Doing the right thing

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Chinmaya R. Gharekhan
Shiv Visvanathan has written an important article, “Death in Aleppo” (The Hindu, Dec. 16), describing India’s foreign policy with reference to the massacres in Syria, particularly in Aleppo, as “a piece of empty piety”. He is anguished about and critical of the silence that India has maintained over these killings. He says our foreign policy is devoid of compassion. He is right.
The professor seems to be exasperated at what can at best be described as our a-moral stand in the face of heartless and cold-blooded killings in that unfortunate land. India has prided itself on its humane approach to issues. At the same time, it has been India’s axiom to not interfere in the affairs of other countries, and not to be involved in events in countries with which it is not directly concerned or which do not directly affect its interests.
The moral imperative
As the principal architect of the policy of non-alignment, Jawaharlal Nehru was determined to keep India aloof from conflicts elsewhere, so that the country could devote its efforts and energy to the task of developing its economy. In this he was largely successful by not lining up with either of the two politico-military blocs. At the same time, he had declared, where peace was threatened or justice denied, India would not keep silent. Here, his record was mixed. He spoke up strongly at the time of the Suez crisis of 1956, but took a less-than-neutral stand on the Hungarian revolt the same year. The contrast was stark. While his Hungarian policy was flawed on moral grounds, it could be justified on the ground of national interest.
This writer, like many others of his fraternity in the Indian Foreign Service, is a strong votary of the realistic or pragmatic school of diplomacy. National interest does and must trump every other consideration. Often this approach seems, and is, of dubious morality, but if national interest dictates it, the government of the day must pursue national interest.
In the case of Syria, the situation is extremely complicated. The civil war is in its sixth year. More than 4,00,000 lives have been lost, millions have been displaced, an entire generation of children has gone without experiencing childhood and has been denied education. The loss of priceless heritage of humankind can never be recouped. It is a civil war, and at the same time it is more than a civil war. External elements, regional and extra-regional, have jumped into the fray for their own agendas, without caring about the Syrian people. Every single regional country is involved, and nearly all Western nations as well as Russia have joined in. There is a difference of motives among those who want Bashar al-Assad out. Nobody really knows just how many militia groups are fighting in Syria; many are fighting among themselves, much to the delight of the regime in Damascus. Ironically, there is now an unstated consensus that dethroning Mr. Assad is not a priority; in fact, forget about him and concentrate on defeating the Islamic State.
In such a situation, it makes sense for India not to get involved. The civil war will go on for decades. Why should we stick our neck out? We have remained more or less neutral though our stand was somewhat pro-regime in the past.
There is, however, no reason for India to show indifference to the merciless slaughter of innocent lives in Syria. It is true that there is nothing we can do to influence the course of events there.
It is also true that the region is of importance to us; prolonged instability, which might become even worse in the months ahead, with the change in administration in Washington, is not in our interest. Thus, we have a legitimate reason not to do or say anything that might upset any of our friends, such as we have. On the whole, it seems to this writer that we ought to break our silence on the humanitarian situation.
When Somalia was being racked by civil war in the early 1990s, India was a member of the United Nations Security Council. There was a strong sentiment among the international community that something had to be done to stop the massacres. We joined in authorising the Council to take action that eventually did not produce the desired result; nevertheless, India did support all the resolutions even though it amounted to intervening in the internal affairs of a UN member state. And we did that guided by moral or ethical grounds. Similarly in Syria, we ought not to fight shy of condemning the terrible loss of lives. Expression of our outrage at the sufferings of the Syrian people would be perfectly in order.
Crocodile tears
One problem in dealing with the Syrian situation has been that the major players are only thinking of their interests and constituencies. Even resolutions that are being proposed on humanitarian matters have unhidden political agendas. One side wants to hold only the other responsible for the tragedy. One side is engaged mainly in propping up the regime, and the other is interested only in toppling the regime; both sides are shedding crocodile tears at the human suffering. India could and should have taken the initiative of tabling a resolution in the UN Security Council, denouncing and deploring the goings-on in Syria, at the same time scrupulously abstaining from any language smacking of supporting or criticising any of the parties involved in the conflict. We are not a member of the Security Council at present, but there is nothing to prevent a non-member from introducing a draft resolution.
Perhaps it is a bit late for us to take this initiative now. But we must issue a statement, welcoming the unanimity shown by the Security Council in adopting the Franco-Russian draft resolution mandating the deployment of observers to monitor the evacuation from Aleppo. And it is certainly not late to deplore the atrocities being perpetrated in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria. There is no reason for us to maintain our silence on this tragedy.
Chinmaya R. Gharekhan is a former diplomat

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