARC was set up to bury the idea of South Asia,” Mojumdar said. Ahmed added for consideration, that strong regional cooperation like the EU and ASEAN are functioning because they started with similar sized and similar powerful countries. “Here India is just too big, and therefore thinks it’s interests are better served in bilateral treaties.”

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