Hand in the Hornets Nest

Considering there are some 170-180 million Muslims in India and about 25-30 percent of this population are shias, the country’s West Asia policy, not unreasonably, has walked on eggshells. It has refused to tilt the majority sunni or the minority shia way and inertness of posture has, for once, been a virtue – commended as much by realpolitik as common sense. And then in February this year, the Congress party coalition government seemed to throw it all away, jettisoning caution and the long-nursed attitude of aloofness to the usual tumult in that region. As temporary member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), India voted against the Alawaite-shia regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Following upon the vote for intervention against Gaddafi’s Libya the year before, it heralded India’s tacking to a new policy of supporting interventions at the behest of major sunni states backed by Western powers.

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) was quick to put out, however, that the February resolution did no more than ask for a cessation of hostilities by all sides and, in that sense, was unobjectionable. Except, the campaign against Damascus was kick-started by this resolution, and the groundwork was laid for a more intrusive approach. Sure enough, a resolution in the General Assembly followed on August 4 with Saudi Arabia and Qatar taking the lead in crafting a resolution that imposed sanctions and demanded that Assad step down. Much politicking later, the resolution was whittled down to merely urging Assad to go. But Indian Permanent Representative at the UN, Hardip Puri, explained that the offending part was its reference to a previous Arab League resolution, absent which, he indicated, India may well have supported the resolution and, perhaps, got the country deeper into a jam.

The fact that the Arab League has been turned by Saudi Arabia into an essentially sunni Muslim platform is not a surprise – oil and money speak.  Riyadh’s using it to oust shiite governments in the region is a new development. The Saud family fears both physical endangerment and the possibility of Tehran and Damascus instigating a Saudi shia rebellion. Were a separate shia homeland within Saudi Arabia to be carved out, Riyadh will lose most sources of its oil found in the Nejd and other provinces populated by the shias. That this is also, quite literally, a fight to the death was brought home to the Sauds with the killing on July 23 of Bandar bin Sultan – former ambassador in Washington and close to the US government — by a bomb that exploded in the offices of the General Intelligence Agency he headed. If Bandar couldn’t be protected, no one in the Saud family is safe. It explains the Saudi vehemence in dealing with Iran and Assad.

Or just, may be, terrorism that the Sauds have spawned for decades is coming home to roost. So far Riyadh escaped the winds of Islamic extremism because it had managed to direct the extremist-wahabbist impulses outward. No regime has been more responsible for spreading terror world-wide than the Sauds. This has been done through the Islamic charities that channel funds, especially to trusts in South Asia. The result is a profusion of Hafiz Saeeds frothing at their mouths and the various Lashkars active in Pakistan. And in India Saudi monies have incubated communalism by polarizing previously peaceful societies, such as in Kerala, for instance, and funded the building of a series of new mosques in India’s terai region to propagate wahabbist beliefs, as the Intelligence Bureau has been reporting to government. For Saudi Arabia to blame Bashar for the violence in Syria then is a bit rich. And for India to associate itself in any way with Saudi moves is to get sucked inexorably into the big sunni-shia conflagration in the making. The timid Congress-coalition government has yet to issue a demarche to Riyadh to cease and desist on the wahabbist funding front or even to implement some basic policing – like monitoring just how and where the Saudi and Gulf funds go to do what.

Consider the larger picture. Four Russian warships, presumably laden with military hardware and stores, have docked at the Tartarus naval base on the Mediterranean in northern Syria that Damascus has provided for Russian naval use. A Chinese missile destroyer has entered the Mediterranean ostensibly for naval exercises with Russian and Syrian warships off Syria’s coast. With Russia and China committing military support for the Assad regime, it is even less likely Bashar will bow to external pressure. With U.S. President Barack Obama deciding overtly to arm the sunni rebels and making it Washington’s business to oust Assad, the fat may be on fire because Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to restore Russia’s lost status and stand up to the United States. Syria is the regional hotspot where Russia may decide to eye-ball America.

Worse, Turkey is being drawn into the fray. With Turkish Alawites sympathetic to Syria and insurgent Turkish Kurds likely to join with the opportunistic Syrian Kurds in seeking independence, a largely sunni Turkey may get together with the U.S. and the Sauds, though this will not restore the status quo ante that would, other than Bashar, benefit it the most. With the Battle for Aleppo developing into a decisive encounter and Aleppo bordering Turkey, American material assistance is bound overland to transit through this sunni majority town, seriously compromising Ankara.

West Asia is a hornets nest. Russia and China are doing the heavy lifting of vetoing UN resolutions targeting Syria. It is best for India, in the circumstances, to abstain on all UN votes relating remotely to West Asia and otherwise distance itself, foreign policy-wise, from the unfolding drama in those parts. There is no other way of minimizing the adverse fallout on the law and order situation in this country when the situation blows up. Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde better anticipate trouble, alert the state intelligence agencies, order strict policing, and take pre-emptive measures now, unless he wants again to be in the dark when the crisis hits.

[Published as “Avoid the West Asia drama” in the New Indian Express on August 11, 2012 at http://newindianexpress.com/opinion/article587034.ece ]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, China, civil-military relations, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, indian policy -- Israel, Iran and West Asia, Indian Politics, Internal Security, Pakistan, Terrorism, United States, US.. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Hand in the Hornets Nest

  1. gururaj says:

    An excellent and incisive analysis, Mr Karnad. Kudos as usual are in order. However, in the follow on articles maybe you can also educate us on the way forward. One main concern could be if the advocated path of neutrality not aggrieve both parties? Maybe that’s what worrying the policy makers and they appear to have decided to place their bets on what they perceive to be the winning side? Will that result in internal domestic reactions or do we have enough internal problems to keep us otherwise engaged? Would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    • Usually, you know you are doing the right thing if both parties feel aggrieved about your actions! It is not so much either party that GOI seems intent on pleasing or alienating, but rather, that the Manmohan Singh regime seems keen on winning some brownie points with the US. But this sort of thing is not cost-free as I have argued. Because once one party sees you as tilting against it, you cannot win back its trust easily. Besides as between the Saudi-led Sunni bloc and the Iran-headed shia bloc, there’s no winning side as far as Indian interests are concerned, and I am not referring to just the domestic Muslim dynamics-aspect.

      • gururaj says:

        True, putting all your bets on the US when we have so much at stake in Iran seems to be risky, if not dangerous. A careful balancing act would appear to be prudent at this stage, no doubt. Thanks.

  2. Anjan says:

    Dear Bharat Karnad,
    Many would agree that India, post independence under Nehru, chose the wrong path and policies. On top of that lack of leadership, absence of patriotism and nationalism amongst the politicians and administrators has turned India into a poorly governed, corruption ridden, pseudo-secular democracy, that is far from suited for a nation of India’s magnitude. The biggest threat to India today is the steady encroachment of the muslim population, both legal and illegal immigrans, into Indian society. Thanks to the myopic vote bank politics pursued by the immoral, unethical and unpatriotic political parties, India is not far from the point of no return.

    Today, after 66 years of independence, I see India as an artificial federation of states with many faultlines on ethnic, linguistic and religious angle, eroding the false nationhood steadily. I can see India falling apart in the years ahead, may not be twenty or fifty years, but certainly at some point of time in the future. The Jewish-American social engineering that is going on around in the middle east, may eventually arrive at India’s shores and contribute to what India is otherwise ripe for, falling apart.

    Your comments please.

    • That’s an apocalyptic view. I am more hopeful, however. What I see in the long view-mirror is actually a merging of states in the subcontinent to form a Union of federated states.

      • Anjan says:

        1. With due regards, hope is not a policy, sir.
        2. A federation in South Asia would mean further dilution of the Hindu population. How will that work out for the Hindus, given that the hindus were systematically decimated in front of our eyes in Pakistan within two generations.
        3. If the federation of states happens, will that be as result of initial collapse/break-up, as I can fore see … ? Do you mean a common Foreign and Defence policies for the federated states .. ?

      • Caveat: crystal-ball gazing is inherently unsatisfactory business.

        That said, what may happen is a breakdown and fractionation/fragmentation of Pakistan, with Sindh and Pak Punjab collapsing into India, former NWFP and Balochistan spinning off to form a separate Pakhtunistan — and Afgahnistan north of the east-west line on Kabul becoming a sort of shiite central Asian republic– and an independent Baluchistan (with Iranian portions of the Baloch land) emerging. The fact of a reduced Hindu fraction is something our successors will have to deal with the best they can. Except, and this could be a big plus, Indian Muslims, more acculturated to a composite culture and especially its economic benefits — contrasting with the situation extant in Pakistan, may secularize the Muslim communities to some extent, possibly enough to take the sting out of the perennial Hindu-Muslim tensions.

        Then again, I could be entirely wrong!!!

  3. Anjan says:

    Thanks for your opinion.
    I think there is a wide gap between crystal-ball gazing and vision ( based on facts and trend ).
    It is most unfortunate that post independence, India never had one national leader with a correct and clear vision, or any vision at all for the nation. All it got from its politicians and administrators is short term adhocism and flawed policies … in other words it never had what it takes to be a proud nation, and not a ” functional anarchy” ….. !
    And a little confession, my pessimism has made me give up on India a decade ago ….. !

  4. satyaki says:

    Bharat Sir,

    To what extent will the Hindu fraction decrease assuming that we do not end up incorporating Bangladesh and parts of Pakistan ? My understanding is that in that case, the Hindu fraction will stay above 75% till the end of this century.

    Even with this, a stronger Hindu political consolidation than is available at present would be required to prevent the organized minorities from hijacking the national agenda.

    IMHO incorporating in any form any of today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh would be catastrophic for our national interest: an islamic population approaching 25-30% would mean islamic control of the GoI: the Hindu consolidation necessary to keep the state and society genuinely secular in this situation will not be available for the foreseeable future. Even today, we see that when Islamists violate the law, they are treated with kid gloves: look at the recent Mumbai riots or the recent Assam riots (where illegal Bangladeshis have done more damage to the local polulation than they themselves received)….

    Correct me if I am incorrect…

    • In absolute numbers terms, as you indicate, there’s actually no real danger unless one projects a skewed demographic growth curve with a spike for Muslims. But true, at 25-30 percent, in a democratic setup their swing vote begins to count. Indeed, these are precisely the demographic proportions at the time of Partition! But then at 13 percent, the Muslims already wield the swing-vote! It is always a difficult and delicate balancing act for govt to treat minority law-breakers within the law or to take more stringent measures to manage the violence such as in Mumbai, without the law-abiding Indian citizen feeling discriminated on account of his/her religion.

      • satyaki says:

        Bharat Sir,

        Is’nt the Muslim fraction Approx. 15% ratehr than 13% or so ? Also, turnout matters: 80% M. turnout in gen. elections vs. 60% general turnout means that they are 20% of the vote rather than 15%. Moreover, they are concentrated strategically (for many reasons, some of them historic). This makes then the KEY to about 25-30% of the seats…

        Could demographic change be a reason for the retreat of the nationalist forces ? Or is is just that they lack “political hard work ” ?

      • Of course, what you say holds water if more Muslim voters actually go out and vote. The critical factor then is: What motivates a potential voter to vote. Apparently the average Muslim voter values his vote more than his majority community counterpart. In any case, one can’t drag voters to the polling booth any more than voting can be made compulsory as is sought to be done in some quarters because that’d undermine a basic tenent of democracy — votes freely cast by free men.

        On whether the Muslin %-age is 13% or 15% of population, depends on how accurate one believes the census is, and what its error margin is — this last figure I don’t offhand know.

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