Why India’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is hypocritical

It has now been five months since the first Russian tanks penetrated deep into Ukrainian territory and the first Russian fighter jets dropped bombs on Ukrainian towns and villages. It has been a brutal, bloody war with perhaps 20,000 Russian soldiers killed in the fighting and probably twice as many Ukrainian men in uniform. The civilian casualties were also significant. Millions of Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homeland to find temporary or permanent shelter in other countries.

Ukraine’s economy is devastated; once the conflict is over, it will take decades to restore it to its former position. And the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Russians have also been hit hard, both because of Western sanctions and the cost of a war started by President Vladimir Putin.

Considering the conflict as a member of the human species, I am shocked by the barbarity of the Russian army, the destruction of the physical infrastructure of entire cities, the bombing of hospitals and civilian shelters, the attacks on Ukrainian women. Considering the conflict as a citizen of India, I am stunned by the cowardice of my country’s government, its refusal to condemn the invasion, and its silence regarding Russian atrocities.

wait and watch

When the war started in late February, and even into March, it may have been necessary for the government of India to adopt a wait-and-see policy. It was not clear how long the conflict would last; there was even talk of an early settlement. And getting the thousands of Indian students in Ukraine back home was of course a top priority. However, as March turned into April and April into May, and the brutality of the Russian troops became more apparent, it should no longer have been tenable to maintain a neutral position.

It was clear that all this talk of the invasion sounded hollow in response to Western provocations. Anyone with any sense could now see that the war was being waged by Putin, not to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, but to teach the Ukrainians a lesson not to bend to his will. The Russian president had a maniacal delusion that he was a modern incarnation of a medieval emperor, who united Russia and all its neighbors into one nation bound by one all-powerful leader.

He and his army would try to make these fantasies a reality, no matter the cost to the Ukrainians or even the Russians themselves. (The latest, but certainly not least, example of the Putin regime’s venality is the bombing of the port city of Odessa immediately after the signing of an agreement allowing Ukraine to export wheat.)

President Putin believes that the Ukrainians are in reality Russians with a different name, and that they should therefore be united with the motherland, if necessary by force. If these five months of war have revealed anything, however, it is that the spirit of nationalism among Ukrainians runs very deep. They see themselves as a different, distinct people, who deserved and must maintain their own national identity. Before the invasion, there may have been quite a number of Ukrainians who were happy to acknowledge and even emphasize the cultural ties they shared with Russia. Not anymore. Now even a majority of Ukrainians who speak Russian at home refuse to support a political union with Russia.

The spirit of nationalism that animates Ukrainian resistance to Russian imperialism is reminiscent of the spirit of nationalism that once inspired Vietnamese resistance to American imperialism. It is wise to remember that India, a country that itself grew out of a successful independence movement against an imperial power, spontaneously supported the Vietnamese as they tried to free themselves first from French and then American rule. Despite India’s reliance on US economic and military aid in the 1960s—the former being crucial to prevent famine—we did not hesitate to point out to the US government that what it was doing in Vietnam was both morally wrong and politically unwise.

Another parallel, even closer to home, comes to mind. In 1970, the people of what was then East Pakistan became increasingly disenchanted with the economic exploitation, social discrimination and political oppression of what was then West Pakistan. Their innate Bengali nationalism forced itself against an imposed Islamic identity. They longed for a nation of their own. However, the military regime in power in Islamabad insisted that East Bengal was primarily Pakistanis. They tried to suppress the insurgency by force, which led to India’s intervention and the establishment of an independent nation of Bangladesh.

Memories of Bangladesh

The Ukrainians are now to the Russians what the Bangladeshis once were to the Pakistanis – namely a people with an independent national identity trying to free themselves from the oppression of a more powerful country that falsely claims to share (and represent) their identity and their history. In 1970-71, India rightly denounced the Pakistani military for its brutality, rightly sheltered millions of refugees from East Pakistan and rightly used a modest amount of military force when it became feasible and necessary. Admittedly, since Bangladesh was next door and Ukraine is far away, this kind of material support is not feasible in this case. But should we go to the other extreme and – through our continued refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – be complicit in the crimes committed by Putin and his men in Ukraine?

One can speculate about the reasons behind the highly unsatisfactory response of the Indian government to the events in Ukraine. Perhaps it is our reliance on Russian military supplies that is at work here.

Perhaps the ruling party’s ideologues fear that if we emphasize that Ukrainians have the right to be a free nation, some people will make the same kind of advocacy for the Kashmiris or the Nagas. Perhaps the government hopes that by diversifying our oil resources, it can keep inflation under control and avert social discontent. Perhaps even after eight years as prime minister, Narendra Modi is not really aware of the complexities of international geopolitics and therefore cannot take a position.

Whatever the reasons, the Indian government’s stance – or rather lack of a stance – on Ukraine is both morally untenable and politically imprudent. Speaking in Krishna-menonesk mode, our foreign minister has accused European nations of hypocrisy for using Russian gas, while criticizing India for buying Russian oil. That the West can be hypocritical isn’t exactly breaking news. However, what may be relevant here is the hypocrisy of the Indian government in this regard.

Next month we will celebrate the 75th anniversary of our independence from British colonial rule. This birthday has been widely published by the Modi sarkar; there is no government advertisement, press release or email not mentioning that this is our Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav. And yet, in this lavish celebration of 75 years of political freedom, the Indian government cannot bring himself to recognize the persistence of imperialism in the world today, as was most clearly manifested in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. .

There is a compelling moral case for Indians to support the brave resistance of the Ukrainian people. And I believe there is also a political matter. Because of our economic and demographic size, as well as our military and other assets, India has been taken fairly seriously in global public affairs for some time now. Given China’s own tacit endorsement of Putin’s actions, if our government had more candidly condemned the invasion, it could have helped put real pressure on Putin and his regime.

India’s support could have decisively turned the story against Russia and brought it to the negotiating table. If our government had acted like this, it would have increased our credibility on the world stage and helped end suffering.

Ramachandra Guha’s New Book, Rebels against the Raj, is now in stores. His email address is ramachandraguha@yahoo.in.

This article originally appeared in De Telegraaf.

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