For lessons in realism on Israel-Palestine, India could’ve taken a cue from France’s vote at UNGA.
“Woh zamana gya jab log samajhte thhey videsh niti koi door ki baat hai…” External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar is heard saying in a video clip that surfaced on social media on Sunday. The purpose of taking the G20 meetings through the country, he says, was to “make the world India ready, and also to make India world ready”. At this time though, India seems fully out of step with the rest of the international community on an issue that threatens to cleave the world deeper than the Ukraine-Russia conflict.
India’s abstention in the vote on a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly calling for a humanitarian truce in Israel’s war on Gaza recalled Delhi’s tightrope walk on the votes over the Ukraine-Russia issue.
India’s gambit in that war had paid off. All the pressure from the West could not force India to change its stance. Even in Pakistan, India’s “independent” foreign policy came in for praise, including from its then prime minister Imran Khan. However, this time the balancing act feels different. In fact, it does not seem like a balancing act at all.
In the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Delhi’s neutrality had solid grounds: the defence dependence on Russia and Moscow’s support to India on the Kashmir issue from the time of the Soviet Union. The positioning enabled India to buy oil from Russia at discounted prices, and at an opportune time, preach Vishwaguru-gyan to the Russian President Vladimir Putin that “this is not an era of war”. It also gave India elbow room to forge a consensus Delhi Declaration at the G20 summit.
But in Israel’s war on Gaza, in which the casualties have surpassed the civilian toll inflicted on Israel by Hamas more than six times over, it is hard to find a realist reason not to vote for, let alone abstain from voting on a resolution calling for a humanitarian truce. In fact, the statement of explanation of the vote that deputy permanent representative Yojana Patel read out sounded more like a list of reasons why India should have voted for the resolution.
There was concern at the civilian casualties, the deaths of women and children in Gaza, and demands that the humanitarian crisis be addressed. It welcomed the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the civilians trapped in Gaza, flagging India’s contribution in this regard. It also noted that the “escalation of hostilities would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis”. It reiterated India’s long standing support for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine issue, and called on the parties to de-escalate and resume peace negotiations.
It gave no specific reason, however, for abstaining. Many of the 45 abstaining countries have said that the text of the resolution had no reference to Hamas and its October 7 acts of terrorism against Israel. An amendment moved by Canada for including this in the text had been rejected in another vote.
India had backed this amendment. But then, the Indian statement, which contains a strong condemnation of terrorism as “a malignancy [that] knows no borders, nationality, or race” and a call to “unite and adopt a zero-tolerance approach to terrorism”, does not mention Hamas.
The preamble to the resolution, on the other hand, does contain a clear condemnation “of all acts of violence aimed at Palestinian and Israeli civilians, including all acts of terrorism and indiscriminate attacks, as well as all acts of provocation, incitement and destruction”.
In the larger scheme, the resolution itself does not matter. It is non-binding, and the UN has never made a difference to the actual course of any conflict. UN resolutions are important for the positions they reveal – who is on whose side. Delhi’s positioning signals where it stands on this war – with the side that is inflicting unimaginable cruelty on a helpless civilian population trapped in a narrow piece of land.
The shift in India’s policy on the Israel-Palestine issue has been more than two decades in the making. But the swiftness with which India has abandoned its claimed leadership of the Global South is breathtaking. Even in India’s own backyard, every country in the Modi government’s “neighbourhood first policy” has voted for the resolution.
In another era, Prime Minister Modi’s personal proximity to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might have seen Delhi carry a message from the developing world to Israel about the dangers of escalation and the urgency of ending the hostilities and engaging in peace talks with the Palestinians. But it appears as if India prefers to make itself irrelevant on this issue.
Put to one side the morality of hair splitting over a humanitarian issue in the midst of aerial bombardment, artillery fire, the falling bodies of children, women and men, packed hospitals, the shortage of medicines, drinking water. Forget also that those who claim to uphold a rules-based order stand in violation of every rule in the book, almost equating themselves with a non-state actor.
For realism in a conflict whose global ramifications could make the Ukraine-Russia conflict seem like small potatoes, check out how France voted. In today’s Europe, it has the largest Jewish population, which is also the third largest in the world after Israel and the US. It also has Europe’s largest Muslim population. France and Israel have close ties, and President Emmanuel Macron counts Netanyahu as a friend. But it voted in favour of the resolution unlike most other western nations that abstained, making clear its differences with the text in the explanation.
“What is happening in the world today can impact the lives of ordinary citizens, it can change, in fact take over our lives,” Jaishankar says in the same video clip. Correct. The example he cited was the spread of Covid from Wuhan in China. He could have added how a conflict in a far away land can play out in the domestic politics of other countries, as for instance here in India, where those calling for an end to the hostilities in Gaza are being branded as “terrorist”. How the bombing of a Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Kerala can be linked to a pro-Palestinian rally. And how, from J&K to Tamil Nadu, local police forces are exerting themselves to keep a tight lid on anti-war protests.
Ordinary Indian lives might be affected in other ways too. Any strain in Delhi’s strong ties in the Arab world, where its strategic and economic interests run deep, and from where most of its energy supplies are sourced, is bound to have an immediate impact on the lives of ordinary Indians. In the Gulf, the seven million Indian diaspora would want to keep its head down and pray that the crisis blows over soon. Though there is no evidence to support this, the view has gained ground that the eight former Navy personnel who were convicted last week in Qatar of charges that are not yet clear and sentenced to death, have been made to pay the price for India’s solidarity with Israel.
The families will be hoping that the divergence in the position between Qatar – which plays host to the Hamas leadership and is mediating for the release of the Israeli hostages being held by the group in Gaza – and India on the conflict will play no role in the outcome of this saga.
Lessons from Afghanistan
When US President Joe Biden visited Israel days after the Hamas attack, he asked Israel not to be “consumed by rage” and repeat the mistakes an enraged US had made after 9/11. He did not elaborate these mistakes though western media speculated he may have meant the US invasion of Iraq or the failures in Afghanistan.
India could heed those words as well. After two decades of taking a staunch position against the ISI-created “terrorist Taliban”, and engaging only with the Republic of Afghanistan in Kabul, it did not take India long to embrace the reality of the Taliban as the “de facto authority” in that country. This with a group whose actions directly hit India several times, including the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul.
Comparisons have been drawn between the ISIS and Hamas. But Hamas is more like the Taliban. One big difference though is that the medieval minded Taliban does not believe in elections. Hamas stood for elections in the 2006 Palestinian legislative council elections, the last time that election was held, and won.
With calls from Israel for India to designate Hamas as a terrorist organisation, Delhi, which has not been hit directly by any action of the Palestinian extremist group, may want to keep in mind its own learnings from the Afghan outcomes.
The writer is the founder-editor of Awaaz South Asia.