India commemorates her 70th anniversary of independence on August 15, but has little to celebrate when it comes to maintaining good relations with neighbouring countries.
India and Israel share a dubious distinction of bad relations with all of their neighbours. Israel’s neighbours are Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria. India’s neighbours are Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Both India and Israel had painful rebirths as modern states in 1947. India experienced decimation of part of its territory to create a Muslim-majority Pakistan, whereas the creation of a Jewish state, Israel, displaced thousands of Palestinian Arabs. There was fierce fighting in both cases and disputes over lands linger to this day. Both have fought full-fledged wars with their neighbours: India with China in 1962 and 1967, and with Pakistan in 1965, 1971, and 1999. Israel has fought two wars with its Arab neighbours: in 1967 and 1973.
The founding prime ministers of each country - Jawaharlal Nehru of India and David Ben Gurion of Israel - envisioned good neighbourly relations. But that floundered.
In 1954, Nehru and his Chinese counterpart Chou-en-lai signed the “Panchsheel” agreement pledging mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence.
Ben Gurion spoke in 1947 of returning to “our native land...engulfed by Arabic-speaking people, mainly followers of Islam. Now, if ever, we must do more than make peace with them; we must achieve collaboration and alliance on equal terms.”
Egypt’s late president Anwar Sadat in November 1977 recognized Israel and established diplomatic relations, as did Jordan. But mutual suspicion defines the relationships. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) recognized the State of Israel in 1993.
India and Israel harbour suspicion and paranoia of international organizations where both routinely come under attack from Arab and Muslim countries: India for its handling of the Kashmir issue and Israel for its treatment of Palestinian Arab citizens and its intransigence against establishing a Palestinian State. They both shun any attempt by a third party to help negotiate a solution. Israel, which was established by a United Nations resolution, is particularly hostile to the UN, a forum for constant criticism.
Ironically, it was United Nations Resolution 181 adopted on November 29, 1947 which partitioned British Mandate Palestine. It recommended creation of independent Arab and Jewish states and a Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem, which is birthplace to prophets of Christians, Jews and Muslims. Israel was created the following year in May 1948, but no Arab (Palestinian) state has emerged, and the status of Jerusalem remains in dispute.
The reasons for India’s bad relations with its neighbours are more complex. It has a distinct problem with each. It has a border dispute with China; water issues with Bangladesh; status of Kashmir with Pakistan; fishing rights and ethnic Tamil issues with Sri Lanka; and allegations of interference in internal matters in Nepal. For a long time, India viewed with suspicion regional organizations such as the seven–member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation initiated by the late President Zia-ur-Rehman of Bangladesh.
A heavy cost of poor relations with neighbours is massive spending on defence.
India and Israel feature are among the top 15 defence spenders in the world. In 2014 India spent $48 billion, while Israel’s defence budget was $18.6 billion. In 2016 India spent 2.5 percent of its GDP on defence, and Israel 5.8 per cent, compared to 1.0 percent by Canada. These are resources diverted from essential services such as health, education, and social programs.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi pursues policies to build bridges with India’s neighbours, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains reticent. Modi has invited all neighbouring countries’ heads of government to India’s Republic Day celebrations in January.
The road to good relations with neighbours for Israel rests on the establishment of an independent State of Palestine. India faces a long and arduous road to create conditions enabling it to ultimately live in peace with its neighbours!
Bhupinder S. Liddar is a retired Canadian diplomat and former editor of “Diplomat & International Canada” magazine.