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A Doctrine for Handling the Neighborhood
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Subir Bhaumik | Date:26 Mar , 2016 2 Comments
Subir Bhaumik
is an expert analyst on issues related to Bangladesh and India’s North- East. He can be reached at:

India needs a doctrine for managing its neighborhood with the right mix of diplomatic focus, military deterrence, intelligence penetration and economic priorities. In tiny Tripura’s model of handling its only neighbour Bangladesh (previously East Pakistan), India has a potential doctrine to adopt. One of appropriate response.

Look at the huge policy confusion in Indian decision-making when it comes to handling the neighborhood. The Modi administration has not only made a mess of a very promising beginning in Nepal where the Prime Minister’s first visit generated much optimism that was wasted during the post-constitution imbroglio, it has looked amateurish in the way it has handled Pakistan — now talking, now saying no to talks, now complaining to Big Brother Barack, now embracing  Nawaz Sharif, now flaunting Headley’s confessions at Islamabad.

The world’s most populous democracy and third largest economy seeking a place in the global high table (UN Security Council) should do better when handling its much smaller neighbours. As they say, charity begins at home. Modi as the country’s chief executive has to be given credit for the brilliant openings he has provided by his natural public relations skill — but his policy makers have lost the initiative because they are confused and often pander to stereotypes.

India neither needs the American Monroe Doctrine of neighborhood dominance nor can afford the Gujral doctrine of unilateral magnanimity. It is time to look for a doctrine based on reciprocity and the Agartala doctrine of appropriate response developed on the basis of tiny Tripura’s relatively unknown proactive role in the neighborhood seems to suit the country’s needs the best. Military power and economic influence are not assets to be flaunted at smaller neighbours, they needed to be appropriately leveraged to ensure fulfillment of key foreign policy objectives. Diplomacy and covert action are more useful than mobilising an entire army a la Operation Parakram when one should know the world will not allow two nuclear armed neighbours to fight a 1965 or 1971 type conventional war. And the economic blockade on Nepal is like using a cannon to hit a mosquito, a classic bad example of overkill.

From Tripura’s first chief minister Sachindralal Singha who took the initiative to closely support and link up to the Bengali autonomist (later freedom) struggle in East Pakistan to current chief minister Manik Sarkar who quietly unleashed a fierce covert trans-border offensive against separate rebel bases inside Bangladesh, the tiny northeastern state has set a great example. The more than twenty such attacks launched on ATTF and NLFT hideouts and bases inside Bangladesh between 2001-2004 using surrendered militants (and sometimes Bangladesh Mafiosi) broke the back of tribal insurgency that had once ravaged the state. Sarkar’s government quickly moved to facilitate work on the railway line to Agartala from north Tripura and offer major development initiatives in the tribal areas to court the population even as his police hammered the insurgents relentlessly.

Singha met Sheikh Mujib when the Bangabandhu crossed into Tripura secretly in 1962. Pakistan’s military regime charged Mujib and many others five years later in the famous Agartala Conspiracy Case. By then, Singha was operating, on his own initiative, a network of hideouts and safe-houses for Awami League leaders and activists seeking shelter from possible arrest to visiting the state for printing propaganda material. Nehru and Shastri were too busy with China and Pakistan at that time and as Singha told me in an interview, he was admonished by Nehru with a warning – “I am now in no mood for a foreign adventure”. But faced with ever increasing arc of insurgencies in Northeast in the late sixties, Indira Gandhi was convinced by Sachindralal Singha that India’s success in taming the northeastern insurgencies lay in one bold stroke to ‘kick Pakistan out of the East’.

Singh’s proactive gesture of arming the first batch of Mukti Joddhas (Bengali freedom fighters) with rifles from Tripura’s police armoury upset Mrs Gandhi and cost the veteran Tripura leader his chair but did not diminish his proactive role in boosting the Bengali freedom struggle as he kept visiting one training camp after another, inspiring the young recruits with his stirring speeches. So much so that after he visited independent Bangladesh, the Bangabandhu is said to have jumped up from his chair and asked Singha to sit on it—“Sachin da, eiye chair apanar, apnake chara Bangladesh swadhin hoto na” (this is your chair, Bangladesh would not be free without you). Singha cooled him down and as an ‘elder brother’ advised to turn the country into ‘Sonar Bangla’. High voltage Bengali sentimentalism apart, Singh had achieved for India what he long wanted – ‘kick Pakistan out of the East’. The China-Pakistan nexus backing a plethora of Northeastern insurgencies just fell apart after 1971. Tripura is today a huge beneficiary of its special relations with Bangladesh ruled by Mujib’s daughter Sheikh Hasina and is already emerging as both India’s and Bangladesh’s gateway to the remote Northeast through river-rail-road and now internet connectivity.

Manik Sarkar tamed the fierce tribal insurgency by proactive trans-border offensive without dragging Delhi into it. He might well have got some ‘clearence’ from Home Minister L K Advani (no wonder the Marxist leader describes Advani as the best Home Minister he worked with) who was upset with the Vajpayee-Mishra handling of Pakistan and the Kandahar hijack. But the twenty plus attacks inside Bangladesh were undertaken by Tripura police, ably supported by local Military Intelligence and BSF officials but not intimated to higher headquarters in Delhi. But unlike the chest thumping triumphalism of all the Modi’s men after the one cross-border strike inside Myanmar last July, Sarkar still maintains total secrecy and ends up crediting Sheikh Hasina administration for helping tackle Tripura’s insurgencies. But by the time Hasina came to power in Jan 2009, Tripura’s insurgencies was already finished. Secret operations work when kept a secret.

Under Hasina, Bangladesh’s relations with Tripura have flowered as much as it had soured during Khaleda Zia’s administration, which backed the northeastern insurgents. Rail, road, river and internet connectivity have grown exponentially and even power trade. That is how the Agartala Doctrine of appropriate response works – respond by walking an extra mile to gestures of friendship by neighbours but hit back hard if the neighbour gives you Kargil or Mumbai , Pathankot or Gurdaspur.[i]

Proactivity, reciprocity, defensive offence and tactical flexibility lie at the core of the ‘Agartala doctrine’. It advocates warm reciprocation of friendly gestures by neighbours but is opposed to Gujral’s unilateral magnanimity that led to closing down of RAW’s covert operations in Sindh and elsewhere in Pakistan after it had achieved results, as detailed by the late B Raman (Kaoboys of RAW). The Singha-Sarkar line advocates hostile trans-border action to neutralize insurgencies and wear down the neighbours’ resolve to back them by raising the costs and hitting at the real threat, not at ghosts.

If the Modi-Doval team were to follow the Agartala doctrine, they would steadfastly keep talking to Nawaz Sharif, allow Indian civil society to interact closely with Pakistan civil society, push for greater cultural, educational and sports interaction, because Sharif is one leader who paid dearly for the Lahore effort by losing power in a coup and still believes in peace with India. That is appropriate response. But ‘Agartala doctrine’ would also mean piling huge pressure on US to push Pakistan army to turn off the terror tap and rebuilding Indian capacity for covert action.

Mumbai 26/11 must be reciprocated by a hit on Karachi naval base by non-state actors, Pathankot must be reciprocated by a similar hit on Sargodha and Gurdaspur by something similar at Muridke. Any offensive in Kashmir valley must be reciprocated by similar action in Gilgit and Baltistan where the majority Shias are very upset with Islamabad’s settlement of Sunni Punjabi ex-servicemen in the region to change the demography a la Tibet and Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Embrace friends and destroy foes ruthlessly is at the core of the Agartala doctrine. India needs a huge covert trans-border operations capability (assets in neighbouring countries built up by careful select and secret support) to make Pakistan’s — or any other neighbour’s — low cost covert offensive using terrorists unacceptably costly .

In the post 1990 era when both India and Pakistan are nuclear neighbours and India no longer has the option for a 1971 style conventional offensive to avenge Kashmir in Bangladesh (because the global community is determined to intervene if relations dip between India and Pakistan), the only way to counter Pakistan army’s ‘thousand cuts policy’ is enforce a policy of ‘thousand cuts’ in return. India should shrug away Western agencies who reason with Delhi to avoid a tit-for-tat.

India should play diplomacy with Pakistan’s foreign office, but should counter a 2008 terror attack on Mumbai by blowing up a car shed in a Karachi hotel used by New Zealand cricket team and French technicians developing the Scorpene submarine for Pakistan. That would ensure no significant civilian casualty but scare the Kiwis and French away, and undermine Pakistan’s credibility big time. The Agartala doctrine advocates a tough covert trans-border response but insists on choosing high-value targets and avoiding needless civilian casualties.

In short, no place in our doctrine for a Kasab shooting civilians in Mumbai but one for a trained Mohajir/Baloch saboteur who blows up a major military target that helps both his cause and India’s. And only when we are hit should we hit back — in short, like our first no-use nuclear policy but one of huge response if attacked, we need to use our covert operations capability with same caution and discretion — no first use but huge retaliation if hit. So if one Pathankot type attack happens, we should have assets to hit Sargodha, Kohat and Quetta air bases simultaneously in a day or two of the attack, as infiltrated action groups should have been given pre-ordained targets to recce and plan operations on when asked to .


[i] “Agartala Doctrine: Proactive Northeast in Indian Foreign Policy” by Subir Bhaumik published by Oxford University Press. 


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2 thoughts on “A Doctrine for Handling the Neighborhood

  1. For a tiny nation with limited means of survival and utterly dependent on India Nepal has been very malignant. An attitude which will have grave consequence with any other big state barring India. Nepal has been slapping us in the face all through the last decade. From aiding external agencies in fomenting insurgency on Indian territory, to aiding the passage of terrorists to channeling fake Indian currency, weapons and narcotics across the border. Nepal sold its soul to China a while ago. The leadership and the entire police force pretty much reports to Beijing, ready to serve its masters and undermine Indian interests and that of the Tibetan diaspora. Nepal has quite willingly transformed itself into a serious threat to our national security. Astonishingly the UPA government did nothing about this. Things could have tackled much easily two decades ago. Thanks to the ineptitude of successive congress governments, Nepal marched on unabated. For those who nurture illusions of Nepal being a friend, here is a dose of reality; Nepal is not a friend, never was and never will be. A more enlightened leadership would have dealt firmly and shown Nepal its place long ago. It is high time to call its bluff.

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