When the British escaped from their South Asian empire in 1947, they were aware that they were leaving behind a region in turmoil. What they had not quite anticipated was that one of the newly-independent countries — the largest, in fact — would emerge as a stable polity, and a thriving and powerful democracy. India, against all dire predictions to the contrary, is by far the stablest polity and economy of the region. India is the neighbours’ envy. It is India’s misfortune that it is surrounded by countries that are not only unstable politically but also prone to violence and religious fundamentalism. Both Pakistan and Bangladesh are cases in point. Sri Lanka, even though never a victim of religious fundamentalism, has had a long history of violence, the end of which is probably in sight.
India, for reasons of pure self-interest, cannot be only a bystander to developments in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Developments there have an impact on India. Bangladesh, a country at whose birth India was present as a midwife, has moved from democracy to military rule to democracy. The shadow of a military takeover has not disappeared from Bangladesh. What is equally ominous is the rising tide of religious fundamentalism being nurtured by the climate of Islamization that no democratically elected government of Bangladesh has been able to counter. The process of Islamization has unfortunately come to be laced with a strong dose of Indian hatred. This has inevitably resulted in Bangladesh being used by forces in Pakistan as a launching-pad for infiltration of agents into India to spread the message of religious fundamentalism, and even to carry out terrorist attacks on Indian soil. Islam has acted as a bond between sections of the population of Pakistan and Bangladesh, two countries hostile to each other in their very origins. In Pakistan, as has become evident over the recent months, nobody seems to be in control of anything, nobody seems to be responsible for anything. This despite the open admission by the international community that all terrorist attacks in the world can be traced back to Pakistan, directly or indirectly.
India knows exactly who its enemies are in the neighbourhood. But India is also a responsible member of the community of nations. It cannot afford to engage in any act of adventurism. Yet patience and good sense can also wear thin. Any elected government in India has to be accountable to the electorate for the country’s security that is becoming vulnerable because of developments in India’s volatile neighbourhood. The biggest challenge before India’s democracy may not be internal but external. The forthcoming elections in India — the biggest democratic experiment in the world — cannot escape the history of instability in Pakistan and Bangladesh that resulted in mutiny in the latter and terrorist attacks on Indian soil originating in the former. Preserving democracy in South Asia may well be India’s most onerous burden.