Indian Foreign Policy in South Asia

Indian Foreign Policy in South Asia

India is the biggest country of South Asia in every respect – its area, population, economy, military capability, technological advancement and political & administrative establishment. The socio-cultural features of South Asia also carry glimpses of ancient Indian/ Hindu cultural traits. Till 1947, the Indian sub-continent comprising India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were under the colonial rule and freedom struggle here gave impetus and direction to the
same in other parts of South Asia. After the collapse of colonial rule, independent India was looked upon as the regional giant and feared by the neighbors.

India is centrally located country and boundaries of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan & Afghanistan directly touch India. Historically, the North-western and North eastern parts were recognised trade routes with the rest of the world for centuries. The southern peninsula also encouraged sea trade. After the colonial rule tragedies struck the region resulting in bloodshed, political distrust and turmoil. The main cause was partition of the Indian subcontinent into two ideologically and politically distinct countries; India and Pakistan. Further, Bangladesh was also separated from Pakistan with the help of India in 1971. The towering and somewhat un-challenged personality of Nehru was also looked upon with awe in the region.

The political distrust adversely affected the traditional trade in the region and prevented any fruitful collaboration in educational, cultural, scientific & technological fields. The leaders in South Asia also looked upon outside the region to enhance one’s global image, forge cooperation through groupings and extract greater benefits.

The South Asian politics was thus embroiled into the cold war politics and presented a diverse, heterogeneous and volatile picture. This can be understood better by studying the bilateral relations of India with her main neighbours as under.


These two countries were carved out in 1947 after the colonial rulers left the continent. But the creation was not smooth. Seeds of communal feelings based on ‘Two-Nation Theory’ were sown during the colonial rule which flared up hatred and led to clashes between Hindus and Muslims when the time came for actual demarcation of boundaries and transfer of properties. India began a new era with a democratic constitution, federal government and parliamentary institutions based on fundamental rights and secularism. Pakistan adopted a Presidential form based
on Islamic laws, but soon was taken over by the military. Since then it has been reeling under political instability due to power struggle between civilian elites and military elites. Hate-India Syndrome has been a tool of survival for any ruler in Pakistan. Also, since birth Pakistan has constantly harboured a feeling that India has not willingly accepted its creation and may retaliate anytime. This compelled Pakistan to move closer to the Arab world and superpowers. It also created a bogey of demand for Kashmir from India under the pretext that it is a muslim-majority part. Pakistan
became member of SEATO and CENTO and also hobnobbed with the US to gain financial and military assistance. In 1948, it tried to annex Kashmir with the help of some mercenaries. Pakistan failed but India also lost some of its territory due to wrong strategies and till date Kashmir has remained a major irritant between the two countries. Pakistan again ventured another military attack in 1965, but had to retreat against India’s military power.

In 1971, It received a humiliating defeat, both militarily and politically, when India liberated Bangladesh. This decisive victory and further successful atomic explosion in 1974 boosted India’s global prestige and enhanced her clout as a mature, seasoned and responsible global power. This prompted a shift in Pakistan’s India-policy, the architect of which was Gen. Zia. Realizing that direct and overt confrontation with India is not going to succeed, Pakistan encouraged a proxy war against India with the help of terrorists, Islamic jihadis and its own secret service. The strategy was to infiltrate terrorists into Indian territory, brainwash & train jihadis in India and mastermind bomb-attacks on sensitive establishments and public places. The intension was to destabilise India politically, provoke communal violence, weaken India’s social fabric and disintegrate India. This indirect war has been a major challenge for India since 1980s.

Indian and US secret agencies have proved with substantial evidence that Pakistani agencies are supporting the terrorist activities. Atomic explosion by India in 1998 and subsequent explosion by Pakistan threw this region into dangerous nuclear race and added to the existing tensions. These events have vitiated the relations between India and Pakistan. But, political realities of the region and global compulsions have led both to carry out constructive cooperation in non-political fields, while official rounds of dialogue continue on contentious issues.


India and Sri Lanka have relations since ancient times when Buddhist monks travelled to the island to spread Buddhism during Emperor Ashoka’s period. These bonds were consolidated during British rule when Tamil workers from India were taken to Sri Lanka as workers on tea plantations. Political experiments in India and Sri Lanka have succeeded and both followed complimentary policies at global and regional levels. But a decision to make Sinhalese
language as the official language created dissensions amongst Tamils. The clashes between Tamils and Sinhalese resulted in strong reaction in Tamil Nadu in India. There was also problem of citizenship for Tamils of Indian origin. An agreement was signed between India & Sri Lanka in 1964 whereby Sri Lanka agreed to give citizenship to 3 lakh  Tamils and India agreed to take back 5.5 lakh Tamils. But still 1.3 lakh Tamils remained stateless. The issue became very serious when Tamils fled to India to save themselves from atrocities of army & people. India, under pressure from Tamils in India, took up the issue with Sri Lankan government, but declared that it will not compromise on the integrity & security of Sri Lanka. The issue became very serious in the 1980s when a hardliner group of Tamils formed Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) and resorted to armed rebellion against Sri Lanka to carve out a separate Tamil state in the Northern parts of the island.

This was an acid test for Indian diplomacy. On the one hand, there was growing sentimental reaction amongst Tamils in India and they pressurised India to intervene in the matter and, on the other hand, India had taken a moral stand true to its principles of foreign policy that the issue was Sri Lanka’s internal matter and she valued Sri Lanka’s integrity. In 1986, under a pact between Rajiv Gandhi and Jayewardene, India decided to send a Peace-keeping Force of Indian Army to resolve the issue. It turned out that Indian troops were used to kill Tamils of Indian origin. The move proved to be a blunder. It also aggravated tension between the countries when opposition party came to power in Sri Lanka and India had to withdraw the IPKF. It also cost the life of Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated by some Tamil extremists. It also led to the assassination of Sri Lankan President Premdasa. The LTTE continued its agitation with greater vigour throwing the island nation into turmoil. Sri Lanka, however, remained politically stable and firmly dealt with the Tamil insurgency.

In 2011, Sri Lankan army successfully eliminated LTTE and its leaders through a meticulously planned and swiftly executed action. Throughout, India also maintained her stand and did not allow to any tension to surface in bilateral relations. There were some other irritants in Indo-Lanka relations like; one, permission granted to the US to use Trincomalee in Lanka as its naval base, and second; arrests and killing of Indian fishermen while fishing in the sea. These issues, however, were handled amicably and relations between the two countries remained cordial. In spite of the problematic issues, bilateral cooperation between the two has increased over the years.

Bilateral trade witnessed 45% increase. India has granted assistance to Sri Lanka to construct Railway, Hospitals, Schools & Training facilities for police officers.


Relations between India and Bangladesh were set on a different footings. It was only because of India’s active support and direct involvement that Bangladesh was carved out of Pakistan in 1971. Initial euphoria and spirit of bonhomie died soon and Bangladesh started suspecting possible economic domination by India. As a result it established close contacts with Nepal and Sri Lanka in the region and with the Arab World, the US, Japan, China,
etc. outside the region. Many issues cropped up between the two like; infiltration from the border, migration of Chakma refugees, construction of Farakka barrage and distribution of waters. Bangladesh took a stubborn stand on many issues and opposed construction of barbed wire on the fence and refused to take back refugees. Transfer of Teen Bigha land was also a serious issue which was resolved in 2011.

But Bangladesh continues to block transit facility to India to go to North-Eastern parts, called ‘Chicken Neck’ through Bangladesh territory. India and Bangladesh also claim jurisdiction over the sea waters in the Bay of Bengal. However, both the countries have continued dialogue on these matters. Bangladesh is a least developed country suffering from stark poverty and constant natural calamities further ravaging it.

India wholeheartedly gave all types of aid to it from time to time. Bangladesh, however, could not contain the atrocities on Buddhists & Hindus in that country and also the rise of Islamic fundamentalists who flared up communal tensions from time to time.


Nepal is the Himalayan Kingdom having close and deeply rooted cultural ties with India since ancient time. The ruling monarchs of Nepal are descendants of Rajput Kings from North India. Important Hindu pilgrim centers are located in Nepal. During British period, Indian army had a battalion called Gorkha regiment, which continues even today. After independence, Indian government helped restoration of Monarchy in Nepal, who enjoyed tremendous powers and ruled through a system called ‘Partyless Panchayat’. India helped Nepal mainly by granting transit facility to its trade by signing a treaty in 1952. India even managed postal and communication services of Nepal till 1959 and gave assistance to construction of highways and dams. Nepali students receive special scholarship to get higher education in Indian Universities. Major irritant between India and Nepal started after annexation of Tibet by China. This brought Chinese border very close to Nepal.

China started wooing Nepali people & leaders by providing military assistance. Particularly Communist Party of Nepal became very active, which resorted to vigorous anti-India campaign and massive agitation was launched to bring democratic political system. A sudden and tragic massacre of Royal family including the King in 2001 turned the tide in favour of anti-India and anti-Monarchy groups. The charisma & aura surrounding the monarchy and
popular support for them faded away throwing Nepal into political turmoil. Protest movements spread all over the country. The King was forced to gradually hand over the reins to peoples’ representatives. A Constituent Assembly of Nepal was formed in 2007 which abolished Monarchy and declared Nepal a Federal Democratic Republic in 2008. In spite of the success of the popular movement, political stability in Nepal is not ensured mainly because of differences between Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal. India adopted a considered silence during this period, fearing shooting up of anti-India feelings and allegations of interference. Official level dialogue on the issues of borderdemarcation, trade modalities and other non-political matters continued. Cross-border migration of people and smuggling of goods, illicit trade of drugs & arms and movement of terrorists etc.
have been major issues of concern for India. For Nepal, it wants more liberal approach and magnanimous gestures from India and concession in trade & transit of commodities. Nepal also wants India to stop encroachment of Nepali territory by Indian farmers along the rivers borders.

The above description explains the complex nature of bilateral relation in South Asia. It is mainly ‘Indo-centric’ and goes against any possibility of organised regional cooperation. All these countries believed in peaceful world, non-alignment, democratic polity, fundamental rights, etc. and they had relisation about their complimentary nature of economies, inter-mixing of cultures, geographical proximities and interdependent trade. Still lack of strong political will and mutual suspicion prevented them from coming together.

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