1. Afghanistan: Tentative Steps Towards an Anti-Taliban Alliance
The inking of the power-sharing deal between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah has finally been achieved after months of acrimony and stalemate. Under the deal,
- Ashraf Ghani will continue to be the President.
- Both leaders will select an equal number of ministers
- Abdullah Abdullah will head the reconciliation and peace council, leading the future negotiations with the Taliban.
While the power-sharing arrangement is now in place, intra-Afghan talks involving Afghan government and the Taliban still seem to be for the future. Last month, Taliban walked out of the tentative talks since the prisoner swap deal with the government could not be agreed upon. In recent times, Taliban has upped the ante by conducting frequent and deadly terrorist attacks, the most recent one being an attack on a maternity ward in Kabul which killed mothers, babies and nurses. More recently, Taliban has made an offer of temporary Eid ceasefire, leading to a release of some Taliban prisoners by the Afghan government.
However, the Afghan government continues to resist talking to Taliban on the latter’s terms and refuses to be used blindly by the US. In response to Taliban’s antics, the Afghan government has instructed its army to go on the offensive instead of being only defensive. The only reason why the Afghan government would try to talk to Taliban is because of the US pressure and aid. The US has played a selfish and negative role in the whole process. Signing its own deal with Taliban and securing its exit in late February, the US is constantly overlooking Taliban terrorism. Increasingly brazen terrorist attacks by Taliban are officially being attributed by the US to ‘ISIS’ – a convenient, vague and weak stooge.
Already the ripple effects of this deteriorating situation are being felt in India. Pakistan – being Taliban’s originator and benefactor – has brazenly, but unsuccessfully, tried to up the ante in Kashmir and along LoC, confident in the knowledge that US will not call it out. Both Afghan government and India have blamed Pakistan for being the source of terrorism in the two countries. India has reduced its presence in Afghanistan.
More recently, the Taliban and the Afghan government were engaged in a war of words over India. The Taliban alleged that India has been playing a ‘negative role’ in Afghanistan for the last 40 years and went on to say that India should change its Afghan policy and that the Taliban would ‘welcome’ talking to India. US has also been putting pressure on India to change its Afghan policy, as have many other former ambassadors and security advisors. Furthermore, in the effort to gain moral legitimacy by somehow getting the Indian government to talk to it, the Taliban even went to the extent of issuing a formal statement asserting that it was an independent entity and that it believed that Kashmir is an “internal matter of India”. It has attempted to distance itself from Pakistan in recent times.
But India has persistently refused to budge. The situation is different from what it was during the first phase of Taliban rule (1996-2001), when India found support in other countries of the anti-Taliban alliance. But today, all countries – China, Iran, Central Asian countries, Russia, US, EU etc. – are talking to the Taliban and indulgently overlooking Pakistani terrorism in the neighbourhood. But India has remained confident of its position of not talking to terrorists, regardless of what other countries do and regardless of however much ‘international recognition’ the Taliban gets. India continues to retain the capabilities to teach Pakistan a lesson from time-to-time. For, it has understood that Pakistan’s main strength – enabling it to evade sanctions, unlike Iran and North Korea, despite being responsible for a much greater loss of lives and terrorism than these two countries – lies in operating through sleazy and proxy political tactics, ranging from selective terrorism to nauseating appeasement of West. It went on a backfoot during and after Balakot strikes, never expecting that India would take this action.
Therefore, despite all appearances, pressures and denigrations, India continues to remain firm in its stand towards the Taliban. The formation of the unity Afghan government and increasingly weak likelihood of intra-Afghan talks bodes well for India, as it will prevent the Taliban from staking any official claim to form government. In that case, the Taliban can only usurp power by force (as in 1990s) and until then it can only continue with terrorism, albeit at a more heightened level. Regardless of however strong the Taliban is looking at present, other countries like China and Iran are no real fans of theirs and may prefer to hinder the rise of the Taliban, even if done through covert means.
2. The New Domicile Rules in Kashmir: A Game-Changer If Implemented without Legal and Political Hiccups
Taking advantage of the medical emergency due to COVID19, the absence of any power centre in Kashmir and the paralysis and distraction of the legal, opposition and intellectual ecosystem, the central government finalized the domicile rules for Jammu and Kashmir – the Jammu and Kashmir Grant of Domicile Certificate (procedure) rules, 2020 were issued in the last week of May. They have the following key features:
- Fast tracked issuance of Kashmiri domicile certification – within 15 days – to people from any part of India.
- Non-compliance of rules on the part of any involved government officer involves a penalty of salary deduction of Rs. 50,000 from the officer’s salary.
- Domicile certification is compulsory for availing employment and purchasing immovable property in the state.
- Already, people eligible under the new rules – who were not eligible earlier – include migrants, government employees, Army personnel and their families, among others residing in the state.
- More significantly, the ‘permanent residents’ of the state have been replaced by the ‘domicile’ status of the citizens, which will be determined wholly by the Indian government.
- This means that ultimately, even if Kashmiris want to apply for jobs and property ownership in J&K, they will have to prove themselves eligible for domicile status. Their ‘permanent residence’ certificates are no longer conclusive and no longer carry anything more than an indicative value.
- Both these points combined – the ability of any Indian citizen to apply for domicile status in Kashmir after staying there for a fixed period, and, the irrelevance of the previously sacrosanct permanent residency laws – constitute a significant development that can lead to longer term changes in Kashmir.
Meanwhile, the Delimitation Commission for J&K – despite its formation facing a challenge in the Supreme Court – also has already held its second meeting.
3. India’s Boost to Defence Activities and New Face-Offs
India has decided to implement the recommendations in the Shetkar Committee Report, speeding up strategic road and infrastructure construction along border areas, by ramping up modern construction plants and equipment/machinery, deploying new technologies to increase the speed of construction and accelerating environmental clearances.
Recently, India has been engaged in minor face-offs with Nepal and China. Both are related to India ramping up construction activities along the border. Nepal has accused India of building the Lipulekh pass to connect to Kailash Mansarovar in its territory (which India has said is a part of Uttarakhand state), at the trijunction of India, China and Nepal. This road has been completed and inaugurated. Interestingly, the decision to build this road to Kailash Mansarovar was undertaken jointly by India and China – as early as 2015 – without consulting Nepal.
Nepal even went to the extent of issuing new maps showing parts of Uttarakhand as its territory, although these maps have not yet been approved by the Parliament or issued formally. The Nepalese PM urged the country’s Army Chief to give a reply to India, to which the latter refused saying that Nepali army does not dabble in politics.
The major part of the problem has to do with the domestic crisis that the Nepali PM is facing, having been cornered by the opposition and losing popularity. His government was on the verge of collapse, due to allegations of rampant corruption, economic discontent and failure to handle the logistics of the corona crisis. Thus, targeting India as a convenient punching bag – in an attempt to divert attention from his domestic failures – seems to have become an appealing option. Even in this, he finds himself isolated, as many of his own party members and other Parliamentarians have been opposed to his extreme position with regard to India, with the opposition calling him out for his insensitive and denigrating words against India. Oli even went to the extent of saying that “Indian virus is more dangerous than the coronavirus.”
More recently, Oli has wielded the new weapon of managing to mobilize anti-India sentiment by bringing the opposition on board in altering maps, showing areas of Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura as its territory. These maps will soon be tabled in the Parliament and are expected to be passed with 2/3rd majority. On its part, India has reacted dismissively, saying that Nepal is “family” and all issues will be sorted out. The Maoist secularist government in Nepal has revealed its extreme hatred for India and for Hindutva. Communists were assisted in usurping power in Nepal after the destruction of the royal family by the subtle intelligence engineering undertaken by India’s Congress party.
In a separate development, China and India have faced-off in north Sikkim and eastern Ladakh. There have been a few scuffles with Chinese troops and with both sides flying helicopters and reinforcements. India has, till date, reacted calmly and dismissively, stating that scuffles occurred at two points – ‘finger areas’ of Pangong Tso lake in eastern Ladakh and Naku La in north Sikkim – and that these were normal differences of perception that generally escalated in summer months as the patrolling becomes easier. This is related to the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulet Beg Oldi (DBO) road which India built, to connect Leh to the Karakoram Pass. India is rapidly building up strategic infrastructure along its borders with all countries.
These developments have been dismissed by both China and India, despite attempts by media to misrepresent and exaggerate developments and provoke a reaction. According to defence experts, commercial satellite images have shown that, except for a small ingress at the Galwan valley area, there is not a single Chinese army troop anywhere on the Indian side. Despite this, major sections of the mainstream media twisted and excluded these facts – even stealing them from proprietary intelligence reports, without any credit – to give the impression of Chinese ingression into Indian territory. Once it became evident that this charge won’t stick for long, they started peddling a new conspiracy theory – China engaged in a troop build-up at LAC just as a gimmick to take away attention from its domestic and other problems. All these theories are floating about without any evidence and in contravention of satellite images, diplomatic exchanges etc. Media attempted its best to create a bogey – perhaps with sinister attempts to provoke a deterioration of bilateral relations – where none existed. It has failed in it, leaving its credibility more vulnerable than before.
4. Fresh Controversy on State Control over Hindu Temples:
In late April, the Tamil Nadu government issued a controversial circular asking 47 Hindu temples under its control to contribute nearly Rs. 10 crore of their surplus to Chief Minister’s Relief Fund for COVID19. After this led to a furore and petitions were filed in the Madras High Court against it, the government withdrew it. However, the episode has renewed debate over the colonial and Nehruvian era question of justification of government control over Hindu temples.
The state control over temples in Tamil Nadu is governed by the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act of 1959 passed under a Congress government. With DMK coming to power in 1967, the law has further been strengthened. Under Section 36-B of the Act, the temple trustees can allot money from the temple’s surplus funds for meeting the food and infrastructural needs of the poor. This section was added in 1983 during the government of AIADMK’s MG Ramachandran.
What led to the present controversy was the government diktat – which RSS and other Hindu groups termed as akin to the ‘jizya tax’ – not just asking temples to contribute from their surplus funds, but also highlighting how much amount each temple should give. This move, if at all, should have voluntarily emerged out of decision of trustees, instead of a government diktat. The move also comes at a time when the temples have been completely closed for over 40 days.
Worse, not only were mosques and churches not asked to contribute, but coinciding with this time, the government had given Rs. 22 crore out of its fund to Ramzan-related activities, indicating the levels of minority appeasement and anti-Hindu mindset prevalent despite 6 years of a nationalistic government.
5. COVID19 Updates: India and the World:
India’s COVID19 cases are about to cross 2 lakh, making it the country with seventh highest number of cases in the world – and increasing at a fast rate. In the ten days, between May 18 and May 28, India’s average daily growth rate was 6.5%. It is still continuing. India’s average daily growth rate of COVID19 cases is more than almost all other countries, in the world. Most of the countries which crossed 1 lakh cases – Germany, Iran, France, Peru, Spain and Italy – saw their cases peaking and the curve flattening after they crossed 1 lakh cases. But this did not happen so clearly in India.
Ironically, India is now being forced to open the nearly two-and-a-half month old lockdown – the world’s most stringent – at a time when the cases are rapidly rising to the level of lakhs, while it imposed the lockdown when the country had just 500 cases and 10 deaths.
In response to the escalating crisis and economic hardship, the government announced a Rs. 20 lakh crore package in May. However, the measures amount to less a real stimulus and actual relief in terms of finances and more cosmetic changes aimed at boosting economic sentiment. In real terms, as the government continues to run short of finances, faces revenue shortfalls and deep losses due to COVID19 and continues to maintain fiscal conservatism, the huge figure being quoted in the package amounts to a little less than 10% of the current nominal GDP.
However, in real terms, the fiscal burden to the government is estimated as ranging only between 0.8% to 1.2% of the GDP (Saha, 2020). Most of the relief is about potential future estimated gains out of structural reforms and changes in regulatory measures and covers government’s contingent liabilities and actions already undertaken, but adds little in terms of new expenditure. The sentiment-boosting measures constitute nearly 75% of the package, followed by monetary measures at 15% and actual fiscal support measures at 10% (Saha, 2020). In a straightforward estimate, nearly half of the package – Rs. 10 lakh crore – was already covered by the regulatory steps taken by the government and the RBI since January this year.
The steps announced for MSMEs also relate more to creating conditions for generating liquidity so that banks can be enabled to lend more freely and with the government instilling confidence by undertaking sovereign credit guarantees. In a way, this might be a better option than actual stimulus, since most of that is usually pocketed by the corrupt officials.
The state governments also attempted to change labour laws so as to attract investment away from China. Not only has this run into legal hurdles, with many governments now reversing their earlier positions, but the claim of generating employment through foreign investment is also dubious since most of these companies are capital, and not labour, intensive.
6. Assam: Myanmar Hands Over Terrorists to India:
In the middle of May, India-Myanmar cooperation – which has increased and shown tremendous results since 2015 – yielded another positive outcome. Myanmar handed over around 22 ethnic Assamese and Meitei insurgents to India, from among the insurgents holed up fighting the Indian government in areas of India-Myanmar border.
These militants were arrested by the Myanmar army last year, when it raided the headquarters of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) in the Naga Self-Administered Zone of Sagaing Region. Myanmar is looking towards India – which has already helped it – in fighting the insurgent Rohingya Arakan liberation force in the Rakhine state. More pressure could be steadily expected along the border on the nearly 2000 Indian insurgents belonging to six groups.