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Indian Foreign Policy: No Intervention Please

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The Pulse

Indian Foreign Policy: No Intervention Please

India does need a more proactive foreign policy, but should be wary of intervening in the name of democracy.

As India continues its rise as a regional and global power, many academics are calling for a shift in its non-committal foreign policy. India is at a crossroads, raising the question: What is an appropriate direction for India’s foreign policy future? Promoting human rights and democracy abroad, however, should not be part of the answer, at least for now.

In their November 7 Foreign Policy article, Sumit Ganguly and Eswaran Sridharan’s argument in favor of promoting “inclusive democracy and human rights as a way of calming suspicions, turning around hostile attitudes, and moving toward regional integration” presents an interesting, albeit oversimplified, addition to the debate. Though they advocate a need to take “forceful stands,” they fail to specify the extent to which India should take these stands. Would a forceful stand entail unilateral military intervention or would it be limited to vociferous diplomatic protests?

Assuming that the authors do not preclude unilateral military intervention, then the assertion that India has “mostly shied away” from promoting democracy and protecting human rights abroad is misleading. In fact, India has attempted to pursue this kind of activist foreign policy in the past, with decidedly mixed results.

First, the assumption that a proliferation of inclusive democratic states would necessarily lead to a more stable region is questionable, especially with a factor such as the Kashmir dispute in play. India’s 1971 intervention in East Pakistan was ostensibly to prevent the “suppressing of freedom and human rights,” and was a result of democratic failure. Operation Searchlight and the persecution of the Bengali people were an outcome of West Pakistan’s refusal to accept the Awami League’s victory in the 1970 General Elections. This incident reminds that despite a move toward inclusive democracy, Pakistan relapsed and imploded, forcing Indian intervention. At the same time, one might argue that India’s intervention was deeply rooted in opportunism designed to further its own national interest. By enabling East Pakistan to secede, India secured its eastern borders and ensured an unparalleled military dominance of the region.

Second, by involving itself in the domestic affairs of another state, India’s own national security can be placed at risk. India’s involvement in the now-forgotten LTTE-Sri Lankan conflict led directly to the assassination of a former prime minister. Delhi’s failed “peace-keeping” venture into Sri Lanka emerged was part of a more activist foreign policy. Although Operation Poomalai was a blatant violation of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty, India nonetheless offered Sri Lankan rebel forces “humanitarian assistance.” Tasked with disarming rebel forces, this operation would eventually lead to Indian boots on the ground in the form of the Indian Peacekeeping Force. Again, India’s promotion of human rights abroad directly embroiled it in an embarrassing conflict akin to U.S. intervention in Vietnam. In this context, not only did Indian involvement achieve no strategic objectives, it antagonized the “kin” Tamil minority.

One must note that both these interventions, whether by design or happy coincidence, assisted “kin” minorities. Though Ganguly and Sridhar present this as a regional issue creating suspicion and hostility between states, it seems more like an issue dictating Indian intervention. Considering this, it seems quite paradoxical for a state to promote the inclusion of minorities in a region when, historically, that same state has been willing to intervene to protect those very rights. It creates a scenario wherein other states can either conform to Indian values and attitudes or risk war. Such a scenario would most likely foster hostility toward India and lead to other states balancing against it.

Moreover, if India were to actively promote democracy and protect human rights regionally, it would significantly influence India’s foreign relations globally, specifically within the BRICs. An activist foreign policy would have to account for the lack of democracy and blatant human rights violations in Russia and China. It is unwise to utilize a dichotomous foreign policy wherein India condemns human rights violations in Sri Lanka while simultaneously purchases arms from Russia. Considering India’s close military ties with Russia and growing economic ties with China, this would certainly force New Delhi to reevaluate its policies toward those countries.

Though I agree with Ganguly and Sridharan’s fundamental idea of a more proactive foreign policy, I disagree with them regarding its direction. Instead of focusing on the promotion of democracy and human rights regionally and/or globally, Indian foreign policy should be based on selective engagement. Rather than being forced into unnecessary conflicts, India should consider intervention if and when its national interest and/or security are explicitly threatened. Instead of imposing its own beliefs and values upon other states, India would be better off maintaining its opposition to challenges to the established principle of sovereignty. At the same time, however, India’s policy of selective engagement must note that sovereignty is a privilege, not a right.

In the context of national security, if a state allows its sovereign territory to be used to wage war against another state, the former forfeits that privilege. In that situation, Indian action against such a state would be warranted. Such an approach would see a divergence from the inexplicable restraint that has inadvertently become a cornerstone of contemporary Indian foreign policy.

India today faces a choice. It can either become a regional preacher or it can take a “live and let live” approach. To be credible, the former would require a willingness on India’s part to intervene abroad at the risk of becoming embroiled in a conflict that could threaten regional peace and security. The latter allows India greater flexibility in its approach to foreign policy and enables it to further its national interest effectively.

The endgame for Indian foreign policy needs to be the protection of its national interests. As interventionist policy in a bid to promote democracy and human rights does not serve that national interest.

Pranay Ahluwalia is currently pursuing a degree in International Relations. He has previously interned at news agencies and think tanks in New Delhi and Washington, D.C.