On the margin, behind the U.S.

Published : Dec 22, 2002 00:00 IST

India has been reduced to a loyal camp-follower of the United States in Afghanistan, and a passive observer of the unfolding "anti-terror" havoc elsewhere.

IT is impossible not to be mildly amused, and faintly repelled, by the current jubilation over the planned Indo-U.S. military exercises involving the U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, which is scheduled to call at the Mumbai port. The resumption of such exercises, after a three-year break following the Pokhran-II nuclear tests, has been exultantly welcomed by some people as the inauguration of a new phase of "strategic partnership" between India and the U.S. The Carl Vinson visit is not only meant to clear the last vestiges of the suspicions and tensions in mutual relations that were caused by Pokhran-II, but to put behind decisively a sour episode in the history of Indo-U.S. relations: the despatch of another aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, into the Bay of Bengal during the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971.

The Enterprise's unwelcome visit signalled U.S. opposition to the prolongation and extension of the Bangladesh war, a warning to India that it should not open a new front, in West Pakistan. The iconic value of this episode as a sign of U.S. hostility towards India remains so powerful that it makes many Indian diplomats froth at the mouth even today. They see it as an insult to India's sovereignty, an American "letdown", a wanton threat against a friendly "democratic" state, even an attempt at "nuclear blackmail".

However, many of them choose to forget that New Delhi had itself solicited - and received - U.S. endorsement and support during the China war of 1962, through the symbolic visit of a naval vessel. One can only hope that their successors will not be disappointed - equally bitterly, and as irrationally - should the Carl Vinson make another call at an Indian port in less cosy circumstances. We cannot both desperately crave the attention and approbation of the U.S. as its junior partner, and assert our sovereignty and autonomy.

The coming slew of Indo-U.S. naval exercises, including a search-and-rescue operation, and combined "special operations training" and "naval personnel exchange and familiarisation", will formalise that partnership at the military level. The same function is served by Washington's clearance of the sale of seven weapons systems to India, agreed at the recent joint Defence Planning Group meeting. Of even greater significance is the invitation extended to India to observe certain tests of the missile defence system being developed by the U.S. This too must be seen as a form of Washington's encouraging approval of New Delhi's own warm welcome to Bush's missile defence plans which could launch the Second Nuclear Age, making the world even more insecure than it is. So much for military "cooperation".

Politically, India has already signalled its exuberant acceptance of U.S. "leadership" of the world, based on hegemonic military power and a right-wing "free market" agenda. It has also unconditionally embraced what may be called the new "Bush Doctrine" on terrorism, enunciated after September 11, which erases all distinctions between terrorists and their supporters/harbourers/sympathisers, de-mands complete allegiance to America's "anti-terrorist" war (you-are-with-us-or-against-us), and elevates blind revenge (for the terrorist attacks) to the level of a "rational" strategic response.

India's support for the "Bush Doctrine" is partially impelled by a parochial agenda, itself defined by New Delhi's view of the world through the "Pakistan prism": terrorism, of the "cross-border" variety, becomes a stick to beat Pakistan with, as well as a means to "externalise" an internal crisis, in Kashmir. But there is more to it than that. South Block is increasingly gravitating towards a purely militaristic view of security, which is now extremely popular in Washington; it too believes in some version of "might is right" in the conduct of international relations; and it mimics Washington in blurring or erasing the all-too-vital notions of discrimination and proportion in the use of force.

THAT confluence of perceptions explains India's extraordinarily passive response to, and role in, the U.S. war on Afghanistan, which contrasts sharply with, say, its far more ambivalent stand vis-a-vis Iraq during the Gulf war of 1991, or even the Kosovo crisis two years ago (although this was partly attributable to New Delhi's defence of some sort of absolute notion of sovereignty even in the face of near-genocidal actions and systematic attacks on the human rights of the Kosovars by the Milosevic regime). India emerged during the Afghan war as a super-loyal ally of the U.S., far more uncritical of it than even Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Pakistan.

Thus, New Delhi failed to demand that the U.S. present convincing proof of Osama bin Laden's culpability for the September 11 attacks, that it obtain a proper mandate from the U.N. Security Council for the use of force, and that it exercise moral and military restraint while using force. It also remained shamefully silent on the issue of censorship of news, on civilian casualties, and on the incompatibility of the patently unjust means used in the war, and its ill-defined, shifting, open-ended goals, with its claimed "justness".

Equally passive and uncritically pro-U.S. was the Indian response to the Bonn conclave of the Afghan factions, and the interim government it produced. The Bonn conference may have been, nominally, an initiative of the U.N., under the leadership of Lakhdar Brahimi, a diplomat who had quit the same job in disgust in 1999. But there should be no illusion that it was undertaken at the behest of, and thoroughly manipulated by, the U.S. - which earlier had shown no compunctions in bypassing the U.N., or in using it only when Washington found that expedient.

For instance, it is the U.S., not some "neutral" agency, which made the critical choice between the two nominees for the top job, thrown up in Bonn: Hamid Karzai and Abdul Sattar Seerat (an Uzbek close to former King Zahir Shah). It is the U.S. which defined Bonn as the convergence of four "processes" - Rome, Peshawar and Cyprus, besides the Northern Alliance.

It is also the U.S. that brought Zahir Shah centre-stage in the first place. The King was deposed in 1973 and has not been missed since. His administration was unpopular. The King did not bother to visit Afghanistan once, not even after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal. However, U.S. policy-makers seem to have been led by a kind of "Orientalism", the view that societies such as Afghanistan are irredeemably feudal and therefore "naturally" privilege kings. And kings and notables are indispensable.

At all critical stages leading to the Bonn negotiations, Washington used military manoeuvres, arm-twisting, hard lobbying, or promises of money, to achieve its goals. The Northern Alliance could not have captured Mazar-i-Sharief, leave alone Kabul, without strong U.S. air support, which softened up the Taliban defences. It was at Washington's instance that Burhanuddin Rabbani dropped his objections to some interim council nominees and accepted his own eclipse. Washington also ensured that the Northern Alliance would agree to the stationing of an international force. More recently, it forced Karzai to change, within hours, his stand on putting Mullah Omar on trial, rather than granting him conditional amnesty. (At work, reportedly, was a threat to withdraw billions of dollars in "aid".)

New Delhi went along with all these critical decisions, limiting itself to promoting its own contacts and friends, especially in the Northern Alliance, within a U.S.-defined framework. Even here, India has pursued an extremely myopic agenda, such as getting Yunus Qanooni to issue statements critical of Pakistan's past role. This simply would not do: India's record on Afghanistan is also questionable. If India wants to play a meaningful role and win back some of the goodwill it used to enjoy in Afghanistan, it will have to do much more.

Even more starkly influenced by the U.S. (and its strategic ally Israel) is India's position on the current, grim, crisis in Palestine, following the Sharon government's vicious military offensive against the Palestinian Authority (P.A.). Jaswant Singh's statement to Parliament in the first week of December was remarkably ambivalent, inadequate, even pusillanimous. It was deceptively "even-handed" in condemning all violence and counselling restraint on both sides. It missed the point that Israel is overwhelmingly the aggressor and that its violence threatens to wreck the P.A. and the peace process itself.

There are three reasons for this imbalance. First, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has developed an extraordinarily close strategic and diplomatic partnership with Israel, whose Right-wing leaders India's own Hindutva forces admire and wish to emulate for their machismo and militarism. Israel has become India's second largest weapons supplier, selling military technology alone worth $2 billion this year. It now coordinates political strategy and intelligence, and possibly some nuclear activities, with India, sharing "common" interests against "adversaries" - Pakistan and "Islamic terrorism". Under the NDA, New Delhi has "broken free" from earlier constraints, including close ties with Arab states, in pursuing its close friendship with Israel, which the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party have advocated for decades.

However, equally important, the two countries share their total, unconditional, support for the "Bush Doctrine". No one has applied the "Bush Doctrine" to such devastating effect as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. His indiscriminate armed attacks on the P.A.'s headquarters, its security infrastructure and sole airstrip, numerous civilian installations, as well as several villages, killing large numbers of innocents, bear bloody testimony to this. Having unconditionally welcomed the "Bush Doctrine", India cannot condemn its application in Israel.

New Delhi is making a historic blunder here. Its failure to take a principled, balanced, stand in defence of the Palestinian cause, which Sharon is bent on wrecking altogether, risks complicity in what is on the verge of becoming a cataclysmic crisis in West Asia. At stake is not just the Arafat leadership, but the fate of the Palestinian liberation movement.

The Israeli Far Right's real aim, which is being most energetically advanced by Sharon, is to kill the peace process so as to perpetuate the occupation of the Palestinian homeland - in blatant violation of international law, Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, and world opinion. Sharon has never hidden his opposition to the Camp David or Oslo accords. He was deeply implicated in planning the horrific Sabra and Chatilla massacres of 1982 and deserves to be tried as a war criminal. Like all Extreme-Right Zionists, he viciously opposes any accommodation or peace with the Palestinian people. He remains an unabashed supporter of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel's Far Right has chosen its moment. It reckons that it can exploit the "anti-terror" climate today to prolong Israel's hostile, colonial, occupation of Palestinian land for a decade or more. This will compound further the horrific injustice that Israel has perpetuated upon the Palestinians - replicating the injustice that the Jewish people themselves suffered through their banishment and persecution for some 2,000 years, culminating in the Holocaust, which was barely corrected with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

India until the 1990s lent strong support to the Palestinian cause. Today it is all set to betray it - by blindly tailing behind the U.S. As it parrots the "Bush Doctrine", New Delhi will do well to ponder the likely effects of its pro-U.S. posture upon the coming "Second Phase" of America's "anti-terror" war which now menaces the world.

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