Decoding India’s Response to the Arab Spring
“As the world’s largest democracy, India supports popular aspirations for a democratic and pluralistic order. Nevertheless, such transformations cannot be prompted by external intervention, which exacerbate the suffering of ordinary citizens. The deteriorating situation in Syria is a matter of particular concern…We should urge all parties to recommit themselves to resolving the crisis peacefully through a Syrian-led inclusive political process that can meet the legitimate aspirations of all Syrian citizens.”
-Dr Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India, at the 16th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, Tehran, August 30, 2012
The Premier’s statement, released just weeks after India abstained from a resolution of the UN General Assembly on Syria, highlights New Delhi’s cautious yet calibrated position on the civil war. The country has taken a restrained stance, consistent with its posturing on other populist movements in the Middle East. It can be argued that India’s foreign policy approach to the Arab Spring has been conditioned by domestic socio-political calculations and energy security fears.
Five essential components can be identified as being part of the Indian response: Concern for welfare of overseas citizens, protection of national interests, maintaining equilibrium at home, re-enforcing principles of state sovereignty and non-intervention, and inclination towards preserving the status quo.
The Middle East is seen by India as a region of strategic importance for multiple reasons. For starters, the oil-rich Gulf region is home to over five million migrant Indian workers. The World Bank estimates that non-resident Indians remitted around $64 billion to India during 2011-12. A significant proportion of this came from the Diaspora in Gulf countries.
During the initial phase of the Arab-Spring, India’s top priority was ensuring safety of its overseas citizens. The number of non-resident Indians in an affected country determined the intensity of the Centre’s official reaction to important events. This became apparent in the case of Tunisia, which does not have a significant population of Indians. Therefore, the turmoil in Tunisia did not generate a reaction from Dr Singh’s Government.
Only after the movement spread to Tahrir Square in Egypt’s Cairo (a country where close to 4,000 Indians reside) did India’s diplomatic machinery spring into action. Concerns for its citizens’ welfare subjugated the country’s position on Bahrain, Libya and Yemen- home to more than 400,000 Indians. A significant feature of India’s response was the evacuation of its people from Egypt and Libya. Importantly, a successful evacuation cannot be possible without support from the incumbent Government. In Egypt and Libya, India had to negotiate with regimes whose time was running out. New Delhi’s penchant for extreme caution and restraint, severely delayed its official response to the Arab awakening. Simply put, India was waiting for its citizens to be safely evacuated before communicating the state’s official position. The first official statement on Egypt came on January 30, 2011, more than a week after protesters began gathering in Tahrir Square. India was severely criticised for its ‘indifference’ and for remaining a ‘mute spectator’ in the early stages.
Energy security is a national priority for India, as it has to support the needs of 1.2 billion people. The inter-relationship between energy, resources and national security underscores the country’s policy approach to the region. India’s domestic demand for oil was 3.34 million barrels per day in 2010, 3.46 Mbd in 2011 and 3.58 Mbd in 2012. Corresponding internal production during the same three-year period stood at 0.86, 0.9 and 0.92 Mbd’s respectively. This increasing shortfall is being met by imports largely from the Middle East, which account for two-thirds of India’s oil trade. External dependence on oil will continue into the next decade as India aims to modernize civic infrastructure and extend economic development to its hinterland.
India’s precarious energy situation means that it cannot afford uncertainties in supply. It may be recalled that the Libyan upheaval caused oil production to halt, albeit for a brief while. Though India is not a major importer of Libyan oil, it did feel the ramifications. Oil prices touched $120 to a barrel in 2011, for the first time since 2008. Interestingly, oil prices could go to $200– $300 a barrel if the world's top crude exporter Saudi Arabia also becomes a victim of serious political unrest, former Saudi oil minister Sheikh Yamani, has been quoted as saying in the press. Although Syria produces relatively modest quantities of oil and gas, its location is strategic in terms of regional security and prospective energy transit routes.
India is the world’s fourth largest importer of oil and so the slightest upward movement in crude prices can upset the Centre’s fiscal calculations. In the last two years, India saw its average cost of importing crude rise by $27 per barrel, bloating the oil import bill to $140 billion from $100 billion. Oil import costs have gone up by more than three times from $48 billion in 2006-07. Moreover, the centre subsidizes the commercial use of gasoline, diesel, liquid petroleum gas and kerosene. A 2011 Goldman Sachs study linked a $10 rise in global oil prices to a 0.2 percentage points decline in India's economic growth.
The United States too shared India’s pre-occupation with the Middle East for many of the same reasons. However, recent technological advancements and discoveries of internal reserves of fossil fuels (shale gas and new gas fields) have emerged as a game changer. If the US reduces its dependence on Middle Eastern oil imports, the geopolitics of the region will be altered forever.
Speaking at a meeting organised by a think tank last year, India’s National Security Advisor Mr Shiv Shankar Menon, said, “The Western developed economies can now afford the chaos that the so-called Arab Spring is bringing to the Middle East. They can actively encourage regime change in the area. The main victims of uncertainty in supply will be emerging economies like China and India who are still to diversify their sources of supply into long-term flexible contracts with other outside the region.”
What Mr Menon stops short of mentioning is that India has several reasons to back the status quo. India has strong ties with states in the Middle East, despite many of them being autocratic regimes. India is reluctant to preach about political and structural changes even to its immediate neighborhood. Mr PR Kumaraswamy, a researcher with The Leonardo Davis Institute for International Relations, alludes to this in ‘Reading the Silence: India and the Arab Spring’ (2012).
“India’s preferred option has been to allow different societies to determine their individual destinies. Democracy promotion as such has never been India’ Foreign Policy agenda.”
The 1971 military intervention in East Pakistan (which created the republic of Bangladesh) and opposition to apartheid in South Africa were two significant exceptions to this stance.
At the same time, India has a deep sense of empathy towards the Palestinian cause. India backed Palestine at a historic UN General Assembly vote earlier this year that upgraded the Palestinian Authority to non-member observer state from an entity. Despite this, India’s industrial and defence relations with Israel have been blossoming.
Till recently, India used to be the second largest importer of heavily discounted crude from Iran. Iran also provides crucial trade routes to Central Asia, Russia and Afghanistan, enabling New Delhi to bypass Pakistan, as Islamabad does not allow transportation rights over its territory.
New Delhi-Riyadh relations got a major fillip last year after the extradition of wanted terrorist Abu Jundal to India. Saudi Arabia is home to 2.5 million Indians, making it one of the largest bastions for Indian Diaspora.
Unfortunately for India, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have diametrically opposite views on the future of Syria. The beleaguered president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad has the backing of the Shia regime in Iran while the Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia and Qatar are said to be working behind the scenes, along with Western allies, to script a change. In many ways, protests in the Arab world seem to be moving from the ideal of establishing democracy towards increasing polarisation and sectarianism. India does not approve of the conundrum.
Moreover, India has a sizable population of both Sunni and Shia Muslims. The two sects have had a history of violent clashes especially in the North Indian states of Jammu & Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh. Hence, India refrains from publicly siding with the Shia and Allawite-backed Syrian regime or adhering to the views of the Sunni dominated Saudi Arabia.
India is also concerned over a possible perception of conspiring with the West against Muslim states. This view assumes significance as some scholars point to the role Israel may have played in the build-up to protests in Cairo. Writing in May 2011, Anwar Alam, an academic in the Jamia Millia Islamia University in Central Delhi, observed:
‘The anger burst out in Egypt for three reasons. First, the closure of Rada (sic) border by Mubarak Government in 2010-in view of Israeli blockade of Gaza-that used to provide the only outlet to the people of Gaza and the other necessary commodities for day to day life.’
Within the 1.2 billion citizenry of India (roughly one-sixth of the world’s population), there are practioners of all faiths. Muslims form the largest minority group. In terms of sheer numbers, India has the second largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia. Indians belong to over 2,000 ethnic groups and speak 22 ‘official’ languages. The secular republic of India is extremely sensitive of supporting any international initiative that could disturb equilibrium at home.
At the same time, India does not subscribe to the narrative that reforms should be limited due to sectarian tensions. While it is no evangelist of democracy, India supports clamour for regime change and self-rule, if that is what the population wants. However, India does not prescribe or approve of external involvement as the means to achieve this change. For ideological and domestically sensitive reasons, India condemns all forms of outside intervention in the affairs of another state.
State sovereignty versus responsibility to protect
Ideologically, the Indian state is not comfortable with the notion of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P). India continues to be fixated on the Westphalian system of sovereignty and territorial integrity, under which internal affairs are the exclusive purview of the state.
(R2P empowers the international community to prevent large scale human rights violation in a state through coercive means if the state has been unable or unwilling to do so itself. It supports external intervention to prevent or halt four types of atrocities, namely, genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing).
India has been critical of the selective implementation of R2P. According to its permanent representative to the UN Mr Hardeep Singh Puri, R2P is ‘being selectively used to promote national interest rather than protect civilians’. While R2P was invoked (by major western economies) in support of an intervention in Libya and Syria, there was a disconcerting silence to apply the same principle when state security forces crushed rebellions in Bahrain and Yemen.
India fears that the R2P doctrine can be exploited for meddling in its internal affairs. There have been a number of armed conflicts and freedom movements in the northeast of India for many years. A Maoist insurgency movement is raging cross nine Indian states. India has been refusing international intervention in the row with Pakistan over its control of the ‘disputed territory’ of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). India does not want to take cues from the international community on how to solve its bilateral conflicts and internal challenges. Moreover, the Indian government has a questionable human rights record in J&K. The security establishment has been accused of systemic human rights abuses that range from mass killings, forced disappearances, torture, rape and sexual abuse to political repression and suppression of freedom of speech.
India’s fixation with the Westphalian system is perfectly analysed by Mr Kumaraswamy in his 2012 work:
“…Indian silence on issues such as democratisation, human rights, and governance brought into the open by the Arab Spring should be viewed within the context of its domestic situation; its fear of encouraging similar interventionist policy by the world body. Like many other Third World countries and vulnerable countries, New Delhi takes refuge in sovereignty and non-interference.”
One can conclude that India’s stance on the Arab Spring is heavily influenced by energy security aspirations, social stability considerations and its history of internal and cross-border conflicts. The high stakes compel India to goad in a direction that neither appeases nor impedes the designs of Arab states. Taking a middle path is not a sign of endorsement for totalitarian regimes. Nor should the stance resonate of indifference towards populist sentiments. It probably is the only feasible option for India.
This explains why Dr. Singh’s Government refrained from voting on a UN Security Council chapter 7 Resolution that sought to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya. In 2012, India abstained from a Saudi-drafted resolution that imposed sanctions on Syria and called for President Bashar Al Assad to step down.
Despite having strong reasons to back its muted stance, India’s positioning unfortunately re-affirms stereotypes about its inability to take a leadership role in international affairs. Being seen as indecisive and constrained during crucial times could compromise India’s much sought after bid for a permanent seat at the UNSC. But for the time being, the mandarins in New Delhi have little to choose from...
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