Revulsion, Disgust in India at the War

More than a week after President George W. Bush launched his "shock and awe" campaign against Iraq in flagrant violation of international law and the will of the world community, there is growing popular revulsion, disgust and anger in India at the gory campaign of death and destruction unleashed by the Anglo-American coalition. There is also mounting disappointment at and opposition to the Indian government’s ambivalent stand on the war.

Anti-war protests are growing. Although severely under-reported, there have been strong demonstrations in more than 100 cities. The main Opposition parties, barring the Congress, have now formed a joint front which will launch a series of protest actions all over the country, beginning March 31.

Prominent among the anti-war campaign issues is the boycott of US and UK companies, from oil giants to consumer products conglomerates, and more than 30 brands in garments, colas and tobacco. Protestors are expected to make a bonfire of these – an action reminiscent of the public burning of British-made cloth during India’s struggle against colonialism led by Mahatma Gandhi.

More than 85 percent of Indians polled oppose the war on Iraq. The vast majority of them believe that the world will be a much worse, more dangerous, place at the end of the war, which will aggravate the threat of sub-state terrorism. They particularly oppose the indiscriminate use of force against Iraqi civilians. Buttressing this view is the surge of sympathy in India for the Iraqi people. Most Indians identify with the Iraqis as Third World people culturally akin to themselves, who have suffered under colonial rule and discrimination, and who have, like them, fought against imperialism.

Most Indians strongly opposed the 1991 Gulf War. So did their government initially, but it later caved in. In the late 1990s, Indian civil society organisations campaigned for the lifting of sanctions against Iraq and collected voluntary donations of food and medicine.

Today, as in the 1990s, the Indian opposition to the war on Iraq cuts across religious, ethnic, linguistic, and geographic lines. Only a small minority of people support the war: ultra-Right politicians in Hindu-extremist groups, confused neo-liberals, and strategic hawks, for whom a "strategic partnership" with the US is more important than the Indian people’s interests.

These elements are driven by a visceral hatred of Pakistan, against whom they hope to recruit the US as an ally. Some are embarrassed that India ever followed a non-aligned policy and was a founder-leader of the Non-Aligned Movement. The anti-Pakistan posture derives largely from the temptation to blame India’s neighbour for all domestic and regional ills – and to evade responsibility for the Indian leadership’s abject failure to solve the country’s myriad problems.

Most Indians oppose the war on Iraq for a number of reasons:

  • They believe it is fundamentally unjust, unwarranted and against all canons of justice of war and justice in war. It lacks provocation. Iraq poses no credible threat to the US or the UK, nor has posed one to its own neighbours since 1991.
  • There is no link, as the US and the UK sought to make out – on the basis of doctored or forged documents – between Baghdad and "international terrorism" of the jehadi or Al-Qaeda variety. This is important because Indians are particularly sensitive to "terrorism", which is a reality in the country, especially in Kashmir, although the danger can be exaggerated by India’s Hindu-Right government.
  • The Anglo-American war coalition, which is what the supposedly global "Coalition of the Willing" has been reduced to, took the Iraq issue to the UN Security Council to obtain its authorisation for the use of force. But as soon as it discovered that it would lose a vote on its own "second resolution" (because it couldn’t swing even one of the highly vulnerable and weak "Middle Six" Third World states on the council to its side), it cynically withdrew it – to launch aggression. This shows the US’s utter contempt for the UN, indeed for all global and multilateral institutions, which it seeks to undermine.
  • The Iraq war is only the beginning of the process of building an American global Empire by re-drawing the borders of the Middle East, setting up a series of puppet regimes, and then rewriting the rules of international relations, indeed by shifting the global goalposts – through military hegemony.

Nothing sums up this grand venture better than the Washington-based think tank, Project for the New American Century. PNAC, whose members include powerful people like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Jeb Bush and Elliot Abrams, explicitly wants a world order in which the US alone has veto power and calls all the shots. Such "full-spectrum" dominance precludes even "advanced industrial nations from challenging our leadership or … even aspiring to a larger regional or global role".

PNAC’s documents have been published in the mainstream Indian media, evoking shock and disbelief. The post-war agenda of some of its leaders was brazenly outlined in reports of the March 21 briefing of the influential American Enterprise Institute, at which Perle was present. This agenda is: radical reform of the UN, "regime change" in Iran and Syria, and "containment" of France and Germany!

Clearly, for many Indians, what Washington’s topmost policy-shapers advocate is a Western (or rather American) version of the Brezhnev Doctrine they are only too familiar with – namely, "limited sovereignty" for the states of the Eastern bloc. The US wants poodles, not partners.

Many people here see the Indian government slipping precisely into that first status, after first opposing a war on Iraq (between September and January), and then (especially in the past six weeks) wriggling between saying no war without Security Council authorisation, and (timidly) opposing "regime change". Occasionally, Vajpayee, with characteristic lack of focus, piously says there should be no war "anywhere". The real reason for India’s pusillanimity is its courtship of America, and the US offer of contracts in post-war reconstruction.

Thus, the Indian government has repeatedly refused a proper Parliament debate on Iraq, followed by a vote (which would be overwhelming against war). This has been a strong and unanimous Opposition demand.

Many Indians are appalled at the government’s statements on the Iraq issue, which place the blame for war not on the US, but on the Security Council, for not "harmonising" its positions on Iraq!

The actual conduct of the war, in which 300 Iraqi civilians have perished, has further inflamed public opinion in this country. No one here believes that Iraq’s Shias – despite their antipathy towards the Saddam Hussein regime – could willingly support the invading Anglo-American troops as Iraq’s "liberators".

The "liberation" rhetoric is not unfamiliar here. In 1917, Lt General Stanley Maude, then leading the Anglo-Indian Army of the Tigres, used that very term after invading and occupying Iraq. He declared: "Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies…but as liberators". A terrible spell of colonial tyranny followed. The Iraqis learned never to trust imperial powers.

About 15,000 troops of the British Indian Army (half of them combatants) participated in this brutal operation. One of the greatest beneficiaries of the invasion of Iraq, referred to us "the Mosul, Basra and Baghdad Wilayats" in colonial documents, was Charles Greenway, later Lord Greenway, chairman of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. The parallels with today’s Halliburton and Bechtel are unmistakable!

If Bush, Blair, Tommy Franks all fall in the same category as Maude, a good chunk of the Western media’s contemporary coverage celebrating "the Allies’" triumph, based on "embedded" correspondents, falls in the category of crude war propaganda. A number of stories filed by CNN and the BBC, the main Western channels beaming to South Asia, have proved false or downright concocted.

They include the March 20 report of Saddam Hussein’s presence in a government building bombarded with a "decapitating" strike; doubts, unsupported by facts, about his (or his "double’s") pre-recorded television addresses (suggesting obsessive reluctance to accept he survived "decapitation"); and the Basra "uprising" staged by the southern Shias.

Regrettably, there aren’t too many Indian channels which use Al-Jazeera or Abu Dhabi TV as feed. However, the state-owned Doordarshan channel, with the widest coverage of all, has been carrying brief bulletins by an Indian programming company, Third Eye TV. This provides independent and far more critical spot coverage of the events in Iraq.

It is already apparent to most Indians that the promised, extremely brief, near-bloodless, war, which was to trigger either the Iraqi army’s instant disintegration or a coup against Saddam Hussein, may turn out to be a prolonged nightmare. Not only has the Anglo-American coalition suffered a series of setbacks – with 49 officially admitted deaths of soldiers, at least seven prisoners of war (PoWs) taken, a fratricidal attack by an American soldier, and repeated recrudescence of fighting in cities and facilities declared "captured". But stiff resistance from Iraqi militias and regular forces means that the US and British forces could get sucked into close-quarter combat and guerrilla warfare – in which they enjoy little advantage over the Iraqis, unlike their enormous superiority in "fourth-generation" high-technology warfare.

As the unsuccessful assault on the Medina division of Saddam’s Republican Guard shows, even fierce attacks haven’t "softened" Baghdad to a point where it cannot be defended against ground attack. If this situation persists, the US will have two broad options: get into close-combat – i.e. urban warfare – , or apply more force, less discriminately, by bombing military facilities located right next door to civilian inhabitations, or even target civilians. That is the true logic of war, after all.

The March 26 missile attack in a busy market in Baghdad, which killed at least 17 people, may be a sign of what’s to come. Slowly, but surely, Indians are becoming aware of the reality of this war and its horrendous human costs: children wounded and maimed, people’s homes devastated, and the young and old blown to bits – the very people in whose name this war is being waged.

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.