The Indian refusal

Rajeev Bhargava
27 July 2003

It is with much relief that I write this piece from New Delhi. Good sense has finally prevailed. On 14 July, the government declined the United States government’s request to send Indian troops to Iraq. It took months of prevarication before the government reached this sane decision; some years ago, deliberations on this matter would have been over in minutes. Indeed, the US would simply not have made such a demand on India.

That so much thought was even given to such a demand points to a huge shift in Indian foreign policy. In the past, India has been pilloried, quite wrongly, for taking the moral high ground in international affairs. India’s policy of non-alignment was as close one can get to a morally upright stand of neutrality. Few countries in the world have stood by its exemplary, liberal internationalism.

This issue-based position, marked by a refusal to be predisposed to one or other superpower, was ridiculed in ‘realist’ circles the world over. The Indian political elite winced at this subtle derision but soothed themselves with the thought that those without real agency at least had the power to disagree. Isn’t morality the weapon of the weak? What else can the powerless do but profess moral judgments?

After India’s nuclearisation, this passive-looking, moralizing, non-performing India appears to be giving way to a pragmatic, robust wielder of power, rubbing shoulders with the superpowers of the world. ‘Forget morality, forge your way into global circles of power’ is the battle-cry of the new elite, many of whom believe that it would have done India a world of good to have complied with Bush’s demand. For this power-hungry elite, a historic opportunity has been missed to give India a new international identity.

The politics of collaboration

This new political class in India is afflicted with all the anxieties to which emerging powers are prone. Have they secured the international recognition they now deserve? Are they heard sufficiently by the powerful? Will they participate with other nuclear powers in shaping the destiny and future of the entire world? Will they become permanent members of the UN Security Council?

Such anxieties are anyway bolstered by globalisation as ordinary middle-class Indians wonder why – despite the talent, intelligence and skill they possess – they remain on the margins of international affairs. Is India still where it is because it lacks the killer instinct? Are Indians held back by their own culture and tradition that makes them androgynous, morally-upright, inward-looking, other-worldly? Surely, not the stuff that produces world-beaters!

If India is to become a power in the globalised world, Indians must shed their moral self-righteousness; acquire a practical sense, a manipulative, this-worldly cunning and aggressiveness. They must jettison talk of justice that demands concessions to the weak. For centuries, Indians have been obsessed with their families, with their mothers or their children. Now it is time to think in terms of larger collectivities, such as the nation. These thoughts plague the new middle class and make the ground fertile for the legitimation of a more ‘pragmatic’ policy. Or so the new political class believes.

How does one rub shoulders with the superpower? The new realist think-tanks in India believe that the political class in America recognises only two types of agents – its friends, such as Israel and Britain and its fiercest enemies, such as Iraq and Iran. You are either with them or against them. Americans ignore fence-sitters. Since India can neither become another Iraq nor wish to be, it is best to befriend America.

The political benefits are obvious. A better relationship with the US might have helped settle the long-standing problem of Kashmir. An India-friendly America would have pressurised Pakistan to end cross-border terrorism, to come to the negotiating table and reach an outcome more favourable to India.

But it is not just political benefits that the military presence of Indian troops would have brought to India. It might also have given Indian business a share in the spoils; fruitful contracts when the Americans begin undertaking the profitable venture of reconstruction – a sliver at least from the cake being carved up at the high table of global politics in Asia. They might even have managed to pinch a small share of the enormous oil wealth of Iraq.

The American dilemma in Iraq

Why the Bush administration so desperately wants troops from other countries in Iraq is pretty obvious.

First, the growing numbers of dead and wounded soldiers indicate a corresponding growth in insurgency. The occupiers know they are not perceived as liberators, especially if they stay. Thus any foreign force is likely to be embroiled in bloody combat for an indefinite period. This contrasts sharply with the earlier expectation that a much smaller force to police the region would suffice in the aftermath of a swift, manageable victory over Saddam.

A forcible, extended stay in Iraq has disturbed these calculations. So now the Bush administration wants to ensure that American body bags do not multiply and to give his boys respite. Thus, the burden of consolidating the new empire must be shared, preferably with those most likely to buckle under imperial pressure.

Second, the military occupation of Iraq costs the American exchequer $3 billion a month. This military expenditure must be reduced to offset the long term negative impact on the American economy.

Third, no matter how friendly or decent they wish to be, American soldiers, clueless about the culture of the land they have occupied, lack the conceptual wherewithal to do so. Their civilisational innocence and utter lack of preparedness mean that they are hardly likely to win the minds and hearts of the Iraqi people itself a precondition of peace and legitimacy.

Fourth, the greater the number of countries that send their forces to Iraq, the more effectively can America rebut the charge of unilateralism. Who does not want greater international legitimacy for their actions – and especially if they are morally dubious?

India: a handmaiden of empires

But why do the Americans so desperately need Indian troops? Because of the wealth of their experience, the local elite argues. Was not the state of Iraq a creation of the old Indian army at the end of the first world war? Has not practically every government department there been created jointly by India and Britain? Is it not true that, not long ago, every other officer of the Indian armed forces was part of the military training mission in Iraq? And have not Indian soldiers done it before, gone to Iraq to quell many a rebellion? Indians are old hands at this game. They know and understand Iraqis, are familiar with Iraq and are better equipped than the Americans to suppress Iraqi resistance and yet win back the hearts of ordinary subjects.

Indian troops have been used for the imperial purposes of others before. During the British Raj, Indian soldiers were deployed abroad to suppress anti-colonial revolts. As Amitav Ghosh brilliantly reminded us, they were branded as imperial lackeys who helped quell legitimate resistance to the British Empire in East Africa, Burma, China, Malaysia as well as Iraq.

Ghosh notes with irony how contemporary elite perceptions of that helping the Americans would catapult India into the big league with the delusions of the pro-imperial ‘comprador’ class which believed that services rendered to the Raj would eventually result in India’s recognition as an equal partner.

It did not happen then and it will not happen now. Americans are likely to abandon India as soon as it is trapped in the Iraq quagmire. The elite view betrays a lack of understanding of how the imperial mind works and what its strategic objectives are all about. If only permanent seats on major international bodies could be secured by small military manoeuvres! It is ridiculously naïve to expect a major shift in American policy towards Pakistan for the sake of a few Indian battalions.

The new elite would have us believe that Indian troops would have gone to Iraq as peacekeepers, to stabilise the situation in Iraq. Nothing could be further from the truth. The mysteriously sudden fall of Baghdad is now beginning to make sense. After initial resistance, Saddam’s forces did not as much surrender as simply melt away, only to resurface in a new guerrilla-like form. America may not have another Vietnam at hand but a prolonged, bloody, low-intensity conflict stares it in the face.

Indian troops would have been used not for peacekeeping, a misnomer anyway because Iraq is not a situation where alien army units are positioned to prevent the outbreak of violent conflict between two opposing groups. Rather, they would have found themselves waging a war on behalf of the Anglo-American occupying forces. It is their occupation that Indian troops would have helped to stabilise. Assisting an occupation begotten by aggression, as former prime minister I.K. Gujral said, is tantamount to endorsing it. Sending in troops would therefore be morally outrageous. Such action is at odds with the moral foundation of India’s independent struggle or the fundamental premise of Indian statehood.

A coincidence of morality and interest

It is bad enough to go against the moral grain of our collective endeavour in the past, but it would have been contrary to our long-term interest too.

First, it is easier to find a substitute for American troops when the going gets tough for them, but always much harder for relatively weaker countries to get help. Who would accede to a possible Indian request to take the place of Indian soldiers if they wanted to exit? Would the Americans return to Iraq after their boys are rested? If Americans find replacements hard to get, it would be virtually impossible for Indians.

Second, if India had agreed to send troops, it would have done so against an unusually strong democratic sentiment at home, international public opinion, and the advice of several friendly countries who warned India from early May when a serious American request was made. The Russian foreign minister, Igov Ivanov, expressed his misgivings. So did China, Malaysia and Kofi Annan in the beleaguered United Nations.

For Arabs, American aggression is driven by its corporate interests in oil and had the express intent of imposing a Middle East peace settlement that would kill Arab nationalism. It has not escaped Indian perception that the Arab world has viewed the whole episode as deeply humiliating. Sending troops to Iraq would certainly have derailed Indo-Arab friendship.

Third, an even more lasting impact would have been felt by the Indian diaspora in the Middle East. Communal and racial targeting is morally obnoxious but it does happen. Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) have been targeted in America simply because ordinary trouble makers mistook them for Middle Eastern Muslims. It would not have been a case of ‘mistaken identity’ in Iraq if the Indian diaspora was made to pay for the follies of the Indian state.

This outcome would have been most likely in Iraq because battle-weary and homesick troops are prone to sudden spurts of violence, particularly when faced with an impatient, equally irritable, and hostile crowd. Did the new power elite in India even consider the possible impact of such communal targeting on the dismal inter-communal relationship in India?

The link between morality and power is always tenuous. The powerful wantonly use morality for their ends only when it suits them. For much of the time, however, it remains value-less and redundant. The issue of troops to Iraq threw up a new dilemma for a country in transition: one that believes it is becoming powerful and wishes to be recognised as being so. No matter how mixed the motives behind this decision, I’m happy to find India ending up on the side of morality.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData