Let’s start with a trick quiz question. And no googling please. What, when and why was Operation Searchlight? Those who know the answer will also figure why I am bringing this up on the Russian invasion of Ukraine and India’s position on it.
India’s repeat abstentions at the UN votes (even Bangladesh has now decided to vote against Russia) have drawn Western criticism and taunts of immorality. Hi there India, you have pretensions to be the Vishwaguru, no? Some hypocrisy over this destruction of a much smaller state by a military superpower. How long can you afford to be silent? At what cost to your moral stature internationally?
These three taunts are easy to answer. To be a Vishwaguru or not is an ideological proposition that not a lot of Indians vote for. In any case, it is a work in progress. Even for its proponents, the BJP/RSS, the time to think about it is not when the Chinese PLA is staring down at India in Ladakh and elsewhere. On the second question, we’d reverse the equation. India has a prudent need to be silent until it can afford to speak out. As for moral stature, we need to expand the debate. And bring in Operation Searchlight.
The day this column is being written is coincidentally the 51st anniversary of the day the Pakistani army launched its crackdown in what used to be East Pakistan. It unleashed over the next 250 days one of the greatest mass atrocities in post-World War II history in the entire world. May be only rivalled later by the Khmer Rouge. Millions were killed, maimed, raped and more than 10 million forced to seek refuge in India. That’s more than three times the Ukrainian refugees in neighbouring countries yet.
Of course, it bothers a lot of the privileged world so much more because it is happening in the heart of Europe, not in the ‘usual’ places such as Africa, Asia, Latin America. This is a war one country has launched on another with a military. The havoc of those eight months in East Pakistan, 1971, wreaked by an almighty army which also owned the government under a military dictator, on a population that was as defenceless as poverty-stricken. Today, Bangladesh may have grown so brilliantly as to have a per capita income way higher than the sibling Pakistan that tormented it. It is still about a half of Ukraine’s. The name that the Pakistani army gave that campaign of murder, rape and pillage was Operation Searchlight.
Since questions of morality are being raised on India’s silence or ambivalence over Ukraine, it should be instructive to check the voting record and public positions that the Western world — and Washington in particular — took on that mass murder. Did they have the moral high ground?
Which is where I make my central point. No nation, weak or strong, rich or poor, has its foreign and strategic policies determined by morality. Any that claims so, won’t survive a 10-second fact-check. Switzerland, with its eternal neutrality and its God-given right to fatten on the ill-gotten wealth of thieves, thugs, mass killers, dictators and despots from across the world.
The super-moralistic Sweden, supporter of all righteous causes and activists in the world, which paid bribes in poor India to sell its artillery guns (Bofors) and never bothered bringing anyone to account in 35 years? America, which becomes so holier-than-cow when the Russians invade Afghanistan, but has zero compunction occupying the same sovereign nation and leaving it in ruins under the Taliban? The Russians at least made an orderly retreat and left behind a government.
Or now over Ukraine, about two decades after laying Iraq to waste on the fraudulent claims of Saddam Hussein possessing nuclear weapons?
The Chinese? As a citizen of India, the leading member of what I describe as the Cheen Peedit Samaj (Society of China’s Victims), I am fully within my rights to say, give me a break and go to hell. Britain, that went so far as Falklands to fight with Argentina for some disputed island territory so far away and carried out that sinking of mostly defenceless and harmless old cruiser General Belgrano much in the nature of a colonial reprisal? Or, check out the fate of the Chagossians and the fight Mauritius is waging to regain its rightful territories.
We are not judging any of these great nations on the touchstone of morality. It is naive to expect nations to let their strategic choices to be determined by morality. Nations act only in their own interest. All else comes later.
Surveying the world now, the positions that the key Islamic nations have taken on the oldest World War II issue concerning them, Palestine, teach us the same lesson. Today, most of the powerful Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, even Qatar, have mostly dumped the Palestinian cause. Super-Islamist Erdogan’s Turkey has just given the president of Israel a reception of the kind reserved for some ‘jigri dost’, an iron brother, stalwart ally, whatever you call it. Iran on the other hand wages distant proxy wars for the Palestinians, even at the cost of further breaking Syria and Lebanon. Tehran’s leverage with the world comes from Israeli fears over its nukes and missiles. Once that cheque is encashed, let’s see how long the Iranians endure Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthis and the rest.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi can be an honoured chief guest of sorts at the OIC summit in Islamabad and upbraid India over Kashmir. His government, meanwhile, keeps beating up on the Uyghurs, and the leading lights of OIC, especially Pakistan, whose prime minister (until he’s there) claims credit for having the UN declare an annual day against Islamophobia, don’t dare to even whisper. They are being cynical and selfish but not immoral. Because they are all acting in what they see as their supreme national interest. The Ummah comes later.
To question China over the Uyghurs, Pakistan will need to redefine its national interest as something other than Kashmir and enmity with India. Until then the plight of Uyghurs suits them. The more the Chinese are insecure about Xinjiang, the greater their stake in control over its largest Islamic neighbour, Pakistan. National interest above all.
India suffered from moral delusions of grandeur for too long. Until, say, 1991, Indian foreign policy was pro-non-alignment, pro-Soviet, pro-Palestinian, anti-Apartheid and so on. There were long junctures, however, when it wasn’t sufficiently pro-Indian. I chose 1991 because this is when P.V. Narasimha Rao made the first step away from the Cold War freeze of non-alignment as a lousy cover for being a Soviet ally, and established full diplomatic ties with Israel.
For decades before that, India had voted, screamed, raised holy outrage against the Israelis and the West for the sake of the Palestinians. Check out the voting records of the Arab states and the positions OIC took during India’s wars and terror crises. Jordan’s transfer of F-104 Starfighters to Pakistan in 1971 is well documented. Today, if the same Arab countries have completely reversed their position on India, it isn’t because they have become immoral or un-Islamic.
This is not an argument for or against the Modi government. Any Indian government at this juncture would have voted and spoken exactly this way. It isn’t just about the vast Indian dependence on Russian-origin military equipment. It is also about trust.
India has been the recipient of the severest sanctions for nearly three decades after Pokhran 1974 and 1998. Meanwhile, the US plied Pakistan with F-16s and more, overlooking its much more advanced nuclear weapons programme with Chinese support. Because that jihad in Afghanistan was to be won, you see. Could India survive without deterrence when two vicious nuclear powers, let’s say a ‘bada’ (big) Putin and a ‘chhota’ (tiny) Putin in cahoots threatened it? But when India demonstrated that deterrence, sanctions followed.
These are just a few of the reasons we can’t examine India’s policy on Ukraine in terms of morality. And if you do, turn that moral searchlight within.