NEW DELHI – A major rift has opened up between the Indian government and domestic public opinion over Israel’s recent military actions in the Gaza Strip and its invasion of Lebanon, which have led to hundreds of civilian deaths over three weeks.
The Manmohan Singh government is hesitant to join the international community in unambiguously and consistently condemning Israel. But domestic opinion is appalled and outraged at the brazenness of the Israeli actions, which continue to cause havoc in Lebanon. The Indian public was particularly shocked at the bombing of Qana on Sunday, which killed dozens of civilians, including at least 16 children.
“The contrast between the mood expressed in the anti-Israel demonstrations held in different Indian cities over the past week, and the ambivalent, hesitant, and timid approach of the government could not have been any more stark,” says Qamar Agha, an independent expert on West Asian affairs who currently works for the Indian National Social Action Forum (INSAF), a non-government organization (NGO).
Uncharacteristically, the Indian government took three weeks to comment on Israel’s military attacks on Gaza and its arrest of a large number of elected Palestinian legislators, including members of President Mahmoud Abbas’ cabinet. This followed a Hamas attack on June 25 in which two soldiers were killed and one captured.
“This does not speak well of the government. It is acting under pressure from the United States and Israel. It is also keen to further expand its military ties with Israel and promote the U.S.-India nuclear deal with the help of pro-Israel groups,” said Agha.
In July 2005, India and the U.S. signed a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement to legitimize nuclear weapons held by this country and lift nuclear technology embargoes imposed after New Delhi first exploded a nuclear device in 1974.
India’s first response to the Lebanon crisis, on June 27, was to condemn the capture of the soldier. While commenting on the issue later, after ferocious Israeli attacks, India expressed mild “regret that Israel should have chosen to give a military response to the capture of an Israeli soldier rather than afford time and opportunity for diplomatic action.”
In the past, New Delhi used to affirm its recognition of the right of a people under occupation to militarily target and arrest soldiers of the occupying army. India also made no mention of the Israeli decision to impose harsh forms of collective punishment on civilians in Gaza by cutting off their water and power supply. It only tepidly referred to Israeli actions which “have affected the lives of ordinary citizens.”
When several public and political figures, including members of parliament from the leftist parties, protested against the government’s reluctance to call a spade a spade, New Delhi voted to reprimand Israel at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on July 6. The vote was 29 against 11.
Although India’s foreign ministry spokesman claimed the vote was “in keeping with [New Delhi’s] traditional position on Palestine,” the resolution in question did not affirm the cause of a Palestinian state or demand an immediate end to the Israeli occupation, the crux of the traditional Indian stand, to which the Singh government solemnly promised it would return.
India’s hesitation in deploring the Israeli offensive in Lebanon following a Hezbollah raid on July 12 on two Israeli military jeeps became evident when it described the violence as a conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. India condemned “the excessive and disproportionate military retaliation by Israel,” but stopped short of calling it an invasion or aggression targeting Lebanon’s civilian population.
“Israel’s actions had nothing to do with self-defense,” says Agha. “They were not directed mainly at Hezbollah, but also targeted noncombatant civilians in southern Lebanon. This is not a case of ‘collateral damage’ but of conscious, intended damage. The intention is related to what Israeli defense chief Dan Halutz described as Israel’s goal of ‘turning the clock back by 20 years in Lebanon.'”
In Israeli attacks, one Indian soldier working for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon was killed, and two others were injured. Some 12,000 Indian nationals live and work in Lebanon. Indian naval vessels have been trying to evacuate some of them. New Delhi’s relatively tepid reaction sits ill with these facts.
After the Qana attack last Sunday, India had no choice but to “strongly” condemn “the continued irresponsible and indiscriminate bombing of Lebanon by the Israeli military, ignoring calls for restraint. Particularly outrageous is the bombing this morning of a building in Qana in south Lebanon.” But the tone of this statement was much milder than the unanimous resolution passed in the lower house of the Indian parliament on July 31, which called “for an immediate and unconditional cease-fire” and called for “providing humanitarian relief to the victims of this tragic conflict.”
Even more important than such differences of tone is the Indian government’s announcement that it is going ahead with its first-ever joint venture with Israel to manufacture “cargo ammunition.” This collaboration between Indian ordnance factories and Israel Military Industries, a public-sector armaments firm, is the first case of foreign investment in Indian defense production, outside Russia and the former Soviet Union.
Simultaneously, the Indian military selectively briefed journalists on the “great importance” of the Israel-India military relationship. Israel has emerged as India’s second largest supplier of arms and ammunition, worth $900 million a year. (Russia is still the largest, at $1.5 billion.)
Recently, India and Israel entered into an agreement for the purchase of the advanced “Phalcon” airborne warning and control system, which can detect cruise missiles and low-flying aircraft earlier than ground-based radar. India’s armed forces have acquired military technology from Israel in many areas ranging from unmanned aerial vehicles, radars, and thermal imagers, to missiles, anti-missile defense, and electronic warfare systems.
“Regrettably, this military purchase relationship is now interfering with India’s independent foreign policy,” says Agha. “This is most unfortunate for India’s sovereign options.”
Another reason why New Delhi is reluctant to criticize Israel’s invasion of Lebanon unambiguously and categorically is its dependence on and close collaboration with the Israel lobby in the U.S., represented by groups like the American Jewish Committee and American-Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“Central to this collaboration,” says Anil Chowdhary of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace in New Delhi, “is India’s hectic lobbying to get the nuclear cooperation deal with the U.S. approved by Congress. The AJC proudly boasts that it is actively helping India swing opinion on Capitol Hill in favor of the deal. Clearly, Indian foreign policy has become a prisoner of the nuclear agreement.”
(Inter Press Service)