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Future of Security-India's Neighbourhood (NSAB)

Surrounded by friends and foes, India will continue to face myriad risks to its security. India cannot hope to remain prosperous in a poor neighborhood.


India's hope to remain prosperous in an impoverished neighbourhood will remain a challenge. Poverty makes the ground fertile for radicalisation and terrorism to grow. Security is a collaborative effort, and an understanding of India's interests and concerns by its neighbours will help further enhance regional peace and stability. 

The panel focused on how a sustainable security equilibrium could be achieved in India's neighbourhood. The distinguished panel was convoked during the Synergia Conclave 2019 comprising of PS Raghavan, Chairman National Security Advisory Board, Dr Aravind Gupta, Former Deputy NSA and Director Vivekananda Foundation, Syed Asif Ibrahim, Former Director IB, Member of National Security Advisory Board, Lt Gen SL Narasimhan (Retired), Member National Security Advisory Board and Tilak Deveshwar, Member National Security Advisory Board.

The Discussion

Aravind Gupta described India's neighbourhood challenges as chequered, volatile and not easy to understand. India's neighbours have resorted to external balancing, hedging and various strategies while maintaining their relationship with India. China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is seen as an economic opportunity drawing them deeper into the Chinese fold.

India's relationship with its neighbours will be shadowed by the Chinese footprint, which is growing and is gathering pace. While India may have several options to deal with it, it needs specific strategies and implementation is critical. India's strategic space is much broader than its physical boundaries. As a growing power, India should not allow itself to be tethered to South Asia.

According to Gupta, the Indian global view is undergoing a transformation--from strict bilateralism to sub-regionalism and connectivity. Although the regionalism experiment with SAARC did not succeed, new models are being experimented with, and BIMSTEC provides some hope.

Security overshadows India's relationship with its neighbours - key areas being border management, maritime security, drug smuggling, military to military cooperation, intel coordination. 

Tilak Devasher gave his perspective and expert insight on the kind of non-traditional security challenges that India faces. The two-fold-security challenges include nuclear, diplomatic and terrorism, both transnational and internal. Non-security challenges can best be understood through the acronym WEEP (water, education, economy and poverty). Water is a diminishing resource and relates to Pakistan, Bangladesh and to some extent Nepal. Education provides the roadmap for future generations- Sri Lanka being best placed with 92% literacy, Pakistan paints a grim picture. The population will be a bane for the region unless leveraged productively. Pakistan is facing a population explosion with 68% youth bulge by 2025. Only Sri Lanka has a declining rate.

Deveshwar's prognosis of Afghanistan was grim. The elephant in the room is whether India should have direct talks with the Taliban, or not. India will follow the lead set by the elected Afghan government but not on its own initiative. The question is whether this stance needs to change, on the basis of ground realities.

Lt Gen SL Narasimhan (Retd)  based his assessment of the neighbourhood from the prism of the Chinese footprint in the sub-continent. As per him, China's internal situation is likely to remain stable with President Xi Jinping, well-entrenched at the helm. China -Russia will perforce be drawn closer, and Pakistan-China relationship will be defined by its importance to both parties vis-a-vis India.

The CPEC corridor coming up in Pakistan will have its own dynamics and will continue to be a bone of contention between India, China and Pakistan. Increasing Chinese influence makes the Maldives an area of concern, especially in view of its radicalisation.  

Bangladesh is undergoing a cautious moment, trying to balance out its reasonably good relations with India and its commercial links with China. 

China will continue to extend its maritime boundary and has established itself well in the South China sea; it will endeavour to extend itself further eastwards into the Pacific.

As regards the economic downturn, it is unlikely to go away - with China continuing to see a decline in growth. On the military side, China has more or less completed its basic reforms and will now focus on enhancing joint capacities, especially towards its maritime boundaries.

The emphasis on 'Neighbourhood First' and 'Act East' is likely to strengthen the Indian position in the region. With a stable interaction with China and a continued understanding with Russia, the entire neighbourhood stands to benefit.

Non-traditional threats like terrorism will continue to bedevil the region, especially India, and may even grow.

In summary, Narasimhan said that India must overcome Chinese efforts to box us in South Asia. While India wishes to reach out to the Indo Pacific through various regional cooperation, we need to consider how effective these are without military power to back them. Chinese vulnerabilities are the Uyghur Card, the Tibet Card and the Taiwan Card and merit consideration as a quid pro quo. 

Replying to a question on Doklam, whether China has in fact affected military aggression by creating military fortifications on disputed areas and India has downplayed these to avoid a face-off again, he replied that China remains within its own side of the LAC and there has been no intrusion. The issue was the construction of the road - which has been prevented.

To a query on whether joining the BRI would be beneficial for India - on purely commercial grounds- Narasimhan's response was that a packaged deal is not always the optimum one. Implications of joining BRI are still foggy as bilateral MOUs are being signed. The BRI has an unliteral way of implementation, and all contracts were going to Chinese contractors. Already 32 countries have expressed reservations in the implementation of BRI. Therefore, a thorough cost-benefit analysis is a must. 

Syed Asif Ibrahim, who has been the Prime Minister's special envoy on "Countering Terrorism and Extremism" with a charter to liaise with the governments of West Asian countries, and Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2015, provided a historical perspective of Islamic radicalisation, with a special focus on the philosophy guiding Indian Muslim minds.

While the linkages of extremism generally bypassed India, 1979 proved to be an important year as the threat drew closure. The theatre of radicalisation shifted from Palestine to Afghanistan, the Iranian revolution gained momentum, and the seize of Mecca highlighted the radicalisation of Islam in its present form. It was also the period when the USSR invaded Afghanistan. 

Radicalisation being his area of expertise, Syed Asif explained how the consequences of the events of 1979 are visible till date. The seize of Mecca was precipitated by contemporary events in the region with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafism and extreme form of Wahhabism.

Afghanistan was the crucible where jihadism was forged which justified violence with its virulent form of Takfirism, and it came to our doorstep through Lashkar e Taiyba (LET) and its affiliates. 

However, it is to the credit of Indian Muslims, none of the ulemas supported this jihadism nor did the Indian Muslim community respond to their calls.

It was only post-Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan that India was directly impacted by the jihadi virus when veteran fighters from Afghanistan began to be diverted to export jihad into J&K. Trained in the killing fields of Khost, these fighters were effectively countered by Indian security forces without their having to resort to the use of airpower and area weapons like artillery, with the police acting as the vanguard and the military augmenting their resources.

In 2013-14 there were some isolated occurrences with the Indian Muslim community - showing some traction for Daesh. However, the Muslim population in the Indian heartland has not responded, effectively rejecting the radicalisation theory. 

He pointed out that the Indian heritage of Islam is unique. After the first 23 years, Islam moved out of the Arabian peninsula and picked up a lot of inclusivity as it spread. By the time it reached India, it had mellowed down and become practical. The 8th Century infusion of Sufism found salience in India, the unity of the soul with love for the creator. This found favour with the Delhi Sultanate and softened the face of Islam.

Indian Muslims were never enamoured by the single Caliphate concept- in fact as early as 1526, Babur contradicted it by declaring himself the Emperor. The Ulema objected to this and asked him to call himself as Sultan of Delhi and not the Emperor. Babur's response was to sever all links with the Caliphate which continued till the Mughal Empire was finally crushed by the East India company in 1857. During this period, Indian Muslims considered their Emperor as equivalent to the Caliph and the Sufi shrine in Ajmer was the Haj.

The Al-Hidayah, the 12th-century legal manual was the bedrock of the Delhi Sultanate in its heyday. It included local custom and culture in Indian jurisprudence and was even referred to by the British in India to formulate laws. It maintained that in case of difference of opinion, the temporal law always takes precedence.

It is a little known fact that the maximum number of fatwas against terrorist violence has been issued by Indian Muslim clergy. In the forefront is the Ahle Hadees, a network of institutions propagating an ideology to counter terror and violence. It has amended madrassa textbooks to expunge glorification of violence and shared values of being an Indian. There may be a grey zone within the madrassa system, and even if the government tries to address it by bringing up the quality and content of the teaching in such institutions, it gets rejected as the stamp of government becomes a kiss of death - those operating in the grey zone do not wish to be seen as a tool of the state.

In sum, Syed Asif's contention was that the intellectual and political heritage of Indian Islam has ensured that religion has more or less stayed away from militancy. 


  • The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) will remain on the radar of great powers. Given its strategic location with abundant oil, mineral resources, fisheries and a hub of vast seaborne global trade and oil routes, IOR will continue to be a theatre of great rivalry among world powers and regional states. By virtue of its geographical location and size, India is destined to play a major role in the region.
  • Investing in neighbourhood relationships pays significant geopolitical dividends. India needs to dispel the notion that it is the big brother, often standing accused of thrusting its version of world view on smaller countries in the region. 
  • The Indian quest for regional and global reach should be anchored by its acceptance from its neighbours. Once it has achieved recognition of its power and equilibrium in relations in South Asia, it can safely unshackle itself for a larger role.
  • India will also have to incentivise its neighbours to improve international trade, which stands at less than 5 per cent, compared to 60 per cent with the EU and 25 per cent with ASEAN. 
  • India's influence in the subcontinent and immediate peripheries is largely determined by which political forces are dominant within these countries at any point in time. It lacks both the economic surplus and strong commercial bonds that would encourage dependency on the part of its smaller neighbours, irrespective of partisan politics.