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Contemporary South Asia | Class 12 Political Science

The chapter introduces students to the geopolitics of South-Asia. It talks about all the role players in the region and their political relations with each other. We also highlight India's relation with all the neighbouring states.


Introduction To South Asia

How is South Asia defined?

South Asia is defined as a subcontinent located in the southernmost part of Asia comprising Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

What is the extent of South Asia?

The South Asian subcontinent is insulated by the Himalayas in the north and the vast Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea, and Bay of Bengal in the south, west, and east respectively.

In the east and west, the region's boundaries are hazy. When discussing the region as a whole, Afghanistan and Myanmar are frequently mentioned.

China is also an important player in the region, but it is considered a part of South Asia.

Why is there linguistic, social and cultural distinctiveness in South Asia?

This insulation provided by natural boundaries in the north, south, east and west resulted in the subcontinent's linguistic, social, and cultural distinctiveness.

Diverse politics of South Asia

South Asia is diverse in every way while also forming a single geopolitical space. There are several types of political systems in South Asian countries:

Sri Lanka and India have successfully run democratic systems since their independence from the British. But lately, the situation in Sri Lanka is not looking promising as it sits on the cusp of bankruptcy due to corrupt regimes.

  • However, despite numerous constraints, both India and Sri Lanka have maintained their democracies.

Pakistan and Bangladesh have had civilian and military rulers, but Bangladesh has remained a democracy since the Cold War's end.

  • Pakistan on the other hand began with democratic governments led by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, which were overthrown by a military coup in 1999 and has been ruled by a military regime and democratic government alternatively.

  • Pakistan hasn't seen even a single democratic government complete its full term.

Nepal was a constitutional monarchy until 2006, when the king threatened to seize executive power. A popular uprising that followed reduced the king's nominal position and restored democracy.

Changes were similar in the region's smallest countries.

  • Bhutan is a monarchy, but it is working to become a multiparty democracy.

  • The Maldives was a sultanate until 1968, when it became a republic with a presidential system of government.

Political Transformation In Maldives

In June 2005, the Maldives' parliament voted unanimously to establish a multi-party system.

The Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) ruled the political scene for the initial years.

After the 2005 elections, some opposition parties were legalised resulting in maturing of the Maldivian democracy.

Later Progressive Party of Maldives also seized power but presently it is ruled by the MDP.

The Military And Political Developments In Pakistan

Pakistan's politics has been full of volatility with no prime minister ever completing a full term. Pakistan has seen alternating transitions between being a democracy and military rule.

General Ayub Khan was quickly elected after taking over the country's administration shortly after the country's constitution was drafted. His reign was marred by widespread dissatisfaction.

A military takeover was then carried out, this time led by General Yahya Khan.

The Bangladesh crisis occurred during Yahya's military rule, and after a war with India in 1971, East Pakistan seceded to form Bangladesh, an independent country.

Pakistan was ruled by an elected government led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto from 1971 to 1977.

In 1977, General Zia-ul-Haq deposed Benazir Bhutto's government.

General Zia was confronted with a pro-democracy movement from 1982 onwards, and an elected democratic government was re-established in 1988 under Benazir Bhutto's leadership.

Pakistani politics was dominated by the rivalry between her party, the Pakistan People's Party, and the Muslim League.

In 1999, General Pervez Musharraf intervened and deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, ending the period of elective democracy for a while.

Lately, Pakistan's prime minister is Nawaz Sharif's brother who replaced Imran Khan after a no-confidence vote.

What were the factors that led to the failure of democracy in Pakistan?

The social dominance of the military, clergy, and landowning aristocracy has resulted in the overthrow of elected governments and the establishment of military governments on numerous occasions.

As a result of the country's conflict with India, pro-military groups in Pakistan have grown in strength.

These organisations have repeatedly stated that Pakistan's political parties and democracy are flawed, that selfish parties and chaotic democracy endanger Pakistan's security, and that the army's continued rule endangers the country's security.

There is a strong pro-democracy sentiment in the country. Pakistan has a strong human rights movement as well as a brave and relatively free press.

  • The military's hold on power has been strengthened by a lack of genuine international support for democratic rule in Pakistan.

  • The United States and other Western countries have previously supported the military's authoritarian rule for their own reasons.

  • Fearing that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal would fall into the hands of terrorist groups, Pakistan's military regime has been viewed as the protector of Western interests in West Asia and South Asia.

Democracy In Bangladesh

Political Developments

Bangladesh was a part of Pakistan from 1947 to 1971. It was made up of the partitioned areas of Bengal and Assam in British India. The people of this area despised the dominance of western Pakistan and the imposition of the Urdu language.

In response to the unjust treatment of Bengali culture and language, protests erupted. They also demanded equal representation and political power in government. The popular uprising against West Pakistani dominance was led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. He demanded that the eastern region be granted independence.

In the 1970 elections, the Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujib, won every seat in East Pakistan, securing a majority in the proposed constituent assembly for the entire country.

Sheikh Mujib was arrested as a result of the West Pakistani leadership's refusal to call the assembly. Under the military rule of General Yahya Khan, the Pakistani army attempted to suppress the Bengali people's mass movement.

Thousands of people were killed, prompting a massive influx of people into India.

Both financially and militarily, the Indian government supported the people of East Pakistan in their demand for independence.

Constitution Of Bangladesh

As a result, in December 1971, India and Pakistan fought a war that resulted in the surrender of Pakistani forces in East Pakistan and the establishment of Bangladesh. The constitution of Bangladesh expresses the country's belief in secularism, democracy, and socialism.

In 1975, Sheikh Mujib changed the constitution to change the government from parliamentary to presidential.

All parties except his own, the Awami League, were outlawed, resulting in conflict and tensions. He was assassinated in August 1975.

In 1979, Zia ur Rahman, the new military ruler, formed his own Bangladesh National Party and won elections. He was assassinated as well, prompting yet another military takeover, this time led by Lt Gen H. M. Ershad.

Bangladeshis quickly rallied in support of the democratic demand, with students leading the way. Ershad had no choice but to allow some political activity.

Ershad was later elected President for five years, but resigned in 1990 due to widespread public outrage.

Since 1991, Bangladesh has been governed by a representative democracy based on multi-party elections.

Nepal: A transition from Monarchy to Democracy

Nepal was a Hindu kingdom in the past, and in the modern era, it became a constitutional monarchy.

Political parties and the general public in Nepal have long desired a more transparent and responsive government. The king, however, maintained complete control over the government and limited democracy with the help of the army.

Following a strong pro-democracy movement, the king accepted a demand for a new democratic constitution in 1990.

Nepal's Maoists were successful in spreading their influence throughout the country in the 1990s. They advocated armed rebellion against the monarchy and ruling elite, which resulted in a bloodbath between Maoist guerrillas and the king's armed forces.

A triangular conflict erupted between monarchists, democrats, and Maoists.

The king disbanded parliament and dismissed the government, effectively bringing Nepal's limited democracy to an end in 2002.

Seven Party Alliance

There were nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations in April 2002.

The struggling pro-democracy forces scored their first major victory when the king was forced to restore the House of Representatives, which had been dissolved in April 2002.

The largely nonviolent movement was led by the Seven Party Alliance (SPA), Maoists, and social activists.

Nepal's democratic transition is currently incomplete; the country is in a unique period as it prepares to form a constituent assembly to write the country's constitution.

Some Nepalese still believe that a nominal monarchy is required to maintain Nepal's historical ties.

The Maoists have agreed to suspend their armed struggle. They want the constitution to include radical social and economic restructuring programmes.

This programme may not be acceptable to all SPA parties.

Ethnic Conflict And Democracy In Sri-Lanka

Ethnic Conflict

Sri Lanka has been a democratic country since its independence in 1948. It was confronted with a serious challenge, not from the military or the monarchy, but from ethnic conflict, which led to a demand for secession from one of the regions.

In Sri Lanka (Ceylon), forces representing the interests of the majority Sinhala community dominated politics.

They were hostile to the large number of Tamils who had immigrated to Sri Lanka from India. Even after the country gained independence, people continued to migrate.

Sinhala nationalists believed that because Sri Lanka belonged solely to the Sinhala people, no "concessions" should be made to the Tamils.

Disregard for Tamil concerns fueled militant Tamil nationalism.

How India happens to be a key role player in the Sri lankan war?

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a militant organisation, has been fighting the Sri Lankan army in an armed conflict over the demand for 'Tamil Eelam,' or a separate country for Sri Lanka's Tamils.

The LTTE has taken control of Sri Lanka's northeastern region. People of Indian origin are involved in the Sri Lankan problem, and Tamils in India are putting pressure on the Indian government to protect the Tamils' interests in Sri Lanka.

On several occasions, the Indian government has attempted to negotiate with the Sri Lankan government over the Tamil issue. For the first time in 1987, the Indian government became directly involved in the Sri Lankan Tamil issue.

India Sri Lanka signed a peace agreement and dispatched troops to bring the Sri Lankan government and the Tamils back together.

The Indian Army and the LTTE fought each other. The presence of Indian troops in Sri Lanka was also unpopular with the local population. They interpreted this as India interfering in Sri Lanka's internal affairs.

The Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) failed to complete its mission in Sri Lanka.

The Economy of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka's civil war is still raging. International actors, particularly Scandinavian countries like Norway and Iceland, have attempted to negotiate.

Sri Lanka has experienced significant economic growth and high levels of human development despite the ongoing conflict.

After liberalising its economy, Sri Lanka was one of the first developing countries to successfully control population growth. For many years, even during the civil war, it had the highest per capita GDP (gross domestic product).

A free trade agreement was signed between India and Sri Lanka, which strengthened bilateral ties. India's assistance in rebuilding Sri Lanka after the tsunami has also brought the two countries closer together.

India-Pakistan Conflicts

Following partition, the two countries became embroiled in a dispute over the fate of Kashmir. The Pakistani government claimed to be the sole owner of Kashmir.

India and Pakistan fought two wars, in 1947-48 and 1965, but neither was successful in resolving the conflict. During the 1947-48 war, the province was divided by the Line of Control, resulting in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and the Indian province of Jammu and Kashmir.

In a decisive war, India defeated Pakistan, but the Kashmir issue remained unresolved.

The conflict between India and Pakistan is also about strategic issues like control of the Siachen glacier and the acquisition of weapons.

India detonated a nuclear device in Pokhran in 1998. Pakistan retaliated a few days later by conducting nuclear tests in the Chagai Hills.

India and Pakistan appear to have established a military relationship that reduces the likelihood of a full-fledged war.

The Indian government has accused Pakistan of employing a low-key violence strategy by providing arms, training, money, and protection to Kashmiri militants in order for them to carry out terrorist attacks against India.

According to the Indian government, Pakistan is also suspected of supplying arms and ammunition to pro-Khalistani militants between 1985 and 1995.

Its spy agency, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), has been accused of involvement in anti-India campaigns in India's northeast, which it is said to be running under the radar through Bangladesh and Nepal.

For its part, Pakistan's government accuses India's government and security agencies of fomenting unrest in the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan.

There were also squabbles over river water. Until 1960, both countries were locked in a bitter dispute over the use of the rivers of the Indus basin.

The Indus Waters Treaty was signed by India and Pakistan in 1960, and it has stood the test of time despite the two countries' involvement in various military conflicts.

The demarcation line in Sir Creek, Rann of Kutch, is a source of disagreement between the two countries.

All of these issues are being discussed between India and Pakistan at the moment.

India And Its Other Neighbours

India & Bangladesh

The Indian and Bangladeshi governments have disagreed on a number of issues, including the allocation of Ganga and Brahmaputra river waters.

The Indian government has been irritated by Bangladesh's refusal to allow illegal immigration into India, as well as its support for anti-Indian Islamic fundamentalist groups.

Bangladesh's refusal to allow Indian troops to cross into northeastern India via its territory, as well as its refusal to export natural gas to India or allow Myanmar to do so via its territory.

When it comes to sharing river waters, encouraging rebellion in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, attempting to extract natural gas, and being unfair in trade, Bangladeshi governments believe India acts as a regional bully.

The two countries have yet to resolve their border dispute. Both countries' economic relations have significantly improved in the last ten years.

Bangladesh is a component of India's Look East policy, which seeks to connect the country to Southeast Asia via Myanmar.

On a regular basis, the two countries have collaborated on disaster relief and environmental issues.

India & Nepal

Nepal and India share a special bond. A bilateral treaty allows citizens of the two countries to travel and work in the other without the need for visas or passports.

The governments of the two countries have had trade disputes in the past.

Given the rise of Naxalite groups across India, from Bihar in the north to Andhra Pradesh in the south, Indian security agencies regard the Maoist movement in Nepal as a growing security threat.

Nepal believes that India meddles in its internal affairs, has plans for its river waters and hydropower, and prevents Nepal, a landlocked country, from gaining easier access to the sea via Indian territory.

India and Nepal have relatively stable and peaceful relations. Despite their differences, trade, scientific cooperation, shared natural resources, electricity generation, and interconnected water management grids bind the two countries together.

India & Bhutan

India has a special relationship with Bhutan, with which it has no major disagreements.

The efforts of Bhutan's monarch to root out guerrillas and militants from northeastern India operating in his country have benefited India.

India, which is involved in large hydroelectric projects in Bhutan, is the Himalayan kingdom's largest source of development aid.

India & Maldives

The Maldives and India maintain warm and cordial relations.

When Tamil mercenaries from Sri Lanka attacked the Maldives in November 1988, the Indian air force and navy responded quickly to the Maldives' request for assistance.

India has also contributed to the economic development, tourism, and fisheries of the island.

Why did India have problems with its smaller neighbours?

In contrast, the Indian government frequently feels exploited by its neighbours. It is concerned that political instability in these countries will allow outside powers to gain influence in the region.

Smaller countries are concerned that India aspires to be a regional power.

Not all South Asian conflicts are between India and its neighbours. Nepal and Bhutan, as well as Bangladesh and Myanmar, have previously disagreed over the migration of ethnic Nepalese into Bhutan and Rohingyas into Myanmar.

There have been some disagreements between Bangladesh and Nepal regarding the future of the Himalayan river waters.

The major conflicts and differences, however, are between India and the others, which is due in part to the geography of the region, in which India is centrally located and thus the only country that borders the others.

South Asian Association For Regional Cooperation

What Is SAARC?

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is a major regional initiative launched by South Asian countries to advance cooperation through multilateral means.

SAARC has had limited success as a result of persistent political differences.

What is South Asian Free Trade Agreement?

SAARC members signed the South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA), which promised the creation of a South Asian free trade zone. The agreement was signed in 2004 and became effective on January 1, 2006.

SAFTA's his was to reduce trade tariffs by 20% by 2007. Some of our neighbours were concerned that SAFTA will allow India to "invade" their markets and influence their societies and politics through commercial ventures.

On the other hand India believed, SAFTA will provide real economic benefits to all parties, and that a region that trades more freely will be able to cooperate better on political issues.

Despite the fact that India-Pakistan relations appear to be rife with endemic conflict and violence, the two countries have agreed to implement confidence-building measures in order to reduce the risk of war.

Social activists and prominent figures have worked together to foster friendship between the peoples of both countries.

Leaders have met at summits to better understand each other and find solutions to the two neighbours' major problems.

In the last five years, bus routes and trade between the two parts of Punjab have grown significantly.

Visas are now more easily obtained.

Although Sino-Indian relations have improved significantly in the last ten years, China's strategic partnership with Pakistan remains a major source of friction.

The demands of development and globalisation have brought the two Asian behemoths closer together, and their economic ties have grown rapidly since 1991.

After the Cold War, the United States' involvement in South Asia grew rapidly. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has maintained good relations with both India and Pakistan, and it is increasingly acting as a moderator in India-Pakistan relations.

Economic reforms and liberal economic policies in both countries have significantly increased American participation in the region.