Asia in Review Archive 2021 (January-June)
Date of AiR edition
29 June 2021
Indian, Pakistani NSA attend Shanghai Cooperation Organization conference
(ra/lm) The National Security Advisors (NSAs)of India and Pakistan came face to face for the first time last week, during a meeting of high-ranking officials from the eight member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe on June 23.
Prior to the meeting, Pakistan’s NSA Moeed Yusuf had ruled out the possibility of a private talk with his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval on the sidelines of the SCO gathering. [Hindustan Times]
During the meeting, India’s NSA Ajit Doval proposed an action plan against Islamist terrorist groups Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1] and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) [see AiR No. 4, January/2021, 4] as part of the SCO framework. New Delhi has long accused Pakistan, of supporting both groups to carry out cross-border activities in India, particularly through its intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence. [The Indian Express]
The Indian top official also recommended the adoption of international standards to counter terror financing, including a Memorandum of Understanding between SCO and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter-governmental organization that monitors global money laundering and terrorist financing. [see article in this edition]
Moeed Yusuf, in turn, said achieving peace in Afghanistan was the region’s most immediate priority. In a thinly veiled dig at New Delhi, he also criticized regional “spoilers” who he accused of attempting to derail the Afghan peace process. [Al Jazeera] [Geo News]
India also held bilateral negotiations with his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev to discuss “further plans of the Russia-India interaction in the security sphere, cooperation among the security and law-enforcement agencies”. [TASS]
29 June 2021
India shifts 50,000 troops to China border, indicates shift towards strategic offensive principle
(ad/lm) Over the past few months, India has reportedly redirected at least 50,000 additional troops to three distinct areas along its border with China, in a historic shift toward an offensive military posture against Beijing. All in all, New Delhi now has roughly 200,000 troops focused along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which constitutes an increase of more than 40 percent from last year. [The Straits Times]
Whereas previously India’s military presence was aimed at blocking Chinese moves, the redeployment will allow Indian commanders to use helicopters to airlift soldiers from valley to valley along with artillery pieces, as part of a strategy that favours a strong offensive action over a passive attitude.
Indian media outlets reported earlier this month that New Delhi was pressing on with infrastructure in the border area, building roads, tunnels and bridges to narrow the gap with China [see AiR No. 21, May/2021, 4]. On the Chinese side, in turn, a new high-speed railway line began operating in Tibet on June 25. taking passengers from the regional capital Lhasa to the eastern city of Nyingchi, close to the border.
Reports about the move were first published on June 28, the same day when India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh in a thinly veiled reference to China said his country would seek resolve disputes with neighboring states through dialogue, but also asserted that India’s safety and security would not be compromised at any cost. Singh was on a three-day visit to eastern Ladakh, where he also visited troops and veterans and inaugurated 63 infrastructure projects by the Border Roads Organisation. [Economic Times] [The Indian Express]
The remarks assume added significance, coming as they did a week after India and China held the 22nd meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs. The latest round resulted in both sides agreeing to hold the next round military commander talks at an early date to achieve “complete disengagement” from “all the friction points” in the Line of Actual Control (LAC)’s Western Sector, the site of the 2020 China–India skirmishes.
Singh’s comments also come after India’s Foreign Minister Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar last week said persistent uncertainty over whether China will fulfil its promise on troop reductions would remain a challenge for relations between Beijing and New Delhi.
During an interview conducted on the sidelines of the Qatar Economic Forum on June 22, India’s top diplomat said China is yet to show an inclination to withdraw from Hot Springs, Gogra Post and the Depsang Plains in eastern Ladakh, which did not feature in a piecemeal disengagement process agreed upon in February [see AiR No. 45, November/2020, 2]. [South China Morning Post]
Against the larger backdrop of fears that the warmer weather in the Himalayan heights could reignite conflict between India and China, the foreign minister also cited bilateral relations built upon “mutual sensitivity, mutual respect and mutual interest” as a premise for a normalization in ties with China. [The Wire]
In response, China’s Foreign Ministry the following day dismissed the remarks, while also referring to the military deployment along the country’s western section as a “normal defense arrangement aimed at preventing and responding to encroachment and threat on China’s territory by relevant country”. [Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China]
29 June 2021
India: Opposition leaders gather to look for alternative vision for country
(ad) Eight opposition parties excluding the Indian National Congress (INC) have come together to discuss and debate on an “alternate” and “inclusive” vision for India.
The meeting was organized by Rashtra Manch, a cross-party platform launched in 2018 that opposes the current establishment. Whilst representatives of the INC did not attend the meeting, they have agreed to the alliance to challenge the current establishment. [The Indian Express] [Times of India]
29 June 2021
India: Twitter executive resigns amid tussle with federal government
(ad/lm) A senior executive at the local subsidiary of US microblogging giant Twitter has quit amid growing tensions between the company and the Indian federal government. [BBC]
His was one of three positions that every intermediaries with more than five million users is expected to fill under the contentious new digital media rules, which took effect in February [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1].
Earlier, India’s Ministry for Electronics and Information Technology had said that two of the new officials the company appointed were not employees, that its listed office address was that of a law firm, and that it had not given details about the third hire, the chief compliance officer, who is criminally liable for non-compliance.
Recent developments come after Indian media reported earlier this month that Twitter lost its so-called “safe harbour” immunity from prosecution for “unlawful” or “inflammatory” tweets, after the company had allegedly failed to comply with the new rules for social media companies. [AiR No. 25, June/2021, 4]
The resignation of the company’s senior official is likely to complicate matters further, especially as it comes just days after the firm’s country manager on June 24 earned a temporary reprieve from court from a police summon. [The Straits Times]
Before, police in the country’s state of Uttar Pradesh had summoned the Twitter official on allegations for failing to stop spread of a video that showed some men beating an elderly man of a different religion. The video was used by numerous journalists to report on hate crimes against minority religions in India [see AiR No. 25, June/2021, 4]. The order currently protects him from arrest, but the case is still open.
29 June 2021
India: Farmers renew protests against contentious agricultural laws
(ad/lm) Thousands of farmers in India renewed their protest across the country on June 26, marking seven months of demonstrations demanding the repeal of three controversial agricultural reforms that they say will leave them at the mercy of private businesses. [Arab News]
Some marched toward the capital, New Delhi, while others rode tractors from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. They were part of a mass gathering called by Samyukt Kisan Morcha (Joint Farmers Front, SKM) – an umbrella body of 40 farmers’ unions – despite fears of a resurgence in COVID-19 cases after a slow recovery from a debilitating second wave in recent months.
In a memorandum addressed to Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, the union complained that three farm laws introduced by the government were “unconstitutional and prepared without the consultations with farmers.”
They also accuse the federal government of having an undeclared Emergency in India, as they have repeatedly stopped farmers from continuing their protests and have supposedly implemented authoritarian methods to do so. The agricultural minister, turn, appealed to the farmers to “end their agitation” saying that the Centre was “ready to discuss and to resolve any provisions of the laws”. [The Hindu]
To end the stalemate and to assuage farmers’ fears, the government had held a series of talks with the protesting groups and offered to postpone implementing the new laws for 15 months. The protesters, however, rejected the offer and continued demanding that the laws be revoked, calling on Prime Minister Modi in May to resume talks [see AiR No. 21, May/2021, 4].
29 June 2021
India: Prime Minister Modi holds first talks with Kashmir leaders since removal of autonomy
(ad/lm) India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has told leaders from Jammu and Kashmir that elections would be held in the union territory after the region’s parliamentary constituencies were reconfigured. [South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times]
The talks on June 24 were the first between the Indian prime minister and Kashmiri leaders since the federal government in August of last year unilaterally abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution, breaking the state of Kashmir into two union territories – one comprising the Hindu-dominated Jammu region and the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, known as Jammu and Kashmir, and the Buddhist enclave of Ladakh. [AiR No. 32, August/2019, 1].
With its special status removed, Kashmir lost its privileges as an autonomy, with major political leaders and journalists being placed under house arrest, schools and colleges being shut as well as suspension of internet services.
The meeting was attended by all leaders of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), an amalgam of six local political parties that is pro-India but favors self-governance in the Jammu and Kashmir union territory. Two of the PAGD’s constituent parties – the National Conference (NC) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – have filed a petition with India’s Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of the 2019 Reorganisation Act that nullified Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood. [The Indian Express 1]
Many Kashmiris fear that the demarcation process is used by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to divide the union territory on religious lines by manufacturing a Hindu dominance in the Kashmir valley – concerns that led one of the PAGD’s constituent parties to pull out of the Delimitation Commission in May of last year. [AiR No. 36, September/2020, 2].
Modi had first made similar promises during his Independence Day address to the nation in August of last year [see AiR No. 36, September/2020, 2]. Experts therefore believe the prime minister’s change of heart might have been dictated by geopolitical considerations in India’s neighborhood rather than domestic concerns.
The first development pertains to the ongoing rapprochement between India and Pakistan, which started this February but hit a roadblock earlier this month when Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said his country was ready to restart talks with India only if New Delhi provided a road map towards restoring the special status of Kashmir [see AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1].
Moreover, observers emphasize that the meeting comes at a time when direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government have reached a critical stage and the ground realities in and around Afghanistan are evolving rapidly. Specifically, New Delhi likely expects Afghanistan to again turn into a save haven to terror groups that will attack India following the withdrawal of US and NATO troops. [The Hindu]
22 June 2021
India, EU conduct joint naval exercise in Gulf of Aden
(ad) The navies of the European Union and India on June 18 concluded a two-day maritime exercise conducted in the Gulf of Aden. The drills mark the first joint naval exercise, after both sides in January held the inaugural session of their virtual maritime dialogue. [Frontline]
Previously, the Indian Navy has been providing escort to World Food Programme chartered vessels, coordinated by Operation Atlanta, a current EU counter-piracy military operation at sea off the Horn of Africa and in the Western Indian Ocean. The Navy has also participated in the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) conference, an international operational counter piracy platform whose assets conducted several joint exercises with Indian vessels in the past.
22 June 2021
Pakistan: Parliament adopts bill granting right of appeal to alleged Indian spy
(lm) Pakistan’s lower house of parliament has passed a bill providing the right of appeal to Kulbhushan Jadhav, an Indian national who sits on death row since being convicted for spying by a Pakistani military court four years ago. Legislation is now being passed up to the Senate, which will have to also approve it before it becomes law.
The bill, which was first tabled in Parliament in July of last year [see AiR No. 30, July/2020, 4], gives foreign nationals convicted by military courts in Pakistan the right to file an appeal before a High Court, as well as to file petitions seeking consular access.
It is aimed at complying with a 2019 ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that ordered Islamabad to provide Jadhav the right of review and reconsideration by “means of its own choosing”. The Pakistani government had already enforced the law through an ordinance in May last year.
Last September, however, Islamabad rejected New Delhi’s request to allow a Queen’s Counsel or an Indian lawyer to represent Jadhav in the appeals hearing, arguing that only a lawyer allowed to practice in the country can be appointed as his counsel. [AiR No. 38, September/2020, 4]
Speaking days after the House session, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said by passing the bill Islamabad had deprived India of an opportunity to have Pakistan “dragged back” to the court. India, in turn, has not so far remarked on the passage of the bill. [Al Jazeera]
22 June 2021
India: Central government proposes bill to order recertification of previously certified films
(ad) The Central Government proposed a draft of the Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill 2021, allowing the government to recertify an already certified film. This would add another form of direct government censorship.
However, the Supreme Court has stated that the government has no right to demand censorship after a film has been certified. The draft also includes penalising film piracy with jail and introducing age-based certification. [The Wire]
22 June 2021
India: Bail approval turns anti-terror law upside down
(ad) Three student activists have walked out of prison after their incarceration 13 months ago in connection with last year’s violent clashes between supporters and opponents of India’s contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act. [Hindustan Times]
Importantly, the activists, who have denied wrongdoing, were charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which in 2019 was amended to allow the government to designate an individual as a terrorist without trial.
In its order, the Delhi High Court observed that “in its anxiety to suppress dissent – in the mind of the state – the line between constitutionally-guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity seems to be getting somewhat blurred.”
The granting of bail therefore constitutes a landmark decision that makes clear the distinction between the rights to protest and acts of terror, putting the phrase ‘prima facie true’ under legal scrutiny. Specifically, the court said it did not see prima facie evidence of acts of terror, and thus approved bail under regular law. [The Wire]
But on June 18, India’s Supreme Court said the order could not be treated as “precedent by any court” to grant bail to others also arrested under the anti-terrorism law, claiming the lower court’s order granting bail to the students raised questions of “pan-India” importance relating to the interpretation of the UAPA. The apex court therefore stopped these orders from being used as a legal precedent until it examines the matter next month. [Radio France Internationale]
22 June 2021
India: Police charge journalists for tweets following attack on Muslim man
(ad/lm) Global and Indian media bodies alike have condemned police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh for filling First Information Reports (FIRs) against three journalists for their tweets and reports on the alleged assault of an elderly Muslim man earlier this month. [Al Jazeera]
In separate statements, Reporters Sans Frontiers, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Editors Guild of India and the Mumbai Press Club demanded an immediate withdrawal of the complaints against three journalists, some of whom are known for critical coverage of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The FIRs also name The Wire, a well-known investigative news website, Twitter India, and three lawmakers of the opposition National Congress. [The Wire]
22 June 2021
India: Government defends IT rules as social media platforms and UNHRC question their purpose
(ad/lm) India’s battle with US microblogging giant Twitter has escalated further, with the government accusing the company of deliberately ignoring new IT rules. [South China Morning Post]
Earlier this month, Twitter was said to have agreed to make key appointments in line with statutory requirements, after the government issued a final warning to the company to immediately comply with new rules for social media companies or face “consequences” under local laws [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2]. The new rules, which took effect in February, require intermediaries with more than five million users to assign and appoint representatives to redress grievances, among others [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1].
But on June 16, India’s Minister for Electronics and Information Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad, said that the firm was still not in adherence. What is more, the Times of India the same day reported that Twitter had now lost its so-called “safe harbour” immunity from prosecution for “unlawful” or “inflammatory” tweets. After not complying, “Twitter now stands exposed to action […] for any third-party unlawful content”, the paper quoted an unnamed government source as saying. [The Indian Express 1] [Times of India]
In what may be the first, police in India on June 17 summoned Twitter’s country managing director to answer allegations that company did not stop the spread of a video that allegedly spread “hate and enmity”. [see article below] [The Straits Times]
Against this backdrop, the social media giant found itself at the receiving end of prolonged questioning by members of the Standing Committee on Information and Technology headed by National Congress leader Shashi Tharoor. The committee members unanimously were critical about the US company allegedly dragging its feet on complying with the new IT rules. The Twitter officials, in turn, claimed that they abided by their policy. [The Hindu]
This was the second time Twitter had come under scrutiny from the Committee, after its representatives were first summoned in January to inform about the platforms’ ban on former US President Donald Trump’s social media accounts. [AiR No. 4, January/2021, 4]
In related developments, the Indian government also responded to concerns raised by the United Nation Human Rights Council (UNHRC), stating that “the right to freedom of speech and expression is guaranteed under the Indian Constitution”. [The Indian Express 2]
The UNHRC’s Special Procedure branch on June 11 had raised concerns over provisions of the new IT rules, arguing that they did not meet the requirements of international law, specifically the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The bench also expressed concerns that “the new rules may provide the authorities with the power to censor journalists who expose information of public interest and individuals who report on human rights violations in an effort to hold the government accountable.”
15 June 2021
Indian and Thai navies conduct coordinated patrol exercises
(ad) The navies of India and Thailand on June 11 concluded the 31st edition of biannual Coordinated Patrol (CORPAT) exercise in the Andaman Sea. [Defence Aviation Post]
To reinforce maritime links, the two navies have been carrying out CORPAT along their International Maritime Boundary Line since 2005, with the aim of ensuring safety and security of shipping and international trade in the region.
15 June 2021
US official raises concerns of Indian government’s actions
(ad) A high-ranking US official in a congressional hearing last week said that “some of the Indian government’s actions have raised concerns that are inconsistent with India’s democratic values”.
Dean Thompson, Acting Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, took examples of “increasing restrictions on freedom of expression” and “detention of human rights activists and journalists”. Thompson also said Washington regularly engages in and on these issues, including the important work of civil society. [The Indian Express]
15 June 2021
India, Kuwait sign agreement to streamline recruitment of Indian domestic workers
(ad) India and Kuwait have signed an agreement to streamline the recruitment of Indian domestic workers, the key outcome of a visit by India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to Doha that concluded on June 11. [The Hindu] [Times of India]
Jaishankar arrived in Kuwait City on June 8 – his first visit to the oil-rich Gulf nation – to further cement bilateral ties and thank Kuwait for supporting India during the raging second wave of Covid-19 pandemic by acting as logistics hub for liquid medical oxygen supplies to western India.
Other points of concern were the welfare of the Indian community in the Gulf as well as strengthening trade interests that would aid in economic recovery post COVID-19.
15 June 2021
Indian foreign minister visits New Delhi’s East African partner, Kenya
(ad) India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on June 12 commenced a two-day visit to Kenya aimed at strengthening bilateral cooperation for peace and security in the Indo-Pacific. The visit signals New Delhi’s ambitions to strengthen ties with key African allies, especially as the country plans to host the fourth India-Africa Summit later in the year. [The East African]
Both India and Kenya are currently serving on the UN Security Council until December next year. Moreover, alongside with South Africa, Seychelles, Mauritius and various other countries in the western part of the Indian Ocean, the two countries are member states of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation.
To explore a widening partnership, a series of meetings was held, most notably the third session of the India-Kenya Joint Commission, which had last met in March 2019 in New Delhi. During his visit, the Indian top diplomat also interacted with the Indian diaspora in Kenya, which has over 80,000 residents of Indian origin, with 20,000 being Indian citizens. [The Print]
15 June 2021
Indian foreign Minister meets with Qatar’s NSA, as New Delhi opens channels with Afghan Taliban
(ad/lm) Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar last week made a surprise stopover in Qatar to meet with Doha’s National Security Advisor Mohamed Bin Ahmed Al Mesned in Doha on June 9.
The meeting assumes added significance, coming as it does at a time when New Delhi is believed to have opened channels of communication with Afghan Taliban factions and leaders – a move that marks a significant shift from its long-held position of not engaging with the hard-line insurgent group in any way. [Hindustan Times]
India’s change of heart comes at a time when the United States last week reached the midpoint in its task of withdrawing troops and equipment out of Afghanistan before the September 11 deadline set by US President Biden. Importantly, recent intelligence reports have suggested that Taliban militants are gathering across Afghanistan in preparation for a possible takeover of the country by force as US and NATO troops exit over the next few months. [Bloomberg]
Lending further credence is the fact that Jaishankar’s visit coincided with a meeting between US Special Representative for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and Abdul Hakim Sheikh, the Taliban’s key negotiator. The meeting, the latest in series of meetings held last week to review to the peace process in Afghanistan, was the first between Washington and the Taliban first since mid-May, following weeks of stalemate. [Doha News]
Close ties between the Taliban and the Pakistani military establishment have long prevented New Delhi from establishing contacts with the Islamist insurgent group. Moreover, India’s contributions to Afghanistan’s reconstruction and development efforts lag other regional players – most notably Russia, China and Iran.
But the perception that the Taliban are no longer a monolithic organisation, and some factions may not be completely under the sway of Pakistan, has gained ground in recent years.
New Delhi’s outreach is largely being led by Indian security officials and has focused on Taliban factions and leaders that are perceived as being “nationalist” or – unlike the Haqqani Network or members of the Quetta Shura – outside the sphere of influence of Pakistan and Iran. A case in point is Abdul Ghani Baradar, the co-founder of the Taliban in Afghanistan and one of the group’s main negotiators. Importantly, Baradar signed the deal with then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in February 2020 that paved the way for the current withdrawal of US troops.
Importantly, the outreach to Taliban leaders is proceeding in parallel with New Delhi’s engagement with different segments of the Afghan leadership, including President Ashraf Ghani’s government and key leaders such as former president Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation. A visit to Kabul last month by joint secretary JP Singh, the external affairs ministry’s point person for Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, was part of the continuing engagement with Afghan leaders.
15 June 2021
India: Tribal communities continue to protest against security camp in their region
(ad) Tribal residents from over 30 villages joined in on a protest against the security camp in Chhattisgarh since May 2021. Their initial demands were to remove the security camp and return the used land to its rightful owners, who were members of the tribal community. However, the protests became violent, leading to police retaliation. Three members of the protest died in the clash. The police have claimed that the three men killed by security personnel were Maoists who were the first to open fire.
In light of the incident, a delegation of tribal residents will meet Chhattisgarh’s Chief Minister. The demands of the protests have increased to include a full investigation into the violence against tribal members, especially the three men who died during the protests. Moreover, the demands also include a promise to maintain the memorial built for the deceased. [The Indian Express]
15 June 2021
India: Twitter blocks more accounts over support for farmers’ protests, following government order
(ad) In compliance with the Indian government’s new IT rules, US micro-blogging giant Twitter has blocked access to four accounts which had been used to voice support for Indian farmers staging protests on New Delhi’s borders for over six months.
One such user is the Indo-Canadian pop singer JazzyB who had apparently tweeted posts that provoked communal sentiments within the Sikh community. Others targeted include users who have voiced criticisms of the current regime in India including cartoonists and newspaper founders. While they all received Twitter’s notice, they did not receive any information on which law enforcement agency was taking action and specific reasons as to why their accounts were blocked. [The Straits Times]
Social media giants Twitter and Facebook Inc are engaged in a worsening conflict with Prime Minister Modi’s administration. Tensions escalated last month when police officers visited Twitter’s New Delhi premises over its labelling of a tweet by a governing party spokesman as “manipulated media” [see AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1] – a move described as “intimidation tactics” by the American company.
While Twitter previously agreed to make key appointments in line with the new IT regulations [see AiR No. 23, June/2021, 2], critics say the guidelines leave a lot of room for confusion and wrongful accusation. Specifically, they claim that system for reporting allows any law enforcement member to report, which could lead to blatant targeting and an immense amount of power at the hands of these agencies. [Indian Express]
8 June 2021
Indian, Australian defense ministers review bilateral cooperation
(ad) Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and his Australian counterpart Peter Dutton held a telephonic conversation on June 1 to review the progress on various bilateral defense cooperation initiatives under their Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. [The Indian Express]
During the phone conversation, the two ministers also reiterated their commitment to convene the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue at the earliest. In June of last year, India and Australia decided to upgrade the format – which brings together the foreign ministers and defense minister of both countries – from level of secretaries to that of ministers.
In related news, the agriculture ministers of India and Australia met to ramp up farm trade between the two countries. In light of Australia facing issues in trade with China, both sides are looking “at a wide range of trade agreements”. While the countries had disagreements in the past, those issues are now being resolved. China’s increase in tariffs has led to Australia looking for alternative trading partners, specifically India. [Hindustan Times]
8 June 2021
India hosting BRICS meeting
(ad/dql) In its capacity as chair of BRICS, India last week hosted a virtual meeting attended by Brazil Foreign Minister Carlos Alberto Franco, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and South African Minister of International Relations Grace Naledi Mandisa Pandor.
High on the agenda was COVID-19 pandemic and ways to increase cooperation to combat the pandemic, with the ministers calling “for equitable” access to medicines, equipment and vaccines, following India and South Africa’s demand for vaccine intellectual property rights waiver.
They also agreed on and reaffirmed the need to reform of the United Nations to create a comprehensive multilateral system, including an overhaul of the Security Council to secure an adequate representation of the developing countries in order to effectively respond to global challenges.
In a thinly veiled criticism of the US and other Western countries, Wang accused “some developed countries” of ‘vaccine hoarding’ and an ‘domestic frost’ approach and urged the BRICS nations to stand against “unilateral acts under the banner of multilateralism” and attempts to establish hegemony “in the name of multilateralism”. [The Hindu] [Global Times] [South China Morning Post]
8 June 2021
India: Twitter agrees to comply to new IT rules, after being issued last warning
(ad) In an escalating dispute between Twitter and the federal government, the US micro-blogging giant is said to have agreed to make key appointments in line with statutory requirements, after the government issued a final warning to Twitter to immediately comply with new rules for social media companies or face “consequences” under local laws. [Bloomberg] [CNA] [The Times of India]
The new rules, which took effect in February, require intermediaries with more than five million users to assign and appoint representatives to redress grievances [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1]. But although penalties, including jail terms, can be imposed if a company violates them, all three of the so-called “significant social media intermediaries” – Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter – had not appointed executives as dictated by the regulations, until recently [see AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1].
Tensions between the government and Twitter had already been heightened, after Indian police visited the company’s office in New Delhi over its labeling of a tweet by a governing party spokesman as “manipulated media”. [AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1]
Meanwhile, Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp and the Indian government continue to argue in the Delhi High Court, after the messaging platform filed a lawsuit earlier this month, arguing that new guidelines are unconstitutional and undermine the fundamental right to privacy [see AiR No. 22, June/2021, 1]. The Indian government, on the other hand, has stated that these new rules are a “reasonable restriction” to which the “fundamental right to privacy is subject”. [The Indian Express]
8 June 2021
India: Judiciary again sharply criticizes federal government over vaccination program
(ad) India’s Supreme Court has sharply criticized Prime Minister Modi’s federal government over its coronavirus vaccination campaign, asking it to review its vaccination policy and “place on record a roadmap of projected availability of vaccines till 31 December” – the date by which the government is promising to vaccinate the entire adult population. [BBC]
Before, the judges asked the government to explain why it was mandatory to register on an app for getting a jab, observing that this would hamper vaccinations across rural India where internet access is difficult. The judges also questioned whether federal policy was making individual states compete against each other for vaccines.
In related news, the Delhi High Court voiced concern, saying that vaccine manufacturers within India were not producing vaccines at full capacity. Specifically, the Court directed the Central government to release almost $2 million plus interest to New Delhi-based vaccine maker Panacea Biotec, which is collaborating with the Russian Direct Investment Fund for manufacturing 100 million doses of the Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine. [India Today] [The Indian Express]
The order was passed pursuant to an arbitration award passed in favor of Panacea Biotect and against the Central government, in which the company had argued that if the money awarded in the arbitration is not released to it, there would not be any production amid a huge shortage of vaccines in India. [Bar and Bench]
The Court also asked the Central government to consider the company’s application seeking waiver of trial for the vaccine, which has already been approved for limited use and been tested in Russia.
The Delhi High Court had previously questioned the Centre about its lack of oxygen supply as well, which proved to be a huge accelerator of second wave deaths. [AiR No. 18, May/2021, 1]
8 June 2021
India: Supreme Court rejects sedition case against journalist
(lm) India’s Supreme Court (SC) on June 3 quashed a case of sedition filed against a journalist for making allegedly seditious statements against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the government’s handling of the migrant exodus during a COVID-19-related lockdown last year. The bench took eight months to pronounce its order, after arguments had concluded in October of last year. [Times of India]
In its ruling, the SC observed that the remarks constituted genuine criticism of the government and could not be labelled seditious. In doing so, the apex court relied on its decision in the 1962 Kedar Nath Singh case. Back then, the SC attempted to restrict the sedition law’s scope for misuse, observing that unless accompanied by an incitement or call for violence, criticism of the government cannot be labelled sedition. [The Indian Express]
Earlier in February, a Delhi court granted bail to an environment activist in a sedition case, saying the government could not put citizens “behind bars simply because they chose to disagree with the state policies”. The Delhi court also said that sedition cannot be invoked “to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments”. [AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1]
1 June 2021
China-India border dispute: As snow thaws, could conflict reignite?
(ad/lm) As the snow melts in the Himalayan heights, analysts and military officials warn that the warmer weather could lead to renewed conflict between India and China, as both sides have resumed patrols into forward areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), while also strengthening logistics and adding infrastructure along the de facto border. [South China Morning Post]
After several rounds of talks, both sides in February began withdrawing troops and artillery from their positions on the southern and northern banks of Pangong Lake. But China has shown no inclination to withdraw from the other newly occupied areas from Hot Springs, Gogra Post and the Depsang Plains in eastern Ladakh, which did not feature in the piecemeal disengagement process [see AiR No. 45, November/2020, 2]. The situation was best summarized by Indian Army chief General M.M. Naravane, who earlier this month said there had been “disengagement but no de-escalation” [see AiR No. 21, May/2021, 4].
India, on its part is poised to approve the construction of a new tunnel, which will allow all-weather access connecting the states of Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh [see AiR No. 21, May/2021, 4]. The army has also reportedly accelerated construction of all-weather outposts for additional troops to be deployed along the border.
China, in turn, has been seeking to strengthen its deterrent measures against India. Specifically, the Xinjiang Military District, which is part of the Western Theater Command, is receiving greater attention in terms of upgrades with new equipment, including combat vehicles and self-propelled rapid-fire mortars. According to observers, there is a good case to believe that China would prefer to maintain the status quo as it is currently dealing with a range of geopolitical challenges, and thus does not want to open multiple battlefronts. [Asia Times] [The Diplomat]
1 June 2021
India: Court orders COVID-19-related audit of automobile plant after strikes over COVID-19 fears
(lm) A High Court on May 31 ordered officials to inspect coronavirus-related safety protocols at a Renault-Nissan automobile plant in the city of Chennai, after workers had filed a petition seeking a halt of operations over allegations that COVID-19 safety protocols were being flouted at the factory. [The Straits Times]
The city, located in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, remains a hot spot, reporting almost 30,000 new coronavirus infections a day on average. However, in order to avoid repeating last year’s exodus of migrant workers from cities to their home villages, continuous process industries, including auto factories, were exempted from lockdown rules. [The New York Times]
Renault-Nissan, Ford India, and Hyundai Motor India are among more than a dozen major automakers in Chennai that had to suspend their factory operations last week after workers protested or went on strike. The workers argued their safety should not be compromised to meet production targets. They also challenged the state’s decision to exempt the auto industry from local lockdown rules.
Japanese car manufacturer Nissan, which owns a majority state in the plant, denied the allegations in court, saying it follows all guidelines. The court filing shows the company has pending export orders of about 35,000 vehicles for the May-October period, plus another 45,000 pending domestic bookings, both of which if not fulfilled could lead to penalties and loss of business.
1 June 2021
India: Facebook-owned WhatsApp sues government over new IT regulations
(lm) Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp has filed a lawsuit against the federal government over a new set of digital rules that came into force on May 26, saying the regulations would force the company to violate privacy protections.
Earlier in February, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) promulgated the so-called “Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code” to regulate content on social networks and other web services in India. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp were given until May 26 to comply with these rules. [AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1]
The regulations require messaging platforms to make provisions for the “identification of the first originator of the information”, among others. While this would require WhatsApp to unmask only people credibly accused of wrongdoing, the company says it cannot do that alone in practice. For to comply with the law the company says it would have break encryption for receivers of messages as well as originators, and thus violate privacy rights enshrined in India’s constitution. [Reuters]
Other court challenges to the new rules are already pending in Delhi and elsewhere, including one filed by the Foundation for Independent Journalism, a non-profit organization which publishes The Wire news portal. [AiR No. 10, March/2021, 2]
The guidelines further require social media platforms with more than five million users to appoint a compliance officer, a nodal contact officer and a resident grievance officer. However, all three of the so-called “significant social media intermediaries” – Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter – are yet to appoint executives as dictated by the regulations. [The Indian Express]
Tensions between the government and Twitter had already been heightened after police visited the company’s offices on May 24. The police, who fall under the control of the central government, said they had to serve notice about an investigation into the social media giant’s tagging of a post by the spokesperson of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as “manipulated media”. The tweet accused the political opposition of trying to derail the government’s pandemic response. [BBC] [The Straits Times]
1 June 2021
India: Series of proposed regulations causes resentment and fear in Lakshadweep union territory
(ad) Tensions have been simmering in India’s Lakshadweep union territory over a series of regulations proposed by the archipelago’s administrator.
Located about 200 kilometers off the southwestern coast of the Indian Peninsula, Lakshadweep is the smallest of India’s eight union territories, and the only Muslim-majority territory, apart from Indian-administered Kashmir. Importantly, unlike the states of India, union territories are federal territories governed, in part or in whole, by the Central government.
The current administrator, Praful Khoda Patel, served for four years as Home Minister in the state of Gujarat under then Chief Minister Narendra Modi. In December of last year, he took over Lakshadweep’s administration, making him the first non-bureaucrat to hold the position.
Following his appointment, Patel has pushed for numerous laws without the knowledge or consent of locals and their representatives. The contentious proposals range from a ban on beef, disqualification of people with more than two children who wish to contest the village council elections, to introducing for alcohol selling permits, despite the Muslim population’s belief against alcohol consumption. [Hindustan Times]
The most consequential regulation, however, might be the Draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021, which would allow the government to claim land from locals at any point for the purpose of development, without protecting the interests of landowners. [Al Jazeera]
While the proposals are currently being considered by the federal Ministry of Home Affairs, opposition leaders, including Indian National Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin are demanding they should be scrapped and the administrator recalled. [NDTV]
1 June 2021
India-Pakistan relations dependent on status of Kashmir, says Pakistan PM Khan
(ad) The holding of the ceasefire between Indian and Pakistani armies along the Line of Control (LoC) in the disputed Kashmir valley for the last three months has contributed to a feeling of peace and security, according to Indian Army Chief General Naravane.
Calling the ceasefire “the first step in the long road to normalisation of bilateral relations” during an interview last week, the Indian army chief also stated that it is on Pakistan to prevent terror and hostility in order to engage in normal relations. [The Indian Express 1]
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on May 30, however, ruled out the possibility of normalizing bilateral ties with India, saying such a move would be a betrayal to the Kashmiris. While he acknowledged that restoration of trade links with India would immensely benefit Pakistan’s economy, the prime minister also said that stalled talks could be resumed only if New Delhi reverses its scrapping of the longstanding semi-autonomous status of Indian-administered Kashmir. [Al Jazeera]
1 June 2021
Is India’s stance on Palestine changing?
(ad) India and Israel recently reached “a three-year work program agreement” to progress their agricultural cooperation. The cooperation assumes added significance, for it comes against the larger backdrop of both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the farmers’ protest across India. [The Indian Express]
Historically, India was one of Palestine’s staunch supporters in the 1970s, as part of its anti-colonial solidarity following its independence from British rule in 1947. But bilateral ties between India and Israel have strengthened significantly in recent decades, especially under Indian Prime Minister Modi and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu. [for a comprehensive summary, see The Wire 1]
Consequently, while Israel has recently faced global condemnation for its actions in occupied East Jerusalem and continued bombing of the Gaza Strip, it has found support in India where pro-government activists have thrown their weight behind Israel, including top members of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). [Al Jazeera]
Moreover, India – currently a non-permanent member United Nations Security Council – abstained from the United Nations Human Rights Council’s vote to set up a permanent commission to probe Israel’s alleged human rights violations in the recent violence in Gaza. [The Wire 2]
Furthermore, the program agreement could have been a move to quell the farmers’ protest and to demonstrate the Centre’s work on the agriculture sector.
1 June 2021
India says Nepal’s political developments are its ‘internal matters’
(ad) India last week said recent political developments in Nepal, which resulted in President Bidya Devi Bhandari dissolving parliament and calling for fresh elections later this year, were “internal matters” of the Himalayan nation. New Delhi’s distant attitude towards Kathmandu’s deteriorating political situation comes off as a surprise, especially since India was seen competing with China over influence in the Himalayan nation. [The Wire]
Relations between the two countries have witnessed major ups and downs since Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli came to power in 2018. His efforts to move Nepal closer to China while retaining ties with India did not go down well in New Delhi, and bilateral ties derailed in May of last year, after India had announced the inauguration of a new Himalayan link road built through the disputed area of Kalapani that lies at a strategic three-way junction with Tibet and China. But since last August, relations between India and Nepal were again improving with increasing diplomatic exchanges between the two nations [for a summary see AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2]
1 June 2021
Indian foreign minister on week-long official visit in United States
(ad) Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has spent the past week in the United States seeking help amid a devastating second wave of COVID-19 infections at home. While in Washington, Jaishankar met with top US officials, including Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell.
Jaishankar’s meetings in Washington and New York mostly revolved around increasing vaccine manufacturing, and delivery, as well as an intellectual property rights waiver on vaccines, emphasizing an agreement reached during the inaugural Quadrilateral Security Dialogue leaders’ summit in March [see AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3]. While the US administration under President Biden was initially slow to respond to New Delhi’s catastrophic surge in infections, it has recently signed off of large COVID-19 relief packages to India and also plans to send vaccines.
While the current meetings have made it clear that battling COVID-19 is a top priority, observers see a broader strategy centered around China behind the pandemic cooperation between the US and India. While India and the US work towards a global vaccine supply, they are faced with competition from China and Russia. Moreover, China’s influence in the region continues to grow, a clear and imminent threat to both India and the US. [Foreign Policy]
1 June 2021
China is gradually invading Bhutanese territory to gain military advantage over India, says report
(lm) A new report, published by Foreign Policy, has claimed that China has built a village eight kilometers within territory belonging to its Himalayan neighbor, Bhutan, as part of its move to expand and develop its infrastructure in the border regions of Tibet.
The new village is located in Bhutan’s northern district of Lhuntse but has been marked as being part of Lhodrak in the Tibetan Administrative Region (TAR) by China. The report says that Beijing has been gradually and stealthily seizing chunks of lands from Bhutan for years, following a 2017 drive flagged off by Chinese President Xi Jinping to fortify the Tibetan borderlands. Thus, the researchers argue that China is following the same piecemeal, step-by-step approach in Bhutan it previously used in the South China Sea, that is, shifting the status quo without triggering a major conflict with its neighbors or the United States. [Foreign Policy]
China reportedly claims roughly 12 percent of Bhutan’s territory – four areas in the west of Bhutan, three in the north, and one in the east – with no mutual understanding between the two nations on what constitutes the border. In July of last year Beijing for the first time publicly put on record that is has a border dispute with Bhutan over the country`s eastern sector, and – in a tangential reference to India – said that “a third party should not point fingers” in the Sino-Bhutan border dispute [see AiR No. 28, July/2020, 2]. During a four-day meeting of experts between China and Bhutan this April, then, the two sides agreed to resume long-delayed talks on their disputed boundary [see AiR No. 16, April/2021, 3].
Importantly, the report suggests does not actually need the land it is settling in Bhutan but rather is planning to use it as a security to force the Bhutanese government to cede other territory that may give it a military advantage in its struggle with India. [Bloomberg] [The EurAsian Times]
For China has tried building roads into Bhutan before—but mainly in its western areas and with limited success. In 2017, China’s attempt to build a road across the Doklam plateau in southwestern Bhutan, next to the trijunction with India, resulted in a 73-day military standoff between India and China. Consequently, China had to put its road construction through Doklam on hold. Back then, New Delhi – which has historically close ties and considerable influence over Bhutan – supported Thimphu’s claims, in part because the area is close to the Siliguri corridor, a narrow stretch of land also known as the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ that connects India’s north-east with the mainland. [The Week]
In November of last year, then, an Indian media outlet reported that Beijing had set up a village more than two kilometers within Bhutanese territory and built a road in the same area. China denied the claim, but it is possible, as some analysts have speculated, that Bhutan had quietly ceded that territory to China but not announced it to the outside world. [AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1]
It is also possible that Beijing wants to use the territory as leverage to pressure Bhutan to open full relations with China, which would allow Beijing to have a diplomatic presence in Thimphu. This would offset India’s influence in Bhutan, an aim that China has largely achieved in Nepal.
25 May 2021
Pakistan appoints new national security advisor, amidst rapprochement with India
(ra/lm) Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has appointed Moeed Yusuf as the country’s new National Security Advisor (NSA), after the position had been vacated since June 2018, indicating Islamabad’s efforts to resume deeper lines of communication with neighboring India. [The Express Tribune]
The NSA participates in meetings of the country’s National Security Council, a federal institutional and consultative body mandated with considering national security and foreign policy matters. The position was abolished in 2019, as Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi at the time opposed the appointment of an NSA, fearing challenge to his mandate.
Observers consider the revival of the NSA to be linked with Pakistan’s ongoing efforts seeking a rapprochement with India. Previous backchannel talks between Indian National Security Advisor Ajjit Doval And General Faiz Hameed, the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), are believed to have led to the restoration of a 2003 ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control in Kashmir [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1].
25 May 2021
India hit with two cyclones in a matter of weeks
(ad) Last week, India faced Cyclone Tauktae, which formed over the Arabian Sea. The cyclone impacted the entire Indian west coast, ravaging people and infrastructure in five states. The cyclone was a rare case where a cyclone impacted so many states. Cyclone Tauktae led to 104 deaths, one of the highest death counts from cyclones in the subcontinent and second highest death count since 2010. [The Indian Express]
Meanwhile, another cyclone, Cyclone Yaas is approaching the Indian east coast from Bay of Bengal. It is predicted to intensify within the next two days and affect three states along the east coast. Amidst India’s second and destructive wave of COVID-19, the cyclones have proven to be the last thing India wants to see. [Financial Express]
25 May 2021
India, China yet to de-escalate simmering border tensions along LAC
(ad/lm) Indian Army Chief General Naravane said on May 19 that his country would continue to maintain an enhanced troop presence along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh, as de-escalation with China is yet to take place.
After almost a year of skirmishes along the disputed Himalayan border, both countries in February began withdrawing from their positions on the southern and northern banks of Pangong Lake as part of a phased, synchronized military disengagement [see AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4]. According to the Indian army chief, no transgression has taken place since.
But Beijing and New Delhi are yet to resolve other “friction points”, including Gogra, Hot Springs and the Depsang Plains in eastern Ladakh, which did not feature in the purported disengagement plan [see AiR No. 45, November/2020, 2]. As of now, India, still has between 50,000 and 60,000 troops in Eastern Ladakh near the LAC. [The Indian Express 1]
Two days after delivering the remarks, General Naravane commenced a two-day visit to India’s northeastern region to review the army’s operational readiness along the northern border of the state of Arunachal Pradesh, a major part of which is claimed by both China and Taiwan as part of the region of South Tibet.
The visit assumes added significance, coming as it does just days after China completed the construction of a strategic highway through a canyon along the Yarlung Tsangbo (Brahmaputra River) in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Construction on the highway, which began back in 2014, sparked concerns in India, partly because the highway is believed to accelerate Chinese efforts to construct dams and a hydropower plant on the lower reaches of the River, which would significantly affect water supplies downstream in the Indian states. Against this backdrop, in December of last year, New Delhi announced it was considering to build a 10-gigawatt (GW) hydropower project in its remote Arunachal Pradesh state [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1]. [The EurAsian Times] [The New Indian Express 2]
Furthermore, India’s Ministry of Defense last week cleared a proposal to allow its Border Roads Organisation (BRO) to build a tunnel under a mountain pass on the border between the states of Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh. [Hindustan Times] [The Times of India]
25 May 2021
Singapore: Authorities order Facebook, Twitter to carry correction notice on virus strain
(tcy) Singapore on May 20 issued correction orders to Facebook and Twitter to carry a correction notice to users of the social media platforms in the country over what it says is a false statement about a new virus variant originating in Singapore. [Reuters]
The move came after an Indian chief minister in a Twitter post on May 18 claimed a “new strain” of COVID-19 found in Singapore could result in a third wave of infections in India and urged for a ban on flights. Both the Singapore and Indian governments have criticized the opposition politician, with India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar saying the comments were “irresponsible.” Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, in turn, reiterated that the two countries should focus on resolving the pandemic situation in their respective countries and helping one another. [Mothership.sg] [The Straits Times]
The correction orders were issued under Singapore’s fake news law, or the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, which gives the government significant leverage over social media platforms and users to issue corrections or remove posts it finds to contain falsehoods. Facebook and Twitter confirmed receipt of the order and said they complied as per the local law.
25 May 2021
India: Government to launch BBC World-like international TV channel
(ad) Weeks after receiving harsh coverage of the country’s COVID-19 surge, the Indian government looks to launch its own international news channel. [The Print]
While India’s vast media have become increasingly subservient to the government since Modi was first elected Prime Minister seven years ago, various newspapers have pulled their punches and started criticizing the Modi government’s handling of the second wave of COVID-19 infections. [CNN] [Washington Post]
Against this backdrop, state-owned broadcaster Doordarshan (DD), proposed to launch an Indian BBC World of sorts, designed to express India’s perspective of global politics and events. Although DD is autonomous, one can question the credibility of the news it presents and the influence of propaganda on its content.
25 May 2021
India: Government orders social media companies to remove content referring to ‘Indian variant’
(ad) The Information Technology Ministry on May 21 instructed social media companies in India to remove any content that refers to the “Indian variant” of COVID-19. The ministry stated that the term had no legitimacy as World Health Organization (WHO) had already classified the variant as B.1.617. [bbc] [Reuters]
Variants of the coronavirus are generally referred to based on the locations they were identified, including the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa variants. B.1.617, a more transmissible variant, was first detected in India last year and has spread to dozens of countries.
The latest order comes after Prime Minister Modi’s government last month told social media giants Twitter and Facebook to remove some posts critical of the prime minister’s handling of the second wave of the pandemic.
India’s government earlier in February introduced guidelines it said were intended to restrain the spread of misinformation and inflammatory content. If what is termed “unlawful” material appears on a platform, the company can be given a takedown order. If it does not comply within a deadline, it can face the possibility of prosecution [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1]. The rules have come under criticism from news portals, journalists’ bodies and internet freedom advocates [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1].
25 May 2021
India: In the midst of COVID-19, country faces ‘black fungus’ epidemic
(ad) While the country is grappling with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the world, states across India have begun declaring a “black fungus” epidemic.
A rare infection with a 50 percent mortality rate, the fungal disease affects recovered or recovering COVID-19 patients. Doctors seem to be correlating steroids used to treat COVID-19 and black fungus. Some are also suggesting that unhygienic conditions in hospitals allowed infections to rise. Moreover, patients with diabetes or weaker immune systems are more prone to the fungal disease. [CNA]
Health authorities have urged India’s 29 states to declare the disease an epidemic, with states like Gujarat and Telangana complying, while other states setting up wards to treat those infected. The epidemic has also led to a shortage in vital anti-fungal drugs, adding to the helplessness of the situation. [The Guardian]
The rise of black fungus has also led to opposition leader Sonia Gandhi from the Indian National Congress calling for an increase in antifungal drugs. In a letter to Prime Minister Modi, Gandhi called for “immediate action” in order to “bring relief” to those afflicted with black fungus. [BBC] [Twitter]
25 May 2021
India: Farmers threatens to escalate protest if central government does not resume talks
(ad) While the country is currently grappling with one of the largest coronavirus outbreaks in the world, farmers are continuing to call on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to repeal three controversial agricultural reforms that they say will leave them at the mercy of corporations. [Deutsche Welle]
Months after talks between the government and farmers were suspended, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (Joint Farmers Front, SKM), an umbrella body of 40 farmers’ unions, on May 21 reached out to Prime Minister Modi, calling for his “immediate intervention”. The SKM as a whole has been protesting for nearly six months against the Centre’s agricultural laws. They have asked PM Modi to “resume talks” citing that the discussion of the laws was crucial. [The Indian Express 1]
12 major opposition parties also supported the SKM’s statement for nationwide protest on May 26, stating that the Centre needed to repeal the farm laws to protect farmers from becoming victims of the pandemic and large corporations. [The Indian Express 2]
In the meanwhile, the government has strongly appealed to the farmers to call off the protest as it could become a “super spreader”. Moreover, amid severe nationwide oxygen shortages, some leaders of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party have leveled unfounded allegations that farmers were blocking oxygen cylinders and essential supplies from entering New Delhi. However, the farmers stated in their letter that the talks were “itself a life and death matter” and it was absolutely essential for them to be protected from corporate businesses. [Reuters]
18 May 2021
Singapore: Prime Minister Lee, ministers condemn racist attacks
(tcy) Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on May 10 expressed that he was “disappointed and seriously concerned” by an alleged racist attack on an Indian woman, who was kicked in the chest by a man shouting racial slurs at her for not wearing a mask. Several other ministers have also commented on the incident, calling it “disturbing” and “unacceptable”, while urging the public to band together and foster stronger cohesion amidst the unprecedented pandemic. [The Straits Times 1] [The Straits Times 2]
The incident occurred a day after a similar altercation with racial overtones took place, with a man being caught on camera while verbally abusing and accusing an expatriate Indian family of spreading COVID-19 to Singapore. Against the backdrop of an escalating coronavirus situation in India and fears of a new Indian variant, the two incidents reflect growing intolerance and xenophobic sentiments among the public. [Mothership.sg]
18 May 2021
India: Supreme Court intervenes to ensure ration, food security and transport for migrant laborers
(ad) The Supreme Court (SC) on May 13 directed the states of Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, alongside with the central government to provide dry ration, adequate transport and set up community kitchens for benefit of the migrant laborers in the National Capital Region. The apex court also issued notice to the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Bihar, asking them to provide details of measures they propose to take in this regard. [The Indian Express]
The order came in response to an application filed by prominent public interest lawyer Prashant Bhushan in 2020. The issue first started when the Centre declared lockdown in March 2020, as a result of which large populations of migrant workers were stranded and unable to return to their hometowns and villages. It led to a mass exodus, resulting in the deaths of numerous laborers. Initially, a scheme, Atmanirbhar Bharat, was started to provide laborers with dry rations. However, this scheme was only operational for 2 months, after which migrant workers continued to lose jobs and were unable to provide for themselves.
The Solicitor General, a representative of the central government, claimed that the current lockdown is different from the older one, whereby “migrant workers are not incentivized to go back from places where industries are open”. In response, the Bench remarked that migrant workers cannot survive without money or work. “Immediate relief required must be granted immediately”, and that certain interim directions were essential to alleviate the migrant workers’ conditions. [ANI]
18 May 2021
India: Farmers clash with police during Chief Minister’s visit in Haryana
Over 70 farmers and 20 police personnel have been reported as injured, after several hundred farmers clashed with police in a city in the norther state of Haryana on May 16. The incident was a protest against a visit of the state’s chief minister, who was inaugurating a hospital for COVID-19 patients. [The Indian Express]
The farmers, who had been sitting for months in protest against the contentious farm laws [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1] were upset as the chief minister and other ministers were holding farmers responsible for COVID-19 infections in villages. Some farmers unions argued that the inauguration itself was against COVID-19 regulations, with over 500 people gathered together.
Police fired teargas and used batons to disperse the protesters, who had earlier broken through barriers at the outskirts of the town and proceeded towards the area, where the newly inaugurated hospital is located. The issue between the police and farmers has been resolved, with the release of the farmers who were detained but tensions continue to remain. [The Tribune]
18 May 2021
India: Opposition parties write to Prime Minister Modi over second wave of COVID-19
(ad) As India is trying to get a grip on a worsening health crisis, twelve opposition leaders, including four Chief Minister, have written a joint letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling on the central government take effective measures regarding COVID-19. The letter has been criticized by Prime Minister Modi’s ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), which accused the President of the opposition Indian National Congress (INC), Sonia Gandhi, of spreading propaganda. [NDTV]
Calling the pandemic an “apocalyptic human tragedy”, the opposition parties suggested a string of measures, including the procurement of vaccines from all available sources, both domestically and internationally, and launching a universal mass vaccination campaign. [The Indian Express]
Another recommendation is to halt the Central Vista Redevelopment Project and instead use the funds for urgently needed oxygen and vaccines. Announced in 2019, the project proposes to reconstruct and repurpose the central administrative area of New Delhi housing government buildings and the prime minister’s residence [see also AiR No. 2, January/2021, 12]. The opposition, also critics of the construction, propose that its funds should be used to improve the grim conditions of the country. [ANI]
Other suggestions include repeal farm laws, in order to protect farmers in the crisis. These farm laws have been contested by the farmer population and are criticized for their anti-farmer policies, whereby they seemingly protect the corporations whilst leaving the farmers unprotected [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1].
Meanwhile, on May 14, Prime Minister Modi announced the transfer of $2.6 billion to 950 million farmer families under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (Prime Minister’s Farmer’s Tribute Fund, PM-KISAN) scheme, an initiative by the central government to augment the income of small and marginal farmers. Speaking via videoconference, the prime minister stated that both the farmers and the Centre’s efforts have been at a record high during COVID-19 in terms of production and “lauded the efforts of the country’s farmers”. [ANI]
18 May 2021
India: Top virologist resigns from government panel weeks after criticising COVID-19 policies
A top Indian virologist has resigned from a forum of scientific advisers set up by the government to enable research on variants of COVID-19, weeks after questioning the Central government’s policies towards the pandemic. [Reuter]
The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genetics Consortium (INSACOG) was set up by the federal government in December of last year specifically to detect genomic variants of the coronavirus that might threaten public health. In early March, then, members of the scientific forum apparently warned of a new and more contagious variant and cited caution for the second wave.
But despite the warnings, the federal government did not seek to impose major restrictions to stop the spread of the virus, according to four scientists. Instead, Prime Minister Modi, some of his top lieutenants, and dozens of other politicians, including opposition figures, held rallies across the country for local elections throughout March and into April [see AiR No. 13, March/2021, 5].
The government’s lack of acknowledgement could be a key reason why the virologist has resigned, although this is mere speculation.
18 May 2021
India: Centre orders state governments to prevent dumping of bodies in Ganges river
(ad) The central government has directed the state governments of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to prevent bodies of COVID-19 victims from being dumped in the Ganges river and its tributaries, after hundreds of corpses were found in shallow sand graves or washed up on embankments in villages in northern India. Recent reports of large numbers of people falling ill in villages, and then putting dead bodies in the river, comes as COVID-19 has seemingly spread to India’s rural hinterland, where 70 percent of its 1.3 billion people live. [Zee News]
At a two-day review meeting between May 15 and 16, the Centre said the throwing of dead bodies and partially burnt or decomposed bodies in the Ganges and its tributaries should be prevented and insisted that the focus should be on the safe, dignified cremation of corpses. Further, the state pollution control boards have been directed to increase frequency in sampling water quality under the direction of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). [The Indian Express]
18 May 2021
India: 25 individuals arrested in Delhi for posters criticizing PM Modi’s vaccination policy
(ad) Opposition leaders have rebuked Prime Minister Modi’s government after the Delhi Police said it had registered First Information Reports (FIRs) and arrested 25 regular wage-earners for pasting posters critical of the prime minister and his vaccination policies.
As many as 17 FIRs were registered under Section 188 – disobedience to order duly promulgated by public servant – of the Indian Penal Code and other relevant sections after posters that translated to “Prime Minister, why did you send our children’s vaccines abroad?” were found pasted in several parts of the city. In most cases, the arrested individuals were not involved in politics and were instead paid to put up these posters. [The Wire]
While the arrests are being presented as the mere implementation of the law against defacement of property, in solidarity, opposition leaders from the Indian National Congress (INC) and other parties used social media channels to call out the arrests. Rahul Gandhi, a leader of the INC put up the slogan and challenged the Centre to arrest him as well, while lawmaker Abhishek Manu Singhvi called it “a lawless state gone amuck”. [The Indian Express 1] [The Indian Express 2]
18 May 2021
Cambodia and India to discuss bilateral FTA
(ad) Cambodia and India have begun looking into a possible bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to promote cooperation in all sectors – particularly trade – according to a readout of a virtual meeting between the Cambodian Minister of Commerce and India’s Ambassador to Cambodia held on May 13.
Trade between the two countries was valued at $190 million in 2020. Along with India, Cambodia is also looking at South Korea, Japan and other countries for establishing FTAs. It has already established an FTA with China in October 2020. [Agence Kampuchea Presse]
18 May 2021
Pakistani army chief backs down over Kashmir in backchannel talks with India
(ra/lm) Controversy has erupted in Pakistan after an off-the-record meeting between high-ranking national security officers and leading media representatives in late April had exposed a major communication gap between the country’s powerful military establishment and Prime Minister Imran Khan’s civil government.
On May 11, Prime Minister Khan stated that his government would not resume talks with India until New Delhi revoked its decision from August 2019, when it unilaterally abrogated Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, breaking the state of Kashmir into two union territories [see AiR No. 32, August/2019, 1]. [The News]
The remarks assume added significance, because they come against the backdrop of news reports over major concessions to India that Pakistan’s powerful military leadership appears to be prepared to make. Downplaying it as a mere change of the Indian government’s internal nomenclature, the officials were cited as saying they did not see India’s point-blank refusal to reinstate Article 370 as a serious impediment to talks but were concerned about New Delhi’s attempts to change the demography of Muslim-majority Kashmir. [South China Morning Post]
The remarks clearly echo landmark speeches delivered in February by Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who had advocated a strategic shift towards a geo-economic agenda built upon peaceful relations and economic connectivity with Pakistan’s hitherto adversarial neighbors [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4].
Following Bajwa’s speeches – delivered amid backchannel talks between Indian National Security Advisor Ajjit Doval and General Faiz Hameed, the head of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – Pakistan and India suddenly announced the restoration of a 2003 ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control in Kashmir, ending several years of heavy skirmishing [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1].
18 May 2021
Indian Prime Minister Modi to skip G-7 summit in London due to COVID-19 crisis
(lm) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not travel to the United Kingdom for the Group of Seven (G-7) summit next month because of the coronavirus situation in India. The decision came days after the prime minister called off a planned visit to the Portuguese city of Porto to participate in the India-EU Summit on May 8. The meeting was subsequently held in a virtual format. [Hindustan Times] [The Straits Times]
India is not part of the G-7 industrialized nations, but was invited to the talks by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to attend the summit as Special Invitee, alongside with the leaders of Australia, South Africa and South Korea, in December of last year [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4]. This would have been Prime Minister Modi’s second foreign visit this year, after a trip to Bangladesh in March to attend celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the neighboring country’s independence.
India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had visited the UK to attend a meeting of the foreign ministers of G-7 earlier this month, but he and his delegation had to go into self-isolation after a possible exposure to positive cases. [AiR No. 19, May/2021, 2]
British Prime Minister Johnson also had to call off plans to visit India twice – he cancelled a trip that was to begin on April 25 following a surge in infections, and in January, he cancelled a trip to focus on his government’s response to a new Coronavirus variant that was spreading rapidly. Modi and Johnson held a virtual summit on May 4, during which they launched an Enhanced Trade Partnership and a Mobility and Migration Partnership and unveiled a roadmap to boost bilateral ties over the next decade [see AiR No. 19, May/2021, 2].
11 May 2021
EU and India to boost trade, Indo-Pacific partnership
(lm) The European Union and India have agreed to resume long-stalled talks on a free trade deal, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on May 8. Brussel and New Delhi will also launch negotiations on reciprocal investments and on the protection of so-called geographical indications. [South China Morning Post]
Earlier on May 8, the first EU-Indian Leaders’ Meeting brought together all 27 heads of the EU member states and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Considering that previous EU-India summits have involved only the Indian prime minister and the heads of the European Commission and the European Council, the recent summit signals the bloc’s renewed interest in the Indo-Pacific region. [Reuters]
Last month, the EU Council asked the European Commission and high representatives to draw up the bloc’s Indo-Pacific strategy by September this year. In doing so, the Council unveiled the strategy’s main thrust, which included exploring closer economic ties with India and pledging to foster a rules-based order with “free and open maritime supply routes in full compliance with international law”, without naming China.
Earlier last week, the EU also said that efforts to ratify the proposed EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China had been suspended after Beijing imposed sanctions on several high-profile members of the European Parliament, three members of national parliaments, two EU committees, and several China-focused European academics.
For a comprehensive examination of the decision, please consider Chris Devonshire-Ellis’ comment for [China Briefing].
11 May 2021
India attends G-7 foreign ministers meet in London as Russia, China top agenda
(lm) Foreign ministers of the Group of Seven (G-7) industrialized nations met in London last week, with climate change, Russia and China among the challenges topping the agenda. It was the first face-to-face G-7 meeting in two years, following a coronavirus-extended pause. [Voice of America]
The United Kingdom, which holds the G7 rotating presidency, has been hosting representatives from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States. Representatives of the European Union were in attendance, as were delegates from Australia, India, South Korea, South Africa and the chairman of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
London’s intention to increase its presence in the Pacific was illustrated in December of last year, when the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson invited Australia, India and South Korea to attend the summit as guests – a move that had caused raised eyebrows among some of the other attendees [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4].
11 May 2021
United Kingdom, India mark ‘new era’ in ties, agree to strengthen cooperation
(lm) The United Kingdom and India have announced $1.39 billion of private-sector investment and committed to seek a free trade deal as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a virtual meeting with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on May 4. The meeting replaced a trade visit Johnson had to cancel last month due to surging COVID-19 cases in India [see AiR No. 16, April/2021, 3]. [Al Jazeera] [Reuters]
London sees closer ties with New Delhi as a key pillar of its post-Brexit tilt to the Indo-Pacific region, which has been formulated in the recently published “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy” [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4].
The British government set out $739.2 million of Indian investment into the UK, including $332.8 million by the Serum Institute of India (SII) – the world’s largest vaccine maker – for its vaccines and sales business, and $618.5 million of export deals for British businesses. The two countries also announced agreements on climate change, technology and pharmaceuticals. [Reuters 2]
India also elevated the status of its relationship with the UK to a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” – the first European country to be granted that status, as both countries launched an “Enhanced Trade Partnership” that will lift export barriers on various goods. As part of the newly launched partnership, both sides also committed to begin full trade talks later this year with the ambition to double bilateral trade by 2030. [PGurus]
Both sides also signed an accord on migration and mobility. The pact will provide enhanced employment opportunities for 3,000 young Indian professionals annually, in exchange for India agreeing to take back any of its citizens found to be living illegally in the UK. Migration has long been a source of friction between the two countries, with a similar proposal unravelling in 2018 following disagreements over the extradition process. At the time, London claimed there were as many as 100,000 Indians living illegally in Britain, but Delhi pegged the figure at half of that. [Reuters] [South China Morning Post] [UK Government]
11 May 2021
India: Supreme Court constitutes 12-member panel for transparent oxygen allocation
(lm) The Supreme Court (SC) formed a 12-member National Task Force on May 8 to formulate and monitor an “effective and transparent” allocation of liquid medical oxygen to states and union territories. The court order comes after the SC earlier this month had rebuked the central government over its perceived failure to gain control of the coronavirus pandemic [see AiR No. 18, May/2021, 1]. [Jurist] [Supreme Court of India]
Before establishing the Task Force, the SC expressed dissatisfaction over the central government’s failure to establish a transparent and effective mechanism to allocate medical oxygen. The apex court thus observed that the Task Force – which has an initial lifespan of six months – is expected to provide valuable inputs to enable the government to “go beyond finding ad-hoc solutions to the present problems” and prepare for the future. [The Hindu]
4 May 2021
India, France conclude bilateral maritime exercise
(lm) India and France have concluded the 19th edition of the Varuna naval exercise in the strategically important Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Notably, the United Arab Emirates for the first time joined the drills [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4]. [Naval Technology] [The EurAsian Times]
The exercise – which launched on April 25 – comes less than a month after India for the first time joined La Pérouse, a French-led naval exercise attended by the United States, Japan and Australia – all member states of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). [AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4]
4 May 2021
India, Russia agree to establish 2+2 ministerial dialogue on foreign and defense affairs
(lm) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on April 28 that he and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin had agreed to establish a two-plus-two meeting between the two nations’ foreign and defense ministers. Taking to Twitter Modi said he had had “an excellent conversation” with his “friend” the Russian president, and that they had decided to launch a two-plus-two to add further momentum “to our strong strategic partnership”. [Nikkei Asia] [South China Morning Post] [The Economic Times]
Importantly, the meeting between Modi and Putin followed on the heels of an official two-day visit to New Delhi by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who met with his Indian counterpart S. Jaishankar on April 4 to discuss closer military cooperation between the two countries [see AiR No. 15, April/2021, 2].
Thus, there is a good case to believe that despite the positive language the dialogue was aimed at further clearing up misunderstandings on various thorny issues, most notably India’s involvement in the informal strategic dialogue known as the Quad. For Russia now has become part of a small group of countries – the United States, Japan and Australia – with whom India holds foreign and defense ministerial dialogue.
Observers therefore consider the announcement of a Russia-India two-plus-two a balancing act, as both countries are trying to broaden their diplomatic relationships.
A state that has traditionally adhered to the principle of non-alignment, India is seemingly keen to signal to the United States that it retained its “strategic autonomy”, especially after Washington has recently been trying to pressure India into withdrawing from its planned purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system, which under US law can attract sanction similar to those imposed on Turkey last year [see AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5].
Moscow, conversely, wants to signal to Beijing that despite their relatively warm ties it planned to continue supplying advanced weaponry to New Delhi – a sore point for China which has spent much of the past year in a military stand-off with India over their disputed Himalayan border.
4 May 2021
Japan, India, Australia, formally launch Supply Chain Resilience Initiative
(lm/dql) Against the larger backdrop of simmering trade and political tensions, the trade minister of Japan, India and Australia on April 27 formally launched the Supply Chain Resilience Initiative (SCRI) in the region. [South China Morning Post]
During the first phase, the three nations will share best practices on supply chain resilience, hold investment promotion and buyer-seller matching events for diversification of their supply chains. To quickly take forward the trilateral effort, the ministers explored convening the Trilateral Ministerial Meeting, once in four months.
After the coronavirus pandemic had brought to the fore the importance of diversification away from trade and supply chain dependence, informal talks had been ongoing since Japan first broached the idea with India in July of last year [see AiR No. 34, August/2020, 4]. In September, then, the three nations initiated high-level consultations [see AiR No. 36, September/2020, 2].
The proposal centers around a two-stage plan, which aims at attracting foreign direct investment to turn the Indo-Pacific into an “economic powerhouse” by linking up all the separate existing bilateral relationships, such as the recently established Indo-Japan Industrial Competitiveness Partnership. Moreover, the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) may be brought into the loop to establish new “China+1” strategies for supply chains outside China and build momentum towards a new trade-based quadrilateral alliance.
See in this regard, John Blaxland and Ashok Sharma in [East Asia Forum], who argue that a strategy of the Quad focusing solely on security “is not going to be enough to significantly alter the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific or deter further abrasive assertiveness” on China’s side,” and suggest that the Quad has to “venture into the realm of trade and investment with a focus on environmental issues to address the needs of states buffeted by growing great power competition.”
China’s Foreign Ministry was quick to criticize the initiative warning that “[a]rtificial industrial ‘transfer’ is an unrealistic approach that goes against the economic laws and can neither solve domestic problems nor do anything good to the stability of the global industrial and supply chains, or to the stable recovery of the world economy.” [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China]
4 May 2021
India: Party of Prime Minister Modi looses West Bengal state election
(lm) Voters in West Bengal dealt Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a blow in a state election held as India’s coronavirus pandemic surged to crisis levels. The All-India Trinamool Congress (AITC) led by its founder and incumbent Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee won a two-third majority, taking more than 200 seats in the 294-seat state assembly. [CNN] [The New York Times] [The Straits Times 1]
One of India’s most populous states, West Bengal was viewed as a key battleground, for it has never been ruled by the BJP. The AITC has been in power since 2011 when it dislodged a government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that had governed the state for 34 years.
Hoping to widen the appeal of his BJP beyond the Party’s heartland – India’s sprawling and politically febrile Hindi Belt – Modi had addressed dozens of rallies, prompting criticism the Prime Minister was focusing on elections instead of making the pandemic his top priority [see AiR No. 13, March/2021, 5]. Despite the defeat, the Hindu-nationalist BJP made substantial gains and became the main opposition party. Its tally in the state legislature went to nearly 80 seats, compared to just three seats won in the last state election in 2016.
Results were also announced for elections held in the neighboring state of Assam, alongside the results from Legislative Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry. [AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]
In northeastern Assam state, the BJP managed to retain power. In Tamil Nadu, victory went to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the main regional opposition party. In Kerala state, the ruling leftist political party was set to form government while the BJP led-alliance won no seats. In the Tamil-speaking union territory of Puducherry, the All India NR Congress-led alliance was leading in 14 of the 30 seats assembly. [The Straits Times 2]
4 May 2021
India: High Court, Supreme Court rebuke government over oxygen crisis
(lm) With the government unable to maintain a steady supply of oxygen, the New Delhi High Court on May 2 said that it would start punishing government officials for failing to deliver the life-saving items after several hospital authorities in the capital successfully sought an injunction. [The New York Times]
On the day of the verdict, India recorded a slight drop in new infections with 392,488 from a high of 401,993 in the previous 24 hours. It also reported 3,689 additional deaths, bringing the total to more than 215,000. Experts believe both figures are an undercount. [Associated Press]
Just days before, the Supreme Court (SC) had also weighed in, urging the central and state governments to consider another lockdown to gain control of the virus and to create and emergency stockpile of oxygen. [India Today]
Importantly, the SC also warned that attempts to clamp down on any information by the state or police authorities will be treated as contempt of court, after the federal government last week forced social networking service Twitter to remove more than 50 tweets that had been critical of Prime Minister Modi and his government’s handling of the pandemic. [Bar and Bench] [Forbes]
Critics have blasted Prime Minister Modi’s handling of the crisis. A sudden, harsh lockdown imposed early in the pandemic sent millions of laborers scrambling back to their home villages and disrupted the economy. When cases dropped, the government failed to heed warnings of a potential resurgence from scientists, and its COVID-19 task force did not meet for months. Modi declared a premature victory over the pandemic in late January, during what proved to be a mere lull in infections.
20 April 2021
France, India and Australia step up trilateral cooperation, with China on the horizon
(lm) France, India and Australia have indicated they are jointly planning to step up their presence in the Indo-Pacific, modelling their closer cooperation after the efforts of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), in areas such as maritime security, vaccine cooperation, higher education and emerging technology. [South China Morning Post]
The countries’ three foreign ministers were speaking on April 14 in a virtual discussion at the Raisina Dialoue, a multilateral conference held annually in New Delhi, after Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne cancelled her trip to the Indian capital due to the coronavirus pandemic. In September of last year, the three countries held their first-ever trilateral meeting at the foreign-secretary level to explore possible ways of cooperation in addressing the challenges of maritime security in the Indo-Pacific [see AiR No. 39, September/2020, 5]. Their second trilateral discussion took place in February, leading up to last week’s cancelled meeting [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4].
India’s Minister of External Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said the trilateral, in its next meeting, would discuss “something similar” to the list of topics on the agenda of the Quad – a loose strategic coalition comprising of France, the United States, India and Australia, which is increasingly seen as a potential counterweight to growing Chinese influence and alleged assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. Jaishankar also said that New Delhi would not be constrained between the Strait of Malacca and the Gulf of Aden. [Hindustan Times]
Jaishankar’s French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian underscored France’s legitimate role in the Indo-Pacific by pointing to the two million French inhabitants in the region. Apart from inviting all Quad members to its La Perouse naval exercise held earlier this month, the French Navy’s Carrier Strike Group will be joining Indian naval forces to jointly conduct this year’s iteration of their Exercise Varuna in the strategically important Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Notably, the United Arab Emirates for the first time will be joining the drills [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4].
Meanwhile, Australia’s High Commissioner to India on April 20 launched the Australia-India Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative Partnership (AIIPOIP) grant program, which seeks proposal on how the two countries alongside with other regional partners can advance their shared maritime objectives. [EastMojo]
20 April 2021
Bangladesh: Islamist leader arrested after violent protests over Modi visit
(lm) Police on April 18 arrested an influential leader of hardline Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam that led violent protests against last month’s visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh. The arrest follows on a stern warning by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who in a speech to parliament earlier this month said her government would not tolerate arson and violence in the name of Islam [see AiR No. 14, April/2021, 1]. [Associated Press]
The Indian prime minister had arrived in Dhaka for a two-day visit on 26 March, Bangladesh’s Independence Day. It also coincided with the birth centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s founder and father of Prime Minister Hasina [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4]. Critics accuse Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of stoking religious polarization in India and discriminating against minorities, particularly Muslims.
The same day, clashes between protesters and government forces began after weekly prayers in three cities, and at least 17 supporters of Hefazat-e-Islam were killed in separate clashes with police. On March 28, Hefazat-e-Islam called for a nationwide shut down to protest the attacks on those who held rallies against Prime Minister Modi’s visit [see AiR No. 13, March/2021, 5].
20 April 2021
Philippines seeks cooperation with Russia, India, France, Denmark
(lp) Besides securing 20 million Sputnik V vaccine doses from Russia, the Philippines expects further bilateral cooperation in defense, trade, investment, health. [Nikkei Asia]
The Philippines also expects vaccine supplies from India. In March, they maintained negotiations with the Serum Institute of India to not only obtain Novavax and AstraZeneca vaccines, but also to begin local production of vaccines in the Philippines. However, the latter was not mentioned in a recent phone conversation between the two countries’ leaders. [PhilStar 1] The Philippines just granted emergency use authority to Covaxin vaccines, developed by the Indian pharmaceutical company Bharat Biotech. [PhilStar 2] [Manila Bulletin 1]
Moreover, the Philippines and France reaffirmed their commitment to cooperate in similar fields, especially in light of France’s new role as Development Partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). [Manila Bulletin 2]
Meanwhile, the Philippines also seeks AstraZeneca vaccines that were left suspended in Denmark due to reported cases of negative side effects. In fact, the Philippines will resume the use of AstraZeneca vaccines after public health organizations conducted a two-week evaluation, concluding that the benefits outweigh the risks. This decision illustrates the shortage of vaccine supplies the Philippines faces. [Manila Bulletin 3] [Inquirer 1]
Furthermore, the Philippine Department of Science and Technology (DOST) emphasized the need to provide incentives for pharmaceutical firms to manufacture vaccines in the country, in addition to the five to six year-income tax holiday and preferential treatment in biddings. For now, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) is negotiating with six firms to begin local vaccine production by late 2022. [Inquirer 2]
20 April 2021
India, EU hold 9th joint Human Rights Dialogue
(lm) India and the European Union have underscored their commitment to human rights and the shared principles and values of democracy, freedom and rule of law, ahead of their joint summit scheduled for May.
The two sides expressed the need to foster greater engagement on human rights issues and exchanged views on strengthening human rights, including in social, economic and cultural spheres during their ninth dialogue on the subject in New Delhi on Monday. [EEAS]
20 April 2021
India’s chief of the air staff on official visit to France
(lm) Indian Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria on April 19 embarked on a five-day official visit to France, during which he is scheduled to hold talks with several senior French military officials, including his French counterpart General Philippe Lavigne, and visit several operational facilities and air bases. [mint]
Bhadauria’s trip is the latest in a series of events reflecting the vitality of the strategic partnership between New Delhi and Paris. For it comes on the heels of a visit by French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves le Drian to India, who conducted an official visit to New Delhi from April 13 to April 15 [see article in this edition].
During his visit, the chief of the Indian Air Force (IAF) is also expected to flag-off another six French-made Rafale jets. It will be the fifth batch of aircraft arriving in India since the government’s purchase four years ago of a total of 36 planes worth $9.2 billion from French defense manufacturer Dassault Aviation. The delivery is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2021. [AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4] [Hindustan Times]
20 April 2021
India’s shadow looms over revived China-Bhutan border talks
(lm) During a four-day meeting of experts between China and Bhutan last week, the two sides agreed to resume long-delayed talks on their disputed boundary, but analysts say a breakthrough is unlikely, given Indian influence over Bhutan. [South China Morning Post] [The EurAsian Times]
Since 1984, Bhutan and China have held 24 rounds of talks, with discussions being limited to three areas of dispute in the western and central sections of the boundary. Talks have been frozen since 2017, however, following the months-long border stand-off between China and India in Doklam, a territory claimed by both Beijing and Thimphu. Back then, New Delhi, which has historically close ties and considerable influence over Bhutan, supported Thimphu’s claims, in part because the area is close to the Siliguri corridor, a narrow stretch of land also known as the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ that connects India’s north-east with the mainland. The issue ended inconclusively when both India and China agreed to withdraw from the plateau in August 2017. [AiR 29. December 2017]
In July of last year, then, Beijing for the first time publicly put on record that is has a border dispute with Bhutan over the country`s eastern sector, and – in a tangential reference to India – said that “a third party should not point fingers” in the Sino-Bhutan border dispute. Beijing`s assertion followed earlier attempts to stop the funding for the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (SWS) in eastern Bhutan’s Trashigang district, which China claimed was “disputed”. [AiR No. 28, July/2020, 2]
20 April 2021
India-China border disengagement expected to be a lengthy process
(lm) Along the Sino-Indian border, high up in the Himalayas, tensions continue to simmer after the latest round of talks held on April 9 ended with no sign of progress. The latest negotiations, unlike previous rounds of talks, ended without a joint statement playing up the prospect of disengagement. [The Straits Times]
After nine months of tense military confrontation, the two sides in February began withdrawing from their positions on the southern and northern banks of Pangong Lake as part of a phased, synchronized military disengagement [see AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4]. But Beijing and New Delhi are yet to resolve other “friction points”, including Gogra, Hot Springs and the Depsang Plains in eastern Ladakh, which did not feature in the purported disengagement plan [see AiR No. 45, November/2020, 2]. [The Indian Express]
A statement released by the Western Theatre Command of the Chinese military said both sides will maintain military and diplomatic contact, while at the same time urging India to “treasure the current positive situation of de-escalation”. A separate statement by India said that the completion of disengagement in other areas would pave the way for restoring calm and that both sides agreed on “the need to resolve the outstanding issues in an expeditious manner in accordance with the existing agreements and protocols”. [South China Morning Post]
Meanwhile, in a virtual discussion at the annual Raisina Dialogue [see article above], India’s Chief of Defense Staff General Bipin Rawat last week said India has a stood firm on the northern border against China, adding that it was “my way or no other way” about the drawn-out border stand-off. [South China Morning Post]
The General also said the development of “disruptive technologies” had emboldened China to wage an “undeclared war” against India and other nations through cyberattacks. The army chief’s statement linking China to cyberattacks comes after a US internet security firm in February alleged that a hacking group affiliated with the Chinese government had been repeatedly targeted a dozen critical nodes across the Indian power generation and transmission infrastructure to possibly coerce New Delhi on the border issue
20 April 2021
British PM Johnson cancels trip to India over COVID-19 situation
(lm) British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s planned visit to India next week has been cancelled because of the country’s escalating coronavirus crisis. Johnson and his Indian counterpart Prime Minister Narendra Modi will speak later this month through video channel to launch plans for the future partnership between New Delhi and London, a joint statement by the United Kingdom and India announced on April 19. [bbc] [The Guardian]
The trip – billed as Johnson’s first major overseas visit since entering Downing Street in 2019 – had originally been due to place in January but it was postponed because of COVID-19 [see AiR No. 49, December/2020, 2]. The second cancellation comes after new coronavirus cases in India reached more than 273,000 on April 19, a doubling of the peak of new infections during the country’s first wave in September last year. Earlier, Britain on April 16had already added India to its list of states subject to the strictest travel restrictions after detecting more than 100 cases of a coronavirus variant first identified in the country. [Reuters]
Importantly, the United Kingdom published on March 16 its long-anticipated “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy”, in which national security and international policy is articulated. Marking a significant step forward in the UK’s new life outside of the European Union, the Review describes London’s future relationship with the Middle East, North Africa, and explains an ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’. [AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4]
While Johnson’s trip to New Delhi was initially being described as a post-Brexit tilt to the Indo-Pacific, it now has become part of a plan to transform the G7 group into a broader grouping of 10 leading democracies capable of challenging China and other authoritarian states. London’s intention to increase its presence in the Pacific was illustrated in December of last year, when the British premier invited Australia, India and South Korea to attend the G7 summit in Cornwall in June as guests – a move that has caused raised eyebrows among some of the other attendees [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4].
20 April 2021
India, Pakistan hold secret talks to break Kashmir impasse
(lm) The foreign ministers of India and Pakistan have insisted that their respective visits to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently were purely bilateral, days after the Gulf nation’s envoy to the United States confirmed his country was mediating between the South Asian neighbors to help them reaching a “healthy and functional” relationship. [Al Jazeera] [South China Morning Post]
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi started a three-day official visit to the UAE on April 17, while India’s Subrahmanyam Jaishankar arrived the following day. Both ministers held separate meetings with their Emirati counterpart Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and other top officials. [Bloomberg]
The UAE’s envoy to Washington, meanwhile, has lend further credence to news reports that earlier this year had claimed that Gulf nation had brokered secret talks between India and Pakistan, which resulted in a four-step “roadmap for peace” between the two South Asian neighbors [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4].
In a first indication that serious efforts at resuming bilateral dialogue are ongoing, India and Pakistan in February jointly announced to revive a 2003 ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control (LoC) – the de facto border that divides the disputed Kashmir valley between the two countries – and all other sectors [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1]. A day after the joint ceasefire deal, bin Zayed Al Nahyan met with his Indian counterpart, Jaishankar, in New Delhi to discuss “all regional and international issues of common interest”. [Reuters]
There has since been some further movement on multiple fronts, but Islamabad earlier this month did a swift U-turn on plans by the government’s Economic Coordination Council (ECC) to import cotton and sugar from India, linking any “normalization” in ties to New Delhi restoring Indian-administered Kashmir’s special status [see AiR No. 14, April/2021, 1].
13 April 2021
Indian Army chief visits Bangladesh
(lm) Indian Army Chief General Naravane completed a five-day working visit to Bangladesh on April 12, as the two countries are jointly commemorating the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan. General Naravane’s trip follows on the heels of an official two-day Dhaka visit from Prime Minister Modi, a trip that had sparked both violent protest and enthusiasm that relations between the two neighbors will continue to grow [see AiR No. 13, March/2021, 5].
During his visit, General Naravane met with the Force Commanders of the United Nations peacekeeping operations in Mali, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. The Indian army chief also attend the closing ceremony of Exercise Shantir Ogrosena, a ten-day multinational military exercise comprising the armed forces of India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka along with observers from the United states, the United Kingdom, Turkey and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Singapore. [The Hindu]
13 April 2021
India protests US Navy’s transit operation through its exclusive economic zone
(lm) India protested to the United States on April 9 after a destroyer of the US Navy two days earlier conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) west of the Lakshadweep Islands, inside India’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), without requesting New Delhi’s prior consent. The patrol came while United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry was in New Delhi on a three-day visit to push India to take stronger action on climate change [see article in this edition]. [Anadolu Agency] [The Indian Express]
The US Navy regularly conducts FONOPs to enforce the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), using ships to sail through those areas in particular that states have attempted to close off to free navigation as defined under UNCLOS and international law and custom. New Delhi, however, takes the view that UNCLOS does not authorize other states to carry out such without consent. [The Straits Times]
While the US Navy has on multiple occasions since 1985 carried out FONOP patrols through Indian waters without seeking prior approval, this is the first time that such an operation has been conducted near the Lakshadweep Islands. Adding the fact that the recent FONOP comes at a time when US-Indian maritime collaboration is at an all-time high, it has the potential to add complications, according to observers. For the operation is a clear sign that Washington remains concerned about what it considers “excessive maritime claims” across the Indo-Pacific – including partners and allies. [The Diplomat] [South China Morning Post]
13 April 2021
United States pushes India on net zero target ahead of global summit
(lm) United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry last week met with his Indian counterpart Prakash Javadekar and officials from the ministries of energy and foreign affairs to push New Delhi to boost its climate ambitions. Kerry’s visit was the second official engagement between Washington and New Delhi since US President Joe Biden assumed office in January, after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit last month [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4]. [Bloomberg] [The Straits Times]
Kerry’s three-day working visit comes ahead of a virtual “Leaders Summit on Climate” from 40 nations organized by President Biden later this month. Aimed at galvanizing efforts to commit to more ambitious climate change mitigation targets, the Summit is considered a key milestone on the road to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) this November in Glasgow. The US climate envoy also visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bangladesh. [The White House]
Kerry has been calling for 20 countries that account for 81 percent of global emissions — including India, the world’s third biggest emitter behind the US and China — to take the lead in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The aim is to achieve net-zero emissions by or before 2050 in the pursuit of the Paris Agreement goals.
New Delhi has been facing mounting diplomatic pressure to set its own net zero target ahead of the COP26 climate talks, but is unlikely to do so, according to recent reporting. New Delhi takes the view that its per capita emissions are still only an eighth of those of the United States and less than a third of China’s, even as it tries to bridge a development gap. [Reuters] [The Print]
13 April 2021
India-Russia defense ties deepen, even as Moscow hails ‘highest’ level of Beijing relations
(lm) Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Indian counterpart S. Jaishankar on April 4 discussed closer military cooperation, including manufacturing of Russian military hardware in India and the peace process in Afghanistan. Lavrov was on a two-day working visit in New Delhi to lay the groundwork for the annual India-Russia Summit to be held in India later this year. [South China Morning Post]
Strikingly, Lavrov did not meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Indian media reports suggest the Indian government was unhappy that Lavrov’s trip to India was combined with one to Pakistan [see article below]. Another theory goes that Washington urged New Delhi not to have Modi meet Lavrov.
United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry also held a brief meeting with Lavrov while both officials were in India [see article in this edition]. The official explanation was that they met by happenstance and spoke about climate change. But they may well have spoken on other issues, including the Iran nuclear deal. [Foreign Policy]
During a news conference held subsequently, both diplomats sidestepped questions on India’s planned purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system, which under US law can attract sanction similar to those imposed on Turkey last year [see AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5]. Jaishankar said the pending delivery would be discussed at a meeting of defense ministers later in the year. [Bloomberg]
India’s arm imports have decreased by a whopping 33 percent in the second half of the decade, as New Delhi attempts to reduce dependence on Russia. For arms exports by Moscow, which accounted for 20 percent of all exports of major arms between 2016 and 2020, dropped by 22 percent. [AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4]
Importantly, the Russian foreign minister also ruled out a military alliance with China, saying such a discussion was not on the table even as he described Moscow-Beijing bilateral ties as being “the highest in history at the summit level”. Speculation that Beijing and Moscow could develop a united front against NATO had emerged after Russian President Vladimir Putin last October said he would not “rule out” a possible pact with China.
But what is more, against the backdrop of India’s growing strategic convergence with the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, Lavrov’s remarks were to tacitly signal to New Delhi to stay clear from attempts by Washington to turn the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) – a loose strategic coalition of Japan, India, Australia and the United States – into an Indo-Pacific NATO. [Deccan Herald]
Meanwhile, three decades after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Moscow has become a key player in the Afghan peace process. Russia has hosted several meetings on Afghan reconciliation in the last two years, including one last month in Moscow with Taliban leaders and senior diplomats from the United States, China and Pakistan – but not India. On his most recent trip, Lavrov—accompanied to New Delhi by the Russian special envoy for Afghanistan—did call for a prominent Indian role in the peace process. [Tolo News]
The two sides also discussed vaccine cooperation, as New Delhi is set to clear the Russia-made Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine for emergency use, which will make available a third vaccine option for the South Asian nation. [Anadolu Agency]
13 April 2021
Cross-Strait relations: Tensions flare up at multiple fronts
(zh) Taiwan’s Executive Yuan is considering amendments to the National Security Act and the Trade Secret Act to prevent China’s commercial espionage and the poaching of core technologies, particularly the semiconductor and information technology. Taiwan prohibits Chinese companies from doing business or recruiting locally without prior approval, but some firms conceal their Chinese ownership to illegally recruit workers. [Taipei Times 1]
The plan to amend those law comes at a time when Taiwan’s government has become increasingly wary of the risk of the “red supply chain”, especially amid the ongoing trade war between Beijing and Washington, worrying the island’s chip workers become targets for China’s poaching in the semiconductor industry. [AiR No.14, April/2021, 1]
China, meanwhile, continues its military muscle flexing, with 25 PLA planes flying through Taiwan’s air defense zone (ADIZ), including 14 J-16 fighter jets, four J-10 fighter jets, four H-6K bombers, two anti-submarine warfare planes and an airborne early warning and control plane on Monday. In an earlier move last week, 15 of China’s military aircraft, including 12 fighter jets, had flown into the southwestern part of the island’s ADIZ. The flights were linked to maneuvers of China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning and its escorts in the west and east of Taiwan on Monday last week, an exercise of which China said that it will be conducted regularly [CNN] [Taiwan News 1] [CNN] [Taipei Times 2]
Referring to the increased number of incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ and to US warnings of a Chinese military attack on Taiwan in the near future, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu reassured that Taiwan is willing to fight the war if needed and the island would “defend ourselves to the very last day,” adding that Taiwan ready to build up its military might and allocate more funds for defense. [Guardian 1] [Taiwan News 2]
China’s military, on its side, confirmed it has tracked the US Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain sailing through the Taiwan Strait. The US has claimed the move as a routine exercise of freedom of navigation, whereas China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Eastern Theatre Command called it a tactic to “manipulate” the cross-Strait situation and China is “firmly opposed to that”. [South China Morning Post]
Finally, Taiwan has accused China of malign “vaccine diplomacy” in Paraguay – one of 15 countries which have formal relations with Taiwan – after the Paraguayan government declined China’s offer of millions of vaccine doses in exchange for cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan. China has denied the efforts to entice Paraguay with vaccines. To counter China’s mounting pressure in Central and South America where Taiwan has five allies, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said Taiwan is working with like-minded countries including the Quad countries Japan, the US, and India to provide vaccine to Paraguay, adding that India has already shipped 100,000 doses to Paraguay and there would be another 100,000. [BBC][Bloomberg][South China Morning Post]
However, India denied Taiwan’s reported role in the shipment of Indian-made vaccines to Paraguay, saying the delivery was made in response to Paraguay’s request. [Hindustan Times]
In a separate move, India’s foreign ministry last week posted a message on Twitter to express condolences over more than 50 deaths in Taiwan’s most serious train crash in decades. It is probably the first time the Ministry posted online about Taiwan, indicating New Delhi’s subtle foreign policy shift amid its ongoing boundary dispute with Beijing and engagement in the Quad to counter China. As Taiwan’s foreign policy shifts from US-centric to South Asia-focused, an opinion piece in [Taipei Times] suggests that New Delhi cooperate with countries such as the US, Japan, and Singapore to devise a consistent Taiwan policy and “take a lead in facilitating Taiwan’s inclusion,” into the evolving regional order of the Indo-Pacific.
13 April 2021
India: New Chief Justice appointed
(lm) Justice Nuthalapati Venkata Ramana, the second most senior judge at the Supreme Court of India, has been appointed as the 48th Chief Justice of India (CJI) with effect from April 24. Incumbent CJI Sharad A. Bobde had recommended Justice Ramana for appointment in a letter addressed to the Ministry of Law and Justice earlier in March. [The Hindu]
Before he became a judge in the Supreme Court in 2014, Justice Ramana had served the Chief Justice of Delhi High Court and the acting Chief Justice of Andhra Pradesh High Court. As CJI, Justice Ramana has a tenure of 16 months. [The New Indian Express]
13 April 2021
India hosts first meeting of BRICS finance ministers and central bank governors
(lm) India on April 6 hosted the first meeting of the Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors of the BRICS grouping of five major emerging economies through video channel. The meeting was jointly chaired by India’s Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs, Nirmala Sitharaman, and the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. [South Asia Monitor]
India this January assumed the rotating chairmanship of the regional organization comprising of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Under the preceding chair – Russia – 130 events at different levels were held, including several ministerial and interagency meetings and the 12th BRICS summit in November last, which was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic [see AiR No. 47, November/2020, 4].
13 April 2021
Nepal: Foreign investment pledges fall by more than 12 percent as commitments from India plummet
(lm) Pledges of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Nepal have dropped significantly, falling almost 12.7 percent year-on-year in the first nine months of the current fiscal year. Strikingly, while investment commitment from China topped the list of foreign investment source countries, increasing slightly compared to the same period last fiscal year, the year-on-year investment from India dropped by a whopping 81 percent. [The Kathmandu Post]
Beijing has been leading FDI pledges to Nepal for the last five years, with Chinese FDI accounting for two-thirds or more than $220 million of Kathmandu’s total committed FDI during the previous fiscal year. For a comprehensive analysis of deepening Sino-Nepal relations, in particular their geopolitical implications, please consider Dhanwati Yadav’s analysis for The Jamestown Foundation.
13 April 2021
Indian defense minister meets with Kazakhstan’s counterpart in New Delhi
(lm) Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh on April 9 held extensive talks with his Kazakh counterpart General Nurlan Yermekbayev with a focus on defense industrial cooperation and mutual capacity building. Yermekbayev was on an official four-day visit to New Delhi from April 7. The two ministers had last met in Moscow in September of last year, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Defense Ministers’ meeting. [Asian News International]
6 April 2021
India, Australia hold 6th dialogue on disarmament, non-proliferation and export control
(lm) India and Australia on March 30 held the sixth edition of their joint Dialogue on Disarmament, Non-Proliferation, and Export Control through video channel. As per the statement by India’s Ministry of External Affairs, both sides exchanged views on the issues in the areas of chemical, nuclear, biological disarmament and non-proliferation, outer space security, conventional weapons, and strategic export control. [Jagran Josh]
6 April 2021
India, United States hold joint special forces, naval exercises
(lm) Indian and United States special forces on March 30 concluded the 11th edition of the joint military exercise Vajra Prahar. Conducted in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, the joint training exercise included sharing of best practices and experience in areas such as joint mission planning. [UrduPoint]
Separately, naval and aerial forces of the two countries on March 28 started a two-day exercise in the eastern Indian Ocean region. The joint exercise focused on such operations as anti-submarine warfare, joint air operations, and command and control integration. The US navy was represented by the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group (TRCSG). [Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet] [United Press International]
Both exercises occurred on the heels of US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s scheduled visit to India earlier in March. During talks in New Delhi, Austin and his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh agreed to expand bilateral military cooperation, and discussed India’s plan to purchase 30 armed versions of the US-made MQ-9B Predator drones as well as a large order for over 150 combat jets for the Indian Air Force. [AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4]
6 April 2021
Indian Army delegation in Bangladesh for multinational military exercise
(lm) A 30-member contingent of the Indian Army on April 4 arrived in Bangladesh to partake in the “Shantir Ogroshena” joint military exercise, alongside with military personnel from Bhutan and Sri Lanka. The eight-day military training is being held to commemorate the birth centenary of the country’s founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 50 years of independence from Pakistan[see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4]. [The Times of India]
Further, military observers from the United States, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Singapore will be in attendance throughout the exercise.
6 April 2021
India: Maoist insurgents kill more than 20 Indian security forces in ambush, officials say
(lm) At least 23 Indian security forces were killed in an ambush by Maoist militants in the central state of Chattisgarh, officials said on April 4, India’s deadliest engagement with the far-left insurgent group, often referred to as the Naxalites, since 2017.
Members of India’s elite Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) unit, and the Special Task Force were carrying out an anti-insurgency operation on April 3 in a forested border district when they were attacked. During a four-hour gun battle, a further 31 Indian personnel were wounded, with seven in critical condition. The rebels also suffered heavy casualties but had carried away their dead and injured. [New York Times]
Inspired by Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, the insurgents trace their roots to an armed peasant revolt against the Indian government in 1967 and use violence against the state in the name of championing the cause of the country’s poor indigenous communities. The group once was able to assert control over vast swathes of land in central and eastern India – establishing a so-called “red corridor” – that in 2006, India’s prime minister declared them the country’s “single biggest internal-security challenge.” In Chhattisgarh state, where the latest attack took place, years of neglect by Indian authorities have helped to isolate the local villagers, making them open to overtures by the rebels. [Deutsche Welle]
6 April 2021
Pakistan puts decision to resume India imports on hold
(lm) Just a day after announcing plans to allow limited imports of cotton, sugar and wheat from India, Pakistan did a swift U-turn over the decision, linking any “normalization” in ties to New Delhi restoring Indian-administered Kashmir’s special status. Bilateral trade has been suspended since August 2019, but a series of signs of rapprochement had recently indicated a potential thaw in relations. [Reuters] [The Hindu] [The Straits Times 1]
The U-turn was considered an embarrassment for Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government, in particular for the newly appointed Finance Minister Hammad Azhar, who on March 31 had announced clearances by the Economic Coordination Council (ECC) for imports of sugar and cotton from India. The decision came against the backdrop of high domestic prices coupled with low yield in Pakistan last year. [The Indian Express]
In late February, India and Pakistan had jointly announced to revive a 2003 ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control (LoC) – the de facto border that divides the disputed Kashmir valley between the two countries – and all other sectors [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1]. News reports later claimed that the ceasefire was the first milestone of a four-step “roadmap for peace” between the two South Asian neighbors, which was agreed upon during secret talks brokered by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that began months earlier [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4].
To be sure, even the short-term durability of this ceasefire remains uncertain, considering that progress in bilateral relations has usually been short-lived and this checkered opening will not be the last. Still, within weeks of the announcement in February, there has been some movement on multiple fronts with renewal of sports ties and discussions on the Indus Water Treaty.
Moreover, Prime Minister Khan and Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, had both recently adopted a softer tone, with the latter speaking of the need for both Pakistan and India to “bury the past and move forward”, whilst attending the first Islamabad Security Dialogue [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4].
Most recently, in yet another sign of thawing relations, Prime Minister Khan on March 30 replied to a letter written by his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi, calling for the creation of an “enabling environment” between the two countries to resolve outstanding issues. The Indian prime minister had written to Khan on the occasion of Pakistan’s Republic Day on March 23, also calling for peaceful relations between the two nuclear-armed rivals. [The Straits Times 2]
30 March 2021
India seeks to expedite major infrastructure project with Myanmar
Having withdrawn its frontline troops along Pangong Tso [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3], India is now reportedly expediting work on the Kaladan Road Project, an ambitious road infrastructure project that would open a gateway for New Delhi to Southeast Asian countries.
The objective of the Kaladan Road Project is to link India’s landlocked northeast with the country’s eastern coast through the southern coast of Myanmar. Together with the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, the Kaladan Road Project is considered a vital component of New Delhi’s multifaceted “Act East Policy”, which seeks to compete with China’s massive infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) [see AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2]. [Foreign Policy]
Although New Delhi was able to develop a close rapport with Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, over recent years, completion of the strategic project has been delayed by over three years due to a combination of several factors. Of these, the long-ranging conflict between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army (AA), a Rakhine armed group in Myanmar, assumes added significance, due to recent developments.
In seeking greater autonomy for the western Rakhine State, the AA has battled against the Tatmadaw since 2018, with hundreds of fatalities caused and more than 200,000 residents being displaced due to the conflict. In November, then, the AA surprisingly ordered its armed members to fall back as it entered a ceasefire with the Myanmar military. Lending further weight to the argument that the agreement was setting the stage for the coup d’état, the military junta later even removed the AA from list of prohibited groups [see AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3].
While reports suggested that Japan had brokered the deal between the Tatmadaw and the rebel AA, India may be considered the third party benefitting from the situation. For recent developments have diminished the threats from the AA on the Myanmar side of the project, albeit temporarily.
30 March 2021
Bangladesh visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a boost for trade, connectivity
(lm) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 27 concluded a two-day official visit to Bangladesh, a trip that sparked both violent protest [see article in this edition] and enthusiasm that relations between the two neighbors will continue to grow. [The Indian Express]
The Indian Prime Minister arrived on March 26 to attend the concluding event of Bangladesh’s a 10-day-long grand celebration commemorating the birth centenary of the country’s founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 50 years of independence from Pakistan. Leaders from Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives have already attended the festivities, which started on March 17 [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4].
On the first day of Prime Minister Modi’s visit, the two leaders witnessed the signing of five agreements involving trade, disaster management, information technology and sports. They also jointly laid the foundation stones for infrastructure development for power evacuation facilities of an under-construction nuclear power plant in Bangladesh. A new train service between Bangladesh and India was also launched by the two leaders. [Associated Press] [The Straits Times 2]
During the talks Bangladesh Prime Minister Skeikh Hasina requested India, currently a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), to play a “strong role” in the early repatriation of the displaced Rohingya back to Myanmar. [NDTV]
Prime Minister Modi also bore the gift of an additional 1.2 million doses of Covishield (the local name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the United Kingdom), after Dhaka had previously received 2 million free doses of the shot. Bangladesh in November signed a deal with the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine maker whose coronavirus shots are being used in New Delhi’s “vaccine diplomacy” [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. Coming at a time when New Delhi has told its international partners that it will prioritize domestic inoculations over exports of vaccines as it battles a rise in new infections, the gift lends further credence to the importance of the India-Bangladesh relationship. [Reuters] [South China Morning Post]
In December, the two countries had signed seven Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) on cooperation in a range of areas including trade, energy and agriculture AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4. The virtual summit marked the first high-level meeting of the two leaders since bilateral relations had nosedived after India in 2019 had passed its controversial religion-based citizenship law [see AiR No. 2, January/2020, 2]. New Delhi has since been making overtures to smoothen relations with Dhaka, with the Indian foreign secretary visiting Bangladesh twice last year [see AiR No. 35, September/2020, 1, AiR No. 33, August/2020, 3].
30 March 2021
South Korea-India relations: Defence chiefs agree on closer military ties
(nm) Last week, South Korean and Indian defence ministers held talks discussing ways to foster cooperation in the security and arms industry. India also expressed support for Seoul’s policy on denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula. Additional topics included expanding ties in areas as diverse as cyber, space and maritime issues, as well as “the need to establish a rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region.” In contrast to speculations, the two did, however, not discuss the US-led Quad, a security alliance comprising India, the US, Japan, and Australia, according to South Korean officials. [Korea Herald]
Meanwhile, South Korea’s science ministry announced the country’s first homegrown rocket is on track to be launched in October this year. President Moon Jae-in responded positively to the announcement, stating the government will push aggressively for the development of the country’s first lunar orbiter. [Korea Times]
30 March 2021
India: Prime Minister Modi’s BJP vies for power in West Bengal state
(lm) Polling for the Legislative Assembly in India’s eastern state of West Bengal commenced on March 27 in the first of eight phases due to end on Aril 29. More than 90 million voters are eligible to cast their ballots for 294 assembly seats in one of the most significant state elections in India in recent years. Voters in the neighboring state of Assam also went to the polls on March 27 in the first of three phases. The results from both elections will be announced on May 2, alongside the results from Legislative Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry. [The Straits Times 1]
Victory in West Bengal would be a major achievement for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which seeks to expand further its power base beyond its heartland, India’s sprawling and politically febrile Hindi Belt. While the party is pushing hard to win power in the Bengali-speaking region for the first time, it faces a tough opponent in the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) led by its founder and incumbent Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. The AITC has been in power in West Bengal since 2011, when it dislodged a government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that had governed the state for 34 years. [CNBC] [The Straits Times 2] [The Straits Times 3]
Campaigns have seen huge rallies, despite a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in India in recent weeks, including around 800,000 people attending an event in Kolkata that featured Prime Minister Modi. Hoping to draw critical votes in the key battleground state, the prime minister on March 27 visited a Hindu temple outside Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka that is sacred to the Matua community in West Bengal. The Matua sect’s vote is expected to determine the winner of at least seven of the 294 seats in the state’s Legislative Assembly. [Associated Press] [New York Times]
In a state that is considered the country’s hotbed of political violence, activists from both parties had been killed during the campaign, and fresh incidents of violence were reported on March 27 with police saying a mob threw bombs at one polling station, seriously injuring an officer. [The Straits Times 4]
30 March 2021
Bangladesh: Violent protests spread after visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
(lm) At least 13 people were killed and dozens injured in protests against a two-day visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Bangladesh. Clashes between protesters and government forces began on March 26 after weekly prayers in three cities – Dhaka, the capital; Brahmanbaria, near the Indian border, and the coastal city of Chittagong – and have since spread across the country. [Al Jazeera 1] [Reuters] [The Straits Times]
Prime Minister Modi arrived in Bangladesh on March 26 to attend the concluding event of Bangladesh’s 10-day-long grand celebration commemorating the birth centenary of the country’s founding leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and 50 years of independence from Pakistan [see AiR No. 12, March/2021, 4]. Critics accuse Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of stoking religious polarization in India and discriminating against minorities, particularly Muslims. In recent weeks, demonstrators in Muslim-majority Bangladesh had urged the Indian leader not to visit and criticized Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for issuing the invitation, saying the two countries have many unresolved disputes, including the killing of Bangladeshis by India’s Border Security Force (BSF) [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3].
A few hundred members of Hefazat-e-Islam, a tightly-knit coalition of a dozen or so Islamist organizations [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3], led street processions through Chittagong and Dhaka on March 27, protesting the deaths of four of their supporters, who were killed the day before when police had opened fire at protesters who allegedly attacked a police station. Violence continued in Brahammanbaria the following day, resulting in five more deaths, according to Bangladeshi media. When the protest march turned violent, security forces opened fire to disperse the crowds. [Al Jazeera 2] [New York Times]
Other groups – including students and other Islamist outfits – also staged protests, criticizing the government for what they described as growing authoritarianism, including forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. At least 20 people, including two journalists, were injured when members of the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BSL), the student wing of the ruling Awami League, carried out multiple attacks on protests at a university in the capital Dhaka. [Dhaka Tribune]
Separately, protests were held on March 25 across Bangladesh to observe the “Bengali Genocide Remembrance Day”. Approved unanimously in 2017, the national day commemorates “Operation Searchlight”, a military operation carried out by the Pakistan Army which sought to curb the Bengali independence movement by eliminating the Awami League apparatus, alongside Bengali civilians, intelligentsia, students, politicians, and armed personnel [see AiR No. 10, March/2021, 2]. [Hindustan Times]
30 March 2021
Sri Lanka releases 54 Indian fishermen
(lm) Sri Lanka on March 26 released 54 Indian fishermen who had been arrested by the Sri Lankan Navy two days earlier, after the Indian government reportedly made it clear that the arrest of fishermen coming on the heels of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution [see article in this edition] was seen as a hostile move. [South Asia Monitor]
The Indian fishermen were apprehended on charges of engaging in illegal fishing and using prohibited fishing methods off Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. Following the fishermen’s arrest, the local fishery union in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu pressured the state and federal government to secure their release, and even threatened to boycott the upcoming Legislative Assembly election. [The Hindu]
The fisheries crisis in the Palk Bay – the water body between the southeast coast of India and Sri Lanka – has been festering for over a decade with frequent arrests of Indian fishermen who allegedly trespass into Sri Lanka’s territorial waters. The series of arrests made late on Wednesday comes after the Sri Lankan Navy resumed patrolling in December, after months of limiting arrests amid fears of contracting COVID-19 from Indian fishermen. Dozens of Indian fishermen were arrested in December last year [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1].
23 March 2021
Indian multinational conglomerate to develop Colombo Port WCT project
(lm) Indian multinational conglomerate Adani Group has been granted a 35-year operating concession to build and operate Colombo’s West Container Terminal (WCT), a third facility under the island nation’s South Harbor development program. Adani will hold a 51 percent controlling interest in the new terminal venture, with the remainder split between its local partner and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) in a yet-to-be-announced structure. [The Wire] [JOC.com]
The deal is said to be a government-to-government balancing act after Sri Lanka in February decided to undo a 2019 cooperation pact offering India and Japan the right to operate the long-stalled Colombo Port’s East Container Terminal (ETC), drawing strong protests from both New Delhi and Tokyo [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]. India has an additional reason to seek a foothold in Colombo Port as approximately 70 percent of the throughput at Colombo port is accounted for by Indian transshipment.
23 March 2021
India, Japan likely to abstain from UN HRC vote on Sri Lanka
(lm) India and Japan are likely to abstain from voting at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UN HRC) on March 23, which will take up a resolution over what is seen as deteriorating human rights conditions in Sri Lanka, India media have reported. Forty nations, mostly from Europe, have either become co-sponsor or additional sponsors of the pending resolution; 12 of these are currently members of the council and have voting rights. [The Citizen] [The Print]
On March 12, the so-called Core Group on Sri Lanka comprising the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, North Macedonia and Montenegro had submitted the final version of its resolution. The resolution will be informed by a scathing report of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) Michelle Bachelet, which documents the alarming retrograde trends on human rights in Sri Lanka and notes that the steps taken by the current government are a “warning sign” of future violations [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1].
The zero draft which had earlier been circulated was further strengthened during the consultations between the member states. For a start, the changes in the final version inserts language calling on Sri Lanka to fulfil its commitment on devolution, including the holding of provincial council elections, as defined in the thirteenth amendment (13A).
The amendment is a product of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord which sought to resolve the Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009) by creating provincial councils and enabling Sinhalese and Tamil as national languages while preserving English as the link language. New Delhi takes the view that a devolution of power to the Tamil-dominated Northern and Eastern Province is essential for ethnic reconciliation and lasting peace in the island nation. Thus, India has routinely urged Colombo to fully implement the amendment at various platform, most recently when Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa visited New Delhi in February.
Moreover, the draft resolution notes the “persistent lack of accountability of domestic mechanisms” and calls to support trials in foreign countries. It also calls for strengthening the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) in collecting and preserving evidence related to human rights violations in Sri Lanka, in order to use them in future accountability processes. Further, the draft has been revised to state that Sri Lanka would be featured on the UN HRC’s agenda every six months till September 2022. It also asks the OHCHR to give an oral update on Sri Lanka in September 2021, followed by a written report due in March 2022.
Anticipating a hostile resolution, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa previously wrote to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, among others, seeking support at the 47-member Council. To follow up on his letter, President Rajapaksa two weeks ago held a phone conversation with Modi but India – unlike China, Russia, and Pakistan – has not officially declared its support to Sri Lanka. [The Hindu] [The Wire]
23 March 2021
India’s arms imports dip by 33 percent; Pakistan emerges a major importer
(lm) India’s arm imports have decreased by a whopping 33 percent in the second half of the decade, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), indicating that the country’s drive towards Atmanirbhar Bharat (‘self-reliant India) is showing first results. What is more, Pakistan has emerged as one of the largest arms importers in the Asia-Pacific during the same period, accounting for 2.7 percent of major defense imports globally. [The EurAsian Times]
The report on international arms transfers, which was published on March 15, attributed the drop in India’s arms imports mainly to an attempt to reduce dependence on Russia. In fact, arms exports by Moscow, which accounted for 20 percent of all exports of major arms between 2016 and 2020, dropped by 22 percent, according to the report. Importantly, the bulk – around 90 percent – of this decrease was attributable to a 53 percent fall in its arms exports to India. [Hindustan Times]
Pakistan, in turn, has imported about eight large arms or weapons systems from five different nations during 2016-20 with an aim to improve and enhance the capabilities of the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) and Navy. Notably, China accounts for about 74 percent of the country’s arms imports – up from 61 percent during the first half of the decade – followed by Russia and Italy, which account for 6.6 percent and 5.9 percent, respectfully.
23 March 2021
After inaugural Quad summit, France edges strategically closer to grouping
(lm) Consistent with its 2019 Indo-Pacific strategy to be an ‘inclusive, stabilizing mediating power’, France is stepping up its Indi-Pacific maritime involvement, and is set to participate in two naval exercises in the next month. An amphibious assault ship and a frigate begun a three-months deployment in the Pacific in February – an annual event since 2015 – and will cross the South China Sea twice. [The EurAsian Times]
Both ships will be leading France’s maritime Exercise La Perouse, which is expected to take place at the start of April and will be attended by India, the United States, Japan and Australia – all member states of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). After the first meeting of Quad leaders on the weekend, the countries reaffirmed their commitment to ensuring a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific. [Hindustan Times]
Later the same month, the French Navy’s Carrier Strike Group will be joining Indian naval forces to jointly conduct this year’s iteration of their Exercise Varuna in the strategically important Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman. Notably, the United Arab Emirates for the first time will be joining the drills.
Moreover, seven more Rafale fighter jets supplied by France are expected to be delivered next month, completing the first squadron comprising 18 French omni-role fighters. It is the fourth batch of aircraft arriving in India since the government’s purchase four years ago of a total of 36 planes worth $9.2 billion from French defense manufacturer Dassault Aviation. The delivery of all 36 Rafale aircrafts is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2021. [The Economic Times] [Mint]
23 March 2021
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan inaugurates country’s first security dialogue
(lm) Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan inaugurated on March 17 the first security dialogue in Islamabad, saying that food security and climate change will be given the most importance. The Islamabad Security Dialogue is being organized by Pakistan’s National Security Division (NSD) in collaboration with its advisory board, comprising five leading think tanks of the country. The conference aims to define the country’s new strategic direction in line with the prime minister’s vision. [Dawn] [Geo TV]
Commenting on regional peace and stability, Khan called on India to move towards resolving the contentious territorial conflict over the Kashmir region. Further elaborating, Khan said India’s decision to unilaterally end the constitutional autonomy of the Indian-administered territories [see AiR No. 32, August/2019, 1] was behind the breakdown of ties between the neighbors. Interestingly, the prime minister appeared to indicate that talks on Kashmir could pave the way for a discussion on trade-related issues between the two countries. [The Straits Times]
The following day, Pakistan’s Chief of the Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa called for the two arch-rivals to ‘bury the past’ and move towards cooperation, adding that the burden was on New Delhi to create a ‘conducive environment’. He also said the United States had a role to play in ending regional conflicts. Timing and context of the remarks are noteworthy, considering that US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin commenced a three-day working visit to New Delhi later that week [see AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3]. [The Straits Times 2]
The two nations recently adopted a softer tone. Military commanders from both sides in a rare joint statement announced on February 25 they had agreed to observe a ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) – the de facto border that divides the disputed Kashmir valley between the two countries – and all other sectors. [AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1]
Looking at energy security next, the prime minister said that neighboring Iran had the capacity to meet Islamabad’s energy needs. In 1995, Pakistan, India, and Iran signed a deal conceived to deliver Iranian gas to India via Pakistan, but New Delhi withdrew from the agreement because of security issues and high costs. While the Iranian section of the pipeline was completed in 2011, Pakistan’s energy ministry announced in 2019 that it could not continue with the project as long as Tehran was subject to US sanctions. [Middle East Monitor]
23 March 2021
British Prime Minister Johnson to visit India in April
(lm) British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is planning to visit India in April as part of the United Kingdom’s new ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ strategy, the first major bilateral visit by a British prime minister since Theresa May toured Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa in August 2018. Johnson’s India trip was planned for January but postponed because of COVID-19 [see AiR No. 49, December/2020, 2]. [Financial Times]
While Johnson’s trip to New Delhi was initially being described as a post-Brexit tilt to the Indo-Pacific, it now has become part of a plan to transform the G7 group into a broader grouping of 10 leading democracies capable of challenging China and other authoritarian states. While the idea behind a ‘D-10’ is not a novel one, it has a new impetus amid the coronavirus pandemic, chiming with US President Joe Biden who wants democratic countries to co-operate to counter the Chinese ascendancy in technology — particularly the role of Huawei in 5G. [South China Morning Post]
Importantly, the United Kingdom published on March 16 its long-anticipated “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy”, in which national security and international policy is articulated. Marking a significant step forward in the UK’s new life outside of the European Union, the Review describes London’s future relationship with the Middle East, North Africa, and explains an ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’. It is a more comprehensive and nuanced strategic framework than many of the exercises that have preceded it. [GOV.UK]
Britain’s intention to increase its presence in the Pacific was illustrated in December, when Johnson invited three Indo-Pacific countries to attend the G7 summit in Cornwall in June as guests — Australia, India and South Korea — a move that has caused raised eyebrows among some of the other attendees [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4]. In January then, the UK applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a free trade agreement between 11 countries around the Pacific Rim.
23 March 2021
India, Pakistan set for water-sharing talks, indicating larger diplomatic roadmap towards peace
(lm) India and Pakistan will hold the first meeting in three years of a bilateral commission created to implement and manage the goals and objectives and outlines of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) on March 23. At the forthcoming talks, the Pakistani side is likely to raise its objections regarding at least two Indian hydroelectric plants located at shared rivers. Islamabad is also expected to seek information on new projects planned by India on western rivers, and flood data arrangements for the flood season. [Hindustan Times] [The Straits Times]
The Permanent Indus Commission is supposed to meet at least once a year – alternately in India and Pakistan – under the IWT, which governs water usage on the Indus and its tributaries that flow through the two countries. Hence, the talks represent a thawing in bilateral ties, which have been frozen since the 2019 Pulwama suicide attacks that killed 40 Indian soldiers in the Indian-administered Kashmir town of Pulwama [see AiR (3/2/2019), AiR (4/2/2019)], and India’s decision later that year to strip the region’s constitutional autonomy in order to bring it into closer embrace [see AiR No. 32, August/2019, 1].
What is more, the reconvening of the Commission follows a rare military agreement this month to observe a ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) – the de facto border that divides the disputed Kashmir valley between the two countries – and all other sectors [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1].
Coming like a bolt from the blue, the agreement had triggered speculations about the causes that lie behind it, with many observers suggesting that China or the United States had been the driving force. News reports published on March 22, however, claim that the India-Pakistan ceasefire marked the first milestone of a four-step “roadmap for peace” between the two South Asian neighbors, which was agreed upon during secret talks brokered by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that began months earlier.[Bloomberg] [The Hindu]
The next step in the process involves both sides reinstating envoys in New Delhi and Islamabad, who were pulled in 2019 after Pakistan protested against India’s move to unilaterally abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution, thereby breaking the Indian-administered part of Kashmir into two union territories. Then comes the hard part: talks on resuming trade and a lasting resolution on Kashmir, the subject of three wars since India and Pakistan became independent from Britain in 1947.
Several clues over the past few months pointed at the UAE’s role. In November, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar Jaishankar met with his counterpart from the UAE, Abdullah bin Zayid Al Nahyan, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan during a two-day working visit to Abu Dhabi. The trip was followed by a visit to Abu Dhabi from Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi the following month.
Roughly two weeks before the February 25 announcement, the UAE foreign minister held a phone call with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan “wherein they discussed regional and international issues of interest”. And just days before, India allowed the prime minister’s aircraft to fly over Indian airspace as he headed to Sri Lanka for a state visit – a practice suspended since the 2019 hostilities [see AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4].
23 March 2021
India, United States agree to strengthen defense ties, expand military engagement
(lm) US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh met in New Delhi on March 20 to discuss opportunities to elevate defense and military ties, at a time when Washington is keen for its partners in the region to deepen cooperation among themselves into “a network of overlapping relationships” not necessarily involving the US. Austin arrived in New Delhi late on March 19 and met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Advisor Ajjit Doval. [Channel NewsAsia] [The Straits Times 1]
The US Defense Secretary’s visit comes a week after the first virtual summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a loose strategic coalition seen as a potential counterweight to growing Chinese influence and alleged assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific [see AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3]. Prior to India, Austin and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Japan and South Korea, two other important partners in the region irked by Chinese activities. His three-day working visit to New Delhi marked the first by a top member of US President Joe Biden’s administration. [The Straits Times 2]
In keeping with their intention to strengthening bilateral defense ties, the two sides also discussed India’s plan to purchase 30 armed versions of the US-made MQ-9B Predator drones as well as a large order for over 150 combat jets for the Indian Air Force and the Navy to help narrow the gap with China [see AiR No. 11, March/2021, 3]. Bilateral defense trade increased from near zero in 2008 to $15 billion in 2019, notwithstanding Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Make in India’ strategy, which seeks to reduce India’s dependence on exports from countries like the US and China [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2].
Against the backdrop of its months-long border standoff with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), New Delhi drew even closer to Washington, a case in point being India’s announcement last October that it would sign on to the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), the last of the four foundational agreements that Washington maintains with its other close defense partners [see AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4].
Contentious issues also came up during discussions, after Austin was reportedly urged by a senior US senator to convey Washington’s opposition to India’s proposed purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system, which under US law can attract sanction. In fact, Washington last December imposed sanctions on Turkey for buying that equipment [see AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5]. [Reuters] [South China Morning Post]
23 March 2021
South Korea: Efforts to strengthen cooperation with the UAE, India, Russia, and LAC
(nm) South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook is visiting the United Arab Emirates and India this week. Suh will visit the UAE from Monday to Wednesday to meet his counterpart Mohammed al-Bowardi and other key military officials, as well as to visit South Korea’s special warfare unit which is deployed in the UAE to support with building training programmes for the country’s special forces.
From Thursday to Saturday he then visits India where he will meet his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh to discuss cooperation on military technologies and to participate in the opening ceremony of the Korea-India Friendship Park that holds a monument commemorating those who have lost their lives during the 1950-53 Korean War. India provided the largest medical units to South Korea during the conflict. Some observers have speculated that the two countries will rather use the opportunity to address the US-led Quad alliance – a security alliance comprising the US, Australia, India, and Japan which as seen as opposition to China – after it had met virtually on March 12. [Korea Herald 1]
Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced he would visit Seoul this week for three days to meet with his South Korean counterpart, Chung Eui-yong, and to jointly celebrate the 30th anniversary of bilateral relations. While Russia and South Korea have maintained active relations in spite of the pandemic, the visit comes amid rising interest in the Korean Peninsula as the US Biden administration is seeking to revive multilateral discussions. [Korea Herald 2] [Korea Times]
Last week, Seoul also hosted the Korea-LAC Digital Cooperation Forum, LAC standing for Latin American and Caribbean countries. Officials from Colombia, Guatemala, Brazil, Honduras, and Costa Rica had come together to discuss ways how they could partner with Korea on digital technology. Chung also held separate meetings with Costa Rican Foreign Minister Rodolfo Solano who voiced hope for expanding bilateral trade and investment and with Guatemalan Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo Vila who similarly expressed expectations for expanding economic cooperation between South Korea and Central and South America in areas such as infrastructure, information and communications technology, as well as health care and medicine. Officials from Colombia met with President Moon Jae-in to discuss cooperation on environment and digital innovation, in addition to business opportunities for South Korean companies in Colombia. [Korea Herald 3] [Korea Herald 4]
23 March 2021
India: Student protests, free speech concerns after PM Modi critic quits top Indian university
(lm) A prominent critic of the current Indian government and defender of academic freedom, Dr Pratap Bhanu Mehta, resigned on March 16 as a professor at Ashok University following a meeting with the university’s Trustees. In his letter of resignation, Mehta suggested that he had been forced to step down because his writings were considered a “political liability” for the private university and its promoters. [The Indian Express] [The Straits Times 1]
The respected scholar on political theory and constitutional law had already stepped down as vice-chancellor of Ashoka University in 2019, reportedly because the trustees were worried by his outspoken views but remained a political science professor. According to the university’s student newspaper, Mehta’s recent resignation was endorsed by the board because it would speed up efforts to acquire land needed for an expansion. [National Herald]
Arvind Subramanian, another prominent academic at the university who once served as Chief Economic Adviser to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, also resigned from his position on March 18 in solidarity with Mehta, calling his treatment an affront to “academic expression and freedom”.
The resignations caused students to hold several days of demonstrations at the university’s campus outside New Delhi, calling for boycott of classes. Furthermore, a group of marquee names from universities in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia issued a statement in solidarity with Mehta the following day, criticizing Ashok University for not defending him as their institutional duty. [The Wire 1]
On March 21, then, the two renowned professors, alongside Ashoka University’s Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, and Chairman of the Board of Trustees, issued a joint statement, in which they made clear that their decisions were determined by conversations with the university’s Founders rather than personal choices. [The Straits Times 2] [The Wire 2]
16 March 2021
Leaders of United States, Japan, India, and Australia meet in first-ever ‘Quad’ summit
(lm) The leaders of the United States, Japan, India and Australia met in a virtual summit on March 12, at a time when all four countries see heightened tensions with China over a variety of issues. The meeting marked the first time that talks have been held between the heads of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a loose strategic coalition seen as a potential counterweight to growing Chinese influence and alleged assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. The collation is viewed warily by Beijing, which denounced it as an anti-China bloc. [CNN] [The Guardian]
Topics discussed during the virtual summit included supply chains, maritime security, and climate change. Notably, member states announced a partnership whereby Japan and the United States will finance manufacturing in India of the coronavirus vaccines from American drug makers Novavax Inc and Johnson & Johnson, with Australia handling the distribution among Southeast Asian and Pacific nations. While the move primarily aims at reducing manufacturing backlogs, it is worth recollecting that India in the past has urged other Quad members to invest in its vaccine production capacity to counter China’s widening vaccine diplomacy [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. [Reuters] [South China Morning Post 1]
The leaders also put their stamp on the creation of three new working groups. The first one will comprise of vaccine experts to devise the implementation plan, followed by two other working groups on climate change, and critical and emerging technology. [The White House]
In the run-up to the virtual summit, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi held a phone conversation on March 9 – the first since September last year – and agreed to step up bilateral cooperation to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific. [South China Morning Post 2]
Further, US Navy Admiral Philip S. Davidson – commander of the United States Indo-Pacific Command – told US lawmakers at a congressional hearing on March 9 that China’s aggression along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) had ‘opened India’s eyes to strategic cooperation’ and would therefore provide an opportunity for the other Quad members states to strengthen ties with New Delhi. [Hindustan Times]
16 March 2021
SIPRI international arms transfers report 2020
(dql) According to the 2020 international arms transfers report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), released last week, the US remains the world’s largest arms supplier in 2016-2020 accounting for 37% of the global arms exports, followed by Russia (20%), France (8.2), Germany (5.5%) and China (5.2%). Together, these five countries accounted for 76% of all exports of major arms. Besides China, Asian countries listed among the top 25 countries which accounted for 99% of global arms exports include South Korea (2.7%, ranking at 7), the United Arab Emirates (0.5%, 18), and India (0.2%, 24)
Against the backdrop of the US-China rivalry, the US allies Australia (accounting for 9.4% of US arms exports), South Korea (6.7%) and Japan (5.7%) were among the five largest importers of US arms.
23 Asian countries were among the 40 largest importers including Saudi-Arabia, India, China, South Korea, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Iraq, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Oman, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Jordan, the Philippines, Azerbaijan, Myanmar, Taiwan, and Malaysia. [Reliefweb]
16 March 2021
Indian Prime Minister Modi and Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia hold phone conversation
(lm) Indian Prime Minister Modi held a phone conversation on March 10 with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, the son of King Salman and Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler. During their conversation, the two leaders agreed on supporting each other in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, and reviewed the functioning of the bilateral strategic partnership. [Hindustan Times]
Since both sides in 2010 had raised bilateral relations to a strategic partnership covering security, economic, defense, and political, India-Saudi defense ties have been on the upswing. While Saudi Arabia has in recent years actively participated in the region’s overall maritime security, the first bilateral naval exercise, originally scheduled for March 2020, had to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, a contingent of the Indian Army is scheduled to travel to the Kingdom in the second half of this year to participate in a joint military exercise.
Meanwhile, the United States overtook Saudi Arabia as India’s second biggest oil supplier of the month, as refiners boosted cheaper US crude purchase to record levels to offset a supply cuts by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and allies, known as OPEC+. Saudi Arabia, which has consistently been one of India’s top two suppliers, slipped to No. 4 for the first time since at least January 2006. [Reuters]
16 March 2021
Indian Defense Ministry to take up major procurement deals for armed drones, submarines in April
(lm) Multi-billion dollar deals for 30 armed drones from the United States and six advanced submarines under Project-75I are likely to be taken by the Defense Acquisition Council (DAC) under the chairmanship of Defense Minister Rajnath Singh in April for approval. [The Hindu] [South China Morning Post]
India has long been planning to purchase 30 armed versions of the US-made MQ-9B Predator drones – ten for each service – but the process has been repeatedly delayed over the last couple of years, as New Delhi refused to succumb to the Washington’s constant push of concluding the deal. The US have given in principle approval for the sale of these armed drones to India sometime back and the deal came up for discussion third edition of the India-US 2+2 dialogue last October [see AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4]. In November, then, the Indian Navy leased two unarmed MQ-9 Predators as border tensions with China threatened to spin into a full-blown conflict but decided not to deploy the drones after the Air Force expressed apprehension about drones manned by US personnel flying over the border.
A follow-on project of India’s Project 75 [see AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3], Project 75I includes the acquisition of six stealth submarines through the Strategic Partnership (SP) model of the Defense Acquisition Procedure (DAP), which aims to promote the role of Indian industry in defense manufacturing and build a domestic defense industrial ecosystem.
Therefore, the submarine deal exemplifies the ‘Make in India‘ strategy pursued by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. To reduce India’s dependence on exports from countries like the US and China, the initiative seeks to increase investment in domestic industries—in manufacturing, it aims to create 100 million new jobs by 2022. Defense also forms a key industry in this program, and the nation’s 2021-22 defense budget allocates 64 percent of its ‘modernization budget‘ for purchases exclusively from the domestic sector [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2].
Separately, the Indian Army has leased four Heron unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) made by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for possible deployment along the 3,488-km India-China border. During the Army Day parade held in New Delhi this January, the Indian Army for the first time had demonstrated its intend to deploy unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) for future offensive military operations, including Kamikaze strikes and supplying troops closest to the area of conflict with equipment [see AiR No. 3, January/2021, 3]. [Mint]
India also commissioned its third diesel electric submarine, the INS Karanj, on March 10 – the third of six Kalvari-type submarines that New Delhi plans to add to its navy and the first built entirely by an Indian company. [Hindustan Times]
16 March 2021
Pakistan assures Uzbekistan of access to its ports
(lm) Pakistan has assured Uzbekistan of providing access to its two ports – Karachi and Gwadar – in a bid to enhance regional connectivity and trade. An announcement in this regard was made by Prime Minister Imran Khan on March 10, the second and final day of a two-day visit of Uzbekistan’s Foreign Minister Kamilov to Islamabad. [Dawn]
The move would provide Uzbekistan, which currently relies on Iran’s Bandar Abbas port, with a cheap transit alternative. Islamabad, in turn, aims to expand its footprint in Central Asia by gaining access to the economies of neighboring countries and redirecting their trade through Pakistani ports. Turkmenistan, another landlocked but resource-rich region in Central Asia had also expressed its keen interest in connecting with Pakistan’s warm water ports – most notably the China-operated Gwadar port. [AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2]
In December last year, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan agreed on a roadmap for the construction of a $4.8 billion trilateral railway project connecting Mazar-e-Sharif, Pehswar and Kabul. Because the security situation in Afghanistan is of central concern in the region, Uzbekistan has been engaging with the Taliban’s political leadership for some years, in what is being seen as seeking assurance for the safety of their investment. At the same time, Uzbekistan is also planning an alternative route, which connects the country with Pakistan via the Karakorum Pass, bypassing Afghanistan.
Notably, the announcement comes shortly after Uzbekistan, alongside other countries, had joined India on March 4 in commemorating ‘Chabahar Day’. Chabahar Port is being jointly developed by India, Iran and Afghanistan to boost trade ties among the three countries. Located on Iran’s energy-rich southern coast, it is the only Iranian port with direct access to the Indian Ocean, and thus can be easily accessed from India’s western coast, bypassing Pakistan. [AiR No. 10, March/2021, 2]
16 March 2021
US Secretary of Defense scheduled to visit India this month
(lm) US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is scheduled to visit India later next week to further strengthen a growing bilateral defense cooperation. During his visit three-day visit starting on March 19, Austin is expected to meet Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and other senior national security leaders. This is the first India trip by a top official of the new US Biden-Harris Administration. [The Hindu]
Speaking at the headquarters of the United States Indo-Pacific Command on Hawaii on March 13, Austin said he was travelling to Japan, South Korea, and India to strengthen ‘alliances and partnerships’ as well as to foster “credible deterrence” against China. [The Times of India]
Notably, the visit will take place a week after the first virtual summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a loose strategic coalition seen as a potential counterweight to growing Chinese influence and alleged assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific [see article above].
16 March 2021
India likely to block Chinese tech giants Huawei and ZTE over security concerns
(lm) India’s Department of Telecommunications (DoT) said on March 10 that Indian telecom operators can only source their network equipment from government-approved ‘trusted sources’ post-June 15,2021. Any use of non-trusted products will require the licensee to obtain permission from the designated authority. [The Straits Times]
Citing potential national security risks, the DoT also said it could create could also create a ‘no procurement’ blacklist. While the department is yet to provide further details on the plans, officials say Chinese tech giants Huawei and ZTE Corporation are likely to feature on the embargoed list. Both companies are under scrutiny for allegedly installing ‘back door’ vulnerabilities to spy for the Chinese government.
Prior to the DoT’s announcement, Indian media reported that Huawei was willing to partner an Indian company in 5G equipment manufacturing – which would include a transfer of technology – to allay Indian security concerns. [ET Telecom]
Notably, Chinese companies are also likely not to be allowed to bid for stakes in India’s national carrier Air India and oil and gas giant Bharat Petroleum Corporation, which are among the state-owned companies New Delhi aims to privatize to achieve its disinvestment target of about $24 billion for the next fiscal year. [CNBC]
Meanwhile, India has begun to fast-track approvals of some of the more than 150 Chinese investment proposals worth over $2 billion it had put on hold after more than 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a military clash in June [see AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4]. At the same time, New Delhi is reportedly unlikely to overturn last year’s ban on more than 100 Chinese mobile apps [see e.g. AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1].
16 March 2021
India: New OCI card rules turn the spotlight on dual citizenship debate
(lm) The Ministry of Home Affairs issued a notification on March 4, which dramatically curtails the rights for those holding the Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) – a form of permanent residency available to people of Indian origin and their spouses. Restrictions include a requirement for OCIs to obtain a special permit to any research or journalistic activities, among others. [The Straits Times]
In addition, the notification now equates OCIs to ‘foreign nationals’ in respect of ‘all other economic, financial and educational fields’, reversing the position that has held for the last 16 years wherein OCIs were equated to Non-Resident Indians rather than ‘foreign nationals’ for the purposes of their economic, financial and educational rights. [The Times of India]
Introduced in 2005 in response to demands for dual citizenship by the Indian diaspora, the OCI allowed for visa-free travel and holders enjoyed the same rights as an Indian national, barring the rights to vote in Indian elections and to hold public office. As of 2020, there are 6 million holders of OCI cards among the Indian Overseas diaspora.
Observers say the notification has likely been triggered by the defeats suffered by the government in several court judgements related to OCI cardholders. In fact, the notification reproduced a part of the guidelines issued by the ministry in 2019 on benefits to OCI cardholders, which have now been legalized through the notification. [Scroll.in] [The Hindu]
16 March 2021
India: Rights body files petition with National Human Rights Commission over Rohingya refugees
(lm) New Delhi-based rights group ‘National Campaign Against Torture’ (NCAT) on March 9 filed a petition with India’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), urging the public body to process the asylum/refugee claims filed by Myanmar nationals who fled their country following the coup d’état in Myanmar last month [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. [The EurAsian Times]
The rights group asked the NHRC to direct the government to not forcibly repatriate any Burmese refugee until their refugee claims have been assessed by the NHRC and further to extend humanitarian assistance to the fleeing refugees. As of the first week this month, 16 Myanmar nationals have crossed into Indian territory and are currently taking refuge in different districts in the northeastern state of Mizoram, the NCAT said in a press statement.
On March 6, authorities detained nearly 170 Rohingya in the city of Jammu in Kashmir and sent them to a holding center, potentially as part of wider nationwide crackdown for the deportation of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. For the recent detention follows Prime Minister Modi’s government’s announcement in 2017 that it would deport all Rohingya. [Human Rights Watch]
About 15,000 of the estimated 40,000 Rohingya refugees in India hold ID cards registered with the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR), which are supposed to offer protection from arbitrary detention. India, which did not sign the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, however, treats all Rohingya entering the country as illegal immigrants.
16 March 2021
Bangladesh: Rally held against Quran petition in India
(lm) The largest Islamist political party in Bangladesh, Jamaat-e-Islami, organized a rally in the capital Dhaka on March 15 to protest against a petition filed in India’s Supreme Court seeking the removal of 26 verses from the Holy Quran. [Anadolu Agency]
A local Shia Muslim leader from the state of Uttar Pradesh had previously filed petition with the Indian Supreme Court seeking the removal of 26 verses from the Holy Quran over claims that these were introduced to the religious book at a later date and are violent in nature and against the basic tenets of Islam.
In India, clerics from both Sunni and Shiite Muslim sects have strongly condemned the move and issued a fatwa – a death sentence – against the petitioner, calling on community members to ostracize him from the community and Islam. A prominent Shia Muslim cleric even urged the Supreme Court to reject the petition and sent a memorandum to Indian Prime Minister Modi to urge Indian authorities to arrest the petitioner for blasphemy and making an attempt to breach peace by vitiating the communal atmosphere in the country. [The Free Press Journal]
16 March 2021
Indian warship pays goodwill visit to Mauritius
(lm) Ahead of Mauritius’ National Day celebrations on March 12, a large amphibious warfare vessel currently deployed in the larger Indian Ocean Region (IOR) the Indian Navy visited Port Louis for a three-day stay. During its visit, the ship jointly patrolled the island nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) together with the Mauritian National Coast Guard, and participated in the National Day celebrations. [South Asia Monitor]
India and Mauritius signed a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and Partnership Agreement (CEPCA) earlier this month – New Delhi’s first such agreement with an African country – to provide preferential access to several items that cater to market requirements on both sides. Mauritius also signed a $100 million Line of Credit agreement to enable the procurement of defense assets from India. [AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1]
16 March 2021
India summons British envoy over ‘unwarranted’ criticism of farm protests
(lm) India’s Foreign Ministry said on March 9 it had summoned the United Kingdom’s high commissioner over what it called ‘unwarranted and tendentious discussion’ of Indian agriculture reform in the British parliament. [The Straits Times]
Three new agricultural laws introduced by Prime Minister Modi’s government late last year have led to months of protests on the outskirts of New Delhi where tens of thousands of farmers have camped since last November [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1].
India summoned Canada’s envoy last December following critical comments by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The same month, thirty-six British lawmakers from various parties – including some of Indian origin and others representing many constituents with links in the Indian state of Punjab – have written to British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, asking him to raise the issue of farmers’ agitation with the Narendra Modi government. [AiR No. 49, December/2020, 2]
9 March 2021
Philippines, India to reach agreement over supersonic missiles
(nd) In an effect of turning into an arms exporter, India signed a contract with the Philippines for the sale of “defense material and equipment”, which are likely to include BrahMos cruise missiles. The Indian BrahMos missile is considered to be the fastest supersonic missile in the world, travelling at three times the speed of sound and able to be fired from ships, submarines, aircraft and ground launchers. The missile itself has a range of 290 kilometers. It is likely the Filipino interest is due to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, urging the Philippines to strengthen their defense capabilities, also in light of a recent Chinese law, allowing its coast guard to open fire on foreign vessels.
India has offered the Philippines a 100-million-dollar soft loan to acquire the missiles last December with a possible extension. The deal could facilitate India’s entry as an exporter in the global defense market. Besides the Philippines, Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates announced their interest, reportedly India had talks with Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa. [Wio News]
9 March 2021
India, Nigeria hold inaugural session of counter-terrorism dialogue
(lm) India and Nigeria on March 6 vowed to enhance cooperation against all forms of terrorism. At the invitation of India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, his Nigerian counterpart visited New Delhi for the first Strategic and Counter-Terrorism Dialogue. [Business Standard]
Earlier India shipped nearly 4 million doses of Covishield (the local name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the United Kingdom) to Nigeria, the third and largest delivery so far to an African country by the global COVAX initiative.
9 March 2021
India, New Zealand foreign ministers discuss Indo-Pacific aspirations
(lm) India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and his counterpart from New Zealand, Nanaia Mahuta held a phone conversation on March 1 to discuss bilateral relations, as well as ways to work jointly for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. [Hindustan Times]
9 March 2021
India, Uzbekistan launch second edition of joint military exercise
(lm) A contingent of the Uzbekistan army arrived New Delhi on March 8 to participate in the second iteration of the India-Uzbekistan joint military exercise “Dustlik. Around 45 soldiers from both countries will be participating in the 10-day field training, which was first carried out in November 2019. [Outlook India]
9 March 2021
Indian Army provides combat training to Turkmenistan Special Forces
(lm) Indicating deepening defense ties, India’s Special Forces Training School (SFTS) last week commenced a series of training courses for paratroopers of the Turkmenistan Special Forces to help them build enhanced combat skills. Furthermore, a team of the Indian Army’s Special Forces will be visiting Ashgabat in August, and later be participating in this year’s Turkmen Independence Day Parade to be held on September 27. [The EurAsian Times]
In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the first Indian leader to visit Turkmenistan after a gap of two decades. The two sides had then signed a ‘Defense Cooperation Agreement’, which underscored the growing importance of Turkmenistan and the Central Asian region for India’s security-strategic calculus. Three years later, Turkmenistan’s defense minister met with his Indian counterpart in New Delhi and emphasized intensifying bilateral defense and security cooperation through exchanges of visits of high and mid-level officials and training, among others.
More recently, the two countries held their fourth round of Foreign Office Consultations, reviewing the various aspects of bilateral relations, including political, economic, commercials, defense, scientific, cultural, education, and consular cooperation.
9 March 2021
India sending rice, medical assistance to Madagascar as drought relief
(lm) India has sent a consignment of 1000 metric tons of rice and 100,000 tablets of Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) as humanitarian assistance to Madagascar, where successive droughts and COVID-19 disruptions have deepened poverty and pushed an estimated 1.3 million people into famine-like conditions. Food and medical assistance are expected to reach Madagascar later this month.
Coming as it does in the wake of India deepening further its strategic bonds with both the Maldives and Mauritius [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1], there is a good case to believe that the humanitarian and disaster relief operation is complementing New Delhi’s efforts to expand its presence in the western Indian Ocean Region (IOR). In fact, the ships carrying the food assistance will also have on board an Indian naval training team, which is being deployed in Madagascar for capacity building and training of the Malagasy Special Forces for two weeks. [Hindustan Times]
What is more, Madagascar has been pitching for stronger defense ties with India, with the defense minister earlier this month saying that New Delhi would provide a security umbrella to countries in the region. The minister was attending the first ever IOR Defense Ministers Conclave, which had been organized by India’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) to promote defense cooperation among the participating countries. Significantly, the constituted the highlight of this year’s iteration of India’s premier air show, Aero India, during which the MoD released a list of 156 defense items cleared for export. [AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2].
9 March 2021
India moving to partner Uzbekistan on Chabahar
(lm) Ministers from Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Armenia joint India in commemorating “Chabahar Day” on March 4, the third and final day of the Maritime India Summit (MIS). Held virtually, the dialogue follows on a meeting between Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and his Uzbek counterpart in New Delhi earlier this month. [The Economic Times]
Chabahar Port is being jointly developed by India, Iran and Afghanistan to boost trade ties among the three countries. Located on Iran’s energy-rich southern coast, it is the only Iranian port with direct access to the Indian Ocean, and thus can be easily accessed from India’s western coast, bypassing Pakistan. Against the backdrop of signs that the new US administration under President Biden might re-engage with Tehran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the port is being increasingly seen as a fulcrum of connectivity to Central Asia through Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
The first trilateral Working Group meeting between India, Iran and Uzbekistan on the joint use of the port was held virtually in December last year, and addressed the utilization of the port for trade and transit purposes as well as the implementation of transit strategies for enhanced regional connectivity [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4]. Last month, then, India’s official heading the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran Division in the External Affairs Ministry embarked on a two-day trip to Tehran to meet with key officials in the administration Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. [AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]
9 March 2021
India arrests more than 150 Rohingya refugees, ramps up security at Myanmar border
(lm) About 170 Rohingya refugees living in the city of Jammu in Kashmir have been rounded up into a holding center. Sources saiy the mass detentions are part of a wider nationwide crackdown for the deportation of Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar, which witnessed a coup last month [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1] and where the Rohingya remain a heavily persecuted minority. [Reuters]
The Hindu-nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has for years asked state and territory governments to identify and deport the estimated 40,000 Rohingya refugees scattered across different Indian states, despite international law prohibiting states from refoulement, i.e. returning asylum seekers to a country where they risk persecution. About 15,000 of the refugees hold ID cards registered with the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR), which are supposed to offer protection from arbitrary detention. India, which did not sign the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, however, treats all Rohingya entering the country as illegal immigrants. [Al Jazeera]
Many Rohingya believe that the latest crackdown is linked to the Legislative Assembly elections of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly, which are scheduled to be held from between March and April. Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has made it an election promise to deport the Rohingya if they win. [The Guardian]
Thus, the process, which is likely to continue in the coming days, has sparked panic among the Rohingya refugee population. Being stateless in their home country of Myanmar, they are unable to travel to another country legally. Eager to avert deportation, many of them have therefore gone in hiding in other Indian states or entered Bangladesh. [Channel NewsAsia] [France24] [Voice of America]
Moreover, India has ordered the Assam Rifles, its oldest paramilitary force that is guarding the Indo-Myanmar border, to prevent any Myanmar national from crossing into Indian territory. New Delhi has also yet to respond to Myanmar’s request to send back eight police officers who had entered India’s northeastern state of Mizoram to escape taking orders from the military junta. [The Straits Times]
Since Myanmar’s military – the Tatmadaw – overthrew and detained the country’s elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi this February, New Delhi has been taking a cautious approach, being wary of China’s growing influence and the high stakes involved to maintain peace and security along the India-Myanmar border. Hours before the second closed meeting of the 15-member UN Security Council, India on March 5 said that it has been discussing the situation with partner countries and the issues in the country should be resolved through peaceful manner. [Nikkei Asia] [South China Morning Post] [The Indian Express]
9 March 2021
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin likely to visit India next week
(lm) United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is likely to visit India next week, marking the first visit by a top official of the new US President’s Joe Biden’s administration to New Delhi. During his visit, Austin will likely be meeting with his Indian counterpart Rajnath Singh, as the two allies seek to deepen military ties to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. The US defense chief will join US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on a working trip to Japan and South Korea, but it was not immediately clear if Blinken will also visit New Delhi. [The Straits Times]
Rumors about Austin’s trip to New Delhi come at a time when a virtual meeting of the four leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a loose strategic coalition of Japan, India, Australia and the United States is impending. “This will become a feature of Indo-Pacific engagement,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters on March 5, without giving details on the timing of the talks, expected to be held virtually. [Bloomberg]
Last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met virtually with his counterparts from Australia, India and Japan. The meeting was the grouping’s first under the new Biden-Harris Administration, although Washington had discussed its future role in bilateral calls with members since then [see e.g. AiR No. 4, January/2021, 4]. [AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4]
9 March 2021
India: Thousands demand India’s top judge to quit over rape remarks
(lm) Calls have been growing for the current Chief Justice of India, Sharad Arvind Bobde, to resign “without a moment’s delay” after he asked a young man accused of raping a girl whether he would marry her to avoid jail. [The Straits Times]
The remarks shocked many and prompted an open letter signed by some of India’s best-known feminists and non-governmental organizations calling for the chief justice’s resignation. The letter also called attention to another rape case that Bodge was hearing on the same day and where he reportedly questioned whether sex between a lawfully wedded man and wife could ever be considered rape. [Bar and Bench] [Al Jazeera]
What is more, the girl’s family also alleged that they had agreed not to go to the police because they were promised by the accused’s mother that once the girl became an adult, they would marry the two. In a country where victims are often blamed for rape, and sexual assault carries lifelong stigma [see e.g. AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1], her family agreed to the arrangement. But after the accused backtracked from his promise and married someone else, the survivor went to the police. [BBC]
9 March 2021
India: Calls mount for ‘honor killings’ law after father beheads teenaged daughter
(lm) Calls for a new law against so-called honor killings have spurred after police in northern arrested a man who decapitated his daughter in anger over her relationship with a man he did not approve of. [Al Jazeera] [The Indian Express]
According to campaigners, thousands of women and girls are killed across South Asia and the Middle East each year due to the perpetrators’ belief that the victim has brought shame or dishonor upon the family. India reported 24 of these killings in 2019, though activists considered that a significant undercount. According to a survey by the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), over 30 percent of honor killings in the country take place in Western Uttar Pradesh. [CNN]
9 March 2021
India: Non-profit organization challenges new rules for social media, digital media platforms
(lm) The Foundation for Independent Journalism, a non-profit organization which publishes The Wire news portal, has filed a petition with the New Delhi High Court, challenging India’s new guidelines that seek to regulate content on social networks and other web services in the country. [The Straits Times] [The Wire]
The petition challenges the so-called “Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code”, which were announced by India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) on February 25. To making media portals, over-the-top (OTT) content providers and social media intermediaries more accountable to legal requests, the guidelines grant sweeping powers to the government, including the right to demand the removal of content. The rules have come under criticism from news portals, journalists’ bodies and internet freedom advocates. [AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1].
9 March 2021
India: Thousands of women join farmers’ protests against contentious agricultural laws
(lm) International Women’s Day (March 8) has been marked by sit-ins and hunger strikes led by female farmers against the country’s contentious agricultural laws. Local media reported that at least 40,000 women joined protests by farmers on the outskirts of New Delhi where tens of thousands of farmers have camped since last November to protest against the laws [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1]. [Al Jazeera 1] [Voice of America]
Before, Indian farmers began gathering on March 6 for a five-hour roadblock outside New Delhi to mark the 100th day of protests against the three contentious agricultural laws, and to add pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. [Al Jazeera 2] [The Straits Times]
Protests began on a small scale last June in Punjab – one of India’s two breadbasket states – when the government first rolled out its new agricultural policies, and have grown exponentially since they were passed as laws in September [see AiR No. 39, September/2020, 5]. While the demonstrations have been mostly peaceful, a rally in New Delhi on January 26 turned violent, leaving one protesters dead and more than 80 police officers injured [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1].
Prime Minister Modi has called the laws much-needed reforms for the country’s vast and antiquated agriculture sector and has painted the protests as politically motivated [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3]. Moreover, police have filed criminal charges against several activists under India’s sedition law, which gives authorities broad powers to make arrests ahead of filing formal charges if an act or speech by an individual ‘excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government’ [see AiR No. 9, March/2021, 1].
2 March 2021
China: Six Chinese detained for ‘insulting’ soldiers killed in India border clash
(dql) At least six Chinese have been detained over accusations of defaming four Chinese soldiers killed in a border clash with India last June.
Among the arrested is Qiu Ziming, a blogger with more than 2.5 million followers, who reportedly questioned the official death toll given by Chinese authorities, and the eight-month timeline before an official announcement. Qui is now suspected of “picking quarrels and causing trouble”, a broadly defined crime which carries 10 years in jail, and is often used against journalists and activists. [The Guardian]
China in 2018 passed a law in 2018 banning people from “insulting or slandering heroes and martyrs.” Originally a civil matter, the offense will be made a criminal on in an amendment to the country’s criminal law, which comes into effect next month. Under that amendment, people who “insult, slander or use other means to infringe the reputation and honor of heroes and martyrs and damage the public interest of society” can be punished with imprisonment of up to three years. [CNN]
2 March 2021
India donates $20.4 to Taiwanese medical institution
(lm) To consolidate cooperation under Taiwan’s New Southbound Initiative, India has donated $20,4 million to Taipei’s National Research Institute of Chinese Medicine (NRCIM), marking the first time the Indian government has donated to a Taiwanese government institution. [Hindustan Times]
Launched in 2016 under Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, the New Southbound Initiative is a people-centered policy that aims to enhance cooperation and exchange with eighteen primary target countries: 10 in the ASEAN region, six states in South Asia, and Australia and New Zealand.
While relations between New Delhi and Taipei in the past have mostly walked in the shadows of India’s strict adherence to the ‘One China Policy’, since 2014, bilateral engagements have gradually strengthened. At the time, Indian Prime Minister Modi initiated a shift from his country’s ‘Look East Policy’ to the ‘Act East Policy’ placing greater emphasis on regional cooperation. Since then, New Delhi has initiated several initiatives to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), most notably through its ‘Make in India’ initiative, which aim to encourage companies to manufacture in India [see e.g. AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4].
2 March 2021
With pacts with Maldives and Mauritius, India seeks to offset Chinese influence in Indian Ocean Region
(lm) India and Mauritius have signed a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and Partnership Agreement (CEPCA) – New Delhi’s first such agreement with an African country – to provide preferential access to several items that cater to market requirements on both sides. Both countries also signed a $100 million Line of Credit agreement to enable the procurement of defense assets from India. [The Hindu]
Both documents were signed on February 22, the first day of India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar two-day visit to Mauritius. During his visit, Jaishankar met with high-ranking Maldivian officials, including the president and prime minister Pravind Jugnauth – both of Indian-origin.
The signing of the CEPCA assumes added significance, coming as it does shortly after India signed a $50 million Line of Credit agreement with the Maldives and agreed to develop and maintain a key naval facility for the Maldivian Coast Guard [see AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4].
There is a good case to believe that both events have to be seen against the larger backdrop of the ‘String of Pearls’ theory on potential Chinese government intentions in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). Specifically, it is built upon the assumption that China is aiming to establish a network of commercial and military assets to support Chinese naval operations along the Sea Lane of Communications (SLOCs), which extend from the Chinese mainland to Port Sudan in the Horn of Africa. [South Asia Monitor]
To counter Chinese influence in the IOR, New Delhi has been stepping up efforts to deepen its sot-power bonds with both the Maldives and Mauritius. Both island nations were among the first countries to receive free consignments of Covishield (the local name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the United Kingdom), when India first utilized its vast manufacturing capacity to bolster bilateral ties in January [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]
India’s naval footprint in the Indo-Pacific has also been boosted by growing ties with France, which enjoys basing rights in Réunion, an Indian Ocean island in East Africa. Last year, the navies of both countries for the first time conducted joint patrols from the small island nation, signaling New Delhi’s intent to expand its footprint in the stretch between the East African coastline and the Strait of Malacca.
2 March 2021
China backs India’s hosting of BRICS
(lm) China’s President Xi Jinping may travel to India in the second half of this year to attend the annual summit of the BRICS grouping of five major emerging economies comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Moreover, Beijing on February 22 expressed its support for India hosting this year’s iteration of the summit, adding that it would not be impacted by the border crisis. [The Hindu] [South China Morning Post]
Beijing’s change of heart comes shortly after the two countries had completed the pull-back of troops from the southern and northern shores of Pangong Tso, a glacial lake at 4,242m, and held their tenth round of border talks to assess how the operation was going. [AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4]
Since 2009, the governments of the BRICS states have met annually at formal summits. Russia hosted the most recent 12th summit in November last year, which was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Addressing the summit last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called terrorism the biggest problem facing the world today, adding that there was a need to ensure that countries that shelter terrorists must also be blamed. Read between the lines, the remarks were a clear nod to China, which has repeatedly shielded Pakistan from international censure for sponsoring cross-border terrorism in India and Afghanistan [see AiR No. 47, November/2020, 4].
2 March 2021
Chinese cyber-attacks may have caused massive power outage in Mumbai last year
(lm) On October 12 last year, a grip failure had triggered Mumbai’s first major blackout in more than two years, causing chaos at hospitals and leading to the stoppage of its arterial suburban train network. Now, a study by Recorded Future, a US company monitoring state-sponsored cyber activities, lends further credence to the idea that the massive power outage may have been connected to the deadly brawl in the Galwan Valley four months earlier [see AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3]. [The Times of India] [New York Times]
Specifically, the US internet security firm found that Red Echo, a hacking group affiliated with the Chinese government had been repeatedly targeted a dozen critical nodes across the Indian power generation and transmission infrastructure to possibly coerce New Delhi on the border issue. However, Recorded Future on March 1 said it could not substantiate a potential link between the cyberattacks and Mumbai’s power outage. [Mint] [South China Morning Post] [Recorded Future]
Meanwhile, US-based cyber intelligence firm Cyfirma said another Chinese state-backed hacking group has in recent weeks targeted the IT systems of Bharat Biotech and the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine maker whose coronavirus shots are being used in India’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’ [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. [Reuters]
2 March 2021
India, China agree to set up hotline between foreign ministers to cool down border tension
(lm) Indicating positive momentum in China-India ties, the two neighbors have agreed to set up a hotline between their foreign ministers, complementing a military hotline already in place between the Indian Army’s Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) and China’s Western Theatre Command. The decision was reached in a phone conversation between India’s Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi – talking for the first time in five months – on February 25. [Al Jazeera]
Prior to the phone conversation, both sides had completed the pull-back of troops from the southern and northern shores of Pangong Tso, a glacial lake at 4,242m that had become a flashpoint in the prolonged border dispute [see AiR No. 8, February/2021, 4]. As per an agreement announced by India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh earlier this month, the two countries are now to hold talks to resolve the remaining issues along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh.
Against this backdrop, the two diplomats emphasized the need to implement the consensus reached on the side-lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Moscow last September [see AiR No. 36, September/2020, 2]. Thus, Jaishankar informed his Chinese counterpart that restoring normality to the broader bilateral relationship would first require complete disengagement and ensuing de-escalation along the border.
China, however, takes the view that India’s holistic approach, comprising blocking Beijing from participating in government tenders, and banning dozens of Chinese apps [see e.g. AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1], among other things, was going against a past consensus of containing differences while cooperating elsewhere. [The Hindu]
2 March 2021
India, Pakistan agree to observe ceasefire agreements along Line of Control
(lm) India and Pakistan in a rare joint statement announced on February 25 both sides had agreed to observe a ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) – the de facto border that divides the disputed Kashmir valley between the two countries – and all other sectors. However, New Delhi emphasized that its military would maintain deployments along the LoC to prevent infiltration and continue counterinsurgency operations in the Kashmir Valley. [Indian Ministry of Defense] [ACB News] [The Hindu]
India and Pakistan signed a Ceasefire Understanding in 2003, but the truce has been frayed, with frequent clashes and cross-border shelling in recent months reportedly killing multiple civilians [see e.g. AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5]. The return to a truce was settled during a phone conversation between the Director Generals of Military Operations (DGsMO) on February 22. Attentive observers of both countries believe the joint statement to be the result of months-long backchannel talks between India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart Moeed Yusuf. [The Federal] [Hindustan Times]
Coming like a bolt from the blue, the agreement triggered speculations about the causes that lie behind it.
Coming only weeks after China and India have agreed to withdraw frontline troops along Pangong Tso [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3], some analysts say the moves may have been choreographed with Beijing. To be sure, there is a good case to believe that India’s decision in 2019 to unilaterally abrogate Article 370 of the constitution, thereby breaking the state of Kashmir into two union territories [see AiR No. 32, August/2019, 1], was at least in part motivated by concerns over a possible two-front conflict due to increased cooperation between the Islamabad and Beijing [see e.g. AiR No. 3, January/2021, 3]. [South China Morning Post]
In fact, while the international narrative has largely been limited to the bilateral dispute between Pakistan and India, China – through its claims on Aksai Chin and the Shaksgam Valley – remains an interested party in the territorial issue of Jammu and Kashmir. [The EurAsian Times]
At any rate, from India’s perspective, curbing cross-border infiltration and support to militancy from across Pakistan frees up more policy space to focus on the China issue. A case in point, security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir are have raised red flags over the recent arrival of ‘sticky bombs’ – small, magnetic bombs which can be attached to vehicles and detonated remotely – including 15 seized in a February raid. Indian officials say none of the devices seized in the disputed territory was produced there, suggesting they were being smuggled from Pakistan. [Reuters] [The Citizen]
Nevertheless, some Indian observers question the sincerity of the agreement, pointing out that Pakistan’s Kashmir policy has always been in flux between bilateral talks on the one hand and a militaristic approach on the other. Hence, they suggest that the ceasefire agreement may be best understood a tactical move by India. That is, New Delhi, for its part, may use the agreement to keep its toolkit ready at a time when the new US Biden-Harris administration has committed itself to pursuing a foreign policy centered on democracy, human rights, and equality. [Observer Research Foundation]
2 March 2021
India: Prominent case related to farmers’ protests sparks fresh discussion on country’s sedition law
(lm) An Indian court on February 23 granted bail to a young climate activist who was arrested earlier this month for allegedly helping prepare an online document police had linked to the violent clashes in New Delhi on January 26 [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1].
Police had filed charges under the sedition law, a relic of the British colonial government once used against Mahatma Gandhi. Once used to suppress the native population, the 19th century sedition statute gives police broad powers to make arrests ahead of filing formal charges if an act or speech by an individual ‘excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government.’ Punishment under the law can be a fine or a maximum sentence of life in prison, or both. [Voice of America] [Bloomberg]
She joined at least seven others hit with similar charges, including a former foreign minister, journalists, authors and academics [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. The arrest was denounced by opposition politicians, student groups and several senior lawyers that say the sedition law is being misused to bully people and frighten them from expressing views contrary to government’s policies. [The Leaflet] [The Straits Times 1]
In the last five years, the number of sedition cases filed against individuals has risen by an average of at least 28 percent each year, according to data collected by Article14, a group of lawyers, journalists and academics. Further, the data showed that the increase in recent years is linked to civilian protest movements, such as the current farmers’ protests, as well as protests last year over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 [see AiR No. 51, December/2019, 3] and over the gang rape of a Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh [see AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1].
To be sure, only ten people have been convicted under the law in the five years to 2019. For Prime Minister Modi’s government, therefore, the real use of the law may lie in its ability to deny bail and keep people locked up for years while their cases trudge through the court system. [BBC] [The Straits Times 2]
2 March 2021
India: Authorities impose tougher rules on social media companies; recruit ‘cyber volunteers’
(lm) India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) announced new guidelines on February 25 to regulate content on social networks and other web services in the country, notably making making US social media giants more accountable to legal requests for swift removal of posts and sharing details on the originators of messages. Furthermore, the new regulations also require video-streaming platforms to classify content into five categories based on users’ age. [The Straits Times 1]
Published as Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code, the new rules will be legally enforceable and require big social media companies to set up a grievance redressal mechanism. Platforms are also called upon to appoint executives with law enforcement within three months and will have to publish a compliance report every month detailing how many complaints they received and what action they took. Furthermore, the web services will also be required to remove some types of content, including posts that feature ‘full or partial nudity,’ a ‘sexual act’ or ‘impersonation including morphed images’ within 24 hours of a user flagging them. [CNN] [South China Morning Post]
The new regulations come after social networking service Twitter had initially refused to comply with government orders to restrain the spread of misinformation and inflammatory content related to the ongoing farmers’ protest [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3]. It also comes after online news portals and over-the-top (OTT) content providers were brought within the MEITY’s purview last year [see AiR No. 47, November/2020, 4].
Separately, India’s Home Ministry has developed plans to create a cybercrime division made up of volunteers who will police the internet for evidence of crimes, including child abuse, terrorism, and anti-national sentiment. But international rights groups, as well as digital rights activists and legal experts say the broad definitions for some of the violations could be used to further harass or censor media outlets and chill free speech in such regions as Kashmir. They also challenge the fact that anyone can sign up to be a volunteer without any need for prior verification, warning that asking citizens to police the internet could lead to bullying and eliminate opposition or diverse voices. [The Straits Times 2] [Voice of America]
23 February 2021
India carries out trial launch of anti-tank missiles
(lm) India on February 19 carried out trial launches of the anti-tank guided missile systems (ATGM) Helina and Dhruvastra, paving the way for their induction into Army and Indian Air Force, respectively. Developed by the Defense Research and Development organization (DRDO), both missiles are improved and advanced air-launched variants of the indigenously developed Nag missile. [Frontline]
Last September, India had successfully carried out the final trials of the Nag ATGM with a warhead.
23 February 2021
To oust Chinese firm, India offers grant for power project in northern Sri Lanka
(lm) In an effort to undo the presence of a Chinese company in its immediate backyard, India has reportedly offered Sri Lanka $12 million in grants to set up hybrid wind and solar energy projects on three Sri Lankan islands only 45 kilometers off the coast of Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India. [The Hindu]
The Cabinet of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in mid-January had selected a Chinese company to develop the projects – just weeks before Colombo also pulled out of three-party agreement with India and Japan for operating the strategic Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal (ECT). Back then, New Delhi had lodged a strong protest with the Sri Lankan government, citing the project site’s proximity to the Indian coastline. [AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]
Meanwhile, a group of political parties representing Sri Lankan Tamils – an ethno-linguistic group whose people live both in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and in Sri Lanka – have voiced opposition to Chinese involvement in the project, citing “security threats” to Tamil people and India.
23 February 2021
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan visits Sri Lanka as Colombo balances ties with India
(lm) Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan concluded a working visit to Sri Lanka on February 23, after holding separate meetings with Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and attending an investors’ conference. [Hindustan Times]
Close partners in trade and defense, both sides developed strong bilateral ties during the Sri Lankan Civil War, when Islamabad supplied high-tech military equipment to Colombo’s military. Shortly before Prime Minister Khan’s arrival, however, Sri Lanka cancelled a scheduled speech of the Pakistani prime minister in Parliament, apparently over fears it could further harm ties with India. [The EurAsian Times]
Observers suggest that Prime Minister Khan may have suggested that Sri Lankan officials accept Pakistani support in the upcoming 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC), which will feature a resolution on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]. Further, in return for giving its explicit support Islamabad might ask Colombo to adopt Pakistan’s position on the Jammu and Kashmir dispute. [Foreign Brief]
However, the two parties are unlikely to agree on such arrangements, considering that these would only heighten tensions between Sri Lanka and India. Colombo currently finds itself in a tight spot since it earlier this month pulled out of a three-party agreement with India and Japan for operating the strategic Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]. Prior to the decision, India had shipped free consignments of Covishield (the local name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the United Kingdom) to Sri Lanka.
Moreover, the island nation is witnessing a rising islamophobia. Until recently [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3], the government had made cremations of COVID-19 victims mandatory, arguing that burials in accordance with Islamic tradition would pose a public health risk. Human and religious rights groups, as well as local Muslim associations had resented the policy, saying authorities used it to purposely hurt the country’s religious minorities.
23 February 2021
India set to clear some new investment proposals from China in coming weeks
(lm) India reportedly plans to ease restrictions on investment from China in the coming weeks as relations between the two neighboring countries thaw amid an easing in border tensions. However, only sectors that are not sensitive to national security will be cleared, with investment proposals from Chinese smartphone makers and new-energy companies likely to be the first, according to experts. [The Straits Times] [Global Times]
Last week, India and China began disengagement along the southern and northern shores of Pangong Tso – a glacial lake at 4,242m – after nine months of fitful progress to resolve the border stand-off in the Himalayas [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3].
Tension between the two countries had escalated after more than 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a military clash in June [see AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3]. Ever since, anti-China sentiment has been soaring in India and sparked calls for a boycott of goods from the neighboring country. Against this backdrop, New Delhi framed various policies targeting China, including blocking the nation from participating in government tenders, compelling any Chinese company investing in India to seek approvals [see AiR No. 16, April/2020, 3], and banning dozens of Chinese apps [see e.g. AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1]
In addition, India also added extra scrutiny for visas for Chinese businessmen, academics, industry experts, and advocacy groups – with the consequence of unintentionally hurting Taiwanese companies that were in the process of setting up factories in India to diversify their supply chains [see AiR No. 34, August/2020, 4. [The Straits Times]
23 February 2021
India takes delegation of international diplomats to tour Jammu and Kashmir region
(lm) India on February 17 and 18 hosted a delegation of 24 international diplomats in its Jammu and Kashmir union territory to showcase efforts to restore normalcy more than a year after it stripped the region’s special status. During their visit, the foreign envoys were allowed to speak with local residents to discuss their responses to recent local elections and economic opportunities [see AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5]. The trip also included meetings with officials from Indian Army and government, as well as journalists and civil society groups selected by the security services. [U.S. News] [The Straits Times]
This was the third group of dignitaries to visit the Indian-administered region since August 2019, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government unilaterally abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution, breaking the state of Kashmir into two union territories – one comprising the Hindu-dominated Jammu region and the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley, known as Jammu and Kashmir, and the second being the Buddhist enclave of Ladakh [see AiR No. 32, August/2019, 1].
The president of the Pakistan-administered state of Azad Kashmir termed the tour an attempt by New Delhi to “project a false image of normalcy” in the disputed territory. [Anadolu Agency]
23 February 2021
India, China complete pull-back of forces along Pangong Tso lake
(lm) India and China have completed the pull-back of troops from the southern and northern shores of Pangong Tso, a glacial lake at 4,242m, according to a joint statement issued by the Indian defense ministry on February 21. Further, the statement acknowledged that other parts of the border remained tense and looked forward to continuing talks. [South China Morning Post]
Footage supplied by the Indian government last week showed tanks from both sides leaving the north bank of the lake and returning to their base camps. Satellite images also showed that China had withdrawn troops, dismantled infrastructure and moved vehicles to empty out entire camps. [The Straits Times] [CNN] [BBC]
After nine months of fitful progress to resolve the high-altitude border stand-off, China announced on February 10 that both countries had agreed to withdraw frontline troops along the lake that became a flashpoint in the prolonged border dispute [see AiR No. 7, February/2021, 3]. Commanders from both sides held their tenth round of border talks on February 20 to assess how the operation was going.
23 February 2021
Quad diplomats hold virtual meeting
(lm) US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met virtually on February 18 with his counterparts from Australia, India and Japan under the informal Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a loose strategic coalition seen as a potential bulwark against China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. The meeting was the grouping’s first under the new Biden-Harris Administration, although it has discussed its future role in bilateral calls with members since then [see e.g. AiR No. 4, January/2021, 4]. [Reuters] [South China Morning Post]
During the meeting, Blinken and his counterparts – Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar – discussed their cooperation on various global and regional issues, including tensions in the South China Sea, climate change, North Korea and the recent coup d’état in Myanmar [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]. [The Hindu]
In a separate call, The US Secretary of State also met virtually the same day with his counterparts from France, Germany and the United Kingdom – a group known as the “E3”.
23 February 2021
India: Government liberalizes restrictions on geospatial data for map-making
(lm) The Indian government has liberalized the regulatory framework governing geospatial data, including maps through guidelines released by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) on February 15. Coming at a time when advances in mapping technology are giving a lift to innovation in eCommerce and urban transportation sectors, among other, the new guidelines are considered by many a path breaking reform. [The Hindu] [DST]
Individuals and companies were hitherto required to seek approvals, security clearances, licenses for acquisition and production of geospatial data and geospatial data services, including maps.
Under the new policy, geospatial data from government agencies such as the Survey of India and the Indian Space Research Organization – i.e. data collected by security and law enforcement agencies – will also be made available to public and private companies.
However, the new policy restricts the terrestrial mapping and surveying to only Indian entities – both public and private. Furthermore, the data generated needs to be owned and stored in India, with foreign entities being allowed to license it. High resolution data – finer than 1m horizontally and 3m vertically – will remain restricted. [Hindustan Times]
23 February 2021
India: State government of Puducherry loses trust vote
(lm) The union territory of Puducherry appears to be headed for being put under President’s rule as the opposition parties in the Legislative Assembly are not keen on forming a government with the election just two months away. Earlier the Congress-led government had lost a confidence motion in the House on Friday 22. [The Indian Express]
Formed out four territories of former French India, Puducherry is one of three Indian union territories that is entitled to have an elected Legislative Assembly and a Cabinet, thereby conveying partial statehood. The Puducherry assembly has 30 elected members, with the central government nominating an additional three. Prior to the floor test, Puducherry’s government, an alliance of the Congress Party (INC) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Dravidian Progressive Federation, DMK), found itself on the verge of collapse after six Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) had resigned over the past month, causing its strength to plummet to 12 members. [The Straits Times]
Unable to prove a majority on the assembly floor, the chief minister delivered an agitated resignation speech, accusing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led federal government for “plotting” with Puducherry’s opposition leaders to topple a democratically elected government. To be sure, three of the MLA’s that had resigned from the legislative body last month have already joined the BJP. Moreover, Puducherry’s Lieutenant Governor, who was appointed on February 16 and asked the chief minister to prove a majority, has previously been serving as the BJP’s state unit president in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. [The Hindustan Times] [The Hindu]
23 February 2021
India: Authorities prepare to execute first woman since India’s independence from the UK
(lm) Prison authorities in the state of Uttar Pradesh are reportedly preparing to execute a female death row inmate in what would be the first hanging of a female convict since India’s independence in 1947. The woman was found guilty of murdering seven members of her own family in 2008 after her lover was not accepted by her family. [South China Morning Post]
A lower court first issued the death penalty to the pair in 2010, with Uttar Pradesh’s High Court later upholding the sentence. The High Court refused to consider as a mitigating factor the fact that while in jail, the woman had given birth to a child who would be orphaned if his parents are executed. An appeal to India’s Supreme Court (SC) failed in 2015, and in 2016 then-President Pranab Mukherjee rejected the woman’s mercy plea. Last January, the top court also dismissed her review petition and uphold the death penalty. [Bar and Bench]
The pair’s son has made a last-ditch attempt, appealing to President Ram Nath Kovind, and to the Governor of Uttar Pradesh on February 18 to review the mercy petition and pardon his mother. Moreover, observers say the woman still has still not exhausted her constitutional remedies. These include the right to challenge the rejection of her mercy petition before the High Court and the SC on various grounds, as well as the right to file a curative petition in the SC against the decision on the review petition. The curative petition can challenge the SC’s January 2020 decision, which upheld her death sentence. [The Indian Express]
23 February 2021
India continues engagement with Maldives, signs $50 million Line of Credit
(lm) Indicating deepening security cooperation, India and the Maldives have signed a $50 million Line of Credit agreement and agreed to develop and maintain a key naval facility for the Maldivian Coast Guard. Both documents were signed on February 21, the second and final day of India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar visit to the Maldives. Five other agreements, including one for a $25-million Line of Credit for the development of roads, were signed the previous day. [mint] [The Hindu] [Hindustan Times]
During his visit, Jaishankar also promised that India would strongly support the candidature of Maldives’ Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid for President of the 76th session of the UN General Assembly next year.
Jaishankar also said that India would like to work with the Maldives during its membership of the United Nations Security Council for 2021-22.
To counter China ’s growing financial footprint in South Asia, New Delhi has provided a host of support measures to the Maldives since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, injecting more than $2 billion trough loans, grants, credit lines and currency swaps [see e.g. AiR No. 33, August/2020, 3, AiR No. 38, September/2020, 4]. What is more, the archipelagic state was the first country to receive free consignments of Covishield (the local name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the United Kingdom), when India first utilized its vast manufacturing capacity to bolster bilateral ties in January. [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1]
16 February 2021
India, China initiate troop withdrawal along Northern, Southern Bank of Pangong Tso
(lm) After nine months of fitful progress to resolve the high-altitude border stand-off, China and India have begun pulling back frontline troops on February 10 along the southern and northern bank of Pangong Tso, a glacial lake at 4,242m. The region has high, finger-like mountain spurs above the water, and control of these spur is disputed by both countries [see AiR No. 35, September/2020, 1]. [The Guardian]
India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament on February 11 that the disengagement of troops along the glacial lake will be followed by another round of talks between top military commanders to discuss moving back soldiers from other disputed areas around the frontier. Further elaborating, the minister said the two sides had agreed to dismantle defense structures they had built on both sides of the lake, where Chinese troops are occupying an eight kilometer stretch of land once patrolled exclusively by Indian forces [see AiR No. 34, August/2020, 4]. [The Straits Times]
Since their eighth round of talks, both sides had been considering a reciprocal disengagement plan for the North Bank of Pangong Tso that involved creating no-patrol zones, pulling back tanks and artillery, and using drones to verify the withdrawal [see AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3]. However, in the weeks later, Beijing had reinforced its troops and rapidly strengthened road infrastructure on its side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), stationed container housing modules across all the friction points and turned a village located in close proximity to the LAC into a major army supply depot.
Beyond the Pangong Tso, however, other friction points are yet to be addressed. A case in point is the Depsang Plains, a high-altitude plain at the northwest portion of the disputed Aksai Chin region of Kashmir, that did not feature in the purported disengagement plan. Although India controls the western portion of the plains as part of Ladakh, China currently occupies 250 square kilometers of territory claimed by India [see AiR No. 45, November/2020, 2].
What is more, a retired Indian army chief and current Union minister earlier this month boasted that Indian forces had transgressed the LAC more times than the Chinese. This prompted Beijing to respond a day later saying that the minister had made “an unwitting confession” and that India had been making frequent attempts “to encroach on China’s territory” and was “constantly creating disputes and frictions”. [The Hindu]
Indian observers call the disengagement a clear sign of New Delhi’s “pragmatic acceptance” of its lack of military capability to alter the situation, adding that the withdrawal was happening in line with China’s 1959 claim line. Against the backdrop of the Tibetan uprising, China’s then Prime Minister Zhou Enlai had proposed that both countries each withdraw their forces 20 kilometers from the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and defined this line as the “the so-called McMahon Line in the east and the line up to which each side exercises actual control in the west”. According to Indian observers, through its intrusions since last May, China has already reached the 1959 claim line in Depsang and north of Pangong Tso. [The Economic Times]
16 February 2021
India: Human Rights Watch demands investigation into alleged border force killings
(lm) Human Rights Watch (HRW) has made a fresh call for Indian authorities to investigate and prosecute newly alleged law violations by the Border Security Force (BSF), India’s paramilitary unit guarding borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh. [Human Rights Watch]
Ten years ago, the Indian government announced that it would order the BSF to use restraint against irregular border-crossers, following the release of an HRW report which accused New Delhi of turning the border into “South Asia’s killing fields.” However, Indian and Bangladeshi nongovernmental organizations have since reported that the BSF is continuing to commit abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and ill-treatment of both Indian and Bangladeshi border residents. [Anadolu Agency] [Union of Catholic Asian News]
16 February 2021
India: Twitter yields, blocks access to hundreds of Indian accounts
(lm) Social networking service Twitter has permanently suspended more than 500 accounts that had been flagged by India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY), acceding to the government’s order to restrain the spread of misinformation and inflammatory content related to the farmers’ protest. The company also restricted availability of several other accounts to outside the country and restricted the visibility of certain hashtags containing harmful content. [The Straits Times]
Drawing a line in the sand, Twitter has not, however, taken any action on accounts of “news media entities, journalists, activists or politicians”, reiterating its policy to prioritize providing free expression. Further, the company said it would be “actively exploring options under Indian law” both for its own practices as well as for the impacted accounts. [Twitter Safety] [CNN]
Previously, the company had briefly suspended many of those accounts at the government’s behest but unilaterally unblocked them a few hours later after a public outcry, citing “insufficient justification” to uphold the suspensions. Shortly thereafter, Twitter was hit with a non-compliance notice by the MEITY that threatened the company’s employees with “legal consequences” [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2].
While Twitter and the Indian government remain at an impasse, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its supporters have begun actively promoting Koo, an Indian microblogging site, as a patriotic alternative to Twitter. But what is more, police forces in the Indian states of Uttarakhand and Bihar have warned citizens that criticizing the government on social media or participating in protests could disqualify them from government jobs, bank loans and even obtaining passports. [Financial Times] [South China Morning Post]
16 February 2021
India: Prime Minister Modi reaches out to protesting farmers, says new laws are “optional”
(lm) While addressing the lower house of India’s Parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on February 10 defended afresh the three contentious agricultural laws, saying that the country’s agricultural sector needed reform to attract private investment that would help modernize the food supply-chain and improve infrastructure. Further, the prime minister stressed the need to switch to profitable crops such as fruit and horticulture, urging Indian farmers to look beyond growing rice and wheat. [The Straits Times]
In an attempt to pour oil on troubled waters, in his address to Parliament the prime minister termed the ongoing demonstrations a “pavitra aandolan” [pious movement], only to hit out at “andolan jeevis” [people that live through agitations], who he accused of maligning the protests. [Republic World]
Shortly after Prime Minister Modi’s speech, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha [Joint Farmers Front], an umbrella body of unions leading the protests, said farmers were still protesting because the government had failed to present an “alternative” to the legislation, despite 11 rounds of talks. Last week, tens of thousands of protesting farmers held a three-hour blockade of state and national highways, indicating growing support for protesters’ demand to have the legislation fully repealed [see AiR No. 6, February/2021, 2]. [Hindustan Times]
16 February 2021
Indian Navy’s maritime exercise TROPEX-21 set to enter final stage
(lm) The Indian Navy is currently conducting its biennial Theatre Level Operational Readiness Exercise (TROPEX) over a vast geographical expanse in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and adjunct waters. The exercise, which began in early January is well underway and set to culminate later this month. The Navy’s largest wargame, it involves the participation of all of its units including ships, submarines and aircrafts, in addition to units from the Indian Army, Air Force, and the Coast Guard. [The Hindu]
The maritime exercise is carried out in three phases – independent workup phase, joint workup phase and tactical phase – to test the Navy’s transition from peacetime to hostilities. In the first phase, the Indian Navy conducted the two-day coastal defense exercise “Sea Vigil 2021” to review its coastal security preparedness [see AiR No. 3, January/2021, 3]. The maritime exercise was followed by the large-scale conjoint amphibious exercise AMPHEX drill, which was conducted in the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal from January 21 to 25. The recently concluded workup phase witnessed multiple “on-target” ordnance deliveries, including missiles, torpedoes and rockets from frontline warships, aircraft and submarines to reaffirm the Navy’s capability to carry out long range maritime strikes in the Indian Ocean Region. [The Week]
9 February 2021
Sri Lanka pulls out of three-party agreement with India and Japan for operating Eastern Coast Terminal
(lm) Scuttling a 2019 trilateral agreement with India and Japan, the Sri Lankan government has decided that the strategic Colombo Port’s Eastern Container Terminal (ECT) will be exclusively operated by the state-owned Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). A cabinet meeting held on February 1 further decided to offer the West Container Terminal to India for possible investments, instead. [The Hindu 1]
India and Japan consider their presence in the Colombo Port a strategic necessity in the face of China’s presence in the adjacent Colombo Port City project, a flagship $1.4 billion project in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) [see AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1]. According to the 2019 Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC), which was signed by the administration of then-President Maithripala Sirisena, the tri-nation project was to be developed with 51 percent ownership by Sri Lanka’s government and the remaining 49 percent as an investment by Indian multinational conglomerate Adani Group and other stakeholders, including Japan.
India has an additional reason to seek a foothold in Colombo Port as approximately 70 percent of the throughput at Colombo port is accounted for by Indian transshipment. But what is more, observers believe New Delhi’s assertive role in Sri Lanka to be part of larger efforts to regain strategic ground India has lost to China in its own backyard. Thus, the project has figured in talks at the highest levels, including when Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar visited Colombo in January, laying down unequivocal terms for the Indian-backed development of a container jetty in the port [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1]. [Nikkei Asia]
A week later, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa told agitating trade unions that his government decided to take forward the 2019 triparty MoC after it had reviewed “regional geopolitical concerns” [see AiR No. 3, January/2021, 3]. The concessions came at a time when Sri Lanka has been holding out a virtual begging bowl for a nearly $2 billion financial lifeline – a $1 billion currency swap arrangement and $960 million debt moratorium – from India to service its multibillion-dollar international debts and to run a current account deficit estimated at $1.1 billion annually [see AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3].
However, twenty-seven trade unions instigated by the Sinhalese nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna [People’s Liberation Front] (JVP) have been agitating against the deal on the grounds that it is a “sellout” of a national asset to India. The JVP and the trade unions are exploiting the fact that the ruling Sri Lanka People’s Freedom Alliance (SLPFA) had come to power in the 2019 Presidential election and last year’s parliamentary elections after campaigning on a platform aimed at stoking ethnic Sinhala nationalism, promising not to barter away national assets like ports and airports to other countries [see e.g., AiR No. 47, November/2019, 3].
Such a pledge was given following the SLPFA’s trenchant criticism against the leasing out of another deep seaport located in the south of the island after the port was operating at a loss and could not generate enough revenue to repay the loan the country had received to build it. The $1.12 billion deal, first announced in July 2016, allowed a Chinese state company to take over the port in Hambantota, which straddles the world’s busiest east-west shipping route, on a 99-year lease [see AiR December/2017, 3].
Soon after the Sri Lanka government succumbed to pressure from the trade unions, India asked all sides to abide by the existing understandings and commitment of the trilateral agreement. Further, India’s High Commissioner to Sir Lanka met with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena on February 3. [Economy Next]
On February 5, then, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) refused to provide the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) a further extension of a $400 million currency swap facility set to expire on February 1, saying that the rollover would require Colombo having a successfully negotiated staff-level agreement for an International Monetary Fund (IMF) program. Commenting on reports that the denial of an extension was retributive, India’s High Commission to Colombo explained that the initial $400 million currency swap facility was provided last year for an initial period of three months and a 3-month rollover was provided lasting till the 1 February 2021 [see AiR No. 30, July/2020, 4]. [The Hindu 2] [Tamil Guardian]
In light of Colombo’s change of heart, another event assumes added significance: As early as on January 18, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa selected a Chinese company to set up hybrid wind and solar energy projects on three Sri Lankan islands only 45 kilometers off the coast of Tamil Nadu, a state in southern India. Back then, India had lodged a strong protest Sri Lanka government, citing the project site’s proximity to the Indian coastline. [The Hindu 3] [The Indian Express]
9 February 2021
Iranian Defense Minister visits India, indicates deepening cooperation between New Delhi and Tehran
(lm) As US President Joe Biden is breaking away from key foreign policy hallmarks of the previous administration, India’s diplomacy vis-à-vis Iran is regaining momentum. Earlier this month, India’s official heading the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran Division in the External Affairs Ministry embarked on a two-day trip to Tehran to meet with key officials in the administration Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. [Asia Times]
During his visit, the Indian official inquired about the development of Chabahar Port, the only Iranian port with direct access to the Indian Ocean that can be easily accessed from India’s western coast, bypassing Pakistan. Against the backdrop of signs that the White House under President Biden might re-engage with Tehran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the port is being increasingly seen as a fulcrum of connectivity to Central Asia through Afghanistan and Tajikistan [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4]. [India West]
Shortly thereafter, Iran’s Minister of Defense Amir Hatami arrived in India on February 3 to meet with Indian Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat. During his visit, the Iranian official also participated in the opening ceremony of India’s premier air show, Aero India [see article in this edition]. Since a decade-long UN arms embargo on Iran that barred the country from purchasing conventional weapons like tanks and fighter jets expired last October, Tehran is looking to purchase military equipment from non-Western countries, especially India and China. [Tehran Times 1] [Tehran Times 2]
In an opinion piece published by the Observer Research Foundation, the author convincingly argues that the reason behind New Delhi’s increased engagement with Tehran may not be energy security or the geopolitical wrangling in West Asia, but an increasingly challenging situation in Afghanistan. [Observer Research Foundation]
9 February 2021
India plans for revolution in defense manufacturing, says Defense Minister Singh at aviation exhibition
(lm) India is planning to spend $130 billion on military modernization to advance towards its vision of Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant or self-sufficient India), Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said on February 3 while delivering the opening words at the 13th edition of the country’s premier air show, Aero India. Following on the announcement of India’s defense budget for the next fiscal year, the remarks were also an attempt to stymie observers who had found fault with an “negligible increase” in military spending [see articles this edition]. [The EurAsian Times]
Singh also inaugurated the second production line for light combat aircraft at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), a government-owned aerospace and defense company which is also behind the development of the multirole light fighter HAL Tejas. The defense minister said several countries had already expressed interest in procuring the M1A version of the aircraft, adding that the indigenously developed HLA Tejas was better than its foreign equivalents on several parameters. Earlier this month the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved the purchase of 83 advanced HAL Tejas to bolster the Indian Air Force’s combat potential. [Hindustan Times] [India Today] [The Indian Express]
Moreover, HAL on February 4 unveiled a developmental air-teaming system that will incorporate the HAL Tejas with unmanned aircrafts. As part of the Combined Air Teaming System (CATS), future variants of the multirole light fighter will act as a parent aircraft controlling four stealth unmanned aerial vehicles known as CATS Warrior to perform autonomous missions (e.g., scouting or absorbing enemy fire if attacked) using artificial intelligence. [Flight Global]
9 February 2021
India releases details about new defense budget, increases defense capital budget by nearly 19 percent
(lm) India increased its defense budget by about 3 percent for the fiscal year 2021-22, causing experts who had expected a robust increase in response to the protracted military standoff with China, to question the timing of the country’s military modernization program. Overall, the new defense budget totals $47.4 billion, but most of the funds allocated for defense forces go toward the salaries of about 1.3 million serving personnel, pensions, infrastructure development, and repairs. [The Diplomat] [South China Morning Post]
It is noteworthy, however, that capital expenditure, which is meant for fresh arms procurement and existing liabilities, witnessed an increase of about 16 percent from the previous year’s $15.91 billion, now valued at $18.48 billion. But what is more, existing liabilities could eat up to 90 percent of the new capital expenditure, according to Indian officials, indicating a high number of previously conducted defense contracts. [Defense News] [Anadolu Agency]
Moreover, as attentive observers have remarked, India obfuscates its military expenditure by shoving provisions for quasi-military organizations such as Industrial Reserve Force and Border Security Force, alongside expenses for dockyards and border infrastructure, in civil estimates. Hence, the actual military expenditure may be much higher than the initial estimates. [Modern Diplomacy]
9 February 2021
US President Biden calls India’s PM Modi, as Washington plans for first Quad summit
(lm) US President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi agreed in a telephone call to strengthen the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a loose strategic coalition of Japan, India, Australia and the United States that is seen as a potential bulwark against China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific. Lending further credence to the affirmation, Washington as reportedly proposed an online meeting with the leaders of the other Quad members. [Kyodo News] [South China Morning Post] [Reuters]
Reports about the virtual summit also follow on a telephone conversation between Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi and his newly appointed US counterpart Lloyd Austin held last month. Back then, both officials had reasserted the importance of the Japanese-US alliance as well as cooperation with partners outside the region for a free and open Indo-Pacific [see AiR No. 4, January/2021, 4].
Speculation about Washington’s interest in exploring a new framework for Indo-Pacific cooperation, dubbed the “Quad Plus”, received a boost in September, when then-Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said that the US was aiming to ‘formalize’ the groupings’ military, economic and development cooperation. Though cautioning visions of an Indo-Pacific NATO at that time, Biegun also emphasized that the format shall remain open for other countries to join to “align in a more structured manner” [see AiR No. 40, October/2020, 1, AiR No. 35, September/2020, 1].
In November, then, the navies of the four countries jointly conducted the Exercise Malabar, which marked their largest joint naval drill in over a decade [see AiR No. 47, November/2020, 4]. While the exercise was formally independent of the Quad consultation mechanisms, observers back then considered Canberra’s participation after 13 years of absence a clear sign of the increasing strategic convergence of the four nations in the face of China’s vast military and economic power in the region [see AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4].
9 February 2021
India: Tens of thousands of farmers protest new agriculture laws with blockades across the country
(lm) Tens of thousands of protesting farmers held a three-hour blockade of state and national highways on February 6 in a continuation of their months-long protest movement against new agricultural policies. The previous day, farmers in the state of Uttar Pradesh rallied in opposition to the contentious legislation, indicating growing support for protesters’ demand to have the legislation fully repealed. [The Straits Times 1] [South China Morning Post] [Reuters]
The protests had been largely peaceful but turned chaotic and violent on January 26, when thousands of farmers deviated from agreed routes and headed for government buildings in Old Delhi where the annual Republic Day military parade was taking place [see AiR No. 5, February/2021, 1].
Since then, local authorities have erected barricades and concertina wire, and even planted nails and dug trenches on roads leading to major protest site. Moreover, the government intermittently cut off electricity and water supply to one of the farmers’ protest camps, before suspending internet services at all three, and restricted journalists’ access to them. Furthermore, the Indian capital was placed on a high alert on February 6, with authorities closing several metro stations until the blockade call ended, as well as deploying nearly 50,000 security personnel. [France24] [The Straits Times 2] [New York Times]
On February 8, then, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited representatives of the protesting farmers for a next round of talks, while also assuring that the Minimum Support Price (MSP), a government fixed benchmark designed to incentivize the farmers and thus ensure adequate food grains production in the country, would stay in effect. So far, 11 rounds of talks between the Samyukt Kisan Morcha [Joint Farmers Front], an umbrella body of unions leading the protests, and the federal government have failed to end the ongoing stalemate [see e.g., AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4].
An opinion piece published by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) is taking a critical stance on how the federal government has introduced the reforms and the manner in which it conducted the ensuing negotiations. Noting that the outcome of the current dispute would affect India’s commitment to the transition to a more environmentally sustainable and equitable growth model, the author scarifies Modi’s administration for having failed “to communicate its case effectively to those farmers who would benefit from the reforms and who could conceivably have prevented their colleagues from hijacking the narrative”. In doing so, the authors go on to explain, it has alienated the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), a center-right Sikh-centric state political party in Punjab and long-term ally of the BJP, that could otherwise have helped handle the reform’s fallout. [Observer Research Foundation]
9 February 2021
India: Government puts Twitter on notice for refusing to comply with directive, threatens prosecution
Representing the latest instance of deteriorating relations between Indian authorities and US social media platforms, the government of Prime Minister Modi has sent a notice to social networking service Twitter, warning the company of “legal consequences” over non-compliance of its demand to block content aimed at inciting violence.[Hindustan Times 1] [The Straits Times 1]
Twitter on February 1 “unilaterally” unblocked 250 accounts it had previously suspended, citing “insufficient justification” to continue the suspensions. Earlier, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) had sought an emergency blocking of content alleging that Prime Minister Modi’s administration was trying to wipe out farmers protesting against agricultural reforms. As of February 3, several Twitter users could be seen using the hashtag “#ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide” that had led the government to call for the ban. [Arab News]
On February 4, then, Twitter received a fresh government order to suspend 1,178 accounts which Indian authorities say were being operated from outside of the country and involved supporters of a separatist Sikh movement. Many of these accounts were sharing and amplifying misinformation and provocative content on the ongoing farmers’ protests, according to Indian officials. Twitter did not comment on whether it had complied with the government’s order, but said it would review content under its rules and local laws when it receives a government report about potentially illegal posts. Further, the US company formally requested a meeting with Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Minister of Electronics and Information Technology. [The Straits Times 2] [Hindustan Times 2] [Al Jazeera]
Meenakshi Lekhi, a lawmaker from Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and chairperson of a parliamentary panel charged with examining the Personal Data Protection Bill, criticized Twitter for disobeying government orders, further saying she has yet to decide whether to summon company executives. [ET Telecom]
9 February 2021
India, United States take part in joint military exercise in Rajasthan
(lm) Since February 8, troops from the Indian and the US armies participate in the 16th iteration of the ‘Yudh Abhyas’ land drill, a regularly-scheduled bilateral exercise which allows for an exchange of knowledge between the two militaries using a UN peacekeeping scenario. Taking place in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, the two-week exercise involves around 250 soldiers from each side. [Business Standard]
2 February 2021
India, China using vaccine diplomacy to deepen bilateral ties around the world
(lm) China will be providing 300,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Chinese state-owned company Sinopharm under grand assistance to Nepal, Beijing’s embassy to Kathmandu announced on February 1. [The Himalayan Times]
Timing and context of the announcement are noteworthy: As part of its unprecedented Vaccine Maitri (Vaccine Friendship) campaign, India ten days earlier had sent one million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to Kathmandu, marking the launch of nationwide inoculation drive in the Himalayan country. Following in the wake of the sixth meeting of the India-Nepal Joint Commission, the gesture came at a time when bilateral relations between India and Nepal continue to see an upwards trajectory, after they had initially derailed in May last year [see AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2]. [Reuters]
But what is more, they also take place against the larger backdrop of determined efforts by India to utilize its vast manufacturing capacity to bolster bilateral ties. While commercial overseas shipments are likely to start around March, India has already shipped free consignments of Covishield (the local name for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine developed in the United Kingdom) doses to Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Myanmar, and Nepal, as well as to its key Indian Ocean partners, Mauritius and Seychelles. Sri Lanka began receiving vaccine consignments earlier this month and Afghanistan will do so after it has completed regulatory clearance procedures. [The Diplomat]
The shipments reflect one of India’s unique strengths: It is home to a robust vaccine industry, including the Serum Institute of India, one of the world’s largest vaccine makers. The country, therefore, has a long track record of supplying medicines and vaccines to the rest of the world, especially to low- and middle-income countries. [Washington Post] [Financial Times]
These efforts put India in direct competition with China, which has made no secret that vaccine distribution is wrapped up in its broader geopolitical ambitions. For it has explicitly included vaccine distribution in its broader Health Silk Road initiative, which aims to bolster China’s international soft power. To this end, Chinese companies have made an aggressive international push to sell their COVID-19 vaccines, with Sinopharm and Beijing-based biopharmaceutical company Sinovac signing deals with more than a dozen countries. [Observer Research Foundation] [South China Morning Post]
A case in point, China’s “all-weather friend” Pakistan received on February 1 a free shipment of half a million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine, as Islamabad is set to launch its vaccination drive this week, starting with frontline health workers. What is more, Pakistan is due to receive a further 1.1 million doses from China by the end of this month; up to 6.8 million doses are due to arrive before the end of March. [Al Jazeera] [The Straits Times]
2 February 2021
Mongolia: Discussions over bilateral ties and vaccines gifted by India
(nm) State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs N.Ankhbayar and Deputy Director General for Asia and the Pacific of the Federal Foreign Office of Germany, Jasper Wieck, held an online meeting last week, discussing strengthening bilateral ties, regional cooperation, and mutual support within international organizations, as well as exchanging their views on the current Covid-19 pandemic. Both sides agreed to hold a consultative meeting in Ulaanbaatar in September. [AKIpress 1]
Meanwhile, India has donated 1.5 million doses of the British-developed AstraZeneca vaccine against Covid-19 to Mongolia, adding to the 10 million doses of vaccine that Mongolia had purchased from India. The donation is part of India’s vaccine diplomacy which seeks to deepen ties between India and its neighbouring states. [AkIpress 2] [Reuters]
2 February 2021
India: Party of Prime Minister Modi seeks to increase political influence in Indian state elections
(lm) Although election dates are yet to be announced, campaigning gets under way for Legislative Assembly elections in the southern state of Tamil Nadu and the eastern state of West Bengal. The elections in both states assumes added significance as they are among the last few left for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to conquer. [The Straits Times]
Despite two successive landslide victories in federal elections since 2014 [see AiR (4/5/2019)], Modi’s BJP has a mixed record in state elections. To be sure, the party was part of the winning alliance in eastern state of Bihar in India’s first major election since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Defying exit poll predictions, the BJP eclipsed its regional ally to become the senior partner in the ruling coalition [see AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3].
2 February 2021
India: Journalists accused of sedition over reporting of farmers’ protest
(lm) Several senior Indian journalists are facing charges of sedition over their allegedly misleading reporting and online posts about the violence and death of a protester during the farmers’ rally against agriculture reforms in New Delhi on January 26. Media groups condemned the police complaints and called them an intimidation tactic aimed at stifling the journalists. [The Straits Times]
A case was also filed against Shashi Tharoor, a senior politician of the oppositional National Congress who also serves as Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology [see AiR No. 4, January/2021, 4]. [The Indian Express]
On the day of the protests, social networking service Twitter announced it had suspended more than 300 accounts engaged in spam and platform manipulation to protect the conversation on the service from attempts to incite violence. [The Times of India]
2 February 2021
India: Rally against agriculture reforms turns violent, as thousands of farmers divert from agreed routes
(lm) A rally against agriculture reforms in New Delhi on January 26 turned violent, after thousands of protesting farmers deviated from agreed routes and headed for government buildings in Old Delhi where the annual Republic Day parade of troops and military hardware was taking place. One protester died and more than 80 police officers were injured. [BBC]
Police had allowed the rally on the condition that it would not interrupt the annual Republic Day parade in central Delhi held to honor the date on which India officially adopted its constitution. Farmers were given specific routes for the rally but a group of them converged on the historic Red Fort, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, breached security and clambered onto the walls and domes of the fortress. In a particularly bold rebuke to Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government, the protesters hoisted a Sikh religious flag alongside the national flag. [South China Morning Post]
Delhi’s Police Commissioner told a media conference the following day some farm leaders had incited violence with provocative speeches, adding that the police were examining video footage to identify those who clashed with security forces. Moreover, the Indian government ordered 2,000 paramilitary reinforcements to New Delhi, while it also suspended mobile internet services suspended in parts of Delhi closed some metro stations. [Bloomberg 1] [Bloomberg 2]
Despite the violence in parts of central Delhi tens of thousands of farmers also marched peacefully. Farm union leaders the following day therefore condemned the violence and accused two outside groups of sabotaging an otherwise peaceful march. What is more, Indian farmers on January 30 began a daylong hunger strike, coinciding with the anniversary of independence leader Mahatma Gandhi’s death, as they sought to reaffirm the peaceful nature of their movement following the violent clashes with police. They also called off a protest planned to be held on February 1 outside Parliament when the government presents its annual budget but vowed the agitation would continue. [Associated Press 1] [Associated Press 2] [Deutsche Welle 1] [The Times of India]
In his first public comments on the months-long farmers’ agitation, Prime Minister Modi on January 31 criticized the protesters that had stormed Delhi’s historic Red Fort on the country’s Republic Day. The day before, the prime minister told opposition party leaders that the offer to suspend the three laws for 18 months still stands [see AiR No. 4, January/2021, 4]. [Deutsche Welle 2] [The Straits Times]
Some observers believe the long-drawn and physically draining protests – hundreds of thousands of farmers have been striking on the capital’s outskirts since November, some 60 of them dead so far, and 11 rounds of failed talks with the government [see e.g., AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4] – could have resulted in growing frustration in the “young radicals” amongst them [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1].
In the run-up to the Republic Day demonstrations, fears had long been growing that the largely peaceful protests could turn violent. Observers therefore cautioned that the incident may be grist to the mill of critics of the protests, in particular the federal government. A case in point, India’s Attorney General earlier this month had petitioned the Supreme Court to put a stop to the protests on the grounds that the Khalistan movement, a Sikh separatist group that the government had previously branded as “terrorists,” had infiltrated the movement [see AiR No. 3, January/2021, 3].
Indian President Ram Nath Kovind in September last year approved three new agricultural laws aimed at overhauling the food grain procurement and sale of produce [see AiR No. 39, September/2020, 5] in the country of more than 1.3 billion people, almost half of whom depend on agriculture for their livelihood. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly defended the legislation, saying it would bring about much needed reform that will introduce transparency, accelerate growth and attract private investment in supply chains [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4].
2 February 2021
India receives consignment of 6,000 LMGs from Israel
(lm) The Indian Army has received the first batch of Negev Light Machine Guns (LMG) from Israel as it seeks to boost the firepower of frontline troops. In the first batch, 6,000 guns were delivered, while the remaining units are expected to be supplied by March. [Army Technology]
India’s Defense Ministry signed in March last year a $120.57 million capital acquisition contract with Israel Weapons Industries, an Israeli firearms manufacturer, to procure a total of 16,479 LMGs under India’s Fast Track Procedure.
2 February 2021
Nepal awards hydropower project to Indian company
(lm) Chaired by Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, a meeting of Investment Board Nepal (IBN) decided on January 29 decided to award the contract for construction of a hydropower project to India’s Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam (SJVN). Delegated under the build–own–operate–transfer (BOOT) project delivery method, ownership of the project will be transferred back to the Nepalese government after 20 years of commercial operation. [South Asia Monitor] [Investment Board Nepal]
2 February 2021
Nepal plans to deregulate oil business, prepares new petroleum law
(lm) Nepal’s government is reportedly gearing up to enact a new petroleum law aimed at deregulating the country’s lucrative oil market. Currently, no company is allowed to import, store and distribute various petroleum products other than the Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC), a state-owned trading enterprise. [The Kathmandu Post]
While early attempts to deregulate the country’s oil market had failed, the government now may have another rationale behind the need for a new law: Imports of petroleum products accounted for more than 15 percent (i.e., $1,850 billion) of the country’s total import bill in the 2018-2019 fiscal year.
But what is more, earlier this month, a delegation from India’s largest commercial oil company, Indian Oil Corporation visited Kathmandu to lay the groundwork for the construction of the second cross-border petroleum pipeline. In September 2018, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and his Indian counterpart Prime Minister Narendra Modi had jointly inaugurated the first Nepal-India cross-border petroleum pipeline, the first in South Asia.
2 February 2021
New India-China border clash shows simmering tensions
(lm) Indian and Chinese troops have clashed along their disputed Himalayan border. While details about the latest skirmish remain foggy, Indian media outlets and independent military analysts said on January 25 that the clash occurred earlier this month in northern Sikkim, a mountainous Indian state sandwiched between Bhutan and Nepal. [New York Times]
Although no fatalities were reported and both sides remained tight-lipped, reports of a clash show that tensions are still simmering between the two Asian giants. This month satellite imagery revealed that Chinese forces have been slowly but steadily cutting away small pieces of Indian territory, constructing a new village on what had been an empty hillside two years ago in Arunachal Pradesh, another mountainous Indian border state. [Foreign Policy]
As Beijing quietly intensifies pressure against India, India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has condemned China for massing troops and building infrastructure at the countries’ disputed border, describing the deadly brawl in the Galwan Valley last year [see AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3] as having “profoundly disturbed” bilateral relations. [South Asia Monitor 2] [South China Morning Post]
26 January 2021
Indian army helicopter crashes in Kashmir
(lm) An Indian army helicopter crash-landed along the disputed along the Line of Control (LoC) on January 25, leaving one pilot dead and another critically injured. The incident occurred just days after an Indian soldier was shot dead by Pakistani snipers in the Jammu district. [Express] [Kahsmir Observer]
26 January 2021
Singapore, India sign deal for submarine rescue mission
(lm) At the 5th India-Singapore Defense Minister’s Dialogue held through video conferencing, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and his Singaporean counterpart Ng Eng Hen on January 20 witnessed the signing of the Implementing Agreement on Submarine Rescue Support and Cooperation. Under the agreement, the navies of both countries seek to extend rescue facilities to each other’s submarines. [The Straits Times]
While discussing regional security developments, during the meeting, both ministers also reaffirmed the strong and longstanding bilateral defense relationship and their commitment to sustain defense cooperation across the three services, and in defense technology and multilateral engagements. [The Hindu]
26 January 2021
Pakistan wants India held ‘accountable’ for 2019 airstrike
(lm) Pakistan has urged the world community to hold longtime rival India “accountable” for the 2019 Balakot airstrike conducted last February when Indian warplanes crossed the de facto border in the disputed region of Kashmir and dropped bombs in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan. [Anadolu Agency]
The move comes after a leaked WhatsApp chat between Hindu-nationalist pundit Arnab Goswani and a former media industry executive revealed that the Indian air strike inside Pakistan was pre-planned, allegedly designed to perpetuate the image of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the run up to the general elections. [South China Morning Post]
In early February 2019, a convoy of vehicles carrying security personnel was attacked by a vehicle-borne suicide bomber in the Indian-administered part of Kashmir, resulting in the deaths of more than 40 Indian paramilitary forces. The responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Pakistan-based Islamist militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed. Pakistan condemned the attack and denied any connection to it.
Days later, Indian jets crossed into Pakistan and dropped bombs on the outskirts of the village of Balakot, characterizing the airstrike a preemptive strike directed against a terrorist training camp. The following day, in a tit-for-tat airstrike, the Pakistani Air Force shot down two Indian aircraft and arrested a pilot, who was later released as a “goodwill gesture.” [AiR (1/3/2019), AiR (4/2/2019)]
26 January 2021
India unlikely to use US facilities to store strategic oil reserves
(lm) India has decided to re-evaluate its plan to store its strategic oil reserves in facilities available in the United States, as New Delhi seeks to expand its domestic storage, which it consider s a safer and better option to tide over excess price volatility and short-term supply disruptions. [Energyworld]
Timing and context of the announcement are noteworthy: India’s crude oil imports last December soared to the highest levels in nearly three years to more than 5 million barrels per day (bpd) as its refiners cranked up output to meet a rebound in fuel demand, boosting prices and an accelerating de-stocking of floating storage globally. [Nasdaq]
Despite being the world’s third-biggest oil consumer and importer, India has available enough SPR to tackle emergency situations lasting for a mere maximum of nine days – compared with 198 days for Japan – making the country prone to price and supply risks. The urgency to scale up its strategic petroleum reserves (SPR) pushed New Delhi into signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Washington last July to cooperate on emergency crude oil reserves, including the possibility of India storing oil in the US emergency stockpile.
More recently, however, New Delhi has been making efforts to enhance its energy security domestically, with the government planning to offer viability gap funding (VGF) to attract bidders for the second phase of India’s Strategic Petroleum Reserves, which will add 12 days of strategic storage. [Livemint]
26 January 2021
India starts construction on power project, despite objections from Pakistan
(lm) India‘s government on January 20 approved a $720 million investment for a run-of-the-river hydroelectric power station on the Chenab River in the Jammu and Kashmir union territory. Formed by the confluence of two rivers, Chandra and Bhaga, the Chenab River is a major river that flows in India and Pakistan. Islamabad has routinely opposed the construction out of fears that New Delhi could use the reservoirs to create deliberate and artificial water shortage or cause flooding in Pakistan. [livemint]
Pakistan has repeatedly raised its concerns with the World Bank, stating that India’s project was not in accordance with the Indus Water Treaty (IWT), a water-distribution treaty brokered by finance institution to use the water available in the Indus River and its tributaries. Signed in 1960, the Treaty allocates the Chenab River to Pakistan for exploitation, while India is entitled to use its water for domestic and agricultural uses or for “non-consumptive” uses such as hydropower. [The Express Tribune]
In her article Priyanka Bhide considers linkages between water security and socio-economic growth for six selected cities across India, where a rapidly increasing population and urbanization have driven up water demands all across the country. [China Water Risk]
26 January 2021
United States to continue elevating its defense partnership with India under new Biden administration
(lm) During his confirmation hearing on January 19, the new US Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, said he would continue to build on the “strong defense cooperation” with India and ensure that the militaries of the two countries can collaborate on shared interests.
Further elaborating, Austin also said he would seek to elevate the bilateral defense cooperation through existing regional multilateral engagements, such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a loose strategic coalition of Japan, India, Australia and the United States. [The Wire] [The Straits Times]
26 January 2021
India, China hold 16-hour long inconclusive talks to resolve border dispute
(lm) A 16-hour marathon meeting between India and China to resolve the ongoing border dispute and thinning of forces along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh ended on January 25. The eighth and last round of the talks had taken place on November 6 during which both sides broadly discussed creating no-patrol zones, pulling back tanks and artillery, and using drones to verify the withdrawal [see AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3]. [The Hindu] [Hindustan Times] [The Straits Times]
Notwithstanding periodic hopes for a resolution, however, several rounds of diplomatic and military talks have so far made little headway in deflating tensions over the disputed border. But what is more, frontline deployments of both sides remain unchanged, with more than 100,000 soldiers of both armies facing winter conditions [see latest AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2].
Recognizing that Beijing has an immense military advantage, observers suggest that India is stalling for time, privily accepting that a diplomatic solution is unlikely. With both armies locked into the prospect of a long watch in the high mountains [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1], the Indian Army’s performance and its sustenance through this winter may be the critical factor for New Delhi’s plans to deal with the Chinese aggression in eastern Ladakh.
26 January 2021
India among top 10 hit by climate change
(lm) India ranked seventh in a list of countries most affected by the devastating impacts of climate change in 2019, according to a study published on January 25 by environmental organization Germanwatch. Over the past 20 years, over 475,000 people lost their lives as a direct result of more than 11,000 extreme weather events globally and losses amounted to around US $2.56 trillion (in purchasing power parities). Eight of the 10 countries hardest-hit between 2000 and 2019 are poorer nations. [Germanwatch]
The Global Climate Risk Index (CRI) is based on data from the German reinsurance company Munich Re. It compares the number of deaths and property damage caused by extreme weather to the number of inhabitants and the gross domestic product of the country in which it strikes. It does not, however, consider slow-onset events such as rising sea levels, glacier melting or ocean warming and acidification.
In 2019, the South Asian summer monsoon continued for a month longer than normal, with 110 percent of the long-period average being recorded by the end of September. Flooding caused by the heavy rain was responsible for 1,800 deaths across 14 Indian states and led to the displacement of 1.8 million people. Overall, 11.8 million people were affected by the intense monsoon with the economic damage estimated at $10 billion. [Business Standard] [Hindustan Times]
26 January 2021
India: Parliamentary panel questions Facebook India representatives on WhatsApp’ privacy terms
Importantly, this is not the first time that Facebook has come under scrutiny from Indian authorities over its content moderation practices: The social media giant’s representatives were summoned by the same committee last September to report on allegations of deliberate omissions and inaction to allow anti-Muslim hate speech from politicians affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in order to secure its investment [see AiR No. 37, September/2020, 3, AiR No. 33, August/2020, 3].
Separately, Facebook India’s Vice President and Managing Director, Ajit Mohan told the Supreme Court (SC) on January 20 that he was well within his rights to remain silent and not be compelled by the Peace and Harmony Committee of the Delhi Legislative Assembly. Last September, Facebook India and its senior official had appealed to India’s Supreme Court [see AiR No. 39, September/2020, 5] to challenge two notices served upon him by the committee which is investigating the company’s alleged role in the religious riots in the city earlier last year [see AiR No. 37, September/2020, 3, AiR No. 9, March/2020, 1]. [The Hindu]
26 January 2021
India: Unions reject government’s offer to suspend new farm laws
(lm) The Indian government on January 20 offered to suspend three contentious agricultural laws for up to 18 months in an effort to end nearly two months of mass protest by farm groups against Prime Minister Narendra Modi [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1]. Later the same day, however, the Samyukt Kisan Morcha [Joint Farmers Front], an umbrella body of unions leading the protests, ruled out any deal, saying the three laws must be fully repealed. [The Straits Times] [BBC]
Earlier the Supreme Court (SC) already put the implementation of the laws on hold and appointed an independent panel of experts to resolve the deadlock between the government and union representatives. However, protest leaders have refused participate in discussions with the committee, alleging that all four panel members are pro-government [see AiR No. 3, January/2021, 3].
19 January 2021
China in the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific”
(dql) Shortly before Joe Biden will be sworn in as US President in this week, the Trump administration declassified and published the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific”, approved by President Trump in 2018 and stamped secret and not for release to foreign nationals until 2043.
The 10-page national security strategy paper identifies maintaining “U.S. strategic primacy over the Indo-Pacific region,” and promoting “a liberal economic order, while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence and cultivating areas of cooperation to promote regional peace and prosperity” one of three national security challenges, along with North Korea’s threat to the US and its allies as well as the advancement of US global economic leadership.
Furthermore, the document assumes that the “[s]trategic competition between the United States and China will persists,” with China “circumvent[ing] international norms and rules to gain advantage,” and seeking to “dissolve U.S. alliances and partnerships,” in order to “exploit vacuums and opportunities created by these diminished bonds.”
As an desired outcome with regards to China, the “United States and its partners on every continent” shall become “resistant to Chinese activities aimed at undermining their sovereignty, including through covert or coercive influence.” [White House, USA]
For a concise assessment of what has been achieved under this strategic framework, see Grant Newsham in [Asia Times] who argues that “Trump and his staff are handing off to Joseph Biden an Indo-Pacific that is better off than it was in 2017.
19 January 2021
India: Supreme Court orders indefinite stay over implementation of contentious agricultural laws
(lm) India’s Supreme Court (SC) on January 12 temporarily paused the implementation of the three agricultural laws that have caused farmers to stage a mass protest against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and block major roads leading to New Delhi [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1]. The court’s decision came a day after it had expressed its “disappointment” over how the federal government had introduced the reforms and the manner in which it had conducted the ensuing negotiations [see AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2]. [Financial Times]
Further, the SC set up a committee of experts to mediate between the government and representatives of protesting farmers. The committee will submit a report to the court in two months from its first meeting, which is due to be held before January 23. Yet, the agitating farmers already announced that they would not participate in discussions with the court-appointed panel, alleging that all four committee members were strong campaigners for the laws. [The Straits Times 1]
The SC on January 12 also agreed to hear the government’s petition to stop a rally planned by farmers on January 26, when India celebrates its Republic Day to honor the date on which the Constitution of India came into effect. [The Straits Times 2]
19 January 2021
Indian Navy holds pan-India coastal defense exercise
(lm) The Indian Navy on January 13 concluded its two-day biennial coastal defense exercise “Sea Vigil 2021” to review its coastal security preparedness. First conducted in 2019, the exercise covers India’s entire coastline, involving 13 coastal states and union territories along with other maritime stakeholders, including fishing and coastal communities. [The Hindu] [The Times of India]
The “Sea Vigil” coastal defense exercise is also considered a build-up towards the major Theatre-level Readiness Operational Exercise (TROPEX), an inter-service military exercise involving the participation of the Indian Army, Air Force, Navy, and the Coast Guard. The exercise generally commences at the beginning of each year and lasts a month. [South Asia Monitor]
19 January 2021
India Army showcases drone technology during Army Day parade
(lm) During the Army Day parade held in New Delhi on January 15, the Indian Army for the first time demonstrated its intend to deploy unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) for future offensive military operations, including Kamikaze strikes and supplying troops closest to the area of conflict with equipment. [New Indian Express]
Taking place against the larger backdrop of the Sino-Indian border stand-off, the demonstration lends further credence to theories highlighting the emergence of a new kind of air warfare. While drones are vulnerable to anti-aircraft weapons, so the argument goes, in localized smaller military engagements – the one along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) being a case in point – they do play a vital role. Lending further credence to these analyses, the army last week also signed a contract to buy undisclosed quantities of high-altitude drones from ideaForce, India’s largest manufacturer of unmanned air vehicles for defense, homeland security and industrial applications, for $20 million. [The Economic Times]
19 January 2021
Nepal to establish Economic Zones along borders with India, China
(lm) Nepal is planning to establish four cross-border economic zones, two each along the borders with India and China – as part of efforts by Kathmandu to boost trade and investment with its two neighboring countries. [The Kathmandu Post]
Among the country’s trade partners, India accounts for the largest share of exports and imports. In the last fiscal year, more than 60 percent of Nepal’s total foreign trade was done with India. China, in turn, is Kathmandu’s second largest trading partner, accounting for little more than 15 percent of Nepal’s imports but only a small portion of its export trade.
Kathmandu last year started construction on a dry port in its far western province of Dodhara-Chandani, which provides the shortest route to the sea. The first business gateway to India from Nepal’s Far-Western Development Region, the inland terminal will provide access to India’s largest seaport, Jawaharlal Nehru Port in Mumbai, and facilitate Nepal’s foreign trade and lower costs.
19 January 2021
China, Pakistan pose potential threat, says Indian Army Chief Naravane
(lm) Indian Army Chief General Naravane said on January 12 that Pakistan and China continue to pose threats to the northern and eastern borders of India, adding that India was facing the possibility of a two-front conflict due to increased cooperation between the two countries. While addressing the media on the eve of India’s Army Day, Naravane also commented on the ongoing border stand-off with China in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, saying that Indian troops deployed along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) were prepared to “hold our ground as long as it takes”. [The New Indian Express]
While initially confirming the recent re-deployment of some 10,000 Chinese soldiers from some training areas on the adjacent Tibetan plateau [see AiR No. 2, January/2021, 2], the army chief also dampened expectations by adding that no change of posture had occurred on friction points along the LAC, where both sides had entered a winter deployment situation. [Anadolu Agency]
Talks between the two countries have all but been deadlocked since military officials last met in December – after more than 40 days without any dialogue – with both sides reinforcing their positions and digging their heels in, since then. [AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5]. Observers of the months-long stand-off suggest the current pause in talks might be a strategic maneuver by Beijing as it casts an eye on Washington to get a better sense of what US President-elect Joe Biden’s policy toward China will entail. [South China Morning Post]
In this context, two recent events assume added significance, as they may be shaping Beijing’s considerations of US policy. To begin with, the outgoing US ambassador to India confirmed earlier this month that Washington and New Delhi had been working in “close coordination”, to help India counter what he referred to as “sustained […] aggressive Chinese activity on its border”. While the ambassador declined to provide further details, there is a good case to believe that New Delhi is relying on Washington for sharing geospatial data from airborne and satellite sensor [see AiR No. 44, November/2020, 1], as well as emergency purchases of cold-weather equipment for its personnel in the Himalayas [see AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3].
A case in point, photographs recently published by a US-based imaging company suggest that China continues construction work along the borer areas with India. [The Times of India]
What is more, a 2018 US document on its Indo-Pacific strategy was declassified on January 11, laying bare Washington’s view that India was “pre-eminent in South Asia” and that a “strong India” would “act as counterbalance to China”. [The Wire] [U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific]
12 January 2021
Pakistan: Leader of group linked to 2008 Mumbai attacks sentenced to five years in jail for terror financing
An anti-terrorism court sentenced Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, leader of the Islamist terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), to five years imprisonment and a fine over a charges of terrorism financing. Earlier this month, Lakhvi was arrested in the eastern city of Lahore where he was running a medical dispensary that he allegedly used to collect funds for militant activities [see AiR No. 1, January/2021, 1]. [Dawn]
12 January 2021
Pakistan: Pakistan observes annual Right to Self-determination of Kashmiris Day
(lm) Rallies and seminars were held across Pakistan and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir to mark the annual Right to Self-determination of Kashmiris Day on January 5. On this day in 1949, the United Nations committed that the Jammu and Kashmir dispute would be decided through a free and fair plebiscite. The same day, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution condemning the grave human rights violations in occupied Kashmir. [Anadolu Agency]
Addressing the upper house of parliament, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi reaffirmed Islamabad’s support to the pro-freedom struggle in Indian-administered Kashmir, saying Pakistan was part of the Kashmiris’ “movement for self-determination.” Qureshi also said Islamabad expects an active United States role vis-à-vis the resolution of the long-standing dispute. [Profit Pakistan]
Winding up the Senate session, the foreign minister the next day invited lawmakers from three mainstream opposition parties – the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F) – for talks to chalk out a comprehensive action plan aimed at resolution of the lingering Kashmir dispute. [Dawn]
12 January 2021
India: Supreme Court threatens to put controversial farm laws on hold
(lm) Expressing its disappointment over the federal government’s handling of the farmers’ protests, India’s Supreme Court (SC) on January 11 said it would order a stay of the implementation of the controversial agricultural laws if the government would fail to do so. The SC also reiterated the need for an independent committee [see AiR No. 51, December/2020, 4]. [The Times of India] [The Hindu]
Previously, the government of Prime Minister Modi and representatives of protesting farmers failed to break the deadlock over the contentious new agriculture laws on January 8 and said they would meet again in a week’s time. The same day, in one of the biggest shows of strength since they began a sit-in against deregulation of farm markets more than a month ago [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1], tens of thousands of farmers mostly from the Sikh-dominated northern state of Punjab occupied an expressway on the periphery of New Delhi. [The Straits Times 1] [The Straits Times 2] [New York Times]
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has held several rounds of talks with the farmers to placate them, offering to pass a law guaranteeing a minimum support price for certain crops like wheat. Protest leaders, however, have rejected the government’s offer, vowing to continue to protest until the new agricultural reform laws are fully repealed [see AiR No. 50, December/2020, 3].
12 January 2021
India: Supreme Court allows federal government to build new parliament building
(lm) India’s Supreme Court (SC) has given approval for the Central Vista Redevelopment Project, which proposes to reconstruct and repurpose the central administrative area of New Delhi housing government buildings and the prime minister’s residence. On January 5, the SC voted in favor of the project by 2:1. The dissenting judge had expressed concern about the lack of public consultation before the project’s clearance. [The Guardian] [The Straits Times]
Since the project was announced in 2019, it has faced criticism from civil society groups, environmentalists, and politicians about its lack of transparency and public consultation and high cost in a time of economic crisis. In view of petitions ranging from land use to the environmental impact of the project, the SC last November halted construction but allowed paperwork and other procedures – including a groundbreaking ceremony – to continue. Hence, the ruling marks a win for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had called the new building a witness to the making of an Atmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant or self-sufficient India) while laying the first stone in December. [The Hindu]
12 January 2021
Myanmar, India to cooperate in Nagaland
(nd) Following Indian Army Chief General M.M. Naravane’s and Foreign Secretary H.V. Shringla’s visit to Myanmar in November, more than 50 militants of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), including its top leader Niki Sumi, were made to abandon their base in Myanmar by the military. Sumi returned and showed his willingness to join the ongoing Naga peace process with India’s federal government. Ever since a deadly attack on 18 Indian soldiers on June 4, 2015, Indian security forces were hunting Sumi, who was considered responsible for the ambush, while the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW) claimed responsibility for the attack. Analysts suggest that it is likely that the Indian government will accept Sumi’s proposal to restore the ceasefire agreement and drop the cases against him.
India was negotiating for Burmese cooperation for a while already, with its Northeastern neighbor being key to Narendra Modi’ Act East policy. The involvement of envoys and the top military brass highlights a switch in India’s foreign policy strategy, which also included foreign tours to boost bilateral defense cooperation to counterbalance China, inter alia to Myanmar, Nepal, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. [Irrawaddy]
12 January 2021
Indian Prime Minister Modi inaugurates sections of freight corridor, calls project a “game-changer”
(lm) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week inaugurated several sections of the Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) for commercial operations. Billed as the largest rail infrastructure project in India, the DFC aims to decongest the country’s railway network by moving 70 percent of India’s goods train to two corridors. The total 2,843-km project has been in the making since 2006 with little movement on the ground. With both corridors on track for completion in December this year, it is finally ready to take off, albeit in phases.
On January 5, Modi inaugurated a 351-kilometers section of the Eastern Dedicated Freight Corridor (EDFC), a freight specific railway under construction in northern to eastern India. The railway will run between Ludhiana in Punjab and Dankuni (near Kolkata) in West Bengal. Two days later, the prime minister then inaugurated a 306-kilometer section of the Western Dedicated Freight Corridor (WDFC), a freight corridor that will connect India’s capital, New Delhi, and its economic hub, Navi Mumbai, covering a distance of 1483 kilometers and touching all major ports along the way. [The Indian Express] [Autocar Professional]
Both an enabler and beneficiary of other key schemes of the federal government, such as the Industrial corridor or Make in India, Prime Minister Modi hailed the DFC a “game-changer” for India in the 21st century. While the majority of the EDFC is being funded through a loan from the World Bank, Japan so far extended concessional Official Development Assistance (ODA) loans of approx. $4.2 billion for development of the Western DFC. [South Asia Monitor] [Japan International Cooperation Agency]
12 January 2021
Indian Prime Minister Modi inaugurates 450-kilometer gas pipeline in southern India
(lm) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has officially opened a 450-kilometer natural gas pipeline will transport gas from the southwestern state of Kerala further north to the state of Karnataka. Attending the inauguration through video link, the prime minister said the pipeline was another step towards the countries goal of “One nation, one gas grid”, which would increase the share of natural gas in India’s energy mix from 6 to 15 per cent. India is in the process of constructing more than 16,000 km of gas pipeline in a large-scale program anticipated for completion in approximately six years. [South Asia Monitor] [The Australian Pipeliner]
12 January 2021
India must do more to become China alternative for manufacturers, says outgoing US ambassador
While delivering a farewell address on the US-India partnership, Washington’s outgoing ambassador to India criticized Prime Minister Modi’s trade policies, saying New Delhi will need to take more policy action if it wants to become a new destination for manufacturing investments in the Indo-Pacific region in the post-pandemic era. [South China Morning Post]
As China is currently facing an unprecedented global backlash destabilizing its reign as the world’s factory of choice, the Modi administration has sensed an opportunity and has prioritized efforts to attract supply chains, both at central and state government level. However, attempts to attract US companies looking at setting up manufacturing facilities out of China have so far yielded little success mainly because of differences on market access. Last year, India announced its withdrawal from a crucial multilateral trade agreement with fifteen other Asia-Pacific economies, collectively known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), despite seven years of negotiations [see AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3]. Observers say decisions like these make it difficult for Indian exporters to benefit from tariff-free access to destination markets or offer reciprocity to its trading partners.
During the event, the outgoing ambassador also commented on the possibility of sanctions hanging over New Delhi’s ongoing deals with Moscow for military hardware, including the S-400 surface-to-air missile system [see AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5]. While he assured that sanctions under the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) were not were never designed to harm “friends and allies” of Washington, he also cautioned that New Delhi might soon have to choose between “trade-offs”, namely inter-operability and diversification of sources of procurement. [Hindustan Times]
Meanwhile, a United States delegation led by the Consul General Hyderabad met on January 5 with the chief minister of India’s southwestern state of Andhra Pradesh. During the meeting, the delegation expressed Washington’s interest in setting up an American Hub in the state’s executive capital, Visakhapatnam – the second one in the country after Ahmedabad. [The New Indian Express]
12 January 2021
Nepal’s foreign minister to visit India on January 14
(lm) Bilateral relations between India and Nepal continue to see an upwards trajectory, as Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali is set to visit New Delhi on January 14 to chair the sixth meeting of the India-Nepal Joint Commission, a foreign minister-level bilateral mechanism between the two countries established in 1987. [Hindustan Times] [The Hindu]
Gyawali will be the senior-most Nepalese official to visit New Delhi since bilateral ties had derailed in May last year, after New Delhi had announced the inauguration of a new Himalayan link road built through the disputed area of Kalapani that lies at a strategic three-way junction with Tibet and China [see e.g. AiR No. 20, May/2020, 3, AiR No. 28, July/2020, 2]. Shortly thereafter, Kathmandu had issued a new political map unilaterally expanding its territorial claims over the Lipulekh Pass and other mountain territory claimed by both India and Nepal [see AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3].
Resuming dialogue last August, Nepalese Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli then laid the groundwork for a reformed India outreach, calling Indian Prime Minister Modi on the occasion of India’s 74th Independence Day [see AiR No. 33, August/2020, 3], and stopping the distribution of a new text book that included the country’s revised political map. Back-to-back visits to Nepal by the head of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) [see AiR No. 44, November/2020, 1]., Indian Army Chief General Naravane [see AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3], and Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1] then laid the groundwork for Gyawali’s trip to India.
Beyond solving the boundary dispute, the Nepalese government is also hoping for Gyawali’s trip to yield a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which would include an agreement on the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines from New Delhi. While China has offered to supply its version of its CoronaVac vaccine, Nepal has given priority to Covishield, a vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII), citing logistics, pricing, and New Delhi’s assurance to facilitate procurement. [The Kathmandu Post 1] [The Kathmandu Post 2] [South China Morning Post]
12 January 2021
China pulls 10,000 troops from Line of Actual Control to rear positions
(lm) Showing goodwill in de-escalating the border tension, China has reportedly withdrawn 10,000 troops from its disputed border with India over the course of the past two weeks, with Beijing acknowledging that extreme weather conditions make it impossible for both sides to fight. Still, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) frontline deployments remain unchanged, according to Indian sources. [South China Morning Post 1] [Hindustan Times]
Earlier, the Indian army on January 11 returned a Chinese soldier it had taken into custody earlier last week for transgressing into the Indian side in an area south of Pangong Tso lake. This was the second detention on the high-altitude border: Last October, the Indian Army returned another Chinese soldier it had apprehended after he ‘strayed’ across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) into Indian-controlled Ladakh’s Demchok area [see AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3]. [Deutsche Welle] [South China Morning Post 2]
Although Chinese troops have pulled back from some training areas on the adjacent Tibetan plateau, the Chinese military, for one thing, has established a fully-fledged strategic observation post near the crucial trijunction border area between India, China, and Bhutan. The bone of contention in the 2017 Doklam standoff, the plateau is of strategic importance to New Delhi, because it overlooks the Siliguri corridor, a narrow stretch of land also known as the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ that connects India’s north-east with the mainland [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1]. [South China Morning Post 3]
For another thing, an unspecified number of Indian soldiers belonging to the Rashtriya Rifles, a counter-insurgency force of the Indian Army, has been shifted to the LAC. The soldiers had hitherto been deployed in the state of Jammu and Kashmir to fight the popular armed insurgency. Moreover, India’s Army Chief General Naravane said on January 12 he expected another round of talks soon, although several rounds of talks have so far made little headway in deflating tensions over the disputed border. [The Straits Times] [Anadolu Agency]
12 January 2021
Taiwan-India relations: New Delhi identifies priority areas of cooperation
(nm) India and Taiwan are set to focus on bilateral investments, people-to-people exchanges, and technical cooperation in their bilateral relations, according to director-general of the India Taipei Association Gourangalal Das, India’s representative office in Taiwan.
Stressing mutual disadvantages, Das pointed at “great opportunities for sustained growth to Taiwanese investors” and India’s “world-renowned manufacturing skills and know-how.” Regarding human exchange, he said his office will start out with higher education and tourism, two areas with great room for improvement. He further sees good prospects for cooperation amid restructuring of global supply chains and welcomed Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy which he said compliments India’s Act East policy. When asked about the possibility of a bilateral trade agreement, he however responded his office is currently focused on expanding trade and investments with Taiwan as current numbers are rather modest. [Focus Taiwan]
5 January 2021
Pakistan urges UN to prevent “judicial murder” of Kashmiri separatist
(lm) Pakistan called on UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on January 1 to prevent the “judicial murder” of Asiya Andrabi, founding leader of Dukhtaran-e-Millat (Daughters of the Nation, DeM). A part of the separatist All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), DeM is an all-woman outfit that advocates jihad to establish Islamic law in Kashmir and to establish a separate state from India. A Delhi court last month ordered framing charges against Andrabi and her two associates for allegedly “waging war against India” and other unlawful activities, two years after she was taken into custody by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), India’s federal anti-terror organization. [Dawn]
5 January 2021
Leader of group linked to 2008 Mumbai attacks arrested in Pakistan
(lm) Pakistan authorities on January 2 arrested Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, leader of the Islamist terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), over a separate case of terrorism financing. Lakhvi was arrested in the eastern city of Lahore where he was running a medical dispensary that he allegedly used to collect funds for militant activities. [The Straits Times]
One of the largest militant organizations in South Asia, LeT is accused by India of plotting the 2008 Mumbai attacks that left at least 174 people dead and more than 300 wounded. The Indian government’s view is that Pakistan, particularly through its intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has both supported the group. Lakhvi was detained in 2015 over the attacks but granted bail months later. Since then, the government had slapped him with a series of detention orders, but judges repeatedly cancelled them. [The Hindu]
Context and timing of the arrest are significant, coming in the run-up to a series of meetings of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter-governmental organization that monitors global money laundering and terrorist financing. During the FATF’s last review in October, Islamabad was urged to complete the internationally agreed action plan by February 2021 and to demonstrate that terrorism financing probes resulted in effective sanctions [see AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4].
Earlier this year, Pakistan also arrested firebrand cleric and alleged mastermind of the attacks Hafiz Saeed, who heads the Islamist militant organization Jama’at-ud-Da’wah (JuD), a wing of LeT, for terrorism financing. An anti-terrorism court sentenced Saeed to fifteen-and-a-half years in prison on charges of terrorism financing last week – his fourth conviction this year on similar charges [see AiR No. 47, November/2020, 4]. [AiR No. 52, December/2020, 5]
5 January 2021
India clears Akash missile for export
(lm) To achieve the target of clocking defense exports worth $5 billion by 2024, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) on December 30 approved the export of the indigenous Akash surface-to-air-missile systems to friendly foreign countries. To this end the CCS, chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, approved setting up a high-level committee to provide swifter approval for export of such platforms. [Hindustan Times]
Developed by India’s Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), Akash is India’s first indigenously designed missile system that can target fighter jets, cruise missiles, drones, and other aerial assets. However, the export version of Akash will be different from the weapon system currently deployed by the Indian armed forces. [Financial Express] [Defense World]
5 January 2021
Sri Lanka signs currency swap agreements with China and India
(lm) To boost its foreign currency reserves and maintain short-term foreign exchange liquidity, Sri Lanka is seeking currency swap facilities with the respective central banks of China and India combined worth $2.5 billion. The negotiations come at a time when Colombo is gearing up to repay a daunting $4.5 billion of its outstanding foreign loans this year. The government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, that is, desperately needs cash to service its multibillion-dollar international debts and to run a current account deficit estimated at $1.1 billion annually. [South Asia Monitor]
Colombo’s financial vulnerability is providing a fresh opportunity for both Beijing and New Delhi to deepen their influence in the island nation as they engage in a growing contest to gain the upper hand in the strategic Indian Ocean. China, which styles itself as an all-weather friend to Sri Lanka, already provided $500 million ‘urgent financial assistance’ last year, to help cope with the economic knock-on effects of the pandemic [see AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3]. India, in turn, provided a $400m currency swap facility last year through the Reserve Bank of India, its central bank, helping to boost the island’s reserves [see AiR No. 30, July/2020, 4].
5 January 2021
Indian External Affairs Minister to visit Sri Lanka between January 5 and 7
(lm) Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar will pay an official visit to Sri Lanka from January 5-7 at the invitation of his Sri Lankan counterpart Dinesh Gunawardena. Scheduled to hold discussions with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Jaishankar is also expected to take up the release of Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu, who had been arrested last December on charges of poaching. [Hindustan Times]
The latest in a series of effort’s by New Delhi to further smoothen bilateral relations, Jaishankar’s visit marks the second high-profile trip to Colombo in two months. India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval made a three-day visit to Colombo last November, meeting with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to discuss trade, new investments, and security amid plans to bolster bilateral ties between the two countries [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1].
5 January 2021
Talks with China yet to make progress to end border stand-off, says India
(lm) While more than 100,000 soldiers of both armies remain deployed in harsh winter conditions, talks between India and China have yet to make headway to end the months-long border stand-off, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh said on December 30. Notwithstanding periodic hopes for a resolution [see AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3], a breakthrough has hitherto eluded several rounds of diplomatic and military talks. Yet, both sides are still exchanging messages over the border situation and another round of military talks was in the offing, according to Singh. [The Straits Times]
Recognizing that Beijing has an immense military advantage, observers suggest that India is stalling for time, privily accepting that a diplomatic solution is unlikely. While New Delhi’s heavy military deployment can neither punish Chinese incursions nor force Beijing to relinquish control of its newly acquired territorial gain, it may be able to contain losses and prevent any further Chinese encroachment into Indian territory, at least temporarily. With both armies locked into the prospect of a long watch in the high mountains [see AiR No. 48, December/2020, 1], the Indian Army’s performance and its sustenance through this winter may be the critical factor for New Delhi’s plans to deal with the Chinese aggression in eastern Ladakh. [Foreign Policy]
5 January 2021
India joins United Nations Security Council as non-permanent member
(lm) With a pledge to “bring human-centric and inclusive solutions” to world problems, India on January 4 officially joined the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as a non-permanent member, beginning a two-year tenure. Speaking at the ceremony, India’s Permanent Representative pledged that India would “not shy away from raising our voice against the common enemies of humanity like terrorism.” [India Today] [The Hindu]
While this is the eighth time that New Delhi has been elected to the UNSC, India hopes that this time its presence in the UN’s highest decision-making body will help move the organization towards the ultimate reform: a permanent seat on the UNSC for India. The bid is currently backed by four of the five permanent members, namely France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. [The Diplomat]
Underscoring the importance of this endeavor, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in September declared that United Nations reform is “the need of the hour.” Addressing world leaders in a video address to the General Debate of the General Assembly, he also complained that his country had not been adequately rewarded for its participation in in some 50 UN peace-keeping missions.
5 January 2021
India: Army appoints first Human Rights Cell
(lm) To enhance transparency and ensure the availability of investigative expertise, the Indian Army has appointed a Major General rank officer to head its newly created human rights cell. First approved in August last year, the cell will be the nodal point to examine reports on human rights violations by the Indian Army. The Additional Director General Human Rights will assist in investigations and legalities and will also facilitate coordination with other organizations and the Union home ministry, if required. [India Today] [The Tribune]