A “Greater Bangladesh” could be created if nationalist forces within or immediately outside of the country seek to unite the neighboring ethnic diaspora, which in this case would include those in Myanmar’s Rakhine State (commonly called “Rohingya” by the Western mainstream media just as they invented the fake term “Kosovar” to justify the separatist scenario in Yugoslavia/Serbia), the Northeast Indian state of Tripura (which is now majority Bengali), other parts of this region that have been afflicted by illegal Bengali immigration, and India’s state of West Bengal (which is more complicated because only 1/3 are Muslims whereas the remaining 2/3 are Hindu and therefore less attracted to Dhaka).
Northeast Indian Insurgencies
The decades-long insurgencies that have been raging on and off in Northeast India could return with greater intensity and possibly unite into a coordinated region-wide separatist campaign against New Delhi, which is geopolitically inconvenienced in having difficulty accessing this corner of the country. The most likely contours of conflict here are the following:
Clash Of Civilizations:
Many of Northeast Indian’s inhabitants are Christian, which could put their population at odds with India’s Hindutva-led (Hindu nationalist) government and Muslim Bengali indigenous and illegal immigrant population, especially if aggressive Christian proselytizing elements such as Protestants, Jehova’s Witness, and others indoctrinate the locals into violence against their disbelieving neighbors. Religion could also serve as a powerful rallying cry for some separatist movements depending upon which tribes/ethnicities this appeals to the most (such as the Naga).
The Indian State of Nagaland is host to a very active movement of revisionists who would like to carve out what they call “Nagalim”, which is “Greater Nagaland” or the unified territorial administrative entity of all Nagas. Advocates are split over whether this should be peaceful or violent, and whether it should be limited to legally gaining land from other neighboring states in India or if it should include the cross-border population in Myanmar, from where related rebel/terrorist groups reside in numerous safe havens. This issue is perhaps one of Northeast India’s most pressing threats.
The Bodo minority group in Assam State wants their own separate entity within India, but because this hasn’t been granted by legal means, some of its supporters have resorted to terrorism instead, with the most well-known event taking place in December 2014 when over 75 people were killed in a series of coordinated attacks.
This used to be the largest state in Northeast India, at one time occupying just about all of the region, but with time it’s been chipped down to its present size as different union states were carved out of its territory. There’s a chance that reactive Assamese nationalism might take on a militant form if this group feels further threatened in the future, possibly by the Bodo and if it seems possible that New Delhi will concede to their demands and cut out even more territory from this state to accommodate the restive minority.
The last most likely scene of conflict in Northeast India isn’t actually within the region itself, but in the ‘chicken’s neck’ Siliguri Corridor of northern West Bengal state that connects the rest of the country to the ‘Seven Sisters’. The local Gorkha population has been gradually agitating for more political rights and separate representation within their home state, arguing that ethnic Bengalis are overpowering them and unfairly administering their affairs. A system of local autonomy has been worked out in the Darjeeling Hills district, but this might one day not be sufficient to meet rising political demands, especially if the Gorkha’s cross-border Nepali kin end up aiding them in their cause (whether officially through Kathmandu or informally through non-governmental actors like militias or Western NGOs).
“Identity Federalism” In India
India has a complex system of government which implements some federative principles within its unitary republic format, but a spree of rejuvenated insurgencies in the Northeast might lead to the central government making large-scale political concessions to these states, some of which could even see them becoming largely autonomous. The ‘virus’ of “Identity Federalism” and/or “identity-driven political separateness” might burst out of the ‘containment’ zone of Northeastern India and past the ‘chicken’s neck’ into the heartland of the country, which might lead to similar copy-cat attempts in the larger much more identity-diverse states, especially if the Naxalite Maoist rebels take up this cause for populist reasons. If India undergoes a 21st-century version of the 1956 States Reorganization Act, then it might find itself fundamentally transformed into more of an “Identity Federation” and less of a unitary republic, though this scenario would naturally only be possible if there was considerable pressure from the peninsular heartland for this to happen.
The Dravidian Drift
The majority of people living in the region of South India are Dravidian, and they speak a different language than their Northern counterparts and have a distinctly different history and ethnic composition. This part of the country might one day through whatever series of circumstances come to the realization that it would like for its obvious identity separateness to take on political meanings, which could initially see local states and civil society organizations consolidating around regional identity and forming voting blocs within the parliament. The next step might be the creation of a political party supporting South Indian/Dravidian interests, which might become more urgent in the event that the central government undertakes a series of divisive policy steps that are perceived as (or the population is made by foreign-supported media and NGOs to perceive them as) counter to their regional interests, thus necessitating the formation of a pre-independence Pakistan-like regional/identity party that could one day set the stage for an Identity Federalism or secessionist movement.
The Naxalite No-Go Zone
The Indian government has been fighting against the Naxalite Maoist rebels/insurgents in Eastern India for decades already but still hasn’t managed to dislodge them from their bastions of support in the jungled and resource-rich interior regions. Parts of the country are essentially no-go zones for the government, in which law enforcement officers and the military know that they’re seriously at risk of being killed if they make the wrong move. While the problem isn’t totally out of control to the extent that it may seem, nevertheless, this rebellion/insurgency has demonstrated impressive staying power which implies that it has legitimate support from the local population. Under the circumstances of extensive destabilization elsewhere in the country (whether through terrorism, separatism, border skirmishes, etc.), the Naxalites might seize their golden chance to expand their territory and influence and become a serious threat to the government. Concurrent with other crises occurring in India, this might be enough to overwhelm the authorities. Even if this doesn’t happen, New Delhi will eventually have to squash the rebellion/insurgency if it wants to fully command total control within its borders, as it can’t risk having the Naxalites used by a hostile foreign party as a proxy element in Eastern India.
Bhutan As The New Sikkim
The tiny hermit-like Kingdom of Bhutan is very close with India and conducts most of its international interactions by means of this country. The problem, though, is that it’s right next to China, too, and the ultra-nationalists in power in India might overreact if Thimphu edges closer to Beijing for whatever reason it might eventually have, especially if this is done in response to New Delhi’s bullying. In that case, India might seek to engineer the same sort of annexation circumstances that it deployed in Sikkim in the 1970s in order to set the stage for its annexation out of the ‘zero-sum’ logic that this is the only alternative to prevent it from ‘falling to China’ (which was also the mentality that drove New Delhi to annex Sikkim). However, things might not go as smoothly as India anticipates, so it might have to use the pretext of anti-Indian separatist/terrorist groups hiding out in Bhutan’s lowlands (which has happened before in the 1990s) in order to militarily intervene in its affairs and as the first step to outright annexing it soon thereafter.
A Second Nepali Civil War
Nepal is near the edge of falling into a second civil war, albeit this time not between monarchists and communists (Maoists), but between the highlanders and lowlanders. The problem is that the country’s September 2015 constitution decreed that the unitary state would devolve into a federation, and the Indian-aligned (and mostly, Indian-originating, whether indigenously born or recently immigrated) “Madhesi” people almost immediately started rioting over their displeasure with the proposed borders. They wanted their lowland territory to be part of a single political latitudinal unit, not divvied up as part of several longitudinal ones that also incorporated the highland populations. The problem is especially acute because some reports state that the “Madhesi” comprise over 51% of the population, and India was accused of blockading the border in support of its compatriot proxies in order to pressure Kathmandu into changing the forthcoming federative delineations.
A compromise was eventually reached whereby some changes would be made, but it remains to be seen if they will be actualized in practice or not, which in essence would transform Nepal into an Identity Federation that would be de-facto partially controlled by India. The situation is very explosive and all sides have heated grievances that they’re on the verge of physically letting out, and the onset of a Second Nepali Civil War would subsequently create a crisis for Indian-Chinese relations as both sides rush to support their partners in the conflict. Nepal might find itself the hot proxy battleground for the Chinese-Indian Cold War, one which could very easily spill across either of their borders and by extension have very real domestic consequences for each Great Power. Due to what’s at stake, a Second Nepali Civil War could even precede a Second Sino-Indian War as well, however limited it might be.
Khalistan As The Next Kashmir?
The followers of the Sikh religion have long demanded enhanced autonomy within India, with some even going as far as to call for the creation of their own sub-national state of Khalistan in their native Punjabi homeland. This part of the country strategically straddles the Pakistani border and is thus an area of zero compromise for the central Indian authorities, unless, of course, the socio-political situation deteriorated so much that New Delhi was forced into a compromise. In the event that the Khalistan Movement relaunches a sustained campaign for their interests, it’s possible that India will overreact, seeing it as a Pakistani plot and Islamabad’s response to New Delhi’s none-too-subtle support for Baloch separatism.
The Indian government is already very sensitive to any serious public display of Sikh nationalism ever since supporters of this ideology assassinated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984, and the Indian people already have a track record of displaying a propensity for reactionary pogroms. Depending upon the course that a revived Sikh nationalist movement may take, especially one supported from abroad even if only by diplomatic-media means, there’s a chance that Khalistan could become the next Kashmir as the overreactive Indian state pours military troops into the restive border region and inadvertently sets into motion an uncontrollable domino effect that ultimately works against its own interests and sparks yet another proxy war with its neighboring adversary.
Brawling In Balochistan
Prime Minister Modi went out of his way to include Pakistani Balochistan during his speech on India’s 69th independence anniversary in a symbolic move which was universally understood to signify a major shift in Indian foreign policy, namely the support of Baloch separatism as a means of disrupting the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This marks the first time that India has so openly interfered in the affairs of its neighbor, and with Balochistan being of both strategic and existential significance for Pakistan, it can be seen as a declaration of asymmetrical war against both it and its Chinese partner, the latter of which is inordinately dependent on the province’s stability in order to ensure the viability of CPEC.
An escalation of violence in Balochistan could thus prompt some sort of direct or indirect Chinese response in support of Pakistan’s sovereignty and/or against India’s own domestic stability, and this could very easily progress to an unintentional outbreak of war on the subcontinent. As a more mild projection, however, Baloch unrest in Pakistan might spill across the border into the Iranian Province of Sistan and Baluchistan, which would then have the effect of endangering the Indian-financed North-South Corridor terminal of Chabahar and creating complications all the way ‘downstream’ of this logistics line. To varying degrees, this could produce a disruption of trade as far away as Russia and Western Europe, thus giving all tangential partners in this project a stake in what’s happening and motivating their involvement to resolve it.
Saraikistan Causes A Civil War In Pakistan
There’s a growing movement in Pakistan for the southern region of Punjab to be given its own state status within the country in order to counterbalance the prevailing (and some could say, overly dominant) influence of the Punjabi elite. Saraikistan, as the tentative entity would be called, could lead to a more equal distribution of political-administrative power within Pakistan, but consequently, it would also represent a fundamental transformation of the country’s existing structure due to the irreversible consequences that it would have. After nearly 70 years of exercising internal hegemony for better or for worse, Punjab would finally be ‘cut down to size’, leading to the dispersal of domestic decision making from the national center to the periphery and opening up space for an ‘anti-Punjab’ coalition of states.
Resultantly, calls might be made soon thereafter to codify the provinces’ newfound influence vis-à-vis Punjab’s formerly uncontested sway and devolve Pakistan into an Identity Federation, which in that case could considerably weaken it while simultaneously emboldening India to take more aggressive measures against its rival at precisely the time that it’s as its most vulnerable. The decentralization of Pakistan through the creation of Saraikistan state could therefore bring about the country’s full-fledged devolution, which might even kick start a military coup as the generals scramble to safeguard the country’s sovereignty in the face of expected aggression during this pivotal transitional period and/or precipitate an outbreak of civil war between the Punjabi centralists and the peripheral federalists (which in most cases would probably include Balochistan).
The Cotton Route
India feels endangered by China’s New Silk Road and is already devising a counterstrategy to compete with it, one which has previously been termed the “Cotton Route” and was explored more in detail in the author’s previous piece on this topic. India has few main geo-economic trajectories that it’s expected to concurrently pursue, starting with the east in ASEAN and moving clockwise towards Western Europe:
Modi evolved his predecessor’s “Look East” policy to one of “Act East”, and accordingly, has fleshed out a few tangible plans for how this could proceed. India is already pursuing the Trilateral Highway between itself, Myanmar, and Thailand which will directly connect the country to the ASEAN marketplace by means of the restive Northeastern Provinces, thus ironically foreshadowing how this historically neglected corner of India has now surprisingly become its vanguard launching pad for the future.
The BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) framework represents the overarching ambitions of India to consolidate its position within South Asia while integrating itself and its institutions more closely with Myanmar and Thailand, thus giving it a strong position in mainland ASEAN and formalizing its influence in the bloc.
The sub-regional BBIN (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal) initiative is meant to tighten the Indian hegemonic core in the region and secure New Delhi’s position in the event that it allows the Chinese-involved BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar) corridor to ever proceed in its neighborhood.
While all of this is going on, India would naturally also be pursuing maritime links to insular ASEAN, particularly its historical-cultural partner Indonesia, as it attempts to connect the two rising giants together in a system of complex economic mutual interdependency that could later augment a prospective anti-Chinese strategic-military alliance.
Indian Ocean Island Hopping:
Figuring prominently in India’s grand strategy is its ambitions to control or exercise decisive influence over all of the Indian Ocean island nations, which includes the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Seychelles, Comoros, and Madagascar. The two most closely located to the Indian mainland (Maldives and Sri Lanka) are already tied to New Delhi to varying but increasing extents, while the other three are scenes of competition between India and China, particularly Seychelles.
As part of its strategy to become a Great Power in the broadly extensive Indian Ocean Rimland, India will also embark on a massive naval modernization campaign which will probably be assisted by the US to a large degree. The whole purpose in achieving leadership in the seas and the islands is to control the Sea Lines Of Communications (SLOC) on which Chinese-European trade depends and complement the unipolar world’s obstructive anti-Chinese strategies in the South China Sea.
The Red Line:
The British Imperialists always dreamed of connecting northern and southern Africa with a rail line, but the modern-day Indian would much rather have China build such connective infrastructure projects and then just ‘piggyback’ on them for the ultimate cost-effective strategic benefit. Beijing is building up a system of international rail networks, specifically in the East African Community (EAC, which plans to integrate into a federation at an undetermined time in the future), which could be highly useful for India’s Cotton Route economic strategy.
Already a major trading partner for all of the East African nations, New Delhi could utilize Beijing’s investments in order to deepen its own influence and compete with China in its own New Silk Road nodes. With time, as the entire eastern part of Africa from Egypt to South Africa multidimensionally merges with the Indian-Pacific Ocean center of global gravity, India will likely take advantage of its position in order to further embed itself along the African ‘Red Line’ and attempt to turn all of its relevant countries into allies, potentially even against China.
The North-South Corridor:
Much has been discussed in Russia about the potential that the North-South Corridor has for benefiting pan-Eurasian integration, and if successfully completed, then South Asian and Western European trade would be linked together by means of Russia, Azerbaijan, and Iran. This is a wise move on behalf of India because it draws two Great Powers directly into its orbit and gives them an interest in supporting not only this project in particular, but also India more generally, especially as New Delhi increasingly readies itself for an asymmetrical face-off with China. Neither Russia nor Iran is expected to ‘choose sides’ between the two, but New Delhi probably attributes this less to wise pragmatism and more to their self-interested desire to equally profit from both the New Silk Road and the North-South Corridor.
Pashtunistan As Pakistan’s Weak Point
The Pashtuns are the most populous ethnic group in Afghanistan, but there are actually more of them living in Pakistan than anywhere else in the world. This is largely due to the arbitrary imperial-era Durand Line which was drawn to divide this (now) cross-border community over a century ago, and it’s still a lightning rod issue of controversy even in the present day. It’s an interesting fact that most of the Pakistani Taliban and the insurgents in general which operate out of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghan border are ethnic Pashtuns, demonstrating that ethno-nationalist desires might actually be just as strong of a driving force for them as extremist Islam is.
The scenario can thus be constructed whereby transnational Pashtun nationalism becomes a serious problem for Pakistan’s territorial integrity, especially if it’s covertly supported by Islamabad’s rivals in Kabul and New Delhi. Should India and Afghanistan team up in support of this venture and possibly even the one in Balochistan as well, then it would constitute a horrible nightmare for Pakistan and severely undercut the external projection of its power as it struggles to maintain its own territorial integrity amidst serious pressing threats against it. Pashtunistan is more important to Pakistan than Balochistan is principally because of the immediacy of the threat that it poses to the capital of Islamabad and the fact that it’s already been an active problem for some time already, but the merger of both crises into a singular strategy of anti-Pakistani destabilization would be the worst thing that could happen to the state.
Bangladesh Turns Into Bangla-Daesh
The overpopulated Muslim-majority country of Bangladesh has been under militant Islamist strain for the past year, with Daesh claiming responsibility for several high-profile terrorist attacks since last fall. The author forecast in an article last year for Sputnik how this South Asian country might turn into a new terrorist hotspot in the coming future, one which would immediately jeopardize the stability of India and pose a critical threat to the already restive Northeastern Provinces. One of the driving factors contributing to an even more uncertain future in the country is the political rivalry between Bangladesh’s two main parties, with each accusing the other of stoking unrest for political gains.
It objectively appears as though the Saudi-friendly (and possibly American-allied) opposition group might be working with these and other terrorists in order to undermine the government and create the conditions for a ‘democratic’ or violent regime change, so with such motivating factors, it’s not predicted that the terrorist threat will go away anytime soon.
Rather, the more unstable that Bangladesh becomes the more that it descends from a secular republic into an Islamifying terrorist-afflicted state, the greater its strategic utility becomes in being used as a tool of pressure or geopolitical blackmail against India. Bangladesh is also a key Chinese partner on the New Silk Road, so its domestic problems will by extent lead to international repercussions for Chinese grand strategy. If Bangladesh does indeed turn into Bangla-Daesh, then it might predictably throw the whole South Asian region into turmoil and affect all Bengali-inhabited areas even outside of its own borders (West Bengal, Tripura, Rakhine State).
Sri Lanka In Limbo
Despite finally defeating the Tamil Tiger separatists in 2009 after a bloody decades-long civil war, Sri Lanka is under pressure by its ‘Western partners’ to do more to integrate and assimilate the northern reaches of the recently reunified country. Although not yet suggested as a serious solution, this could obviously take on the form of federalist demands by the Tamils and their international patrons, especially India, which might see an advantage to having a perpetually pro-New Delhi proxy statelet inside the country. The southern Tamils of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu already have extensive cross-border contacts with their insular kin in Sri Lanka, so the devolution of this part of the island into a Tamil-run entity would inevitably work out to India’s favor in deepening its influence over its neighbor, with the driving desire being of course to prevent China from ever fully controlling the country (a thought which always manages to spook Indian strategists).
Political divisions between supporters of former President Rajapaksa and current leader Sirisena (seen as more Western- and Indian-friendly than his pro-Chinese predecessor) could create an opening for this to happen if it’s adroitly exploited in the ‘right’ direction. As Sri Lanka backtracks from the powerful centralized state that it was under Rajapaksa (who it must be said, only narrowly lost out to his rival in the 2015 elections) into one that could prospectively be more loosely decentralized and perhaps even federalized, identity divisions even deeper than the Tamil-Sinhalese one might spring back to the surface and cause an even wider rift within the country, undermining its stability and transforming it into a proxy battleground between India and China. A flare-up in violence here could negatively impact on southern India and create an unnecessarily distractive front of attention for New Delhi to focus on at a time when it’s more concerned about dismantling Pakistan by proxy and “Acting East” to counter China.
The Proxy War To End All Proxy Wars
India and Pakistan appear to be on an unmovable collision course, though not necessarily one in which they ever clash directly. Rather, each side is poised to support a scattering of separatist movements within the other in an all-out proxy war to existentially dismantle their rival and forever remove them from the geopolitical playing field. This turn of events could rightly be described as among the most dangerous and globally disruptive because of what’s at stake, and it has the very real potential of drawing in other Great Powers as the entire world competes for the geostrategic spoils of South Asia.
On the one hand, Pakistan could promote insurgencies in Khalistan, the Seven Sisters, and among the Naxalites, while India could do the same with Balochistan and Pashtunistan.
The Chinese-Indian Cold War that’s incipiently been heating up over the past year will also figure prominently into India and Pakistan’s mutual desire to dismantle the other, with this superficially bilateral asymmetrical conflict broadening to include China and therefore bringing all of South Asia into play. India and Afghanistan might align themselves against China and Pakistan, and the simmering situations in Nepal and Myanmar could prove themselves to be actual ‘hot war’ battlespaces in which New Delhi and Beijing’s proxies would spar. This would make the entire Himalayan border region between them just as tense and potentially even as militarized as the DMZ between North and South Korea. Along the subcontinental periphery, Sri Lanka is an uncertainty at this moment, while Bangladesh is the ultimate wild card since it could descend into Bangla-Daesh and totally shuffle up the strategic deck of cards.
The Maldives, Seychelles, and Comoros would be important because of their SLOC function in facilitating Indian-Chinese trade from Asia to Europe, though because of this, each Asian Great Power’s nascent navy will engage in a different manner of competition over them as they experiment with new forms of power projection. China would be especially disadvantaged due to the geographic distance in which it would have to operate, though India’s navy is comparably lesser equipped to do so even in its own ‘home region’, so the odds might in that sense be equalized. East Africa would represent the future resource and market base for both sides, but it probably wouldn’t be the scene of any intense conflict-prone rivalry between them, despite being key to both of their long-term sustainable futures.
In a sense, the strategic setup in South Asia and the broader Indian Ocean Rimland somewhat resembles Europe on the eve of World War I, including with the Africa being a peripheral location of rivalry though nevertheless an important contributor to the events that later broke out. Given this balance of forces and the predicted regional alignment, it’s envisioned that the US and Russia would act as the ultimate balancers between India and China, with Moscow being much better positioned to do this than Washington due to the near-equal trust that it’s cultivated with both sides. The US is partial and clearly backs India, while Russia doesn’t play any such games, though the US would ideally like to create a series of controversies that weaken Russian-Indian relations in advance of this grand proxy face-off and thus divides the future conflict into the clearly discernable camps of Russia-China and US-India. Therefore, even though it won’t affect them directly, Russia and the US could be said to possibly be two of the most important actors in this entire conflict because of the unique roles that they might play by means of India and China, thus in a sense making a Chinese-Indian Cold War in the Indian Ocean Rimland carry heavy overtones of a Russian-American one.
By Andrew Korybko