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Why the Agartala Doctrine: offensive defense, not domination

Unlike the Monroe or the Gujral doctrine, this is a doctrine not named after a person espousing it.  It is named after tiny Tripura’s capital town, Agartala, which former Bangladesh foreign minister Dipu Moni describes as the “war capital of the Bangalee nation in 1971.” The Agartala doctrine is a proposed national doctrine that draws on Tripura’s long proactive history of handling its neighbourhood. It differs from both the US Monroe doctrine of dominance and the Indian Gujraln doctrine of unilateral magnanimity. Rather, it is based on the idea of “appropriate response” and has grown out of the line of action chosen by Tripura’s chief ministers from Sachin Singh to Manik Sarkar.  There is a surprising continuity in their policy, based as it is strict reciprocity of action.

Simply put, it translates to “If you’re nice with me, I’ll walk an extra mile to take care of you, but if you’re hostile, I can be just as difficult.”

Shorn of the academic mumbo-jumbo the intellectual elite often  inflict on the nation and end up confusing it, this is a doctrine that is capable of handling the policy confusion — policy paralysis, sometimes — in Delhi on how to handle neighbors like Pakistan.

If you accept the Agartala doctrine, Delhi has to follow a calibrated, nuanced policy of selective engagement with Nawaz Sharif who risked his seat and was deposed in a coup for challenging the army, with civil society, trade and commerce people, with educational institutions and the media.

Do your “Aman Ki Asha” with them. Do your “Aman Ki Asha” with them along the lines of the “Hope for Peace” campaign that Times of India initiated with Pakustan’s Jang media group some time ago.

But then India would simultaneously need to pressurise the US to force the Pakistan army to turn off the terror tap because they have leverage on the Raheel Sharifs and the Shuja Pashas.

By following the lead of Tripura, the current Modi administration would need to rebuild India’s capacity for selective covert action — it should be able to Sargodha with non-state actors to avenge Pathankot. If Mumbai is hit a la 26 November, targets in Karachi will have to be hit.

By following the lead of Tripura, the current Modi administration would need to rebuild India’s capacity for selective covert action – it should be able to use non-state actors to hit the Sargodha air base in Pakistan exactly like terrorists were used to attack the Indian air base at Pathankot. If there is a terror attack on Mumbai like on 26 November 2008, India should be able to use non-state actors like a MQM faction to hit military targets in Karachi.

What did Tripura’s first CM Sachindralal Singha have in mind when he pushed Nehru and then Mrs. Gandhi to back the Bengali struggle in East Pakistan? With separatist rebellions spreading from one Northeastern state to another, Singha told Indira Gandhi to hit back at Pakistan, using the Bengali irredentism that was surely snowballing out of control.

His feelings for fellow Bengalis in East Pakistan surely influenced his decision to push Nehru and then Indira Gandhi to back the Bengali rebellion, which he was sure about, but he was clear if Northeast had to be saved and the multiple Pak-China backed rebellions contained , the only way was to (use his words) “kick Pakistan out of the East.” That paved the way for Indian support for the Bengali nationalist struggle and the ultimate Indian intervention to create Bangladesh.

Spool forward two decades. Wracked by a vicious tribal insurgency, CM Manik Sarkar resorted to an unusually hostile trans-border covert offensive, using surrendered militants and Bangladeshi mafioisi to neutralise the rebel bases inside Bangladesh from 2001 to 04. He still maintains the deniability — he would rather credit all his counter-insurgency success to Bangladesh’s cooperation after Sheikh Hasina took over as Prime Minister. This is in stark contrast to the current chest thumping in Delhi over a single trans-border strike on rebel bases inside Myanmar. Tripura police could manage more than twenty such strikes inside Bangladesh on ATTF and NLFT bases and hideouts of its leaders from 2001 to 04.

Here was a small state fighting back on its own, using surrendered rebels and Bangladesh mafiosi. Not only did the Bangladesh authorities fail to get a wind of it, even Delhi was not told what Tripura police was doing. GM Srivastava would often say surprise was vital and could not be achieved if either Dhaka or Delhi came to know.

But now that Bangladesh is so friendly with Hasina in power, it is all hunky dory. The “appropriate response” is evident in the way Manik Sarkar got India to sell 100MW power from Palatana gas-fired power plant after Hasina helped by allowing oversized cargoes like transformers to be shipped through the Chittagong-Asuganj route. It is always give and take and Bangladesh has no stronger advocate of its interests in India than the shy Tripura Chief Minister.

In the Agartala doctrine, there is no place for bullying a smaller neighbour or attempted dominance like Monroe Doctrine, neither any unilateral magnanimity that characterises the Gujral doctrine.  Agartala Doctrine is all about reciprocity and it is the only way India can handle its difficult, sometimes volatile neighborhood.

Image credit: “Tripura State Museum” by Sharada Prasad CS, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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