From the beginning, the Gulf crisis aroused a level of interest and concern in India unusual for an international issue not directly involving this country. Much of our oil comes from the Gulf region, and “Gulf money” in the form of remittances from Indians working in Iraq and the Gulf states has become a significant source of upward mobility in recent years. Then there was the major problem of evacuation of Indians from Kuwait and Iraq, which the government of V. P. Singh managed fairly efficiently.

Until the outbreak of the war, concern seldom translated into marked partisanship for any side. Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait was generally felt to be unjustified, and economic sanctions on the whole legitimate. But Iraq had been a friend, supportive — unlike Saudi Arabia — even on the endemic Indo-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir. Among the politically aware, there was also a sense of double standards in the context of the Palestine issue, numerous examples of US aggression and decades of Western soft-pedaling on South Africa.

The massive US-led assault on Iraq has changed things qualitatively, sharpening and polarizing sympathies. As American officials boasted of quick and easy victory, and news came of ruthless bombing of civilians in Iraq, sympathy mounted for a small Third World country, unprincipled and errant no doubt when it grabbed Kuwait but fighting heroically now against an alliance of 28 states spearheaded by the mightiest military power on earth. The contrast, highlighted by the international media, between negligible early US combatant losses and round-the-clock bombardment of Iraq embodying the last word in technological efficiency served to confirm suspicions here that white racism had gone on a rampage.

Indian newspaper comments were on the whole extremely critical. Roadside conversation quite often made Saddam into a hero. Protest movements mounted, with numerous demonstrations outside the US embassy and consulates organized by every section of the left, along with Singh’s Janata Dal.

There were, at the same time, some discordant tendencies. Sections of the Indian urban elite, caught by the satellite dish antenna bug, eagerly turned into dinner party chitchat a war transformed for the first time into a live spectacle, made “vicariously delectable” in “glorious technicolor” (as Arvind Das put it in the Times of India). Hindu chauvinist groups, which have become formidable in recent years, are trying hard to depict Saddam as a typical Muslim tyrant and aggressor. In the surcharged communal atmosphere built up in recent months, such propaganda did have a certain impact. But presenting Saddam as villainous, because archetypically Muslim, was not easy. Saudi Arabia has a far more fundamentalist reputation, and Hindu communalism cannot afford to give up altogether its image as defender of “true,” “national” values against the corrupt, modern West.

The reaction of the present Indian government, though, was quite unexpected. Non-alignment, friendship with the more independent-minded Arab states, and a varying but always evident opposition to Western imperialism have been central to Indian foreign policy since the mid-1950s. The minority government of Chandrasekhar, resting on the direct support of no more than one tenth of Parliament, contradicted this entire tradition by secretly allowing US military planes to refuel in Indian airports. No one took seriously Chandrasekhar’s lame excuse that refueling had been allowed on “humanitarian” grounds, since the planes were not carrying military supplies. The planes were not searched, and in any case most people failed to understand why India should help transport “humanitarian” cargo for US troops while doing nothing for the civilians being bombed day and night in Iraq.

This policy generated massive protests, adding to the unpopularity of an already discredited and unstable regime. Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress (I), which has propped up Chandrasekhar because it is afraid of early polls, also condemned the refueling. Only the Bharatiya Janata Party, the principal Hindu communal political formation, preferred to remain silent.

The Gulf war, first fruit of a world for the moment turned unipolar by the crisis in international socialism, confronts decent people everywhere, and particularly Third World countries, with new threats, difficult choices and responsibilities. The temptation to seek short-term, maybe even personal or factional gains by falling in with an apparently all-powerful US will be considerable. Refueling a few US planes at Bombay could not have had much military significance. The US just wanted to make clear who is master, and the most unscrupulous section of the Indian ruling elite succumbed without a whimper. Provocations like Iraq’s seizure of Kuwait will have to be avoided, for no other great power will be willing to bail out a small state from considerations of Cold War logic. Conversely, though, the US could never have effected a military comeback on this scale in West Asia without such a pretext.

Only the US, it would seem, can afford to be irresponsible in today’s world. Yet the prospects of a stable and prolonged pax Americana seem extremely dubious, and not just because the US is a relatively declining economic power among the capitalist giants. The extent of worldwide popular protests right from the beginning of the Gulf war were unprecedented. As bombing became even more barbaric — including the deliberate missile attack on a well-known air raid shelter — solidarity spread, even though Saddam’s record was far from unsullied. No one can mistake him for another Ho Chi Minh, yet the dream of pax Americana may end in an awakening as rude as that administered by Vietnam 15 years ago.

How to cite this article:

Sumit Sarkar "The Gulf War and India," Middle East Report 170 (May/June 1991).

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