1. The sail that Indian diplomacy, statecraft need
Striking the right balance between continental and maritime security will enable India’s long-term security interests
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosts the five Central Asia leaders at the Republic Day Parade on January 26, it will send a strong signal — of the new prominence of the Central Asian region in India’s security calculations. In 2015, Mr. Modi visited all the five Central Asian states. Recently, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar also hosted their Central Asian counterparts in Delhi. The collapse of American military power in Afghanistan, the subsequent takeover of Kabul by the Taliban and the consequent rise in the influence of Pakistan and China are developments of high concern for India’s continental security interests.
While the Republic Day invitation is significant symbolically, in substance, however, hard work lies ahead. India’s continental strategy, in which the Central Asian region is an indispensable link, has progressed intermittently over the past two decades — promoting connectivity, incipient defence and security cooperation, enhancing India’s soft power and boosting trade and investment. It is laudable, but as is now apparent, it is insufficient to address the broader geopolitical challenges engulfing the region.
Focus on Eurasia
China’s assertive rise, the precipitous withdrawal of forces of the United States/North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from Afghanistan, the rise of Islamic fundamentalist forces, the changing dynamics of the historic stabilising role of Russia (most recently in Kazakhstan) and related multilateral mechanisms — the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, and the Eurasian Economic Union — have all set the stage for a sharpening of the geopolitical competition on the Eurasian landmass. This competition is marked by a weaponisation of resource and geographical access as a form of domination, practised by China and other big powers. To meet this challenge, evolving an effective continental strategy for India will be a complex and long-term exercise.
Some course correction
India’s maritime vision and ambitions have grown dramatically during the past decade, symbolised by its National Maritime Strategy, the Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) initiative for the Indian Ocean Region and major initiatives relating to the Indo-Pacific and the Quad, in which maritime security figures prominently. This was perhaps an overdue correction to the historic neglect of India’s maritime power. It was also a response to the dramatic rise of China as a military power. It may also be a by-product of the oversized influence over our think-tank community of Anglo-Saxon strategic thinking, which has tended to emphasise the maritime dimensions of China’s military rise more than others.
The U.S. is a pre-eminent naval power, even more so in the Indo-Pacific region, and defines its strategic preferences in the light of its own strengths. That said, maritime security is important to keeping sea lanes open for trade, commerce and freedom of navigation, resisting Chinese territorial aggrandisement in the South China Sea and elsewhere, and helping littoral states resist Chinese bullying tactics in interstate relations. However, maritime security and associated dimensions of naval power are not sufficient instruments of statecraft as India seeks diplomatic and security constructs to strengthen deterrence against Chinese unilateral actions and the emergence of a unipolar Asia.
The Chinese willingness and capacity for military intervention and power projection are growing far beyond its immediate region. Its rise is not merely in the maritime domain. It is expanding on the Eurasian continent — its Belt and Road Initiative projects in Central Asia up to Central and Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, undercutting traditional Russian influence, its gaining access to energy and other natural resources, and its dependency-creating investments, cyber and digital penetration and expanding influence among political and economic elites across the continent. The American military footprint has shrunk dramatically on the core Eurasian landmass, though it has a substantial military presence on the continental peripheries. Bulwarks against Chinese maritime expansionist gains are relatively easier to build and its gains easier to reverse than the long-term strategic gains that China hopes to secure on continental Eurasia. Like Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) centrality is key to the Indo-Pacific, centrality of the Central Asian states should be key for Eurasia.
Border, connectivity issues
India’s partition and the emergence over the past six decades of a persistent two-front threat from Pakistan and China set the stage for a tough continental dimension of our security. There is increased militarisation of the borders with Pakistan and China, with the Ladakh sector now increasingly looking like it will see permanent deployment on the Siachen Glacier. India has been subject for over five decades to a land embargo by Pakistan that has few parallels in relations between two states that are technically not at war. Connectivity means nothing when access is denied through persistent neighbouring state hostility contrary to the canons of international law.
Difficulties have arisen in operationalising an alternative route — the International North-South Transport Corridor on account of the U.S.’s hostile attitude towards Iran. It may appear strange that while we join the U.S. and others in supporting the right of freedom of navigation in the maritime domain, we do not demand with the same force the right of India to conduct interstate trade, commerce, and transit along continental routes — be it through the lifting of Pakistan’s blockade on transit or the lifting of U.S. sanctions against transit through Iran into Eurasia. With the recent Afghan developments, India’s physical connectivity challenges with Eurasia have only become starker. The marginalisation of India on the Eurasian continent in terms of connectivity must be reversed.
Where the U.S. stands
The ongoing U.S.-Russia confrontation relating to Ukraine, Russian opposition to future NATO expansion and the broader questions of European security including on the issue of new deployment of intermediate-range missiles, following the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty will have profound consequences for Eurasian security. This comes against the background of an ongoing U.S. review of its global military commitments. While the U.S. had over 2,65,000 troops under its European command in 1992, it now has about 65,000. Even with the rise of China’s military power, over the past decade, the U.S. which had about 1,00,000 troops in the early 1990s under what is now called the Indo-Pacific Command, currently has about 90,000 troops mostly committed to the territorial defence of Japan and South Korea. The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has undergone a major transformation during the last decade; it had about 1,70,000 troops a decade ago (related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), but has less than 10,000 personnel now.
The bottom line is clear – the U.S. would be severely stretched if it wanted to simultaneously increase its force levels in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. Successive waves of post-Cold War NATO expansion only increased overall insecurity, with the potential to create for the U.S. the mother of all quagmires. A major conflict — if it erupts in Central Europe, pitting Russia, Ukraine and some European states — will stall any hopes of a substantial U.S. military pivot to the Indo-Pacific. Geopolitics may be fractured but always add up globally. Russia and China do not need to be alliance partners to allow for coordinated actions relating to Taiwan or Donbas, as such coordination would flow from the very logic of the strategic conundrum that the U.S. now finds itself in. In the same vein, European NATO powers dependent on the U.S. can do only so much for strengthening security in the Indo-Pacific. Their engagement with the Indo-Pacific is welcome but we should not only be cognisant of the limitations of geography, obvious gaps between strategic ambition and capacity but also the inherently different standpoints of how major maritime powers view critical questions of continental security. India is unique as no other peer country has the same severity of challenges on both the continental and maritime dimensions.
Be assertive about rights
Going forward, it is clear India will not have the luxury of choosing one over the other; we would need to acquire strategic vision and deploy the necessary resources to pursue our continental interests without ignoring our interests in the maritime domain. This will require a more assertive push for our continental rights — namely that of transit and access, working with our partners in Central Asia, with Iran and Russia (not that we have many other options), and a more proactive engagement with economic and security agendas ranging from the SCO, Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Stabilising Afghanistan is a necessary but not a sufficient condition.
Striking the right balance between continental and maritime security would be the best guarantor of our long-term security interests. But this will not be easy as we would need to work with different partners on different agendas even while their geopolitical contradictions play out in the open. India will need to define its own parameters of continental and maritime security consistent with its own interests. In doing so, at a time of major geopolitical change, maintaining our capacity for independent thought and action (namely strategic autonomy) will help our diplomacy and statecraft navigate the difficult landscape and the choppy waters that lie ahead.
2. Amendments that are unnecessary
Why a national database of registered births and deaths is not required
The Central government had invited comments on the proposed amendments to the Registration of Births and Deaths Act, 1969 (RBD Act). One major proposal is to prepare a national database of registered births and deaths. This is intended to be used to update, for every birth and death, the databases created in accordance with many other laws, such as the National Population Register, voter list and Aadhaar database.
Under the RBD Act, it is the responsibility of the States to register births and deaths. State governments have set up facilities for registering births and deaths and keeping records. A Chief Registrar appointed in every State is the executive authority for implementation of the Act. A hierarchy of officials at the district and lower levels do the work. The Registrar General of India (RGI), appointed under this Act, is responsible for coordinating and unifying the implementation of the RBD Act.
Information on registered births and deaths is now stored in State-level databases using a unified software in many States. This system enables citizens to easily obtain the required services. It also helps prevent fake registrations and errors. Birth and death registers also include some personal information about the child born, the child’s parents, and the deceased. In addition, some information required for demographic studies is also collected during registration. This information is not included in the register and is used only to collate vital statistics.
On registration of a birth or death, the information can automatically go to the concerned authorities. However, one has to examine the need for each birth and death to be communicated to other databases. It may be important for a population register to get that information instantaneously. For other databases, it may be enough to get that information on a monthly or even annual basis. For example, the election authorities may require the list of deaths only once in six months or so for removing dead persons from the database. Cancellation of passports or driving licences on the death of the holder is not very important as they cannot be misused that easily.
In all cases where instantaneous updating is not necessary, the concerned databases should collect the information from the best source. Whether it should be collected from the birth and death database is an important question. The address in the birth and death database may be different from the current or permanent address of the mother or deceased. The mother may have gone to her parent’s place for delivery and that address may have been recorded while admitting her in a hospital. Similarly, many people are admitted to hospitals in the city where they may have a temporary contact address. It is this that gets recorded in the hospital and in the death register. So, some data item, like the Aadhaar number, is necessary to link the information with other databases.
In an ideal situation, a birth and death database need not interact with any database other than a population database. This is because a population database will have all the information, like date and place of occurrence of the birth or death and names of the parents/deceased, that may be required by other databases.
A proposal is to include the Aadhaar number, if available, as one piece of information to be reported while reporting a birth or death, by amending Section 8 of the Act. This is an unnecessary amendment as the Aadhaar number can be included in the forms used for reporting births or deaths. Having already directed the States to include the Aadhaar number of the deceased in the death reporting form, it is not clear why it is necessary to amend the Act for its inclusion.
State governments maintain databases of births and deaths, some of which are manually done now. Information required for updating other databases for each birth and death can be directly given from the State-level database. Extracting part of the information therein to create a national database to be maintained by the RGI appears an unnecessary duplication and will only create an intermediate administrative layer without any value addition.
The databases maintained by the States now may not follow the same structure for various data items. I am not sure whether they all follow the same standard even for writing the names of individuals. For example, the names of many people in Kerala and Tamil Nadu have the name of the family and father’s name preceding the first name of the person while many databases use the first name/middle name/surname format.
The Central government should prescribe standards for data items in the birth and death database maintained by the State governments. This is necessary even if a national database of births and deaths is to be created. These standards should be common for other databases. This would make it easier to communicate information automatically to other databases. The cultural diversity across the country should be kept in mind while prescribing standards so that the citizens are not hassled later on.
There is a proposal that the RBD Act mention that information from the national database would be used to update the Population Register, Aadhaar database, passport database, etc. and that the birth and death certificates issued under this Act should be taken as evidence of date and place of birth for issuing Aadhaar cards, passports and driving licence, for enrolling in voter’s list or for school admission. These are unnecessary provisions. The law for each of these databases can specify whether the information contained in the birth and death register should be used for a particular purpose. It may be noted that till recently, the instructions regarding application for a passport contained a provision that only birth certificates issued by the Registrar of Births and Deaths would be accepted as proof of date and place of birth.
Need to look forward
Activities relating to the registration of births and deaths have undergone a sea change in the last decade with computerisation. However, the law has not been amended to take care of this reality. There is a need for updating the law to take care of these and future developments. The proposed amendments fall short of this.
A bill was introduced in Parliament in 2012 to amend the RBD Act to include marriage registration in its purview and to make registration of marriages compulsory. It lapsed as it was not taken up by the Lok Sabha. The Law Commission examined the issue again and recommended in its Report No. 270 that the RBD Act may be amended for including marriage registration. Instead of going for another amendment for this purpose, it should have been taken care of within the current proposals.
3.Understanding the protests in Kazakhstan
What is the role of the CSTO in ongoing agitations? What does Russia aim to achieve by sending in troops?
The protests in Kazakhstan started on 2 January. While the rise in fuel prices might have been the immediate trigger for the protests, they also brought to the fore grievances over structural problems like corruption and socio-economic inequality. The Kazakh President has called on the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), for help to deal with the protests.
The CSTO is a Russia-dominated security alliance which was established after the USSR’s fall when some members of the Commonwealth of Independent States signed a mutual defence treaty named the Collective Security Treaty. The CSTO has six members today: Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
Russia is concerned that political instability in the neighbouring country could lead to the rise of either ultra-nationalists or radical Islamic forces. However, if the protests are quelled, the Kazakh regime would be indebted to Russia.
The story so far: The new year saw protests in yet another unexpected place: Kazakhstan in Central Asia. Although ruled by autocratic regimes since the USSR’s disintegration, it is unexpected because Kazakhstan is the richest Central Asian Republic and is thought to be one of the more stable of these republics.
The protests started on 2 January in the western town of Zhanaozen. They were apparently prompted by the doubling of gas prices in the hydrocarbon-rich country. Protests then spread across the country. While the rise in fuel prices might have been the immediate trigger for the protests, the protests also brought to the fore popular grievances over structural problems like corruption and socio-economic inequality as well as calls for regime change. The protests also appear to be a struggle for power among the Kazakh elites. The situation in Kazakhstan is a classic case of the dilemma of transfer of power in strongman regimes, something which resonates in Russia as well. The protests have not ended despite the resignation of the Government and the removal of the unpopular Nursultan Nazarbayev as chairman of the country’s Security Council. He was also the former President who ruled the country for 28 years.
The Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has called on the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), for help to deal with the protests. The CSTO responded swiftly by sending around 2,500 troops on January 6, including Russian paratroopers and Belarussian special troops. Other CSTO members are also sending troops. Incidentally, this is the first time the CSTO has deployed troops under Article 4 of its treaty, which can be used in the case of attacks against member states which could affect their stability or sovereignty.
What is the CSTO?
The CSTO is a Russia-dominated security alliance (Russia contributes 50% of its budget) which was established after the USSR’s fall when some members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) signed a mutual defence treaty named the Collective Security Treaty. Meant as a replacement for the Warsaw Pact, the Treaty came into force in 1994. In 2002, it became the CSTO. The CSTO has six members today: Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
The organisation is based, as the name indicates, on the principle of collective security or the idea of “one for all and all for one”. Essentially, this means that an aggressor against any one state in the organisation is considered to be an aggressor against all other states. So, all the members would act together to repel the aggressor. Collective security is not a bad word: this is also the principle on which NATO, the UN and earlier the League of Nations were founded.
The CSTO has not been very active in recent years though it conducts some joint military exercises and facilitates arms sales between members. It has also created a peacekeeping force and a rapid-reaction force and the members have pursued a common air defence system. The CSTO did not act, for instance, last year during the stand-off between Armenia and Azerbaijan though Yerevan had asked it for support.
Why has the CSTO intervened now?
There could be two reasons for the CSTO’s intervention in Kazakhstan.
One, Russia is concerned that political instability in the country could lead to the rise of either ultra-nationalists (which could threaten the safety of ethnic Russians who comprise about 19 percent of the population) or radical Islamic forces which could then spread across the region and into Russia itself which shares an open border over 7,500 kmlong with Kazakhstan. Russia is also worried that the protests might be backed by foreigners and Tokayev has already called the protestors “foreign-trained terrorists”. The Kremlin has long been worried about such “external interventions” in what it considers to be its backyard. By sending in troops through the CSTO, Moscow is sending a clear message that it will not tolerate any attempts at “colour revolutions” in its sphere of influence.
Two, if the protests are quelled, the Kazakh regime would be indebted to Russia, and this would effectively end Kazakhstan’s long-standing multi-vector foreign policy of balancing among Russia, China, the West, and Turkey. Russia would gain an ally for good. This might hold true for the other Central Asian Republics as well and Russia would have a more dominant role in their foreign policies, particularly on issues like foreign military bases.
It remains to be seen if or when the protests will die down and whether the CSTO troops will leave if they do subside. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has already warned that “one lesson of recent history is that once Russians are in your house, it’s sometimes very difficult to get them to leave.” China, Kazakhstan’s other big neighbour, which is embroiled in a competition for influence with Russia in the region, would be watching with interest as it has large investments through the Belt Road Initiative in Kazakhstan.