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Neutral, in national interest

India has drawn flak from the western nations as it refrained from condemning Russia for its military aggression against Ukraine
Last Updated : 17 April 2022, 03:11 IST

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Myanmar is “not a country on the dark side of the moon, it shares a border with India”, a top official of the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government told journalists on November 9, 2010. “We have to deal with it (Myanmar). We cannot be expected to play brain-dead when another country (China) is very active there (Myanmar).” The official was reacting to some comments the then United States President Barack Obama had made while delivering a speech in the Parliament of India the previous day during his maiden visit to New Delhi. “If I can be frank, in international fora, India has often shied away from these issues,” he had said, criticising India for persistently avoiding condemning atrocities committed by the military junta in Myanmar.

Fast forward 12 years and, as New Delhi is again facing criticism in the United States and rest of the western world for refusing to condemn Russia for its war against Ukraine, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar told Parliament that India’s position on the conflict was guided by its own national interests. “I suspect, looking at the figures, probably our total (oil) purchases (from Russia) for the month would be less than what Europe does in an afternoon,” Jaishankar said when he and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh addressed a joint news conference with US counterparts – Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin – after the 2+2 dialogue in Washington on April 11. “We have a decent sense of what is in our interest and know how to protect it and advance it,” he said, as journalists asked him about India’s reluctance to speak up against President Vladimir Putin and his aggression against Ukraine.

India has been stressing on dialogue and diplomacy to resolve the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It called for immediate cessation of violence. It sent humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. Modi called Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and urged them to hold direct talks to end the war. During his recent virtual meeting with US President Joe Biden, the prime minister also condemned the killing of innocent civilians at Bucha in Ukraine and called for an independent investigation.

What New Delhi didn’t do is toe the US line. It didn’t go by the western script and refrained from directly condemning Russia for its aggression against Ukraine. It abstained from voting on several US-backed resolutions against Russia in different organs of the United Nations – Security Council, General Assembly and Human Rights Council as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency. Besides, even as the Biden Administration warned it about “consequences”, India continued to explore ways to continue its bilateral trade with Russia, circumventing the sanctions the US and other western nations imposed on Vladimir Putin’s government and its entities. India moved to buy oil at a discounted price from Russia, although its total energy import from the former Soviet Union nation would still be nominal, compared to that by some of the nations in Europe, a fact the external affairs minister eloquently pointed out in the news-conference in Washington on April 11.

Though New Delhi’s historical commitment to principles of non-alignment and anti-colonialism has been cited to explain its cautious position on the conflict over Ukraine, it was its decades-old relations with Moscow and particularly its dependence on military hardware from Russia that stopped India from denouncing Vladimir Putin’s aggression against the East European nation. With China’s military build-up along its Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India and the consequent stand-off continuing, New Delhi can ill-afford to put at risk supply of ammunition and spares for weapon-systems and other defence equipment platforms procured from Russia, although the Modi Government perhaps no longer rely on Putin to use his good offices to nudge Xi Jinping against escalating the Middle Kingdom’s belligerence in the Himalayas.

New Delhi’s dependence on Russia for military hardware was built over decades, since the days when the US was not ready to share high-tech defence technology with India – a fact Biden’s Secretary of State Blinken acknowledged recently. Though New Delhi and Washington expanded bilateral relations since the landmark nuclear deal of 2008, it will still take decades before the US could actually replace Russia as the primary source of defence equipment for India. Till then, India’s “national interest” would stop it from taking a position that might appear to be overtly adversarial to Russia.

No wonder, Igor Polikha, Kyiv’s envoy to New Delhi, was rather blunt when he told journalists that he was “deeply dissatisfied” with India’s position on the military aggression of Russia against Ukraine.

It is the same “national interest” that stopped India from speaking up against the military junta in Myanmar, not only when Aung San Suu Kyi was held captive for almost 15 of the 21 years between 1989 and 2010, but also after an elected government led by her was ousted from power in a coup d’état on February 1, 2021. “People of Myanmar will remember where India stood in our hour of crisis,” Zin Mar Aung, the foreign minister of Myanmar’s Government-in-Exile, said. India also did not join the others in criticizing Suu Kyi when the government led by her failed to stop the ethnic cleansing targeting the minority Rohingyas of Myanmar.

India takes a cautious approach on Myanmar because of its strategic rivalry with China, its fear of losing the neighbouring South East Asian nation completely into the communist country’s orbit of influence. A number of insurgent organizations operating in the north-eastern states of India have bases in Myanmar, with some having purported links with intelligence agencies of China.

The Modi Government expressed concern over Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan on August 15, 2021, but refrained from directly condemning the Sunni Islamist militia, not even after reports started coming in about its atrocities, particularly against women. India is rather reaching out to the Taliban, just to make sure that Pakistan could not get the “strategic depth” in Afghanistan.

“I think we should choose a side, and that’s our side,” Jaishankar had said at an event in January 2019, months before Modi picked up the former diplomat to be the external affairs minister of his government.

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Published 16 April 2022, 18:51 IST

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