Category Archives: General

The Elephant in the Room: India’s Relations with South Asia

To say that India’s relationship with its neighbors has never been fraught with tension, would be an understatement. While India has been a major power in South Asia due to its strategic position, China’s increasing presence and influence in South Asia has led to concerns about New Delhi’s rising presence in the region. Another important player in South Asia—the United States—has its own concerns about China and considers India as an important strategic partner.

India – U.S. relations have recently turned sour on matters of trade. Furthermore, several South Asian countries have been strengthening their relationship with China. In an interview with Akshobh Giridharadas, a consultant with the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, USINPAC discussed India’s foreign policy vis-à-vis its neighbors and analyzed the U.S. – India relationship and its impact on India’s diplomatic position in South Asia.

India’s Foreign Policy Vis-à-Vis its Neighbors

The Modi Doctrine or the Foreign Policy of the Modi government, has had its fair share of ups and downs. Recent events in the Maldives, as well as Nepal’s overtures to China, have concerned India watchers, who believe that Indian influence is being challenged in its own neighborhood. However, the picture is much more complicated.

Akshobh Giridharadas explains that although there have been several challenges in India’s foreign policy towards its neighboring countries, the Modi Government has been cognizant of the importance of India’s neighborhood. “One of the things that Modi mentioned was that neighborhood was his first priority,” Girdharadas said, “Modi’s first visits after taking office were to Nepal and Bhutan and not to the US or the UK.”

However, Giridharadas stressed that the Indo-Nepal Relationship does require special care. He said that India and Nepal’s relationship is often overlooked for several reasons. First and foremost, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is one of the least integrated areas in the world. An economic and geopolitical union of South Asian nations, SAARC has been encumbered by water disputes, trade disputes and even problems of security. India and Nepal, both happen to be members of SAARC. Furthermore, the presence of nuclear states such as Pakistan and China, in India’s neighborhood often overshadows other relations.

Although India’s foreign policy may understand the importance of its neighborhood, it does not always cater to them. “It is often said that SAARC as a region is very big brother dominated neighborhood and smaller countries like Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives don’t necessarily get a chance to voice their concerns,” Girdharadas said.

“In this context, India’s relationship with Nepal is often haloed, and it looks like everything is going very well, although the relationship with Nepal needs special care,” Giridharadas said.

Giridharadas also talked about India’s relationship with its other neighbors including Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. He commented that although India and Sri Lanka have a special relationship, recent and past events, such as the new Chinese ran Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, have affected the relationship. Giridharadas also noted that under the Awami League, Bangladesh has pursued closer relations with India. However, the Indo-Bangladesh dispute over sharing the waters of transboundary river Teesta caused an “overall belief that India needs to engage more with Bangladesh,” Giridharadas stated.

The Dragon in the Room

The importance of Chinese influence in South Asia cannot be underestimated, neither can the importance of India’s relationship with China. Both countries are rapidly growing economies, members of the G20, and both are nuclear powers. Additionally, “Modi and Xi are some of the most popular and influential leaders in India and China respectively.” Giridharadas said, “So, both Modi and Xi have been making their presence felt on the foreign stage.”

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been very keen on pursuing closer economic ties with China. Giridharadas looked back on Modi’s visits to China when he was still the Chief Minister of Gujarat. As the Chief Minister, Modi visited several Chinese provinces and invited several Chinese companies to contribute to his Vibrant Gujarat Summits. However, other aspects of the Sino-Indo relationship have made New Delhi wary of Beijing. “Of course you have the Doklam standoff of 2017, which evoked memories of the 1962 war.” Giridharadas said, “ Thus, there has been an overhanging cloud as to whether China can be trusted.”

India has been very concerned about China’s Belt and Road Initiative and a Chinese “String of Pearls” The String of Pearls theory refers to a network of Chinese developed and run facilities in strategic locations in the Indian Ocean. The Hambantota Port is seen as one such strategic facility. Another controversial project, part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative has been the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which runs through the contentious Kashmir region.
Girdharadas noted that while New Delhi is not too happy with the China – Pakistan collusively, India has its own trade relations and barriers with China. Furthermore, “the Wuhan summit has helped in resetting the relationship.” Giridharadas said.

India’s willingness to work on Sino-Indian ties was demonstrated during the Shangri La Summit. “Even though James Mattis tore into China during the Shangri – La summit, Modi reiterated that he was optimistic about working with China,” Girdharadas said.

Where does the U.S. Fit In?

In addition to big brothers like China and India, South Asia has been of considerable interest to the United States as well. “The U.S. looks at India as a democratic counterweight to China, even though experts in India and China do not see India as a counterweight to China in the same sense,” Giridharadas said. Giridharadas expanded on this by explaining that the foreign policy coming out of India has always included unilateral engagement with everyone, including countries such as the United States, China, and Russia without being subversive to anyone. In fact, India has always been wary of power blocs given its legacy of the Non-Alignment Movement. “The fact that India is developing its unilateral relationship with China should not be seen as a snub to America and vice-versa,” Giridharadas said.

However, the U.S.-India trade relations have been frosty, but Girdharadas believes that matters of trade aside, the U.S. continues to view India as a strong strategic partner since both countries share some common ideas, concerns, and democratic ideals and values as well. Giridharadas stated the example of Canada and the recent U.S.-Canada trade disputes. “It is not a Washington-Delhi problem, but a Washington problem,” Giridharadas said. “Yes, India and the U.S. will disagree on various aspects of trade, but this will not stop a robust India – US relationship.”

India and the U.S. have become increasingly concerned about China’s influence in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific. Other common interests include security and defense. Thus, in recent years India has been purchasing more weapons and increasing military cooperation with the U.S.

Giridharadas credited the Indian diplomacy for maintaining a strong U.S.-India relationship. “India’s diplomacy has always been that we will work with whoever is in power and it is a credit to them and Prime Minister Modi that they have continued to work very well with the US under two very different administrations – i.e., the Obama Administration and the Trump Administration,” Giridharadas said.

An improved US- India relationship and India’s Neighborhood

Having a paramount relationship with the U.S. can definitely help India gain diplomatic ground in its neighborhood, especially amongst smaller countries in the region. However, Giridharadas cautioned that a strong U.S.-India relationship would propel Pakistan closer to China.

“There is a saying, ‘Everyone wants the U.S. as its friends, but no one wants China as its enemy,” Girdhardas said. Yet, the Indian diplomacy has the potential to dispel tensions with China caused by a close U.S.-India strategic partnership. India believes in unilateral engagement with everyone in the region without compromising on its own interests.

“There will be no adverse effects or long-term setbacks to the strategic partnership between the U.S. and India,” Giridharadas said.


Akshobh Giridharadas is a consultant for the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. A journalist by profession, Giridharadas was based out of Singapore as a reporter and producer with Channel News Asia, Singapore covering international business news. He writes on diverse topics such as geopolitics, business, tech and sports. His previous endeavors include working at ESPN STAR and FOX networks. He is a TEDx and Toastmasters public speaker and is currently at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts specializing in international affairs.

Spouses of H1-B Visas May Be Without Jobs Soon

Last week USINPAC covered the problem many Indian-American children face with aging out of their H-4 visas before their high-skilled professional parents can gain green card status. Unfortunately, spouses of H1-B visa holders who hold H4 EAD visas may also start facing problems soon because of the “Buy American and Hire American” executive order President Trump signed April of last year to protect the interest of US workers while also preventing fraud or abuse of working visas. With the “Buy American and Hire American” order signed, the Department of Homeland Security has stated plans to end the H4 EAD work permit program to comply with President Trump’s executive order.

The H4 EAD work permit program was put into place by President Obama in 2015 to allow spouses of high-skilled workers to seek and hold employment of their own. Since 2015 there have been a little over 100,000 H4 EAD visas given out, mostly to women, but currently, only 41,500 holders of H4 EAD visas are in the workforce. With H4 EAD visa holders just making up 3 percent of the total amount of foreign workers with visas, it seems more like a form of bullying on the Department of Homeland Security’s part than trying to prevent fraud or abuse of the system. Over half of the owners of H4 EAD visas are not currently in the workforce, and with the other 41,500 making up only 3 percent of foreign workers with visas, it seems like there is little fraudulent or abusive activity going on.

With the current labor shortage in the United States, H4 EAD visa holders should be welcomed, not prevented from working. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are currently 6.7 million unfilled positions in the United States and an unemployment rate of just 3.8 percent. H4 EAD visa holders are not “stealing” jobs from Americans, they are helping fill in spots where labor is needed. Taking the ability for spouses of H1-B visas away will hurt families and may cause some to have to rethink settling in the United States for financial reasons.

Taking away the ability to work for H4 EAD visa holders seems to be more of a ply for praise from the Trump administration rather than complying with the “Buy American and Hire American” executive order. A small group of working immigrants and their families will be hurt if the Department of Homeland Security follows through with putting an end to allowing spouses of highly-skilled workers to gain a working visa of their own.

Department of Homeland Security was supposed to have a ruling about the H4 EAD visas by June 2018, but as June has come and gone H4 EAD visa holders continue to wait as their fate is decided for them.

India’s Institutional Educational Problem

For years the United States has seen an influx of students from around the world seeking the benefits of one of the world’s best higher education systems. For the last decade and a half, this wave of Saudi Arabians, Chinese and African students has been accompanied by a growing number of eager Indians. However, even with the large Indian student population in this country, there is still almost no diversity in their educational and career goals. Indian undergraduates and postgraduates are focusing solely on STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, and Business), and leaving other specialties (social science, humanities, education, etc.) to the wayside. This narrow focus on education is systematic. It is engrained in the very nature of a country that does not currently show the balanced, well-rounded academics required to become an educational power.

For the last few years, the United States embassy in Delhi, as well as its consulates in various cities around the subcontinent have opened their doors to Indian students looking to study abroad in what has been named “Visa Day.” During this year’s event, more than 4,000 students from around India arrived in the hopes of receiving visas to study in the United States. With 186,000 Indian students already in the United States, India boasts the second largest contingent of study abroad students, behind only China. In fact, this population of students is more than double the amount from just one decade ago.

However, more than 70% of these students are choosing a STEM path, leaving only a small percentage to pursue other educational fields. Further, the percentages of Indian students undertaking subjects such as fine arts, humanities, and social sciences are far below the global average of international students from other countries. Clearly, Indian students traveling to the United States do not value the American educational focus on these social and cultural fields of study. This is an issue not only for those students who come to the US seeking higher education but also for those students back in India. Indian students simply remain enthralled with and focused on pursuing STEM subjects. This needs to change.

It is important for Indians, both abroad and within the subcontinent, to realize that there is valuable education to be had beyond a STEM program. Other subjects can go a long way in not only diversifying the educational system in India but in making its student’s more well-rounded and complete individuals.

Very recently, USINPAC hosted a delegation from India, consisting of professionals and experts of the Indian education system. Most, if not all of them, echoed the same sentiment. It is time for Indians at home and abroad to embrace a diverse system of education. It will only benefit its students in the long run.

There is no denying the strength of Indian students studying science or technology or business. India boasts one of, if not the world’s strongest student and professional networks in these fields. However, it is in these other aspects of education (social science, art, culture, politics) that India has fallen behind. If the subcontinent wants to offer the most balanced, educated and diverse candidates, it is important that it begins to promote these other subjects as equally important to a STEM curriculum.

It is about time for Indian generations to realize that studying social science or a humanity does not hinder job opportunities. It provides Indian students with a more worldly and balanced education. Students in most other successful countries have already started to accept and embrace this diverse education system. India needs to catch up. It will make Indian students more competitive and prepared for jobs not only in the United States but also everywhere else in the world, no matter the field of study. Education is more than an investment into getting a job in and making the most money in a STEM field. It is about preparing students for success in the real world, whether it be in a job or in a social setting. It is about time that Indian students embrace this, be it in the United States or in India. It starts with a systematic change in mindset.

All statistics courtesy of:

https://factly.in/texas-california-new-york-still-favourite-states-indian-students/

Indian Women Abroad Are Not Exempt From Gender Based Violence

In 2012, the Nirbhaya rape case shook the world with its barbarity and left Indians, both in India and abroad, reeling. However, almost half a decade after the incident, even as #metoo dominates social media and news, gender-based violence continues to affect women not only in India but also in the Indian communities abroad.

According to a report published by the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence, 54% of Asian women in the US (including immigrants) have experienced some form of sexual violence. The report also cites a study of 143 survivors of domestic violence in the United States, in which 64% of Indian and Pakistani women reported experiencing sexual violence by an intimate partner. However, these numbers may not accurately represent the true extent of gender-based violence. Some women and men may not report domestic and sexual violence because of cultural norms, social stigma, lack of financial support and even their visa status.

Domestic violence, in particular, is a well- known secret in many Indian households regardless of their prosperity. In April 2017, the Indian American community in the Silicon Valley was shocked when a prominent member of the community was accused and proved guilty of charges of domestic abuse. In January 2018, a woman of Indian – Caribbean origin was found murdered in New York, she was a victim of domestic abuse as well.

In addition to domestic and sexual abuse, some Non-Resident Indians have been accused of deserting their Indian wives. Many of these “abandoned wives” have had to face social humiliation in their villages and hometowns. Furthermore, lack of proper paperwork, insufficient finances, and social pressure does not allow these women to take actions against the “husbands” who have abandoned them and may already have families abroad. However, gender-based violence against women often manifests itself even before a child is born. In India and amongst different Indian communities abroad, the preference for a son has continued. In India, sex-selective abortions and female infanticides are a big problem, especially in states like Haryana and Punjab. There is also fear that sex-selective abortions and female foeticides may be occurring amongst Indian communities abroad.

The impact of gender-based violence can be long-lasting and does not only affect women, but also entire communities. For example, female foeticides and sex-selective abortions in communities may create shortages in the labor force and even lead to a “shortage” of brides in the community. This, in turn, may create a hostile environment for the surviving women, and may even increase the risk of human trafficking and forced marriages to fulfill the demands of society with the gender imbalance. The women in such environments may then also face other forms of gender-based violence such as domestic and sexual violence.

However, efforts have been made both in India as well as amongst Indian communities abroad to create avenues for women to seek help and report crimes committed against them. The Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi recently announced that all NRI marriages solemnized in India would have to be registered within 48 hours, to ensure the safety of women who marry NRIs and reduce the chances of their abandonment.

USINPAC had the pleasure of hosting a diverse delegation of experts and advocates in the field of combating gender-based violence in India and abroad. Not only did that delegation provide insight into the vile and disparaging issues that arise from gender violence and harassment, it showed that more needs to be done, both in India and outside of it. USINPAC looks forward to raising awareness of this issue.

For Indian women abroad, language barriers, racism, and visa status may create additional hurdles to getting proper help. There are several South Asian women’s help groups and NGOs, such as ASHA for Women, Sakhi, and Manavi that can assist Indian women in the United States.

Other resources available include:

National Domestic Violence Hotline
1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7233)
1-800-787-3224 (TTY)
www.ndvh.org

National Sexual Assault Hotline of the Rape, Abuse
and Incest National Network (RAINN)
1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673)
www.rainn.org

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678)
www.missingkids.com

The National Center for Victims of Crime
1-800-FYI-CALL (1-800-394-2255)
1-800-211-7996 (TTY)
www.ncvc.org