This research paper tries to analyze the evolution of India’s ‘Look West’ policy and its bilateral relations with the major West Asian countries. India and the West Asian region being the oldest civilisations, have known each other since ancient times, but after India’s independence the relations between both these regions were not extensive, though cordial. Several factors have contributed to the changed policy of India for West Asia over a period of time which includes India’s increasing interest in West Asian resources, connectivity, technological relations and also the changing geopolitics of the region, rise of other major economic powers in West Asia. The paper illustrates the bilateral relations and the increasing engagement of India in West Asia after 2014 and also focuses on the existing challenges of the region and issues related to India’s approach towards these regions with some recommendations followed by it.
India and many countries of West Asia have had a traditional and cordial relationship since ancient times. West Asia comprises the land between Afghanistan in the east, the Mediterranean Sea in the west, Arabian Sea in the south, and Europe in the north. It is also called Middle East Asia, the term coined by Britain in the 19th century.
Geographically, the West Asian region acts as a bridge between Europe, Central Asia, Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. Some of the important world trade routes, since ancient times, go through this part, which has contributed to and still plays a major role in the economy of the region. The discovery of oil in the deserts of West Asia has changed the course of history and international politics in the world.
India’s relationship with the countries of West Asia initially was only limited to oil. Gradually, it became inclusive of various sectors like technology, space, tourism, education, etc. India has realized the importance of West Asian connectivity, geopolitics, and the potential this region has to expand trade. Accordingly, India has taken steps in its foreign policy to enhance its relations with West Asia.
India’s relation with West Asia
The Indus Valley civilization of India and the Mesopotamia civilization of West Asia flourished during the same period. There was an extensive maritime trade network operating over the bodies of the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, and Persian Gulf.
India got to know about the Islam in 7th century AD through the traders of West Asia. These traders used to act as a bridge between the Indian subcontinent and Europe. The Sufi saints and traders brought with them new ways of living which had a deeper impact on the culture of India, its food, clothing, arts and architecture, music, etc. At the same time, the economic relations between India and West Asia flourished. The socio-political changes brought in the medieval period have assimilated so much in our society that it has become an integral part.
India after Independence
At the time of India’s independence Middle East Asia was under tremendous influence and control of Western powers. The region was divided on the basis of belief as follows-
- Shia Muslims- Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon
- Sunni Muslims- Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Qatar, Kuwait
- Judaism (Jews)- Israel
The foreign policy of India under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, from the beginning, was to remain non-aligned to any of the Cold War blocs. The 1948 war fought between India and Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir, got the support of the USA and some Arab countries in Pakistan because it was a Muslim nation.
The concern of India, then, was that the West Asian Arab countries might support Pakistan thoroughly and excessively. This was because in 1955 with the help of the USA and Great Britain, the Baghdad treaty was signed. The objective of this treaty was to control West Asia strategically and to withhold the influence of the USSR. India initiated bilateral relations with the significant nations of these regions such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq, but at equidistant. The result of this can be stated with an example: in 1969, India was invited to the summit which took place in Rabat, Morocco, where the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) was formed. Pakistan became insecure about this invitation and threatened to call off its membership from the summit, which was taken into account by the other nations and India’s invitation was revoked. Pakistan consistently tossed the ‘Islam’ coin against India’s role in West Asia, and in return, OIC, in the beginning, accepted the declaration and statements on the plight of Indian Muslims in Kashmir by Pakistan.
In the year 1981, a group called the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was established in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The group promotes economic, political, cultural, and security cooperation among the six nations. India has traditional and friendly relations with all the six GCC members.
A decisive step
After the end of the Cold War in 1991, India’s relations with West Asian countries saw a positive shift. The reasons behind it were many: the disintegration of the USSR, the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi forces, subsequent US intervention, and the normalization of relations between Egypt and Israel, which led to the overshadowing of thePalestinian issue undertaken by NAM. At this point in time India realized the new geopolitical realities, and for this India brought changes in its outlook and policy towards West Asia, which was following-
- India decoupled its West Asian policy from Pakistan.
- It abandoned the defensive reactionary policies and stopped condemning the policies of other countries.
- India began to approach West Asian countries on a mutually beneficial basis.
This changed approach of India was seen not only on paper but also in actions. In December 1991, India changed its earlier opinion in the United Nations, where it compared the policies of Jews to apartheid. One bold decision was taken in early 1992, when India’s then Prime Minister Narsimha Rao established diplomatic relations with Israel, ignoring strong domestic criticism. In the same year, another decision was taken to visit Iran, risking possible protests from the opposition. India broadened its approach by accommodating the three pillars of West Asia – Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel.
On one hand, 1991 was the year when India opened up its economy by accepting globalization, which helped the Indian economy to grow tremendously. On the other hand, the world saw the rise of extremism in Pakistan and other Islamic countries, to which a large community of Indian Muslims remained aloof. This forced the West Asian countries to change their perspective towards India, positively. The prime example of this is the 1999 Kargil conflict, when Pakistan attacked India, the countries in West Asia refused to support Pakistan.
With the successful implementation of India’s “Look East” policy with its eastern and southeastern countries, India thought of initiating a similar policy with its West Asian counterparts. Accordingly, in 2005 India’s then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh adopted the “Look West” policy which reflected India’s desire for long-term engagement with West Asia. The bilateral high-level visit was increased after 2005 and many MoUs were signed on terrorism, piracy, energy, cultural, educational, defense, science and technology, etc.
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Author: Priyanka Gade
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