Tag Archives: Bangladesh

Strategic possibilities in South Asia 29 April 2014

Strategic possibilities in South Asia   29 April 2014

South Asia’s strategic future is impossible to know. Based on what has transpired, however, and reflecting on current situations, the following appears likely: 1) India-Pakistan relations will remain poor to abysmal; 2) China-India relations will remain challenging, but will continue to improve slowly over time; 3) despite the South Asian Association for Regional Association (SAARC) being formed in 1985, which grouping Afghanistan joined in 2007, the nations of South Asia will have little sense of being part of a region; 4) India will continue to dominate this ‘region’ because of its sheer size, increasing economic power and growing international stature; and, 5) the other nations of South Asia will continue to strive to develop but may struggle.

What if some, or all, of these situations were to change? Given the right set of circumstances, India and Pakistan could normalise their relationship virtually overnight. This could then lead to all of sorts of positive developments. For example, Indians and Pakistanis could readily visit one another and their respective tourist attractions; trade could flourish; each nation could downsize their militaries, paramilitaries and nuclear capabilities and put the consequent savings into national development. The challenge is getting the right circumstances. The primary factor is having politically-strong statesmen concurrently in both nations who can deliver better India-Pakistan relations to desirous citizens. Such leadership has always been difficult to achieve or produce—nor have Indian and Pakistani voters demanded it. This situation is unlikely to change soon. Increasingly, coalition governments are governing India, with the prime minister politically being only ‘first amongst equals’. In Pakistan, the military has a veto over all significant politico-strategic decisions, including any that might lessen its power or influence—as improved India-Pakistan relations almost certainly would do. Certainly, both nations have not yet concurrently had leaders who could resolve their major issues. A lot of luck and synchronicity, not to mention overcoming some significant historical baggage and mistrust, are needed for such a leadership ‘bonanza’ to occur.

A more likely scenario is a further improvement in, even a strengthening of, China-India relations. Imagine if these behemoths developed a strategic partnership and closeness, after which they essentially divided Asia between them, with China overseeing North-East Asia and the South China Sea, with India supervising South Asia and the Indian Ocean, and with both ‘monitoring’ the rest of Asia. This idea is not far-fetched, particularly given pre-9/11 talk of China, India and Russia aligning against the United States, which then almost desperately was seeking an enemy to plan operations against. Think of the sudden and seemingly unthinkable US-China rapprochement in the 1970s and the Soviet Union’s demise in the 1990s. Furthermore, while Pakistan is currently a convenient ally for China, particularly in relation to India, China is concerned about Pakistan’s instability and economic problems and Pakistani support for Muslim Uighur ‘terrorists’ in Xinjiang. India offers China many more opportunities and advantages economically and strategically. Both are wary of an assertive, encircling United States and its allies; both understand that stability and cooperation are preferable to confrontation; both have similar energy and resources requirements, and economic opportunities in Central Asia, South-East Asia, etc. For a China-India partnership to occur, both nations would have to overcome the mutual suspicion that partly results from their unresolved border and territorial issues. Western nations doing something rash or untoward—as sometimes occurs when they take the moral high ground—may ‘encourage’ both nations to embrace. South Asians themselves might embolden such an arrangement from which they almost certainly would benefit, if only because a cooperative China-India relationship could provide an economic engine for national and regional growth.

Possibilities 3, 4 and 5 are intertwined. India is unable or unwilling to lead the disparate and inherently disunified South Asia region. India’s reluctance possibly comes from its longstanding desire to be non-aligned or to decline membership of military pacts like the former Middle East-based Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). Equally, India cannot lead South Asia because other nations fear or mistrust it. This mistrust is a major factor impacting SAARC and South Asian regionalism. But just imagine if South Asia did become a unified region like the European Union. This would create a community—and an economy or market—of over 1.6 billion people. It would necessarily dilute some of the bitter post-British legacies (all South Asian nations have a historical connection with the British) and divisions and the perceived need for armaments and large militaries and paramilitaries to defend sometimes contested territory and some of these legacies. Visitors to South Asia could land in, say, Karachi, Kathmandu or Colombo and receive Customs clearance and Immigration permission to visit any other SAARC nation/s, after which they, and trade, could travel via a unified transport system overland through South Asia to South-East Asia via Myanmar, or to China via Pakistan, Nepal or India, or to Europe via Afghanistan or Iran, as happened re this latter route before the Iranian revolution and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Similarly, India’s remote seven north-eastern states, and Nepal and Bhutan could access sea ports via transport corridors across Bangladesh, while Afghanistan and Pakistan might use Pakistani and Indian transport links to access Indian ports. In return, India and other nations could access Central Asia via both nations. Borders would be less relevant and joint fishing, sea and water projects would be achievable. The possibilities are endless—and phenomenal. Meanwhile, lacking such cooperation and integration, South Asia’s nations continue to fall far short of their individual and collective potentials. They strive to develop, but struggle.

One day, South Asians may wake up and say to their leaders and governments: “Enough is enough. We need to overcome the antipathies and hindrances that have held us back as nations and as a region. Do the needful you politicians—immediately.” Since the British ended their Indian Empire some 65 years ago, much needs to be achieved. Thinking and acting differently would help. So too would some serious pondering of future possibilities and opportunities.

Christopher Snedden
29 April 2014


Identity and Freedom 24 March 2014

Identity and Freedom    24 March 2014

We identify ourselves in many ways: by gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, location, religion—or lack thereof, political beliefs, sporting affiliation, etc. In some cases, we identify ourselves by what we are not: a sort of via negativa: we are not North Koreans, nor devil worshippers, nor pedophiles, etc.

In South Asia, identity is an important issue. In my experience, people in India have a strong sense of identity. The vast majority appear to be willing citizens of the pluralist nation-state that extends over a large part of the Indian subcontinent. These Indians are diverse and different, mostly secular, and tolerant of others’ beliefs and ideas. They practice ‘unity in diversity’ and participate in an entrenched democracy. Indians and many Indian leaders appear to respect Mahatma Gandhi and, to an extent, Gandhian values and practices. They dislike the colonial and imperial forces that Gandhi opposed, which partly explains India’s long held stance of non-alignment. Finally, many Indians have some sense of Indian ‘greatness’—particularly in relation to its former glory, but also with some hope of India attaining great power status in future.

Pakistanis, conversely, have a narrower, seemingly weaker, identity. This partly results because the acrostic ‘Pakistan’ only came into existence in the 1930s. This makes Pakistanis relatively new ‘people’, certainly when compared with ‘Indians’. Possibly because of this newness, Pakistanis appear to be somewhat insecure about their identity. They unify around three factors: the shared geography of the Indus River and its surrounds; being Muslims in a nation created as a homeland for Muslims (although, problematically, not all Pakistanis are Muslims, or in the case of Ahmadis are deemed to be Muslims); and, simplistically but pronouncedly, they are not Indians. In my experience, the latter negative factor is important, with Pakistanis incessantly feeling obliged to compare themselves with their former colonial ‘bedfellows’. (By contrast, Indians invariably compare themselves with Chinese.) Recently, I heard two prominent Pakistanis proudly state that Pakistan’s foreign policy was now more internationally cooperative and engaging than India’s and that Pakistan’s media was freer than India’s. This was a big deal for these Pakistanis who, like many of their fellow citizens, want Pakistan to be superior to India and Indians wherever possible. However, this approach is tiresome and sad, particularly as Pakistan has much to offer in its own right. Indeed, Pakistanis would be better off concentrating on making Pakistan a great nation in its own right rather than continually comparing themselves with India and Indians.

In the subcontinent, identity is also important to some ethnic minorities. Indeed, some have long been fighting to have a nation-state, or a province or internal state, established around, or that reflects, their ethnicity. This includes: Balochis, some of whom have wanted a separate Balochistan nation-state created in south-western Pakistan, south-eastern Iran and southern Afghanistan, since at least 1948; Kashmiris, many of whom have strongly wanted an independent Kashmir since 1988; and Nagas in north-eastern India who having been fighting since the 1950s for freedom. Other (usually failed) examples include Tamils in Sri Lanka, Buddhists in Bangladesh, Sikhs in India, and Bodos in India. Internally, Saraiki speakers in southern (Pakistani) Punjab want a separate province. In India, the new state of Telengana is to be carved out of western Andhra Pradesh on 2 June. Conversely, in some cases, nations have expelled ‘others’. Bhutan, for example, has expelled (non-Bhutanese, non-Buddhist) Nepalis. Similarly, Hindus in Muslim-dominated Bangladesh or Pakistan have left because they have felt personally unwelcome or threatened. Equally, Muslims have left India for these nations, chiefly Pakistan.

Kashmiris particularly have a strong sense of identity. According to Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, A Chronicle of the Kings of Kashmir, they can trace Kashmiri rulers’ to at least 1182 BCE. More recently, Kashmiris have claimed that their culture and relations are overseen by a concept known as Kashmiriyat (Kashmiriness). While this term has been popularised since the Kashmiris’ instigated their anti-Indian uprising in 1988, it involves equality, tolerance for people of other religions, and inclusivity. These supposedly have come out of Kashmiris’ strong Muslim rishi tradition, which possibly has pre-Vedic roots. Arguably (and unfairly), it also is easy for Muslim Kashmiris to be tolerant of non-Muslims if only because Muslims comprise (at least) 95 per cent of all Kashmiris. The majority group has nothing to fear locally from non-Muslims. Whether Kashmiriyat extends to ‘others’ in Indian Jammu and Kashmir is another question. Non-Kashmiri Jammuites and Ladakhis may suggest that it doesn’t.

One irony of subcontinental identity concerns the right to self-determination. From about 1915, people known collectively as Indians increasingly campaigned for self-rule (swaraj) from the British. In 1947, after securing independent dominion status, these former British subjects were divided on the basis of religion into (post-partition) Indians and Pakistanis. The latter comprised West Pakistanis (Balochis, Hazaras, Mohajirs (refugees from India and their descendants), Pukhtoons, Punjabis, Sindhis, etc.) and East Pakistanis (chiefly Bengalis). Despite fighting for, and being granted, their freedom, Indians and Pakistanis have not been prepared to allow other subcontinentals to obtain a similar status. In South Asia, the only successful post-partition example of an area obtaining independence is Bangladesh in 1971. The East Pakistanis/Bangladeshis were motivated by West Pakistanis’ arrogance, exploitation and brutality. At the strategic moment, the Indian Army also significantly helped them. Arguably, their greatest asset was the physical distance between Pakistan’s two wings, which made integration difficult and, ultimately, suppression impossible.

History shows that the nation-state is reluctant to (seemingly) weaken itself by releasing territory, even if the retention of the recalcitrant area and its people involves significant ongoing costs, bloodshed, and opprobrium. Consider Balochistan for Pakistan and Kashmir for India. In both areas, some people consider the controlling nation to be repressive and colonial. Furthermore, their primary local identity trumps any national identity. Nevertheless, Indian and Pakistani leaders seemingly adhere to the subjugating principle of ‘do as I say, not do as my forebears did’. History also suggests that this approach will be difficult. Indeed, ultimately, it may be untenable.

Christopher Snedden
24 March 2014

Fluidity in South Asian matters 23 October 2013

Fluidity in South Asian matters                                                   23 October 2013

Currently, there is considerable fluidity in South Asian matters. Various South Asian nations, and their leaders, as well as other nations involved with South Asia, chiefly the United States, are considering the region’s future and their nation’s situation in this. Nations also are attempting to shore up their strategic positions in relation to their neighbours and other ‘players’. It is interesting times in South Asia.

Starting with Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been in Washington talking with United States’ Secretary of State, John Kerry. He also is scheduled to talk with President Obama. Discussion items include the US’s use of drones to attack targets in north-western Pakistan and the strategic and economic aspects of the US-Pakistan relationship. The use of drones is an emotive issue in Pakistan, with many Pakistanis disliking the ‘collateral damage’ that these unmanned, silent, indiscriminatory killers cause to non-combatants. One consequence is that disenchanted Pakistani youth have joined ‘fundamentalist’-type organisations that oppose both the United States and Pakistan. These extra-legal groups have mounted significant attacks throughout Pakistan. Pakistan would like these attacks, and drone strikes, to lessen.

No doubt, Mr Sharif also has been trying to ascertain what presence—actual and emotional—that US forces will have in Afghanistan after their drawdown next year from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). This involves pondering how much the US will choose to engage with Pakistan. Mr Kerry recently had talks with Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, with 10,000 being the possible number of US troops to remain in Afghanistan post-US drawdown. This will mean that Afghans will chiefly be responsible for ensuring Afghanistan’s security. Mr Karzai intends to call a Loya Jirga of senior Afghans to ratify any US-Afghanistan agreement, thereby spreading the political responsibility and possibly not impairing the electoral prospects of his elder brother, Qayum Karzai, who is one of ten remaining candidates for Afghanistan’s important presidential election next April. Already, however, Afghan security forces are confronting serious problems with the far-from-placated Taliban, with soldiers defecting in large numbers, and with an inability to maintain hi-tech equipment supplied by ISAF. Afghanistan also confronts an unstable political situation, a poor economy with limited prospects, and unhelpful meddling of outside nations in its affairs.

Pakistan hopes that, post-ISAF, US involvement with it will continue. Pakistan has significant troubles with its economy and with terrorism. For many Pakistanis, however, the US is a ‘fair weather friend’ unable or unwilling to proffer major support on an ongoing basis in the way that Pakistan’s ‘all weather friend’, China, does. The US has its own budgetary difficulties. Equally, Washington first and foremost acts in the US’s best interests. During the ‘Global War on Terror’, this necessitated the US having a strategic relationship with Pakistan, chiefly to facilitate the movement of materiel across Pakistan to its remote neighbour, Afghanistan. Pakistan’s strategic importance will reduce dramatically after the bulk of ISAF’s forces leave Afghanistan next year. History also suggests that the US’s interest in Pakistan will thereafter diminish. Aggrieved Pakistanis point to Washington’s lack of support in Pakistan’s 1965 and 1971 wars with India and the US’s rapid withdrawal from Pakistan after the USSR withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. Washington will have to work hard—and be generous—to placate Islamabad’s great fears.

Whether the US chooses to do so remains to be seen as there also is disenchantment in Washington with Pakistan. Some US policy makers consider that Pakistan has played a double game with the US: it has facilitated the movement of US materiel to Afghanistan while also supporting and protecting pro-Pakistan/anti-Afghan/anti-ISAF forces such as the Haqqani network, the Afghan Taliban (whose shura (leadership) allegedly has obtained sanctuary around Quetta), and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. For Pakistanis, these covert actions amount to Islamabad acting strategically in the national interest. Pakistan perpetually fears an unstable Afghanistan in which inimical forces, particularly Indian, meddle to Pakistan’s disadvantage. Islamabad therefore must shore up Pakistan’s position there, in whatever ways possible. The use of proxies has been reasonably effective and cost-effective. Similarly, however, Afghanistan, which seeks good relations with India, may have been using proxies in border areas against Pakistan.

For India, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh is currently in China where he will sign an agreement to reduce tension along the Line of Actual Control (LOAC) separating both nations. Despite their complex strategic situations, China-India relations are good: two-way trade is burgeoning; LOAC tensions are being managed; rivalry is downplayed. Certainly, neither aspiring great power wants an economically-devastating ‘hot war’. Singh’s business in Beijing follows his visit to Russia, where he and President Vladimir Putin reiterated that India and Russia enjoy a ‘strategic partnership’ that should be enhanced in key areas such as rocket, missile and naval technologies. Depending on which political coalition wins next year’s Indian elections,* the India-Russia relationship should continue to be strong, if only because India chooses to have relations with a variety of nations rather than totally and unwaveringly aligning with one nation in the way that Pakistan has done with China or Australia has with the United States.

*(Bangladesh also is to have general elections later this year-early next year if the ruling Awami League government can agree to caretaker arrangements; the Maldives is to have presidential elections in early November if the Police allow these to take place; Nepal is to conduct its long-delayed constituent elections on 19 November.)

Despite a longstanding commitment to non-alignment, some Indians and Americans want their nations to embrace, or even align, economically and strategically. This chiefly is because of China, although this is rarely openly stated. Pakistan will be a major loser out of any Indo-US strategic arrangement, along with Russia, if only because India could obtain access to significant US weaponry and technology. Not surprisingly, therefore, both Pakistan and Russia have engaged in some high-level discussions in recent months to develop their relationship which, previously, has been cool because of Pakistan’s better relations with the US and India’s with Russia.

This relates to a further factor compounding South Asian matters: President Obama’s conversation in September with Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new and supposedly less hardline president. Any US-Iran rapprochement makes Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states, and Israel, very nervous. Conversely, this may make things easier for Pakistan and India, both of which have high energy needs that Iran could partially supply via the Iran-Pakistan-Iran (IPI) gas pipeline. The pipeline has been built on the Iranian side, but not in Pakistan, which section Russia has offered to build. Because of US pressure, India had decided not to join IPI. However, given improving Iran-US relations and the desire to strengthen India-US relations, this might change. Such a move also might start to bring Iran ‘in from the (international) cold’.

In strategic affairs, anything is possible. There are (at least) three maxims: each nation acts in its own national interests; nothing stays the same forever; and, ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’.

Christopher Snedden
23 October 2013

Divisions in ‘India’ 19 August 2013


Hindu Pandit Kashmiris seek a separate state in 2012: ‘Panun Kashmir’
Photo: http://indiawires.com/9092/news/state-news/panun-kashmir-seeks-reclamation-of-land-from-pakistan/

Divisions in ‘India’                                                                           19 August 2013

It is interesting to contemplate the borders of the nation that we call ‘India’. This modern entity owes its creation to the British who, in 1947, divided their imperial political possession that they also called ‘India’ into two dominions: the (secular) Union of India and Pakistan, a home ostensibly for Muslims. Interestingly, although Mauryans and Mughals had gone close to politically unifying the entire subcontinent, only the British actually did so. Equally, these interlopers divided it. However, it is worth remembering that, before the British left the subcontinent on 15 August 1947, all of what they controlled had been called ‘India’ and its residents ‘Indians’. Now, these people and their descendants comprise Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, who were East Pakistanis until they obtained their freedom from (West) Pakistan in 1971.

In 1947, the subcontinent’s division was not a fully determined matter. The ‘new’ India that came into being on 17 August when the India-Pakistan borders were finally announced—people were notified beforehand in case this upset their independence celebrations—quickly changed. India successfully digested the princely states whose rulers had acceded to it, including two contentious ones in 1948: Junagadh (although Pakistan still nominally claims Junagadh as its nawab (ruler) acceded to it in 1947) and Hyderabad. The only exception was the highly contentious—and contested—princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). India still claims three regions of J&K: Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, which, according to India, Pakistan has been ‘occupying’ since 1947, and the Aksai Chin region, which China also has been ‘occupying’. Supposedly, these regions are ‘integral parts of India’, even though Indians have never set foot in them. Any settlement of India’s claims almost certainly would see India’s borders change again, with India’s preferred option being to convert the Line of Control (LOC) that currently divides J&K into Indian J&K (comprising Jammu, the Kashmir Valley and Ladakh) and Pakistan-administered J&K (Azad Kashmir; Gilgit-Baltistan) into the international boundary. New Delhi, it seems, is not too perturbed about ‘losing’ these two areas. The China-India border question is more complex. Again, India may be prepared to ‘lose’ some territory should China offer the right deal. So too might Bhutan, which also has an unresolved border with China.

Post-partition, India’s borders changed in other ways. India incorporated four former French territories, including Pondicherry, in 1956; some former Portuguese territories, including Goa, by 1961; and, the former protectorate of Sikkim as its twenty-second state, in 1975. In 1968, India’s borders contracted slightly when a deeply disappointed New Delhi ceded ten per cent of the Rann of Kutch to Pakistan following United Nations’ arbitration. The resolution of other international issues means that India could win, or lose, further territory: with Pakistan (J&K; Sir Creek, in the Rann of Kutch); with China (Aksai Chin; Arunachal Pradesh/South Tibet (for China); India-China border); with Bangladesh, which issue is a real doozy. I quote from a recent informative article by Rukmini Das and Deepak Raju (www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-opinion/a-settlement-long-overdue/article5017339.ece): “…there are 111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in India. These include a few counter-enclaves, which are enclaves within enclaves, as well as a counter-counter enclave—a parcel of Bangladeshi territory surrounded by Indian territory, itself surrounded by Bangladeshi territory! In India, these slivers of Bangladesh are in the States of West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura.” This is a confounding situation, particularly for people living in these enclaves.

Since 1972, when India and a defeated Pakistan made some minor adjustments to the LOC, India’s borders have not changed. What has changed has been India’s internal structure. A major reorganisation was made in 1956, with various districts and former princely states amalgamated, often along linguistic lines, into fourteen states. This number has now doubled to 28 (plus seven territories), with some former territories upgraded to state status to appease disgruntled citizens. In 2000, a further three states were created: Jharkhand, from southern Bihar; Chhattisgarh, from south-eastern Madhya Pradesh; and, Uttarakhand, from north-western Uttar Pradesh. Most recently, New Delhi has announced that a new state called Telengana will be carved out of north-western Andhra Pradesh, much to the chagrin of some Andhrans.

Nor will India’s state-creation stop there. Some Indians consider that, because the United States has 50 states for its population of 300 million, India needs more states for its population of 1.2 billion. (On this ratio, India should have a staggering, probably unmanageable, 200 states.) There are many demands, with these often reflecting a linguistic or ethnic group’s desire for statehood: Bodoland (from Assam); Bundelkhand (between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh); Gorkhaland (from West Bengal); Harit (or Braj) Pradesh (western Uttar Pradesh); Purvanchal (eastern Uttar Pradesh, and possibly parts of western Bihar); Saurashtra (from Gujarat); and, Vidarbha (eastern Maharashtra). Other possibilities include Jammu, Ladakh or Panun Kashmir (for Hindu Pandits in the Kashmir Valley), all of which are in Indian J&K, being given state or territory status. Some indigenous ‘tribals’ in Tripura want a separate state. A former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati, once proposed that this heavily-populated state of 200 million people be divided into four states: Avadh Pradesh; Bundelkhand; Pashchimanchal; Purvanchal.

Boundary changes have also afflicted other South Asian nations. In 2009, Sri Lanka defeated Tamil separatists seeking Tamil Eelam in northern and eastern areas. Apart from ‘obtaining’ Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan in 1947, Pakistan expanded in 1948 after finally incorporating its princely states, including a reluctant Kalat. But this nation was severely dismembered when East Pakistan successfully broke away from West Pakistan in 1971. Some Baluchis and Pukhtoons also want to create separate states, while Saraiki speakers want a new province to be created in southern (Pakistani) Punjab. Confoundingly for Islamabad, Kabul does not accept the British-imposed Durand Line of 1893 that currently serves as the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. I say ‘currently’ as, if history shows us anything about ‘India’, it is this: nothing stays the same forever. Inevitably, there will be more changes to national and international borders in South Asia.

Christopher Snedden
19 August 2013

A Positive Development in South Asia: Democracy                   3 June 2013

Many negative issues confront South Asian nations. Conversely, in the last decade, there has been one very positive development: the spread of democracy. All South Asian nations now are functioning democracies to some extent or another. While this political system is not yet entrenched, the trend is of increased democratic activity and systems.

India has long been a fully-functioning democracy, with its only blemish being the 21-month Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi in 1975-1977. Otherwise, elections have been held every five years, with power passing peacefully between political opponents. At the state level, New Delhi has, on occasions, imposed Governor’s Rule on a state having political difficulties, including where the ruling party (or parties) has lost its majority. This sometimes has been politically motivated. Next year, India must complete its next general election before June 2014.

The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is another entrenched democracy, with national elections held even during the Tamil insurgency. One current ‘cloud’ is whether elections will take place later this year for the Northern Province, the former Tamil Tigers’ stronghold, due to supposed national security concerns. Unlike other South Asian nations, Sri Lanka has elections every six years, with electors directly electing their parliament and president. The next elections are due in April 2016.

Democracy has been Bangladesh’s political system since 1991, when a two-party system began solidifying. Beforehand, this nation often endured military ‘interventions’. Bangladeshis experienced an Emergency from January 2007 to December 2008 due to violence and instability surrounding the (postponed) 2007 election. This ended when elections were finally held in late December 2008. The next elections are due around December this year.

Nepal is a stalled multi-party democracy, with political parties unable to agree on a new constitution. Consequently, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is administering Nepal via an Interim Government. In 2008, elections to a Constituent Assembly were held, after which the monarchy was abolished. New Constituent Assembly are due before December 2013, after which the new parliament must determine a new constitution. This will be important, given that Nepal had a civil war from 1996-2006.

In 2008, Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy with an elected 47-seat parliament. Under Bhutan’s Constitution, a two-thirds parliamentary majority can remove the king. Bhutanese have again been voting, with the first round of national elections completed on 31 May. A second round will take place on 13 July between the two largest parties.

The Maldives has moved from an autocratic to a multi-party presidential system, with the first presidential elections held in 2008 and Majlis (Assembly) elections in 2009. The presidential system is still frail, with the initial incumbent, Mohamed Nasheed, losing power in February 2012, possibly due to some untoward police involvement. The next presidential election is due in September 2013.

For half of its existence, Pakistan has endured military rule. In 2008, it moved from a being a ‘command’ democracy under General Musharraf’s tight control to a fully-fledged, elected parliamentary system. In May, the Pakistan Government completed its first full term in office ever, after which national and provincial elections were successfully conducted. Winning parties are now assuming office. An indirect presidential election is due for September.

In Afghanistan, elections were held in 2004 and 2009 (presidential) and 2005 and 2010 (parliamentary). The next are due in April 2014 (presidential) and 2015 (parliamentary). Importantly, these will take place as the International Security Assistance for Afghanistan significantly reduces its presence. Afghanistan also has a long tradition of holding Loya Jirgas (Grand Assemblies) in which tribal elders consult on issues of national significance.

Why has democracy been spreading throughout South Asia? The reasons vary. For Bangladesh and Pakistan, their militaries possibly have tired of having to rule difficult nations, and because this unpopular task distracts them from their primary task of defence. Bhutan’s development is due to some enlightened monarchs, with Nepal’s possibly the reverse: an unenlightened monarchy encouraged Nepalis to fight for democracy. In the Maldives, internal agitation, particularly by activists like Nasheed, succeeded. India also may have been a model for other South Asian nations to emulate.

In each nation, the increasing power of the media and the effects of globalisation led by democratic Western nations also have been factors. People are now more aware of their rights. Similarly, democratic forces in each nation appear to have matured as nations have stabilised. Equally, however, in each nation, the price of democracy remains eternal vigilance against non-democratic forces.

Christopher Snedden; 3 June 2013