Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reaches out to leaders in Indian-administered Kashmir, Bangladesh locks down to curb a COVID-19 surge, and a new report highlights India’s offensive cyber-deficiencies.
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Nearly two years ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked Article 370, the constitutional clause that gave the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir its special autonomous status. A massive government crackdown followed, including internet shutdowns and the arrests of civil society members, business leaders, and senior political figures.
Modi has since shown little interest in softening his stance on the disputed region. This makes his decision to host a meeting with 14 senior Kashmiri political leaders last week striking. Yet although the move represents an about-face, it may also reflect a shift in broader Indian policy that entails extending olive branches to rivals around the region.
According to Indian press accounts, Modi focused in the meeting on the need to redraw electoral boundaries in Kashmir in anticipation of future elections. Some observers say Modi’s outreach was motivated by a desire to bolster the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral prospects there. But it could also be intended to lower tensions, giving India more bandwidth to address pressing domestic matters and a border challenge with China.
India is still recovering from a devastating second COVID-19 wave, and experts fear a third wave could arrive this fall. India’s economy also needs attention: It experienced its worst performance in four decades during the last fiscal year. And more than a year after a deadly border clash with China in disputed Ladakh, India still faces an ongoing threat along its northern border, where it has deployed 50,000 additional troops. Bipin Rawat, India’s chief of defense staff, recently suggested that China is a bigger threat than Pakistan.
In fact, hints of Modi’s conciliatory strategy toward regional rivals first appeared in February, when India agreed to a new border cease-fire with Pakistan. Tensions with Islamabad had been serious since February 2019, when the two countries nearly went to war, and worsened after the Article 370 revocation. In 2020, their disputed border saw its largest number of cease-fire violations in two decades.
Then, several weeks ago, local media reported that India sought to open a channel of communication with the Afghan Taliban. A diplomat from Qatar, where the Taliban’s political office is based, confirmed these reports this week. India likely recognizes that after U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban will grow stronger—either through a political settlement or through continued battlefield operations.
India has a deep development footprint in Afghanistan, and its Taliban outreach likely intends to put it in a better position to urge the insurgents not to target Indian interests and nationals. If successful, establishing contact with the Taliban could bolster India’s ability to ease its security concerns in Afghanistan and again enable it to focus on domestic matters and the China challenge.
This type of outreach to rivals is delicate and difficult. In the case of Kashmir, Modi’s parlay with local leaders will do little to stabilize the region. (Several days after the meeting, a drone hit an Indian air base there.) Most Kashmiris, including leaders at the meeting, bitterly reject the Article 370 revocation. Many of the region’s 8 million residents view India as an occupying force, and they won’t be appeased by a potential election.
Kashmiris also fear that new policies ushered in by the Article 370 revocation, such as fewer restrictions on investment and land acquisitions in Kashmir, could eventually change the demographics of India’s only Muslim-majority region. New Delhi has so far given no indication it will review these policies.
Additionally, Modi’s government was selective with the invitation list for the meeting, inviting more New Delhi-friendly leaders and excluding a pro-separatist political front called the All Parties Hurriyat Conference. India has refused to include the Hurriyat Conference in any Kashmir-related dialogue.
But given Modi’s previous tough stance on the region, his softer approach is still significant. Moving forward, the question is how long the prime minister will sustain it. Many analysts say his tough line toward enemies has earned him more political strength—and a landslide reelection victory in 2019. But Modi lost some of his much-vaunted popularity after his botched response to India’s second wave of COVID-19. His olive branches may wilt fast.
July 8: Carnegie India hosts a discussion on a new book on India and Asian geopolitics by Shivshankar Menon, a former Indian national security advisor.
Bangladesh’s next wave. First it was India, then Nepal—and now it’s Bangladesh suffering a major pandemic surge. The number of new COVID-19 cases in the country has averaged 5,000 in recent days, with more than 8,000 on Monday. Last Sunday marked a new record with 119 deaths, and nationwide positivity rates have reached 22 percent.
This week in Dhaka, a city of 21 million people, authorities shut down most public transport, and the military began enforcing a nationwide lockdown on Thursday. The transport suspension and lockdown announcement have triggered large exoduses of migrant workers out of cities to their home villages—bringing to mind similar migrations in India last year.
Bangladesh’s pandemic surge has been attributed to the highly contagious delta variant first detected in India. Delta has now appeared in nearly 100 countries, including Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
Rare attack in Lahore. Pakistani authorities have moved quickly to investigate a blast that killed three people and injured 25 people in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, last week. The attack was unusual: Terrorism is relatively infrequent in Pakistan’s urban areas, and it took place outside the home of Hafiz Saeed, the head of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an India-focused terrorist group with close ties to the Pakistani security establishment.
No one has claimed responsibility, and Islamabad has not blamed any group, but officials have already arrested five people. One, identified as Peter Paul David, was detained as he tried to fly out of Lahore last Friday. Some accounts identify him as a Pakistani national, others call him a foreign national, and still others describe him as a dual national from Pakistan and either Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates.
India’s cyber-deficiencies. India is one of 15 countries featured in a new report that ranks offensive cyber-capacities. The study by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies places India in its third and lowest tier, assessing that much of India’s cyber-intelligence capacity has been directed internally and at Pakistan but that its competencies are weaker further afield.
The findings have implications for India’s deepening rivalry with China, which the report places in the second-tier category. New Delhi is concerned about the growing risk of Chinese cyberattacks: Analysts and some officials have suggested that a Chinese hack of the power grid caused a large-scale power outrage in Mumbai last October.
Electricity pylons are blowing up across Afghanistan. The trend isn’t new: Afghan power infrastructure has been a target of the country’s relentless violence since at least 2016. But in early June, Afghanistan’s main power utility stated that 23 pylons had been destroyed or damaged in a single month, causing power outages in Kabul and seven surrounding provinces. The Taliban and the Islamic State have claimed responsibility for some attacks. Afghan observers have blamed private criminal gangs and even government elements.
The energy security implications of the attacks are profound. Afghanistan only generates one-quarter of its electricity domestically, and many pylons transmit power from Uzbekistan and Iran. The vulnerability of its electricity infrastructure amplifies its connectivity challenges and presents yet another dilemma for a population already grappling with insurgency, terrorism, COVID-19, and drought.
“The Afghan nation is in [an] 1861 moment, like President Lincoln, rallying to the defense of the republic, determined that the republic is defended.”
—Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, speaking to the press before a June 25 White House meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden
In Pakistan Today, Mehmil Khalid Kunwar, who writes on social issues, decries the Pakistani government’s failure to address the long-standing problem of so-called honor killings. Citing a recent case in Italy, she warns that “Pakistanis who live overseas also seem to follow this tradition, making sure they adopt everything they leave behind in their home country.”
An editorial in Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror lauds Namal Rajapaksa, the minister of youth and sports affairs and son of the prime minister, for speaking out on behalf of members of the Tamil ethnic minority languishing in prison. “If the trend continues, perhaps we can leave behind our baggage of ethnic, religious, and similar differences, and once again be Lankan first,” it concludes.
In the Kathmandu Post, the author and management executive Sujeev Shakya contrasts the experiences of communism in China and Nepal, arguing that Nepali communists made the mistake of “mimicking the failed Indian communist model.”