Revisiting History: When India under Indira refused to play ball with both US & USSR

With Indian diplomats reduced to show off India’s ‘soft power’, it is instructive to recall the time 42 years ago when India snubbed the Soviets for invading Afghanistan, warned the US

Andrei Gromyko with Indira Gandhi
Andrei Gromyko with Indira Gandhi
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Ashis Ray/ London

India’s diplomatic discomfort over the Russian invasion of Ukraine is of its own making. It is a consequence of Narendra Modi’s abandonment of multi-alignment in favour of a tilt towards the United States.

Nehruvian non-alignment – the foundation of independent India’s foreign policy – was, barring seeking American help during the Chinese invasion of North-East Frontier Agency, now Arunachal Pradesh, in 1962 and the Soviet Union’s cooperation to liberate Bangladesh in 1971, adhered to by his successors Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Morarji Desai and Rajiv Gandhi.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-90, though, called for a review, given the threatening unipolar world from an Indian perspective created as a result. The US, historically hostile towards India, now reigned supreme. In this awkward circumstance, Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao deftly side-stepped to a position of multi-alignment, without compromising on the fundamental principle of equidistance from big power confrontations.

However, Modi’s tore up that carefully considered stance, which indeed stood India in good stead for nearly a quarter of a century. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar implemented the departure without demur. The duo excessively embraced Washington even when the problematic Donald Trump occupied the White House. This not merely re-created tensions with China, but irritated Russia, which, if not as steadfast a friend as the Soviet Union, was the main by-product of the latter’s disintegration, and generally continued to stand by India at times of need.

It also did not withhold its cutting edge defence technology, which the US continued to do to a certain extent.

For two years, Chinese forces have been ensconced inside what was mutually accepted to be de facto Indian territory. Yet, Washington, despite trumpeting containment of China, has uttered little to oppose the violation, let alone acted concretely to do so. Jaishankar admitted as much at the Munich Security Conference earlier this year.

That notwithstanding, Modi’s readiness to identify with the West in general and Washington in particular prompted Europe and North America to conclude that India was now ‘one of us’. The United Kingdom hosted G7 Summit in 2021 and US President Joe Biden's Summit for Democracy the same year recognised India as an ally.

Thus, when the Russians entered Ukrainian territory in February and India abstained from votes on the issue at the United Nations Security Council and the UN General Assembly, without the courage to outline the reason, western countries in general were shocked, indeed affronted. This was unlikely to happen if India had maintained its stand of multi-alignment.

42 years ago, in a similar situation, India adopted neutrality, inviting criticism from the US and concern on the part of the Soviet Union. But there was no alarm, no confusion in either camp. India’s reaction came as no surprise and articulation of it was well understood. It was a reiteration of non-alignment, despite India’s closeness to the Soviet Union; and Moscow did not misconstrue. New Delhi’s prestige soared in much of the developing world, and grudgingly even in the West.

In September 1979, the Nur Muhammad Taraki regime in Afghanistan, friendly to Moscow, was bloodily ousted and Hafizullah Amin, who the Soviets thought was an ‘agent of the Americans’, succeeded him.

When Soviet armed forces’ entered Afghanistan towards the end of December of the same year, a mid-term general election was underway in India and hence the Government of India was distracted from foreign affairs. The results marked Indira Gandhi’s return to office after an interval of 33 months. Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko visited Delhi a month later to brief her on the Afghan situation.

The Indian Foreign Affairs Journal of January-March 2006 published an interview with former Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, wherein he said: “I was still India’s Ambassador in Moscow and came to New Delhi to participate in the talks. Soviet diplomacy was trying to persuade Indira Gandhi to appreciate its intervention in Afghanistan.”

According to Gujral, Mrs Gandhi asked PV Narasimha Rao, then External Affairs Minister, and Gujral to join her for the meeting. Gromyko was accompanied by the Soviet ambassador to India Yuli Vorontsov.

Gujral narrated that the Soviet foreign minister provided a lengthy 90-minute justification for the intervention, saying Amin not only posed a hazard to the Soviet Union, but endangered the security of India. At the end of it, Gujral recalled, Mrs Gandhi responded: ‘I am sorry I can’t appreciate it (the Soviet entry into Afghanistan).’ He added: ‘Gromyko was stunned.’ The meeting was adjourned.

Gromyko was scheduled to leave Delhi the next morning, but postponed his departure. He requested another meeting with the Prime Minister. This was granted. Gromyko was quoted by Gujral as now saying: “Madam, I am sorry, you know (Soviet president Leonid) Brezhnev holds you in special personal regard. As a token of this special esteem for you, he is willing to extend credit terms for supply of large quantity of arms from ten to thirteen years.”

“Mrs Gandhi once again gave a patient hearing to Gromyko without saying a word,” Gujral recollected. “The talks concluded once again making Gromyko a picture of misery. He left Delhi, in a way, empty handed.”

The 13 February 1980 issue of The Washington Post reported: ‘Indira Gandhi, a long-time close political ally of Moscow’s in the Third World, told Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko today that a withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan is directly linked to the relaxation of tensions in the volatile Indian subcontinent.’

The paper cited a statement by the spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs who ‘labelled the “use of force” and “intervention” in the internal affairs of countries as “inadmissible”.

The Post wrote: ‘It mentioned no specific country. An Indian diplomatic source said, however, that it no doubt referred to the Soviets in Afghanistan.’

Summarising the state of play, Gujral said: “While we could tell the Soviets that they have committed a grave mistake by getting involved in the Afghani quagmire, we could not strain our relationship with them and be left alone in the midst of a deep regional crisis. Let us remember that the Soviet Union was a vital source, for our arms purchases…… Foreign Minister Rao visited Moscow on two occasions and in my presence advised the leadership to work their way out and be released from the trap. Brezhnev and his colleagues gave him a patient hearing but without any respite.”

Gujral continued: “Indira Gandhi’s line conformed with our traditional policy of independence. We did not side either with the Soviets or with the Americans regarding Afghanistan. You may remember every time the issue came before the Security Council, India abstained and did not vote on either side.”

Interestingly, Gujral revealed: “There was some confusion initially when the Soviet intervention took place (and) Charan Singh was the Prime Minister. He did not give clear instructions to me in Moscow or to India’s UN Mission. In this brief interregnum, our envoy in the UN (Brajesh Mishra) voted with the USA….. Indira Gandhi returned to power in the first week of January 1980. She gave clear instructions to our Mission in New York. We ‘abstained’ from voting in the Security Council.”

Subsequently, Mishra became principal secretary to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as well the National Security Adviser in his government. The reaction to a part of his speech at the UN on 12 January 1980, after Mrs Gandhi had taken charge, was quite adverse in the United States.

The Post interpreted: ‘The new Indian government of Indira Gandhi broke ranks with the rest of the non-communist world here tonight by virtually endorsing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and denouncing those “outside powers” that have backed “subversive elements” there.’

It claimed: ‘The Indian speech at the UN General Assembly’s emergency special session, was dictated from New Delhi and delivered verbatim by the Indian representative, Brajesh Mishra.’ The US representative at the UN William Vanden Heuvel, the Post reported, called it ‘a great disappointment’.

Mishra stated in his speech: ‘India cannot look with equanimity at the attempt by some outside powers to interfere in the internal affairs of Afghanistan by training, arming and encouraging subversive elements to create a disturbance inside Afghanistan.’ He was referring to the US-Pakistan-China nexus arming, funding and training the Afghan mujahideen in Pakistan to conduct warfare against the Afghan government and the Soviet troops.

At the same time, he expressed the hope the Soviets ‘will not violate the independence of Afghanistan and that Soviet forces will not remain there (in Afghanistan) a day longer than necessary.’

He explained India’s security was threatened by the ‘building of bases, the pumping of arms to small and medium countries and interference by US and Chinese in response to the Soviet move, including offers of aid to Pakistan’.

In 2001, when Gujral met Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, at a conference in Madrid, the latter reportedly said he was ‘unaware’ of the decision to intervene in Afghanistan when it was taken. Vorontsov corroborated to Gujaral that even Brezhnev because of his ill-health at the time had only partially ‘grasped’ the move. A coterie within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union politburo comprising of Yuri Andropov, Konstantin Chernenko, Dmitry Ustinov and Gromyko had called the shots.

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Published: 07 May 2022, 5:00 PM