South Asia Brief

News and analysis from India and its neighboring countries in South Asia, a region home to one-fourth of the world’s population. Delivered Thursday.

Lithium Reserves Will Give India a Boost—Eventually

The find will help fuel Indian manufacturing and clean energy, but it could take years to pay dividends.

Michael Kugelman
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief.
An  aerial view shows the Pavagada Solar Park in Karnataka, India, on Oct. 11, 2021.
An aerial view shows the Pavagada Solar Park in Karnataka, India, on Oct. 11, 2021.
An aerial view shows the Pavagada Solar Park in Karnataka, India, on Oct. 11, 2021. Abhishek Chinnappa/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: A lithium discovery in Indian-administered Kashmir could boost Indian manufacturing in the long term, an internal Taliban rift between officials in Kabul and top leadership in Kandahar goes public, and Indian tax authorities search the BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai in the wake of a film controversy.

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India Discovers Lithium Reserves

Last week, Indian officials announced that 5.9 million metric tons of inferred lithium resources had been discovered in Reasi, in Indian-administered Kashmir. This could be a geopolitical game changer. The find comes as the value of lithium is soaring thanks to its scarcity and surging demand; it is used in batteries that power devices from laptops to electric vehicles. But for it to pay off, India must overcome technical obstacles as well as environmental and security risks.

The lithium discovery could help reduce India’s heavy reliance on light metal imports. (Currently, 80 percent of the lithium India uses comes from abroad.) If used to store energy for solar panels and electric vehicles, it can also help fuel India’s clean-energy transition, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has designated a top priority.

There are also political advantages for India. The lithium discovery provides another data point to support Modi’s pledge to make India more self-reliant, a core political mantra. The prime minister has promised to boost both established industries such as defense manufacturing and emerging sectors such as renewable energy. Furthermore, finding lithium on its own soil allows India to push back against China—already a key player in lithium production.

However, these ambitions are long term: Natural resource experts warn it could take at least a decade for India to access the new reserves. India currently lacks the technology to excavate and produce lithium. The head of India’s Ministry of Mines said the Jammu and Kashmir government plans to auction the lithium deposits to private entities, suggesting that New Delhi hopes the private sector will build the capacity to access the lithium.

When India does manage to access the new reserves, it will still face environmental and security risks. Lithium extraction requires significant water resources and generates polluting emissions. The lithium is also located in an ecologically fragile region. Natural resource extraction has fueled anger in other local communities, contributing to conflict in parts of eastern India. Although Reasi isn’t as volatile as the Kashmir valley, it has seen anti-government violence in the past. Neighboring Pakistan could exploit local resistance to lithium extraction to draw global attention to what it sees as India’s repressive rule over Kashmir.

Interestingly, the discovery is a rediscovery: Indian officials reportedly found the lithium nearly three decades ago, but no one followed up on the find. Now, the stakes are higher. India boasts a more powerful economy, is committed to a full-scale energy transition, and is immersed in intense competition with China. New Delhi is unlikely to dawdle this time around.

Even with a strong will, capacity constraints and other challenges mean India has a long way to go before it can capitalize on the lithium boon.

What We’re Following

Taliban spat goes public. Afghan Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani lashed out against other Taliban senior leaders last Saturday—a rare case of internal disagreement becoming public. Haqqani assailed the group’s hard-line top leadership for “monopolizing” power and implementing divisive policies, saying the situation “can no more be tolerated.” Although Haqqani didn’t name names, the tirade seemed directed at Mullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s supreme leader.

Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021, reports have emerged about policy differences between the leaders in Kabul, such as Haqqani, and Akhundzada and his ideological allies in Kandahar. Compared to Akhundzada, Taliban officials in Kabul tend to be more concerned about securing international financial assistance and legitimacy, whereas the officials in Kandahar are more focused on ideology. Haqqani is a prominent Taliban leader, and his going public could embolden other dissenters to do the same, which would pose a problem for the Taliban’s supreme leadership.

Haqqani’s criticism suggests that the disagreements have escalated, which could have major implications for Afghanistan. The hard-liners in Kandahar make the group’s big decisions, including those that have gotten in the way of formal recognition from other countries, such as bans on secondary and university education for women. (Unsurprisingly, Haqqani has suggested he opposes these bans.)

BBC offices searched in India. On Tuesday, tax officers conducted a search of the BBC’s offices in New Delhi and Mumbai. The move came just weeks after the release of a new BBC documentary focused on Modi, including his alleged role in communal violence in 2002, during his time as chief minister of Gujarat. India’s government has previously used concerns about licenses or permits to crack down on organizations, especially nongovernmental organizations, that it deems critical of the government. Last month, India banned the Modi documentary and blocked Twitter and YouTube posts about it.

A spokesperson for India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party said the search was legal and had nothing to do with the government, while also referring to the BBC as the “most corrupt organization in the world.” Regardless of whether the investigation is linked to the documentary, it drew renewed—and unwanted—global attention to New Delhi’s ban on the film.

Khan buries the hatchet with Washington? In a Voice of America interview that aired last weekend, former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan walked back his allegation that the United States colluded in his ouster last year, when he lost a parliamentary no-confidence vote. “It wasn’t the U.S. who told Pakistan [to oust me],” he said. Rather, he alleged that it was Pakistan’s former army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, “who somehow managed to tell the Americans that I was anti-American. And so, it [the plan to oust me] wasn’t imported from there. It was exported from here to there.”

Although he seemed to suggest he still believes Washington played some role, “it’s in the past,” he said. “We have to move on. It’s in the interest of Pakistan to have good relations with the U.S., and that’s what we intend to do.” He acknowledged that the United States’ superpower status and trade relationship with Pakistan make bilateral ties important.

Khan’s comments could also help him mend fences with Pakistan’s powerful military leadership. The Pakistan Armed Forces are keen to have a workable relationship with their U.S. counterparts. All of this is important if Khan hopes to return to power, and he likely calculates that good ties with the military will enhance his party’s chances of winning the next election scheduled for this fall.

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Under the Radar

Last weekend, Bangladesh withdrew two new textbooks from its national curriculum for 11- to 13-year-old students amid protests from Islamists. The books touch on issues including same-sex couples, gender identity, and evolutionary theory. This isn’t the first time Bangladesh’s government has given in to religious hard-liners. It previously moved a Lady Justice statue to a less prominent location outside the Supreme Court and changed Bengali-language textbooks to include fewer stories by non-Muslims.

The latest move is still striking given that the ruling Awami League party is widely perceived as more secular than the country’s other major political parties. It has banned references to jihad from religious school textbooks and cracked down on Islamists. But it clearly doesn’t want to take any voters for granted, especially with an election less than a year away.

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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