A silent ‘Vishwaguru’? India’s baffling silence on the Palestine crisis

A week after the Hamas attack on Israel and five days of Israeli air strikes on Gaza and Lebanon, foreign minister S Jaishankar is yet to break his silence on the Middle East

A view of rockets fired by Palestinians in response to Israeli airstrikes during an operation in Gaza city on 7 October (photo: Getty Images)
A view of rockets fired by Palestinians in response to Israeli airstrikes during an operation in Gaza city on 7 October (photo: Getty Images)

AJ Prabal

On Saturday 14 October, the normally loquacious Union minister of external affairs Dr S Jaishankar was flagging off a ferry service between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi was busy sharing photographs of stranded Indians being flown back to India. From their beaming faces, one could erroneously conclude that they were going off on a picnic.

The MEA itself has been surprisingly coy about developments in the Middle East, in sharp contrast to the unequivocal expression of support and solidarity with Israel that Prime Minister Narendra Modi posted within hours of the attack on Israeli targets by Hamas on 7 October.

The ministry spokesperson, asked to comment on the Palestinian question looming over the crisis, was seen grudgingly reiterate India’s ‘consistent stand’ on the right of self-determination by Palestinians and the two-nation solution. But no formal statement was issued.

Since then, the ministry has shared the read-out of the telephonic conversation between the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and the Indian Prime Minister, when PM Modi reiterated the assurance that India stands by Israel.

What stands out is that India has not yet called for the need for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian question or for an immediate ceasefire. That has been seemingly left for China and Russia to articulate.

Indeed, India has not even offered humanitarian aid to the Palestinians being bombed, silently endorsing the sentiment of the Israeli president and the Israeli state that civilians in Gaza are as guilty as the military wing of the Hamas, which carried out the ‘terror attack’ on Israel. This is the sentiment that the US, France and the UK have endorsed while rushing aircraft carriers and marines to assist the Israeli war effort.

Former Indian diplomat MK Bhadrakumar had this to say in his blog on Saturday morning, “India’s silence on the massacre in Gaza is morally repugnant, and it is going to be untenable in strategic terms, as what appeared to the Indian leadership as “terrorist acts in Israel” are dramatically morphing into a savage war in a region where millions of Indians live, earn their livelihood and contribute to India’s economy.”

Bhadrakumar rightly points his finger at the dilemma that the Indian prime minister faces between addressing his domestic political compulsions and India’s international aspirations and obligations. Prime Minister Modi, by swiftly condemning the terror unleashed by Hamas, sought to strengthen his own ‘war on terror’ and highlight what he loves to repeat often, that terrorism is against humanity.

His condemnation of Hamas and endorsement of Israel enthused his domestic constituency, and analysts see the attempt at polarising Indian society for electoral dividends.

But with an estimated 60-70 million Indians, not all of them Muslims, living, studying and working in Islamic countries in the region, and with trade and investment relations with the Arab world also booming, the dilemma is real.

While most Arab rulers may not have moral qualms and may not care much for Palestinians, they can scarcely ignore public opinion. Massive demonstrations in support of Palestinians have been held in several of the cities, forcing Saudi Arabia to freeze its normalisation process with Israel for the time being.

An escalation of the conflict into a regional war, drawing in Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Iran — with fears of the US launching a third Gulf War, is likely to be catastrophic.

While the impact on oil prices and India’s energy security in such a situation is a hypothetical question, India’s silence on the crisis has taken some of the sheen off the PM’s boast of being the ‘Vishwaguru’. A silent Vishwaguru at a time of crisis commands little attention or respect. India’s silence exposes the hollowness of such pretensions, and positions India as a US lackey. What else can explain the reticence?

The response from Russia and China has been more mature and statesmanlike in contrast. Russia presented a draft resolution at the UN Security Council which called for an “immediate and long-term ceasefire that all parties would respect; an immediate release of hostages; and “the unimpeded provision and distribution of humanitarian assistance, including of food, fuel and medical treatment, as well as creating conditions for the safe evacuation of civilians in need.”

China’s top diplomat Wang Yi has been reported as saying, “There is no alternative to a peaceful solution to the conflict through the creation of an independent state of Palestine with its capital in East Jerusalem… China will provide urgent humanitarian air to the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority through UN channels.”

It is now time for the Vishwaguru to react and respond substantially to peace.

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