By Prabasi Nepali
The West Bengal Chief Minister, Ms. Mamata Bannerji has unnecessarily precipitated a major political crisis in the northern part of the state by demanding by executive order that Bengali be taught as a compulsory language in all schools of the district. For the people of this pseudo-autonomous region this is indeed too much to stomach. The children already have to study Hindi, English and Nepali (their mother tongue and one of India’s 14 official national languages). Bengali, although one of India’s finest literary languages would be an untoward burden. The people of the district have, therefore, resurrected their agitation for their own state of “Gorkhaland”, autonomous from West Bengal.
However, Darjeeling District is strategically situated in the very sensitive north-eastern region of the Indian Union. It is part of the “Chicken’s Neck” – centrally located between Nepal and Bhutan in the West-East Axis, and between Sikkim and Bangladesh in the North-South Axis. In the South Asian landmass, it is vital for India’s transport and communications to its north-eastern regions, primarily Assam and Arunachal Pradesh (which is disputed territory, and China insists in calling it ‘Southern Tibet’), and also to Sikkim with the only two border crossings of Nathu La and Gelep La (La= Pass). Thus, considering its strategic importance, it is inconceivable that the ‘babus’ of India’s external affairs and defence ministries will tolerate the creation of a second Nepali/Gorkhali Indian state of the union (after Sikkim) in one its most sensitive border areas.
However, there is one road towards autonomy if the leaders of ‘Gorkhaland’ are capable of strategic thinking. If they are capable of sacrificing their own egos and are capable of a larger vision, they could strive for a union with the neighbouring state of Sikkim, while at the same time preserving their own traits. This would be an acceptable and elegant solution for the central government as it would not impinge on the security situation.
In the meantime, the West Bengal government has worsened the already tense situation by slapping (trumped up) murder charges against Gorkhali leader Bimal Gurung (and former head of the “Gorkhaland Territorial Administration) and his wife. In addition, it has attempted to out perform its former colonial/imperial British masters by adopting a modern/Bengali form of ‘divide and rule’: establishing 15 [!] separate development boards for the various sub-ethnic groups of the Gorkhalis (Lepcha, Bhutia, Tamang, Gurung, etc., etc., just to undermine the “Gorkhaland Territorial Administration” (which in any case is now in limbo). Until and unless the central government intervenes, a long period of agitation is on the cards.
Persian Gulf Crisis Escalates
Last week, the crisis in the Persian Gulf initiated by the Saudi Arabia-led ‘coalition’ and comprising also Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt (although not a Gulf state) escalated further by the 13-point demands of the ‘Gang of Four’ on the tiny emirate of Qatar. It is now no longer a major ‘diplomatic’ crisis, but an illegal trade blockade, contrary to international law. The air, sea, and land (the only one to Saudi Arabia) Qatari routes have also been blocked three weeks, although the states concerned have not had the guts to block international access to Qatar.
The list of demands also includes a call for Qatar to shut down the independent cable network “Al Jazeera” based in the capital Doha, which has been a pain in the neck for the autocratic regimes in the Middle East. Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s state minister for foreign affairs, has warned that Doha that it faces “divorce” from its Gulf neighbours unless it takes their demands seriously. Qatar has only conceded that it has received a paper on June 22 containing demands from the “siege” countries and Egypt and that it is currently studying this paper, the demands contained therein and the foundations on which they were based, in order to prepare an appropriate response, according to a statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On Saturday, Qatar rejected the demands as unrealistic, calling the blockade illegal. Qatar insists that “it is about limiting Qatar’s sovereignty and outsourcing our foreign policy”. US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson has now attempted to take a different course from his own president by negotiating between Doha and Riyadh and requesting a lowering of rhetoric to help ease the tension. The future of a huge and strategic US air base in Qatar now hangs in the balance.
As well as the closure of Al Jazeera, a long-standing source of conflict between Doha and neighbouring countries (especially autocracies) which accuse it of fermenting regional strife, the wide-ranging list makes other demands on Qatar. These include calls for Doha to cut any ties to Islamist (extremist) groups including the Muslim Brotherhood (principally in Egypt), the Islamic State organization, Al-Qaeda, Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement, and the Gaza-based Hamas. Qatar has also been pressurized to hand over opposition figures residing in Qatar and wanted by its three neighbours and Egypt, downgrade diplomatic ties with Iran and shut a Turkish military base in the emirate.
Al-Jazeera, one of the largest news organizations in the world, said that it “deplores” calls for it to be taken off the air. It has also denounced the move as an attack on press freedom: “We in the network believe that any call for closing down Al Jazeera is nothing but an attempt to silence the freedom of expression in the region and to suppress people’s right to information.”
In the meantime, the United Nations has offered to step in to help resolve the deepening crisis. UN spokeswomen Eri Kaneko hoped that the countries involved could resolve the situation through dialogue; however “we are ready to assist if requested by the parties.” Earlier this week, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres had been adamant that Kuwait was best placed to lead efforts to defuse the crisis.
Now, besides Iran, a second major regional power has come to the aid of Qatar – Turkey, a NATO member situated in the trat treaty organisation’s eastern flank. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has categorically rejected the demand by the coalition of four Arab states to remove Turkish troops from Qatar, saying their sweeping list of ultimatums has threatened the small Persian Gulf country’s sovereignty. It was “disrespectful” both to Qatar and also Turkey. The region’s would be numero uno Saudi Arabia (and close US ally) is now in a tight spot.
United States-China Cooperation on North Korea in Limbo?
Last week, US President Donald Trump was resigned to the fact that China could/would not use its leverage in North Korea to deter the regime in its nuclear ambitions. He then tweeted that China’s efforts to use its muscle had not succeeded, raising fresh doubts about his administration’s strategy from countering the threat from North Korea – not only for the US, but also for Japan and South Korea. The death of American student Otto Warmbier last week, after his release (in a coma) from 17 months of apparently brutal imprisonment in Pyongyang, highlighted the merciless nature of the regime, and further complicated Trump’s approach to North Korea.
At the same time, talks at a very high level in Washington managed to reach agreement – at least on paper. The US represented by the secretaries of state and defence (Rex Tillerson and Gen Jim Mattis), and the Chinese delegation consisting of top Chinese diplomats and defence chiefs – State Counsellor Yang Jiechi and General Fang Fenghui, among others – reached consensus and reaffirmed that “they will strive for the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.” Before the joint talks, Tillerson had insisted that the United States had pressed China to ramp up economic and political pressure on North Korea. This is easier said than done, because although North Korea is fully dependent on China for its primary needs, China cannot risk regime collapse, as a democratic reunification of the Koreas would not be in its strategic interests.
The consensus document also highlighted the need to fully and strictly hold to UN Security Council resolutions and push for dialogue and negotiation, which has long been China’s position on the issue. However, lack of any progress has frustrated the Americans. China has been accused of not fully enforcing existing UN sanctions on its neighbour, and even resisting some tougher measures. Consequently, Washington has considered further “secondary sanctions” against Chinese banks and other firms doing business with North Korea, which China, of course, opposes.
US relations with ally South Korea are also troubled, further muddling the political equation. Huge demonstrations have protested against Trump, accusing him of “forcing” South Korea to deploy the controversial American defence system – Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD). China also opposes the deployment, as it would compromise its own defence structure. Protestors say THAAD poses health and environmental hazards and the deployment area would be the primary North Korean target. South Korea’s new president Moon Jae-in heads to Washington this week and will have his work cut out.
Gorkhaland Up in Arms
By Prabasi Nepali