India has been conspicuous by its silence on both the chemical weapons strikes in Syria and the imminent military action. Aside from the perfunctory expression of concern, perhaps the only Indian official communication since events took a turn for the worse after the Ghouta chemical attacks was in response to David Cameron’s speech in the House of Commons, objecting to claims that Indian intelligence agencies had also pinned the attack on Syrian government forces. Even this was done in private though the retraction of the claim was made public.
While this indecision may be surprising for a UNSC aspirant, an extraordinarily complex matrix of pros and cons seems to have bogged down the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). The most obvious of these concerns have to do with terrorism and the responsibility to protect (R2P). However the really worrisome issues are how these precedents translate for India’s usage of nuclear weapons and the consequences of being a target of a nuclear first strike.
There is little by way of Indian literature on how distant power vacuums in the Islamic world affect India. This owes to the fact that attacks that have happened in or against India have originated from the near abroad – Pakistan and Afghanistan. However sporadic reports have indicated that Arab terrorists have at times been entering the fray in Kashmir. The revelation therefore of Indian Salafists fighting in Syria has come as something of a shock. It is still too early to tell how this will affect Indian thinking. With the threat of internationalist Salafist terrorism originating in India being considered remote or non-existent thus far, things are bound to change. Terrorist attacks in or on Indian interests have all been traced to Sunni affiliated ideologies. The only Shia affiliated attack took place on 13 February 2012 in Delhi and was targeted at an Israeli diplomat.
Syria has always been an ideological ally with a shared non-denominational, secular, anti-colonial, non-aligned history. In India the government has been fighting an ideological battle with one hand tied behind its back in that a secular government cannot openly propagate ideological opposition to Salafism which is seen as an existential threat. This thinking is reinforced by the patterns of terrorism in India described earlier. Consequently the idea of a Shia-Alawite-Christian-secularist ideological bulwark would be seen as an important proxy defence – bogging the Salafi heartland down in its backyard. Syria and by extension the “Shia Arc” is therefore important to India ideologically and practically. Any weakening of this arc therefore is not welcomed by Delhi.
On the other hand there is a critical economic imperative in India for Syria to be punished. Presumably if military punishment does not eventuate, the medium term response of the west will be towards greater regulation, verification mechanisms and consequent delay/disruption in the supply of dual use chemicals vital to Indian industry. Monoethylene Glycol is a prime example. This dual use petrochemical is central to India’s textile industry. Domestic production has doubled in price over the last two years making India heavily dependent on imports of this substance. The textile industry is critical to the economy both in terms of employment and earnings to offset the soaring current account deficit. Similarly fluoride compounds are an important by-product of the fertilizer industry and are vital in the jewellery and glassmaking industry – again important segments of India’s economy. Any disruption of supplies therefore would lead to devastating consequences – both primary and secondary to the economy.
However it is the legal precedent that has India deeply worried – since chemical and nuclear weapons both fall under the WMD definition. The principle of applying CWC provisions by force on a non contracting party such as Syria, brings disturbing parallels for India which is outside the NPT. Compounding this sense of insecurity is paragraph 8 of the (defeated) House of Commons resolution which saw usage of WMD’s as the basis of intervention without apportioning blame. Western capitals see inaction on Syria as setting a dangerous example for Iran and North Korea. Delhi on the other hand sees this as validating Pakistani thinking on a tactical first strike, or a strike by sub-state proxies for the precise purposes of successfully inviting unwanted international attention without apportioning blame. For India this rewards Pakistani first use and punishes India’s no first use pledge. Opinion in India, not surprisingly believes that a US strike without UNSC authorisation would be illegal and in private most people have serious doubts about US & French “evidence”.
Geopolitically India has always opposed the R2P principle. Given its own colonial history any prioritisation of human security over the state attracts ferocious criticism in India. The official line is that intervention can happen only with the consent of the affected state and/or UNSC sanction, and on this India has been consistent. It was deeply uncomfortable with the action in Libya, and probably equally so in the case of Syria. At the same time it co-sponsored the resolution at the UN for intervention in Mali but only at the request of the host government. The fact that such intervention also protected India’s uranium assets in Niger was to put it mildly, “convenient”. Similarly the liberation of Bangladesh was carried out not based on the principle of humanitarian intervention but rather under Article 51 of the UN charter after attacks by the Pakistan Air Force.
More strategically – India has always valued “strategic autonomy” which remains an ill-defined, vague, esoteric concept. Yet even this vague definition is very curiously mirrored exactly by what the US and France are threatening to do; “Go it alone” – i.e. if and when necessary carry out borderline illegal actions. Between illegal actions, convolution of evidence and hijacking of the Anglophone press one message is loud and clear – for India to gain its “strategic autonomy” it now paradoxically has to be “strategically dependent” on the west.