Former Indian foreign secretary and deputy secretary general of the Commonwealth Krish Srinivasan was recently interviewed on UNB’s Light & Lens by Nabila Rahman. Follow the QR Code at the end to view the full interview on your smartphone. Excerpts:
Nabila Rahman (NR): Krish Srinivasan, a lot has changed from the time you were here as high commissioner from 1989-92, that you must have seen on your visits since?
Krish Srinivasan (KS): I have been here about maybe half a dozen times, I came here from the Commonwealth as part of my duties as the political head of the Commonwealth and I think I came twice in that connection. I have been here for book launches, lectures after that may be half a dozen times or so.
NR: You are very familiar obviously with our country, of course and so just to get back to why we are here today. So we wanted to understand, how do you see the breakdown of the so-called liberal world order? Can nation states survive in a state of disorder as we appear to have now?
KS: Well I don’t know whether the part of the world which considers itself liberal would say that it is a breakdown because I think they would consider that their values are eternal and universal and still hold good. So I don’t think they would necessarily consider it a breakdown. I think the question that you are asking is probably predicated on the fact that you have had several governments who have been elected democratically but who have turned out to be let’s say populist nationalist or perhaps not following precisely the liberal traditions of western countries. So I think that your question probably derives from the fact that you see in let us say in the last ten or dozen years. The growth of fairly illiberal governments in many countries in the world not only in the west but also non-west and your assumption is that is a progress or process which is going to continue. I think that’s challengeable because the countries that you are referring to have periodic elections and they have therefore changes of government and while for the time being you had leaders who follow a very nationalistic viewpoint, I don’t think it is necessarily so that they are going to be that indefinitely.
So I think that it is more likely the pendulum will swing again and it may not of course swing back to completely liberal order, it may in fact continue to swing in the other direction but there movements in international politics tend to be not permanent, they tend to be cyclical and so I wouldn’t say that the liberal order is completely vanquished.
NR: Since you have been a deputy general of the Commonwealth, do you think that Brexit would heighten the UK’s interest in strengthening the Commonwealth?
KS: Yes definitely, I think that’s the stated intention of Britain to not only to fall back on but to maybe even depend on the old Commonwealth relations, the old Commonwealth connections to counteract and to balance the losses from the European market. Now it is not going to be that easy for Britain to do this after a fairly long pause when the Commonwealth perhaps felt it was neglected or partly neglected by Whitehall, which is the centre of the British government. But that is the intention that’s stated intention and certainly as far as the Commonwealth countries are concerned, they would have no objection whatsoever if Britain took a greater interest and a stronger part in the Commonwealth because the Commonwealth like many international organisations does need re-energizing and Britain being quote-unquote the mother country of the Commonwealth, is the right country in many ways to do the re-energizing Commonwealth. The head of the Commonwealth is as you know is the Queen of the Monarch of Britain.
NR: So another important thing we can also look at is your thoughts about the future inter-state cooperation in South Asia, for example do you think SAARC that we had in South Asia can be revived and do you think it would be worthwhile?
KS: I think the great difficulty in SAARC was that right from the time of its inception we had the problem of Pakistan-India relations looming over the organisation and it became prey or subject if you like to the relations between two or three member countries which were not ideal for moving forward on a cooperative basis. This was the great danger right from the beginning and before the complete breakdown due to the India-Pakistan relationship, we’ve had long pauses also before summits could take place because of that difficulty, difficulty of a bilateral relationship obstructing progress in the multilateral institution. Now I certainly think that SAARC did not make much progress as we thought it would do when it started in 1986 in Dhaka as a matter of fact but on the other hand it didn’t do certainly any damage to countries who are members. So while its beneficial qualities might have been not so clear, there was no negative fallout from SAARC at all. There were some agreements within SAARC countries that were not implemented by all countries, there were some very good agreements within SAARC which weren’t able to take off at all because one or other countries wouldn’t sign up to them.
So these were the drawbacks in many ways but on the people-to-people level, I think people got more conscious of the fact that they were South Asians as oppose to, let us say Sri Lankans or Nepalese or Bhutanese. So I think that was the beneficial aspect of it. Speaking of the future, you know we had the expansion of SAARC by inclusion of Afghanistan for example, but we’ve had no retractions, or let us say no minuses, we’ve had pluses but no minuses, no country ever left SAARC so far which is a good thing and what we have now is a suspension of activity, particularly the summit activity because of the relationship between India and Pakistan.
NR: Refreshing the vision of when SAARC started in 1986 to now, a lot has changed right? And India and Pakistan are still going to be there as member countries, there is a lot of potential and we can hope it has a future?
KS: Yes if I can say to add to what you’ve said, I think you are perfectly right. I think that the situation now in 2020 is very far different from what it used to be in 1986 and some countries have made enormous progress in that period. I’ll say especially Bangladesh has made enormous progress and so you could say the variables in this organisation, pluses and minuses have changed quite considerably. And Bangladesh have of course, it is worth pointing out is the center of two other organisations that have subsequently taken place and one is BIMSTEC and the other is BBIN, and so while I am not suggesting in any way that these organisations are counter to or antagonistic to SAARC, I am just trying to suggest that to back up what you said, that the balances of 1986 have changed considerably and weightage is in different directions now.
NR: What are your views on China’s Belt and Road Initiative and how do you see the possibility of future Indian involvement?
KS: Well that’s a very important question and I think that I have to stress here that I speak as an individual and not behalf of any government. And I think I need to make that clear because there are different schools of thought on BRI, the BRI stands for the Belt and Road Initiative which is a Chinese worldwide project and largely financed by and authored by China. Now I think of all the countries that have been let us say involved in the BRI and who have opposed it, India perhaps is the only one. So your question is completely valid being posed to an Indian. But as I said there are many opinions on this and there are those who think that BRI is harmful, not only would it be harmful to India but harmful to the countries who are participating in it at the moment.
Briefly speaking, because it is a greater benefit to China than those countries and secondly because of the finances which come from China which have to be repaid, repaid at a certain time and with certain conditionality and that’s going to impose a tremendous debt burden on those countries. Now this is basically the negative view. The positive view is that it provides for far greater inter-connectivity for these countries, not only in terms of infrastructure, but also in terms of dutiful connectivity and let us say (trade), absolutely right and also the global value chains because it is possible to generate far greater manufacturers by the use of global value chains, global supply chains and the establishment of free ports for example, free industrial zones and this is a part of the much wider concept. So I think there are many positive aspects, it is for each country quite frankly to decide on its own.
My personal view is, if BRI succeeds in tremendous interconnectivity not only regionally, sub-regionally and intercontinentally, because the whole idea is to link Asia with Europe also, and not only by land but also by sea. Furthermore, moving to Africa, even to Latin America, I think that it is going to be a tremendous game-changer in the world and I think that whether one is with it or one is not with it, it is a process that has to be followed and assessed, very very carefully, and this BRI project could be the biggest new thing in the world and international politics in this century.
NR: What is your take on the current state of Indo-Bangladesh relations? In you view, would the recent legislations in India have any impact on it?
Srinivasan: Well the first part of your question, my view is benign in the sense that I think that relations between India and Bangladesh are much better now than when I was the high commissioner for example. And if probably better than any subsequent period to my being here which was in the early 90s up to now, and I would say that by nearly all yardsticks there is a tremendous improvement in relationship. I think not only the cordiality between the governments but also between the peoples, the media in India is full of praise of Bangladesh at the moment which is something rather new. And everybody in India realizes that Bangladesh has made fantastic progress especially in the social, human sectors and advances far beyond India in this respect. In terms of the legislation you mentioned, this is relating I think to citizenship, though you didn’t spell it out, if you have something else in mind do let me know. If you are speaking of citizenship, I am afraid that I can’t give you a short answer because these are intensely complicated matters.
There are three aspects to the citizenship question and if you permit to just take a minute to say that the first aspect is the fast-tracking of citizenship for certain minority communities in three countries, they are Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. And these minority communities are basically Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and so on, and they are fast-tracked in the sense that they are going to be given citizenship in five years rather than in eleven years if they can prove that they were discriminated against in those three countries. But that doesn’t exclude people who don’t belong to those religions from getting citizenship, it is just that they have to wait longer. So as I said one is a fast-track process, one is a normal process. The second aspect is one of the National Citizenship Register which I think is something you are referring to quite accurately. This took place only in one state in India which is Assam and it proved a dreadful failure.
It is a failure that is recognized by all the political parties in India and basically given up. They will have to do it all over again and if they are going to do this in every state in India, I just like to say three things quickly. One is that nine states in India have already said that they are not going to accept it, that maybe overruled, but it is going to be very difficult to implement such a proposal when a state is opposed to it because ultimately it has to be done at the house-to-house level.
The second thing I’ll say is that we can’t afford it, because it cost an enormous amount of money just in Assam, then to transfer it to all the other states in India is going to be beyond our budgetary capacity.
The third thing I want to say is that the Prime Minister of India has said absolutely clearly that it is not going to happen, it is not going to go ahead because they realised the difficulties and they realised also that assuming you have a register of citizens and assuming you find a lot of people who are not citizens, what are you going to do with them? And the government of India has already given an assurance for example to Bangladesh saying that it is not going to be affected. So if anyone is found, let us say who might have come from, might have mind you because there is nothing positive about it, might have come from Bangladesh, he or she is not going to be repatriated to Bangladesh. So he or she is going to be in India. But that’s going to be also an impossible situation because he or she will be stateless, and while stateless people have certain rights, they also have certain limitations. So I think this is a hornet’s nest, if you forgive that expression which India cannot possibly afford to have.