Jonathan Roy Tariang: You have been an avid watcher of India’s neighbourhood, particularly of what you have always referred to as the “strategic encirclement” of the North East. What are your views on the present atmospherics?
Jaideep Saikia: I have been writing and speaking on the need to activate the much tom-tommed “Neighbourhood First” policy that was proclaimed by New Delhi after the ascendance of Narendra Modi to prime ministership. However, little seems to have been translated on ground even after eight years since such a guiding principle was unveiled. Indeed, it seems that much of our neighbourhood seems to have got alienated as a result of the short-sighted policies of New Delhi. I have been to all the countries that abut India including Pakistan (when I visited the country way back in 1988 as a State Guest of Gen Zia-ul-Haq), but the last couple of years have seen an about-face in most of the neighbourhood. Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh Myanmar and even a traditional ally in Bhutan seems to be distancing themselves from India. This phenomenon does not augur well for India’s security, especially as China has succeeded in making robust inroads into India’s neighbourhood. I think our mandarins and security czars have much to explain as to what has gone awry. Where is the “Neighbourhood First” policy heading, if there indeed was a sincere effort to anvil one?
JRT: You have recently written that India has been less than magnanimous to Bangladesh. Kindly explain.
JS: I will try and recount what I have been doggedly writing in my columns. Bangladesh will go to polls a year from now, on January 2024. But, as I wrote in a recent article, the atmospherics in the country seems less than predictable. Reliable reports that I have been privy to have suggested that there is a wave of anti-Indianism in the country. New Delhi’s “inability” to strengthen Sheikh Hasina’s hands with robust aspects such as the Teesta waters is not stemming either the growing anti-India sentiment or aiding Hasina’s bid for a comeback. After all, Hasina had been very cooperative with India despite tremendous pressure from within and outside her government. She exhibited great cooperation with India immediately after her return to office. She handed over Indian insurgents that were using Bangladesh soil for sustenance and action against India and has acted most ably against Islamism of the rabid kind—one which even sought to engineer subterfuge against India. However, observers of Indo-Bangladesh relationship including I are of the opinion that New Delhi has not been as magnanimous to her as it should have been, a short-sightedness that might even cost India dear—Hasina’s ouster would spell disaster for India’s security in its eastern seaboard, especially as there is a visible and growing Chinese presence in Bangladesh not to speak about the Pakistanisation that is all set to overcome the “Land of Bangabandhu”. As a matter of fact, India’s lack of generosity took her—on the insistence of closet Chinese within her own party and the Bangladesh armed forces—into the Chinese camp and one witnessed the acquisition of two Ming class submarines from China by the Bangladesh Navy. When I raised this issue in one of my lectures in New Delhi, senior members of the government pooh-poohed me by stating, “Oh, but they are outdated diesel submarines”. Now, the question is not whether BNS Nobojatro and BNS Joyjatro (the Ming class submarines that Bangladesh acquitted from China) are outdated boats or not. I questioned (a) what maritime concerns do Bangladesh have? Why the acquisition? (b) If they needed a boat—to complete their defence triad—Dhaka could have easily sought India’s help, but Bangladesh felt that it was time to balance India out and purchased the submarines from China instead and c) India got a bloody nose as a result of the acquisition by a friend and an ally of the two submarines from one of our arch rivals, the People’s Republic of China.
The strategic implications of a permanent PLA Navy presence, albeit even by way of trainers inside outdated diesel Ming class submarines are obvious. Exactly 790 nautical miles from India’s Eastern Naval HQs, one of Bangladesh’s submarine bases in Chittagong’s Kutubdia Channel could well be the observation post of the PLA Navy. I am simply attempting to drive home the fact about a) the presence of PLA Navy trainers and stealth observers inside the two submarines even as they conduct sea trials in the vicinity of Vishakhapatnam providing them thereby complete knowledge of India’s maritime movements and I repeat b) that it was not so much about obsoleteness of the submarines procured as is the importance of the action that was undertaken by Dhaka to acquire the boats from an enemy country when in effect it could have purchased them from India. These are deliberate moves by forces inside Bangladesh to message India and one which New Delhi would do well to heed. In sum it must be understood that Sheikh Hasina could well be under certain compulsions inside her country and even pressure—as aforesaid—from “closet Chinese” within her own party. A recalibration exercise to empower her and the leadership that would take over the reins after her exit should be uppermost in the minds of security managers in New Delhi. India cannot afford the construction of a Chinese “string of pearls” around her neck nor a 1975-like scenario when it lost all ground to anti-liberationist forces that Indian soldiers had fought against alongside the Mukti Bahini and had secured for both Bangladesh and India. I have been trying to point out some of these aspects to the people who matter. Unfortunately, New Delhi is full of itself and has no time to listen to such counsel.
JRT: What about Myanmar?
JS: There was great ambivalence after the 1 February 2021 military takeover. It even resulted in many of the Manipur Valley Based Insurgent Groups coming into a tacit understanding with the Myanmar army. The members of the Coordination Committee are sitting pretty in Sagaing Division of Myanmar in back-to-back clusters and hitting out at our security forces with impunity. The assassination of Col. Viplav Tripathi, the commanding officer of 46 Assam Rifles along with his wife and five year old son was one such act—we watched it unravelling with absolute helplessness.
JRT: You were a member of the “Track II Dialogue” with Myanmar? What was achieved in the talks with the Myanmarese counterparts?
JS: Very little, I must confess, except the fact that a few of us—including a very active member in the former Indian army Northern Army Commander, Lt Gen K. T. Parnaik—who has been a good friend since his days as the GOC, 4 Corps—held the “Indian house” and questioned the Myanmarese about NSCN (Khaplang) as well raise the issues pertaining to Indian insurgent camps in Myanmar. Anirban, I am being rather undiplomatic, but we must have a former military general as our envoy to countries such as Myanmar. The Tatmadaw is the primary political party and they will never relinquish power to a democratic set-up. India has, therefore, to do business with the military and by appointing a former general as India’s envoy to Naypyidaw, the idiom that the generals there understand and the one we wish to put across would be correctly conveyed. I am sorry, but there are so many capable former Indian army generals I can think of who would be more than willing to aid India by taking on a diplomatic assignment by putting aspects that matter across to their military. Former generals of the hue of Lt Gen (Retd) Arun Sahni and Lt Gen (Retd) K. Himalay Singh! But I wonder whether South Block would ever countenance such suggestions.
JRT: Have you heard about the meeting between the Indian armed forces and the Myanmarese army in Manipur recently?
JS: Yes, a goodly group of senior Myanmarese officials headed by Maj Gen Than Hteik, the head of the Myanmar army’s North Western Regional Command (Sagaing and Chin) visited Imphal from 30 January 2023 to 1 February 2023 before heading for Bodh Gaya. They reportedly held talks with the Indian army leadership in the area (3 Corps and the Assam Rifles).
JRT: What was the meeting about? Did anything substantial result from the meeting?
JS: Jonathan, I am not privy to the details, but I should think that it was primarily a confidence building meet-up. I am happy that such an event took place. It’s a start—I have been counselling New Delhi since the putsch of 1 February 2021 took place that there should be a meeting between their military with that of India’s. It has finally taken place and I am quite certain (although I have no means to corroborate it) that the meeting must have been happened at the initiative of the Eastern Army Commander, Lt Gen R. P. Kalita whose vision and wisdom has, of late, been rather both forthcoming and farsighted. Look at the manner in which he dealt with the incident in Yangtse? Gen Kalita’s sights must certainly be on the Naga Peace Process and Manipur along with the Northern Borders that has been forcibly fortified. Manipur has been rather resistant to most CI interventions. But the new crop of leadership in the region (3 Corps/Manipur) is to my knowledge most professional. Indeed, much of the successes can easily be attributed to them.
JRT: But what might have been the optics in such an important meeting?
JS: Well, I can imagine that if the Indian counterparts did their job in Imphal—as I am certain they did—when they met their Myanmarese counterparts, they would have certainly impressed upon them to severe the “arrangement” that they had gone into with the (Manipur) Valley Based Insurgent Groups and groupings such as the United National Front of West South East Asia which is a umbrella organisation of outfits such as the NSCN (K) and the ULFA. I have no way to corroborate any of the aspects that I hope is happening, but the fact of the matter is that Myanmar is the last bastion for the Indian insurgent groups. The interface with the army in Imphal, therefore, augurs well and should herald a new beginning with India’s crucial neighbour. After all, even India’s “Act East” policy which has been refusing to “Go East” rests crucially on India’s ability to construct a seamless causeway for the ambitious policy to take off.