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Why India can’t join in isolating Russia — Beyond stranded students, there’s Western hypocrisy

Is Modi govt's refusal to take sides in the Russia-Ukraine conflict any different from the Nehru-Gandhi govts' actions during the Cold War years? Critics must ask.

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The University of Milan in Italy last week banned a course in reading famed Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky – it has since backtracked on its original, ridiculous decision. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has severed all ties with the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, a Russian university that prides itself on cutting-edge research, “in light of the unacceptable military action against Ukraine.” Russian gymnasts have been banned from all international events, just like other sports, notably football, which have refused to showcase Russian athletes.

Even as the West is trying to isolate Russia abroad, the Russian government has heavily censored the country’s media in an attempt to control all criticism of President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Specifically, news outlets cannot use the word “war” or “invasion”, and have to restrict themselves to describing it as a “special military operation.”

The Russians should have been marking 30 years of the disintegration of the former Soviet Union which allowed them to rejoin the world — send their children to universities abroad, holiday in exotic destinations and open up their country to outside influences.

Instead, they are getting caught up in a renewed cycle of hostility, skewered between the actions of a president who has been Russia’s top leader for 22 years and an international community that is targeting the people in what seems like a vindictive, mirror-image of what they are facing at home.

According to the conservative US newspaper Christian Science Monitor, Putin is increasingly consulting no one but himself on all major decisions. The BBC reported how Putin publicly shut up Sergei Naryshkin, his own intelligence chief, at a meeting of the national security council, excerpts of which were leaked to the press.

Also read: More honesty, less grandstanding can prevent Ukraine war from ballooning into a world war

Modi’s Russia pressure situation

It is this difficult situation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been confronted with. On the one hand, there is the strategic relationship with Russia – not just in terms of India’s dependence on Russian defence equipment, but also in the fact that the Russian veto in the UN Security Council allows developing nations the option to pursue alternative ideas and modes of development.

On the other hand, India is under pressure by the US and Europe to live up to its own democratic ideals. Not that Indians need to be told by Western nations to do so — Indians are deeply discomfited by the fact that their old friend, Russia, one morning decided to walk into Ukraine, never mind its deepest concerns about NATO inching slowly in its direction. Apart from violating the territorial integrity of another country, the Russian action is a serious infringement of everything India stands for.

For the time being, the safety of Indian students still caught in the Russia-Ukraine crossfire has become New Delhi’s top foreign policy priority. PM Modi is speaking to both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to try and get the remaining students out – Sumy on the eastern front is an especially fragile spot, with as many as 800 students still stuck there.

Meanwhile, India has devoted this past fortnight in transforming its “abstention vote” — a refusal to confirm or deny — into an instrument of high foreign policy. It has twice abstained at the UNSC, once at the UN General Assembly and once at the UN Human Rights Council on the matter of criticising Russia’s invasion.

Some would witheringly say that India’s refusal to take sides demonstrates its unwillingness to step up to the high international table, which in turn demonstrates its inability to play the big poker stakes that are often demanded by divisive international situations. That India would much rather stay cocooned in the comfort of the back-bench than sit up and shape an outcome demanded by the difficult matter at hand.

These voices would accuse the Modi government of “Non-Alignment 3.0” — just like the Nehru-Gandhi governments did during the Cold War years when India skilfully manoeuvred between the two former superpowers, or during the Manmohan Singh years when it refused to take sides on the US invasion of Iraq or Libya. (In fact, the 2003 invasion of Iraq resulted in a parliamentary resolution that used the Hindi word “ninda,” somewhere between “criticism” and “contempt”, to describe the invasion.)

Also read: From 1962 to Ukraine—three lessons for India’s non-alignment policy

Can’t ignore West’s hypocrisy 

What’s the point of India being on the Security Council, which it aims to, if it isn’t able to see the wood for the trees, goes the argument.

Some answers are obvious, others less so. First, the Modi government has refused to make an official statement on the Ukraine invasion in Parliament, which indicates movement from its 2003 position. Second, India’s genuine discomfort with Russia’s war does not mean Delhi approves of the hypocrisy demonstrated by the US-led Western bloc.

Apart from thinking of banning Dostoyevsky – which is ironical, because the 19th century Russian writer was penalised to hard labour by the Tsar for his criticism of his regimes — or taking pro-state TV channels like Russia Today off the air, these nations are unwilling to use the same yardstick for Putin as they did for themselves.

The Economist magazine has blood dripping from a Ukrainian flag on its latest cover — in sharp contrast to its “The case for war” cover for Iraq in 2003, arguing then that it was necessary to deter dictators from employing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). As we knew then, and definitely know now, Saddam Hussein was willing to kill his own people if they expressed dissent but he certainly didn’t have any WMD.

Should India, then, shut up in the face of international hypocrisy? Moreover, can it do anything about it? There are answers to both sides of the coin.

For the moment, or at least until every Indian student returns home, the Modi government is holding its nose. Abstaining is also one way of telling your audience that you don’t agree with either side and that there must be a third way – perhaps, like the Buddha once said, it is worthwhile to search long and hard for the middle path.

Jyoti Malhotra is a senior consulting editor at ThePrint. She tweets @jomalhotra. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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