Beyond Occident – an opinion column by Avatans Kumar that explores a native perspective on the Indian diaspora
After his release from prison in 1990, where he was held for 27 years by the South African apartheid government, Nelson Mandela visited the US. During one town hall meeting, Ken Adelman, the VP of the Institute for Contemporary Studies, pressed Mandela, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, about his relationships with world leaders such as Yasser Arafat, Muammar Gaddafi, and Fidel Castro. Mandela responded:
“One of the mistakes which some political analysts make is to think that their enemies should be our enemies… We are an independent organization with its own policy, and the attitude… our attitude towards any country is determined by the attitude of that country to our struggle.”
Despite Mandela’s strong retort and the audience’s long thunderous applause with a standing ovation, the fact remains that the West expects and demands that their “enemies” be considered everyone’s enemy. The current Russo-Ukrainian conflict has confirmed this attitude. Most Western nations have demanded that others join them in Russia’s condemnation, boycott, and financial sanctions.
As the war rages thousands of miles away from American soil, the atmosphere back home has quickly morphed into one of tribal jingoism. Many US liberal and neocon elites – politicians, journalists, and academicians alike – have openly demanded declaring war against Russia. Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, for example, demanded a no-fly zone over Ukraine, essentially prodding the Biden-Harris administration to declare war against a nuclear Russia. They also vociferously advocated diplomatic and economic sanctions against Russia.
However, if not surprising, what is curious is that these elites also demanded that India back the Western countries in their current war against Russia. In doing so, they appear to be following the Chanakyan principle of sām (to advice and ask), dām (to offer and buy), danD (to punish), and bhed (exploiting the secrets) to ensure compliance. For example, Trish Regan, a conservative talk show host, asked India to be sanctioned by the US if she continued to buy crude oil from Russia, violating Western sanctions.
The Biden-Harris administration, for its part, hasn’t formally asked India to join the Western alliance against Putin’s Russia. Nor has it threatened India with consequences if it failed to do so. However, its surrogates have been vocal in pressuring and condemning India on her stand vis-à-vis the Ukraine war.
Ro Khanna, the US House representative from California’s 17th congressional district and the golden boy of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, was “perplexed” by India’s stand in the UN with regards to Ukraine. He tweeted that he did not want to be an “apologist for India when they are clearly in the wrong.” He also wanted the Biden-Harris administration “to ‘press’ India to change its position” in the UN.
Khanna is reportedly positioning himself for a potential presidential run in 2024, and such a tough stance against India may pay political dividends in the long run.
Another congressman, Ami Bera (Democrat, CA 7th Dist), also expressed his disappointment with India’s stance, claiming India’s purchase of Russian oil would give Putin “an economic lifeline.”
What seems to be missing from the rebuke of India by the American elites is the recognition that India has nothing to do with the war in Ukraine and has no skin in the game. As a sovereign democratic nation of nearly 1/5th of humanity, India has its priorities and concerns – the wellbeing of her citizens and protecting her borders from hostile nuclear-armed neighbors.
An overwhelming majority of the Indians want their government to stay out of this war. At the same time, Indians are not only sympathetic towards her long-time friend Russia, but they are also skeptical of us Americans due to historical reasons. One of India’s most popular TV anchors and political commentators, Arnab Goswami, eloquently explained the Modi government’s position regarding the Ukrainian war on one of his shows.
India is not part of any formal defense alliance or treaty with the US, such as NATO. It is unrealistic to expect India to ignore her short/long-term strategic interests and succumb to the whims of the liberal Jamat. “India has rightly calculated it will never get a fair shake from the Western liberal elite,” tweeted Saagar Enjeti, a conservative political commentator and the co-host of the popular independent podcast Breaking Point.
Enjeti goes on to say that the Western liberal elites “cannot be trusted on.. matters of core security interest[s]” of India, and thus India has “no interest as being part of the Western bloc and instead pursues an independent sovereign policy.”
In the din of demands for sanctions against India, it is indeed ironic that many EU/NATO countries are still buying Russian gas and oil. Worse, they have cozied up with other known despots to secure their energy needs. “If we switch a flip immediately,” said the German economic and energy minister Robert Habeck, “there will be supply shortages, even supply stops in Germany.”
The West sees the East, India included, as the ‘other,’ inferior, primitive, savage, and uncivilized nation. Edward Said has documented this phenomenon in his masterful thesis “Orientalism.” This othering was on full display in some of the media reportage of war in Ukraine. Charlie D’Agata, the CBS reporter, with a casual liberal political correctness – “I have to choose my words correctly” and “with all due respect” – asserted that Ukraine wasn’t Iraq or Afghanistan. “This is a relatively civilized and European… city,” he continued on live TV.
The West also sees India from the lens of elite Marxist academicians of the South Asia departments of the Western universities, mostly anti-India rhetoric of the US mainstream media, and the activism of woke and vocal Indian-American individuals, groups, and institutions.
India is a civilizational nation with a Dharmic core, not a Westphalian “Western” state. It has an unbroken recorded history of over 5,000 years. India also has deep roots in democracy. One of the earliest republican states of Licchavi was founded in India in the 6th century BCE. The Uthiramerur temple inscription in Tamil Nadu has one of the earliest (7th-9th century CE) descriptions of essential elements of a democratic process – conducting an election.
India has gone through the transgenerational trauma of devastating genocidal foreign invasions and debilitating colonialism. But she is also repositioning herself as the economic powerhouse (ranked in the top 5) with a glorious past and an unparalleled indigenous knowledge/intellectual tradition to rebuild its future.
It is as much the right of 1.4 billion Indians to stand up for India as for Khanna and his liberal comrades to stand up for the United States of America.