‘We have been bold and innovative on recognition in the past and we do not need to rush,’ advises Ambassador T P Sreenivasan recalling his experience as India’s envoy in Fiji when New Delhi refused to recognise the military government there.
Several lawyers and historians must be poring over legal tomes and official records to advise the government on what position we should take on the question of recognition of the new regime in Kabul.
The Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2021 with the recognition of just three States, but this time, it is believed that they are taking their time to form their government to make it respectable enough to secure recognition and, more importantly, development assistance.
There are signals not only from Pakistan and China, but also from Iran and Russia that they are ready to recognis the regime, whatever its composition.
India has taken a flexible approach to the question of recognition and we have a range of models from Kampuchea to Burma to Fiji.
According to the federal dpartment of foreign affairs of Switzerland, ‘When a state recognizes a government, it acknowledges a group of persons as competent to act as an organ of the state in question and to represent it in terms of international law.’
‘The only precondition for the recognition of a government under international law is its effective exercise of sovereign power (first and foremost, control of a substantial part of the territory and of the apparatus of administration).’
‘One doctrine holds that a government that has come to power by a coup or revolution should not be recognized or regarded as legitimate until it has received democratic confirmation (by referendum, for example).’
India has generally followed the policy of explicitly or implicitly recognising governments on the basis of the accepted criteria, but there have been cases where we have made exceptions to suit our interests.
For instance, we had held back the Vietnam-Soviet Union backed Kampuchea in 1979 in spite of tremendous pressure on us from the Soviet Union.
The foreign secretary of the time was held personally responsible for that decision and he came to grief when a new government took over in India.
Similarly, we were hostile to the government in Burma after it walked out of the Non-aligned Movement in 1979 and our sympathy was with Aung San Suu Kyi.
Though the recognition issue was not there, when the readmission of Burma to NAM came up at a foreign ministers’ meeting in Bali, we stopped the readmission as we conveyed to the Indonesians that we were against it.
It is another matter that we established good relations with the military junta in Burma even before Aung San Suu Kyi joined them.
None of these decisions was taken by the lawyers, but by political leaders.
The series of actions taken by India against the military government in Fiji were exceptional and perhaps unprecedented.
As the Indian high commissioner to Fiji at the time of the military coup in Fiji in 1987, aimed at disenfranchising the Fiji Indian citizens of the country, I had not expected India to react strongly.
During the few days when I had no way of seeking instructions from New Delhi as all communication channels, basically a telephone and a teleprinter, were disconnected, I remained committed to our impartiality between the Fijians and the Fiji Indians and tried to bring about a reconciliation through a dialogue with the governor general as he was still in place.
But by the time I established contact with the ministry of external affairs, there was a decision at the highest level not to recognise the military government and to impose trade sanctions against Fiji.
I thought that non-recognition would mean the closing down of the high commission, but I was only called back for consultations.
I was told that it was necessary to send a signal to all overseas Indians that India would stand by them if the local government took a confrontationist position against them.
I tried to make the point that the majority of Fiji Indians would want reconciliation as they had already committed to concede political power to the Fijians in return for the freedom to do business and to get employment.
Moreover, the trade sanction would hurt the Fiji Indians more than the Fijians because most Indian imports were for the benefit of the Fiji Indians.
But the government of the day stood by its decision and asked me to return to Fiji and support the Fiji Indians in their fight for the restoration of their rights.
When I returned to Fiji, I had expected that I would not be permitted to remain as a high commissioner to a government we did not recognise, but Fiji took no note of my changed status and allowed me to function normally.
At a Commonwealth summit in Melbourne, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi personally lobbied not to allow Fiji to return to the Commonwealth as Fiji had abrogated the constitution and declared itself a republic.
We also took a decision to change my designation to ‘Head of Mission of India’ and decided not to engage the ministers of the military government.
I did not attend any state functions, but remained in touch with all communities, pleading for restoration of the 1970 constitution.
I did not know how long this situation would continue as it was quite an untenable situation for the mission to continue in the circumstances.
India also raised the issue at the Human Rights Commission and other relevant UN and Commonwealth bodies, making it uncomfortable for Fiji to operate in multilateral institutions.
Fiji decided to redesignate all high commissioners as ambassadors and I became ambassador to a government we did not recognise, perhaps for the first time in the history of diplomatic relations.
It continued for two years before Fiji decided to ask me to leave in 72 hours and asked the mission itself to be closed after six months or so.
Our position on Fiji, though not in accordance with diplomatic practice, led to the restoration of democracy in Fiji after ten years.
In the case of a new government in Afghanistan, with or without non-Taliban elements, we have several options to consider, depending on the decisions of the major powers.
Russia rather than the US could be taken as a model, considering our proximity to Afghanistan and our likely involvement in the development of the country.
We have been bold and innovative on recognition in the past and we do not need to rush into a particular model.
As we have declared, we shall stand by the people of Afghanistan, whatever our relations with the new government may be.
- The Taliban Return
Ambassador T P Sreenivasan (IFS 1967) is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA.
A frequent contributor to Rediff.com, you can read his fascinating columns here.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com
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