August 11, 2020
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Neither And/Or Nor

India's middle path on Iraq may not, after all, give it the desired leverage on J&K

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Neither And/Or Nor
To most Indians watching the American military onslaught on Iraq, New Delhi's inability to condemn or deplore it would appear to be a literal adherence to the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi: see no evil, hear no evil and certainly speak no evil. Indeed, on March 22, two days after the US military action began, a senior cabinet minister called in some journalists to better explain India's stance on Iraq. Declaring that "nations or individuals rarely commit suicide to safeguard their principles", he claimed that India's position was the result of a pragmatic view which de-emphasised principles for the sake of national interest.

Safeguarding India's interests in Jammu and Kashmir constituted the national interest, he said. "Tomorrow if the US and UK were to take an anti-India stance on Kashmir, how will it help our national interest?", he asked. Given Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's close support to the US and given the gains in India's relations with the US, the minister argued that it didn't make sense for the government to take a strident anti-US stance. "Should that be sacrificed? And for what? When we say we are keeping our principles and national interest in mind, we are taking a pragmatic view of a situation that is not of our creation and not even to our liking."

A principled opposition to the action against Iraq would have been called for had Iraq volunteered information on its weapons of mass destruction, had it not been left to the weapons inspectors to unearth the Al Samoud missiles. India couldn't stick its neck out for a regime that failed to provide any satisfactory answers to weapons inspectors. In other words, it would almost appear that Iraq's behaviour fashioned India's stance. Ironical, since the weapons inspectors themselves declared that Baghdad's cooperation had improved.

Moreover, the cabinet minister elaborated that this was "crunch time" and support on Iraq would determine the future course of bilateral relationship with the US. It consequently made little sense to alienate the US over a single issue like Iraq. But, he clarified, the US understood the Indian position and recognised that even the "middle path" adopted by India was "a big deal" for Washington.

Three days later, on March 23, Abdul Majid Dar of the Hizbul Mujahideen was gunned down, swiftly followed by the massacre of 24 Kashmiri Pandits in Nadimarg a day later. The US condemned the incident, though the state department spokesman added a telling line: "Dialogue remains a critical element in the normalisation of relations between India and Pakistan." South Block obviously found this galling, prompting mea spokesman Navtej Sarna to retort: "If dialogue, per se, is more critical than combating international terrorism with all necessary means, then one can legitimately ask why both in Afghanistan and Iraq, military action, instead of dialogue, has been resorted to."

Clearly, the assumptions underlying India's evolving policy on Iraq have been belied at the outset. Says a senior Indian diplomat, "Obviously, the state department's comment is completely gratuitous and unwarranted. If it's a statement that condemns the terrorist act in J&K, why are they bringing in Pakistan? Implicitly, they are recognising the link to Pakistan. If they are recognising it, why aren't they saying that Pakistan should stop?"

Diplomatic sources see this as a dilution of US political pressure on Pakistan to deliver on commitments to end cross-border terrorism. Says a diplomatic source: "The state department's statement attaches a kind of political qualification and provides justification to Pakistan to continue with terrorism."

New Delhi has got no favours from the US on Kashmir, although it has been more circumspect than may have been necessary.But it has refused to consider an American demarche, delivered after the war began, to expel Iraqi diplomats. India has also previously emphasised:

  • that all decisions on Iraq must be taken under the authority of the UN;

  • that any move for change in regime in Iraq should come from within and not be imposed from outside;

  • that as long as the peaceful disarmament of Iraq has the slightest chance, India would urge caution, self-restraint and high sense of responsibility on the part of concerned parties.

Many consider these sentiments appropriate. Yet, New Delhi limited its responses to the commencement of military action by expressing "deep anguish" through the official spokesman and stopped far short of condemning the US-led action. Senior diplomats say Americans have repeatedly expressed their desire to have India on board in a range of post-Saddam activities—rehabilitation, etc— but "we have not got ourselves involved in these kinds of discussions knowing they will then sit on our shoulders. We had decided that our position would be one of opposition but not confrontation and we will judge the situation as it develops". Diplomats also say New Delhi will be careful about doing anything that would amount to a post-facto justification of the US action, which South Block privately believes is illegal.
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