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In his commentary titled “India’s refusal to take a side on Ukraine war may prove costly ….”, published in the CNA Insider of 10 March 2022, the author, Shashi Tharoor, writes in the style of one speaking in a parliamentary debate on the subject rather than writing a crisp and weighty piece with academic finesse. In parliamentary debates, the speaker’s entire focus is either on supporting or criticising the government. An article meant for the public domain becomes insipid if it is contentious or grossly subjective.
He starts with a lament that the Ukraine conflict has exposed India’s strategic vulnerability. What does the ‘strategic vulnerability of India’ mean in the context of the Ukrainian war? Ukraine is not an Asian country nor does it geographically stand anywhere in the region in which India is located. How then is India’s strategic vulnerability exposed? To ask for India’s position in the world – a vague and rather fuzzy question – ideas like India’s regional security or the wisdom of her long-term relationship etc. bear no relevance to the crisis in the Eastern Europe. How do these wandering musings suddenly become ‘fundamental questions’? The world is concerned about the crisis. So is India.
At the outset, we need to distinguish between terms like invasion, aggression, action, reaction etc. Russia has reacted to a specific set of actions of the State of Ukraine, a state contiguous to Russia. What Russia has done in Ukraine is a reaction to the denial by Ukraine of what Russia demanded her not to do as a close neighbour. A rational state is expected to take cognizance of the security and safety of the neighbouring state as is enshrined in the international law and in the code of conduct for bilateral relationship.
In the context of the Russo-Ukraine armed conflict, India precisely did what the UN Security Council had done in 1948 with India’s complaint that Pakistan had launched an aggression on the State of Jammu and Kashmir which had formally acceded to the Indian Union under the Transfer of Power Act of the British Parliament.
New Delhi’s plea was that Pakistan was an aggressor and that India was the victim. Yet., ignoring the complaint of the applicant and the clauses of the Charter under which the complaint was made, the Security Council unjustly treated India by bringing the parties at par. It urged a status quo that was followed by a ceasefire. It made a mockery of the principle of non-interference and also of the Indian complaint lodged under Article 35.
If the Security Council was right in taking the decision of equating the aggressor with the aggressed in the case of Kashmir, then India is also right in having abstained from voting and laying emphasis on de-escalation of hostilities. Returning to the path of diplomatic negotiations and dialogue is an unimpeachable rhetoric. It can be interpreted variously.
The Modi government decided to abstain from voting. It meant that the Indian bureaucracy, especially the MEA, has to strictly abide by the decision of the top leadership. To expect the top bureaucratic echelons to deviate from the national policy indirectly means abetting opposition to the policy decision of the government. It becomes a breach of service rules and discipline. No law maker can convince his or her conscience by entertaining a wild imagination like that.
It is strange to accuse India of reticence in the ongoing East European imbroglio. Firstly, India has not been reticent in the context of the war in Ukraine. India abstained from voting in all three events. Is that reticence? The Indian Prime Minister has been in regular touch with the President of the Russian Federation and the President of Ukraine. Is that reticence? Anybody with the knowledge of the fundamentals of international diplomacy knows that the exchange of ideas between the top leaderships anywhere in the world is not made public. An MP from the ruling or the opposition party should not expect the Prime Minister to tell him or her in or outside the Parliament what he specifically discussed with the President or PM of another country while talking of sensitive issues. The PM is bound by the oath of secrecy in sensitive government dealings.
The Indo-Russian (Soviet) warm relationship is the legacy of Nehru. Since Congress remained in power for a long time after Nehru, the party in power pursued its traditional pro-Russian policy. Russia has thrice used its veto power to bail out India just because the Soviet Union had fully understood how the western powers in general and the Anglo-American bloc, in particular, were desirous of keeping the Kashmir pot boiling. Pakistan Army generals had large pecuniary interests in keeping the Kashmir issue on the front burner. They had patrons in London and Washington.
We may recall that it was Nehru who rejected the blueprint submitted by his army chief for modernising and upgrading the Indian defence forces soon after independence. Nehru had asked the General: “Against whom are we going to fight a war?” With that, he discarded the proposal, but when the Chinese threw to the wind the panchsheel agreement and marched their troops into the Indian territory of Arunachal Pradesh, Nehru flashed an SOS to President Kennedy begging for arms and ammunition. Moscow had categorically told him that while “India was a friend, China was a brother.”
Panchsheel‘s agreement with China in Bandung, the Friendship and Strategic Alliance with the Soviet Union and then the Non-Alignment dramatics considerably deepened the confusion in India about her strategic planning because Pakistan played its card very well with the Americans and managed to obtain special grants meant exclusively for the Pakistani army. India’s dream of non-alignment was dashed to the ground by the Chinese incursion. It shattered Nehru’s misled idealism. The Congress party was left with no choice but to depend on Moscow for modern weaponry.
The domestication of the concept of non-violence reduced India to a personality-starved entity. The concept created more enemies for her than she would have had if she had not professed non-violence. This does not mean that India should have become a rogue country defying everything that has been achieved by adhering to the principle of non-violence. Gandhi claimed he brought the freedom struggle to his countrymen through non-violence. Yet millions of people perished in the partition of India which was the culminating act of nearly a century of freedom struggle. It is hence specious to say that India won freedom through non-violence.
India did not undertake the military operation in East Pakistan in 1971 after obtaining a green signal from Moscow. The story has been told by late General Manekshaw himself. Indira Gandhi had travelled to the European countries to convince their political leaderships that Pakistan’s army had let loose a reign of terror in East Pakistan, just because Pakistan was unwilling to accept the majority verdict in the national elections that had gone in favour of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of Bangladesh. The East Pakistan crisis was the result of the internal crisis of Pakistan. And when the American 7th fleet showed up in the Bay of Bengal, Moscow could not allow the US to ride roughshod over the interests of the Soviet Union in the Indian Ocean region and took India’s side accordingly.
Visits by heads of government to any country are planned much ahead. Security and protocol affairs have to be given the final touch before the meeting date is finalised. This is true for the Pakistani PM’s visit to Moscow. The attack on Ukraine was not premeditated by the Russian authorities to coincide with Imran Khan’s visit to make him a pawn in the entire narrative. Once he was in Moscow, courtesy demanded that President Putin find a few minutes to meet with him. It is strange logic to connect Imran Khan’s visit with India’s relations with Moscow. Tharoor forgets that only a few weeks back President Putin had found a few hours in a hectic period to visit New Delhi and meet with Prime Minister Modi, returning to Moscow the same evening. Does it not speak of very special relations between the two countries? And do not forget the telephonic conversation PM Modi had twice with President Putin when the Ukrainian war started.
That there was some cooling of relations between India and Russia after the dismemberment of the Soviet Union is hardly surprising. That was a big event for the Soviet Union and quite naturally, changes would impact many things including bilateral relations. There has been a revival of relationship and India and Russia have begun to think more pragmatically. The Quad is being re-visited by India after the AUKUS security alliance was formulated and France was sidelined from Indo-Pacific diplomacy.
PM Modi has given many indications that his government is not surrendering independent analysis of the developing political scenario in the region and the globe. He has very clearly said that the Quad does not entail only the security of the region; it must cater to the development concerns– bilateral as well as multilateral— of the countries of the region as well. The Government of India is now better poised to assess its position and balancing capacity. President Biden has said that India’s abstention should be understood from the prism of India’s long association and friendship with the Soviet Union. The Indian Minister of External Affairs made it clear that India wants the violence to come to an end immediately in the conflict zone.
As days pass, the fighting becomes more intense and now some external groups or mercenaries are appearing and taking a role in the ongoing fighting. That is a very dangerous situation. It must be understood however that there is not only a clash of civilizations but also a contest between ideologies and shrinking economic options.
Iran’s role in the Indian Ocean is very small so far although in the Persian Gulf Tehran can obstruct the flow of oil to countries seen as inimical. India is not listed as one of them. Rather, Iran is serious about the Chabahar – Sirakhs (in Turkmenistan) rail link and the opening of a strong and viable trade link to the Central Asian region. Yes, there were some irritants about the Indo-Iranian Chabahar deal but these have been ironed out as Indian experts have mastered the art of dealing with an enigmatic and vacillating partner like Iran. The rise to power by the Taliban with the help of Pakistan is a bitter pill for the Iranians.
American-Chinese relations are much more relaxed in comparison to US-Russian relations. China has vast economic interests in the US and the US economy owes much to Chinese manufacture.
One very important lesson which India can learn from the ongoing clash between Russia and Ukraine is that there is an urgent need to devise a mechanism to implement the policy of atmnirbhar: self-reliance.
A difficult situation is developing in Europe with grave implications for the entire world. If the fighting escalates no country will remain immune to the impact. India understands the gravity of the situation. Therefore, peace-loving people anywhere in the world must do all they can to ensure that the fighting is stopped and that de-escalation begins? India is playing a commendable role by trying to cool down emotions on both sides while standing away from the leaping flames. The statesmanlike role of Prime Minister Modi should be appreciated and we are hopeful that it will bring relief to the belligerents and to mankind at large. That is compatible with the philosophy of this great nation.