India has officially recognised diplomatic talks with the Taliban after Ambassador Deepak Mittal’s meeting with Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the new Deputy Foreign Minister of the Taliban regime. This comes after India had secretly reached out to the group in Russia and Doha during the negotiations in the past couple of years.
Similarly, India has backed the five-point consensus of ASEAN for the situation in Myanmar, a mere lip-service to conflict resolution. Even though after the coup India expressed “deep concern” regarding the situation in Myanmar and reinstated its commitment to Myanmar’s democratic transition, very little has been done on that front. If anything, India seems to be accepting the new normal of the Junta rule. As India finds itself sandwiched between two humanitarian crises at both ends, it has decided to dine with the tyrants.
How Did We Get Here?
India has always had a difficult relationship with its neighbourhood. The insecurities have been further accentuated with the inroads made by China in Myanmar and Pakistan and China in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban is well-known and acknowledged.
China has been at the forefront of engaging with the Taliban, and this partnership is expected to strengthen with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects underway in Afghanistan that connect with the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
In Myanmar, China has traditionally protected the Tatmadaw at the United Nations Security Council. It has even held great influence over the National League for Democracy (NLD) in its brief time in power.
Therefore, when the winds turned and the two states fell back into humanitarian crises, India found itself losing the little strategic ground it had managed to gain in the previous years. It has sought to soften the fallout by engaging with the actors in state power in order to manage its interests in the region and secure the soft investment it has made in these countries mainly through the route of infrastructure development.
Toeing the Line
While the options of wait-and-watch and not engaging with these groups have now gone out the window, it is still important to assess the relative utility or the lack of it in India’s decision. The argument to engage with these groups is based on their de-facto control of the territories. However, the closer we look at the ground situation, the weaker this claim looks.
In Myanmar, people have organised a mass civil disobedience movement against the Junta. The National Unity Government (NUG) has come up to channelise the resistance against the coup and has even launched its own People’s Defence Force made up of volunteers and defecting policemen and soldiers. This is apart from the long-standing and strengthening resistance from the ethnic militias, such as the Kachin Independence Army.
The situation in Afghanistan is different. People are resisting the Taliban takeover in small groups in various pockets. The only organised resistance to the Taliban so far has been limited to Panjshir under the leadership of Ahmad Massoud. However, the Taliban’s control over the rest of Afghanistan is also not absolute. It is fighting other terror groups like the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), and there are internal power struggles within the Taliban that could dilute its control.
Instead of toeing the general and unimaginative line of supporting the so-called de-facto powers, the focus should have been on strengthening the struggle against these totalitarian forces.
The Taliban and the Tatmadaw have stronger relationships with Pakistan and China, respectively, which limit the strategic gains India seeks from these engagements.
India has rarely exported hard power support to other states in conflict — it is unlikely it will do now. On the front of soft investment in infrastructure and trade expansion, China has better capacity in terms of volume of projects as well as its execution track record.
The Cost of Compromise
When India publicly engages with such powers, it limits its space to engage with the Afghans and the Myanmarese who are resisting these usurpers.
One counterclaim is that India could bridge the differences between the groups to arrive at a political settlement, especially in the case of Afghanistan. But the speed at which India’s diplomatic setup folded in wake of the Taliban takeover and the little strategic depth it has in the region suggests that India lacks such an ability. Further, this is more of a rhetoric to legitimise its engagement with the Taliban.
In the case of Myanmar, India has hidden behind the five-point consensus of ASEAN. The ASEAN initiative has lacked the will and bite from the very start. Barely anything substantive can be expected from the project when it’s being conducted under the close supervision of Tatmadaw.
As violence escalates, the repression from the Taliban and Tatmadaw becomes harsher, and access to healthcare and food gets difficult during a pandemic, the situation in the two neighbours is bound to become more tragic. India’s dicey refugee policy hasn’t made things easier. It warned the border states to refuse asylum to refugees coming in from Myanmar. The asylum policy for the refugee inflow from Afghanistan has already taken a communal colour. At this point, India is not only watching the crises unfold but is shaking the hands with the ones responsible for them.
Fix the Moral Pedestal, Don't Throw It Away
The lack of ethics and basic morality in international politics and diplomacy is often justified on the grounds of dual standards — one set of rules for domestic politics and a different set for international politics. Traditionally, in the world of international politics, morality takes a backseat and national interests are all that matters.
It is perhaps unreasonable to expect India, which is witnessing substantive democratic backsliding domestically, to stand up for the rights and democracy in neighbouring states. However, the dominance of ‘realpolitik’ must not be a reason to not pursue better politics. If the moral pedestal is broken, it must be fixed, not thrown away.
(The author is a PhD Research Scholar (Diplomacy and Disarmament) at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)