India is an overwhelming presence in south Asia, and must do more to build trust | opinion$Comment

In the old days, Indians would speak of the “hidden hand,” accusing people of being on the payroll of CIA, or even the KGB. These days, Indian officials seem to have been attributed a similarly long and evil arm of influence by our neighbours.

After the mysterious disappearance and subsequent return of Farhad Mazhar, a Bangladeshi columnist and activist, on July 3, local media in Bangladesh reported conjecture that “Indian agencies” were responsible for the abduction. Nepali analysts have long spoken of “Indian agencies” being involved, usually playing a negative role, in political decisions; but the distrust runs so high that a Nepali national recently even suggested to me that India’s prompt earthquake rescue and relief mission two years ago, was motivated by a hidden agenda.

This is partly because India, by sheer size of its population, military, economy and geography, is an overwhelming presence in the subcontinent. But its officials should have realised by now that repeatedly saying that India wants peaceful ties, based on cooperation, is not enough.

While it is generally accepted that it will, like all other countries, prioritise its strategic interests – primarily linked to China’s growing clout – the open dismay toward India is not without basis. While many of the allegations might be dismissed as local paranoia, India also needs to reconsider its image. India’s clear and unwavering support for core democratic and human rights principles in neighbouring countries might go a long way toward dispelling some of the public anxiety.

For instance, many Bangladeshis, particularly opposition party supporters, believe that India is bolstering the ruling Awami League. The Sheikh Hasina government has addressed many of India’s key security concerns, partnering in counter-terrorism operations and closing borders to insurgent groups. Bangladeshi security forces, however, are accused of serious human rights violations including extra-judicial…

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