Tuesday, Oct 04, 2022

How to intervene

As the Libya vote shows,India’s Security Council stint is testing its foreign policy myths.

All big nations have enduring myths about their foreign policies. India is no exception. One of its principal myths,the presumed commitment to non-intervention in the internal affairs of other nations,has been purveyed widely in the last few days as the world debates the use of force against Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya.

At New York,India has gone along with the United Nations Security Council Resolution imposing a few sanctions against the Libyan regime — arms embargo,travel ban,freeze on accounts of the leadership.

But New Delhi has found it necessary to explain its vote because of domestic squeamishness about Western intervention in Libya.

Senior officials have suggested that Delhi was not even for sanctions,but had to go along with the consensus in New York.

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The government’s defensiveness suggests that Delhi has reverted to form — with all its humbug and hypocrisy about non-intervention as a high principle of India’s foreign policy — at the very first major diplomatic test since it joined the UNSC as a non-permanent member in January.

It is a good moment,then,to scrutinise the Indian myth about non-intervention. For one,it is attributed to Jawaharlal Nehru who supposedly invented “Panchsheel”,the alleged foundation of India’s foreign policy.

The truth,however,is it was Chinese premier Zhou Enlai who insisted on putting the Panchsheel into the preamble of the 1954 agreement on trade and intercourse with the Tibet region of China and India.


Zhou Enlai had good reasons. When China emphasised non-intervention,it was about insisting that India lay off Tibet and cede the many special privileges Delhi had inherited from the Raj.

Paradoxical as history tends to be,Delhi and Beijing have conformed to Panchsheel more in breach than observance.

Second,if you ask any of our smaller neighbours in the subcontinent about India’s commitment to Panchsheel,they might laugh but for the fact that they find themselves at the receiving end of Indian interventions.


Sending troops into East Pakistan to liberate Bangladesh in 1971 and keeping peace in Sri Lanka in 1987 are among the most notable. The Pakistanis will come up with a longer list of Indian interventions and some Nepalese might say India’s political and diplomatic intervention is a permanent part of their national life.

When it comes to the subcontinent,India says it has special responsibility to maintain peace and order in the subcontinent.

Let us accept for a moment that India has good reasons to intervene within the subcontinent and object to the interventions of other powers. But does it have a consistent policy on issues relating to international intervention in the world beyond the subcontinent?

Not really. India has taken all possible positions. On some issues,it was active in promoting intervention. India took the lead,way back in the 1940s,in pressing the international community to sanction and punish the apartheid regime in South Africa. And in the 1980s,it was Rajiv Gandhi who renewed the campaign.

Not all cases of intervention are drawn in black and white. India opposed some interventions; it supported or acquiesced in others.


During the Cold War,India tended to criticise Western interventions around the world,but was somewhat ambivalent about Soviet interventions in East Europe.

There has been a particular sensitivity to Western interventions in the Middle East. Political parties are reluctant to offend the sentiments of the large Muslim population at home,whatever the merits of the issue might be. This is not a preoccupation of the Congress party alone.


The Janata Dal-led government was tongue-tied when Iraq’s Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait in the 1990s. Foreign Minister Inder Kumar Gujral went to Baghdad and hugged Saddam Hussein; it did not matter that the sovereignty of Kuwait,a fellow Third World country,was at stake. When its government was negotiating with Washington on the possible contribution of troops to Iraq in 2003,it was the BJP that came out first against it.

In the 1980s,India had difficulty publicly opposing the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. After all,the Russians were our friends. They gave us arms and backed us in the UNSC to stop the Anglo-American powers from poking their nose in Jammu and Kashmir.


While the Indian political classes are opposed to Western intervention in Libya,they are unlikely to question Saudi Arabia,if it chooses to intervene in Bahrain now to help the minority Sunni regime there put down the revolt of the majority Shia community.

Opposing Western interventions is easy. Delhi would rather avoid taking positions when one Muslim country invades another.

In an example of a different kind,India defied much of the world and our ASEAN friends in lending support to Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia to oust the genocidal regime of Poll Pot. It was for a good cause,but also involved some realpolitik — helping Vietnam stand up against China.

If you think only India is hypocritical,think again; most of the above examples indicate a similar but more consequential Western hypocrisy. Western powers for decades resisted international sanctions against White South Africa. The West opposed India’s humanitarian intervention in East Pakistan and rallied behind Pol Pot’s clique despite its genocide. As the Middle Eastern regimes totter today,the Western response is bound to differentiate between allies and adversaries.

The fact is that intervention in the internal affairs of nations is part of international life. Not much has changed since India’s ancient scriptures talked of “Matsyanyaya” — big fish eating small-in the raja-mandala,or the circle of states.

As India rises on the world stage,its interests become global and it is called on to contribute to regional and international peace and security,the real question before India is not whether to intervene,but when,where and how.

It is not about consistency,but arriving at prudent judgments on use of force — either unilateral or multilateral. It is about choosing between competing interests and balancing India’s political values and strategic interests. Pious platitudes on non-intervention are neither credible nor helpful for an emerging India.

First published on: 07-03-2011 at 02:37:37 am
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