Many in the West are surprised, perhaps even shocked, that the “world’s largest democracy” did not stand alongside the “democratic” West on the question of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The truth, however, is that India’s neutrality, reflected by its abstention vote in the United Nations, is perhaps one of the least surprising developments during this war.

By Adhiraj Bose – Mazdoor Inquilab India

If one restricts themselves to the often exaggerated, sometimes celebratory news coverage of India-US ties on mainstream media, one can easily be led to believe that India and the USA would be ‘brother’ nations, united by the common thread of formal bourgeois democracy. Such an understanding essentially denies the history of bourgeois democracy in both countries, forgetting just how fraudulent and full of contradictions they were. 

The truth is, the only real consideration is that of class interest. In this case, the class interests of the American bourgeoisie do not align with that of the Indian bourgeoisie.  

Historical background

The first prime minister of India, Jawahar Lal Nehru, set the course for India’s foreign policy, providing a vision for India’s future development as a capitalist power as well as rooting this vision in an understanding of Indian history. According to Nehru, “India must play a leading role in world affairs, or none at all.” However, there were challenges to implementing this vision. The first challenge was obvious; India was a poor and fledgling capitalist economy that had only its colonial foundations to build up from. At the same time, India had to bear the burden of the aftermath of the partition, when a chunk of India’s agrarian resources and infrastructure went over to Pakistan. Both nations had to deal with a genocidal wave of violence against Hindus and Muslims, and the mass migration of tens of millions of people across the border. 

India found itself in a world situation which was far from ideal. The cold war had started between the US-led alliance of Western imperialists and the Soviet bloc led by a counter-revolutionary bureaucracy. Between these two, India found itself vulnerable, as just to its north, China had finished its Communist revolution, albeit under the leadership of a militaristic dictatorship in the form of Mao’s People’s Liberation Army. The Indian bourgeoisie now had to deal with a direct threat to its existence. Within India, the fires of revolution still burned as a peasants’ revolt in Hyderabad led by Communists threatened to spiral into something greater. To this, must be added the threat of nuclear warfare which had become very real after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

After independence, India remained within the sterling zonefor several years and, during this era, British corporations like the Indian Tobacco Company (ITC) wielded enormous influence. Foreign lenders, especially the IMF, accounted for much of India’s loans, the national budget relied heavily on borrowings. At one point, nearly half the budget was funded by borrowings. On the other hand, India was a large country which, despite its relative poverty, remained ahead of many of its colonial peers. Over the last one hundred years of its rule in India, the British had focused on building up industry and infrastructure for the exploitation of India’s resources and its people. After independence, the new Indian republic took over most of this infrastructure, including the very critical railway network and military production. This would allow India to develop its own industry far beyond the capabilities of its smaller neighbours.

 Not far from India’s borders was the Soviet Union, whose revolution had inspired countless youth and workers in India to revolt against the British Raj, and which still continued to hold influence in the minds of radical youth within the country. Between India and the Soviet Union lay Pakistan and Afghanistan. To India’s south, lay Sri Lanka and Diego Garcia Island, both of which at the time were under the control of the UK. The Indian bourgeoisie had to maneuver in a manner that ensured its survival and autonomy in the first instance to, in the next step, help it achieve the ambition to acquire great power status. From this situation was born the politics of non-alignment. This has remained the basis of Indian ‘neutrality’ when it comes to global conflicts. The basis of this was not moral high standing, or principled, but one founded on the basis of its own class interest.

A record of neutrality 

The first major example of this policy can be seen during the Korean War when India vocally supported the unification of the Korean peninsula but condemned the war. India had no role in any active combat, restricting itself to sending a medical mission. However, in the diplomatic sphere, India was trying to push an independent line which did not sink in either what the US-led bloc or the Soviet-led bloc wanted. Later in the war, India would play the leading role in founding the Neutral Nations Repatriation Committee which oversaw the care of prisoners of war who had not been repatriated. The move helped in easing tensions and played a part in ending the conflict between North and South Korea, and between the US and Soviet blocs. It also established India as a neutral nation within Asia. 

The next major development in Indian foreign policy came in 1955 with the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement at the Bandung Conference. The conference itself was organized by five recently decolonized nations, India, Burma (now Myanmar), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Indonesia and Pakistan with the aim of fostering cooperation between Asian and African nations which had only recently secured their independence. The key organizers of this event were prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru of India and Sukarno of Indonesia. The context behind the conference must be understood in terms of broader world events. 

After the Korean war, India had established itself as capable of following an independent foreign policy, Nehru envisaged India as a natural leader of the movement against colonialism given its own history and its unique position in the world, which was neither with the Communist bloc nor the capitalist alliance led by the United States. Indonesia had only recently won its independence after suffering Japanese occupation in the second world war and then a Dutch invasion, which lasted four years and cost tens of thousands of lives. Sukarno was not a Communist and did not wish to lead his country in that direction, nor was he willing to sell out Indonesia’s hard-won independence. He was crafting a middle path, similar to Nehru’s in India, best suited to him and Indonesia’s rising bourgeois class, though Indonesia did so on a much weaker bases than India’s, having much of its colonial infrastructure and wealth destroyed by war, something India largely avoided.

The establishment of the non-aligned movement attracted not just Indonesia, but also Egypt and Yugoslavia. Though there was very little similarity in the class character of these nations, and their histories often contrasted, they were united by a common set of interests. The common thread uniting the bourgeoisies of the newly independent nations, especially those which could yield some degree of power like Indonesia, India and Egypt, was a desire to secure their power and place in the world, independent of either the Soviet bloc or the US imperial bloc. History would show that eventually they failed to accomplish this, as all surrendered to some degree or the other to US hegemony.   

However, this was not apparent in the 1950s. In the year 1956, Egypt under Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. This was met with a harsh response by Britain and France, which held controlling stakes in the canal. Israel would join in this war as well. The war would see Egypt failing on the military front but winning diplomatically with the active involvement of the United States of America against the European imperialists. Less known is the role played by India during this crisis. India was a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, which was led by the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom went to war against Egypt. Despite its commonwealth ties, India would end up siding with Nasser and Egypt, though, initially, it sought to play both sides. So, when Nasser requested India to boycott the conference of users of the Suez Canal, India argued against it and joined the conference. However, at the conference, India’s position remained in contradiction to that of Britain’s. India upheld Egypt’s right to nationalize the Suez Canal, while Britain demanded the canal be run by an international agency of its users. The conference achieved nothing and Britain, with France and Israel, would invade Egypt to force its hand. India’s position which had been to try and find a peaceful resolution to the “Suez Crisis,” now changed to active support for Egypt. India’s lobbying with the US and Nehru’s close relationship with Eisenhower would prove decisive in forcing Britain and France to halt their invasion and pull back. This was a diplomatic victory for India, achieved by playing both sides of a major conflict. 

The ability to play both sides of the cold war would prove valuable to India when it would be faced with war. Between 1958 and 1962, tensions were growing between India and China over the boundary with Ladakh and the modern state of Arunachal Pradesh in North-Eastern India. Both these regions border Tibet, a nation China had taken in 1951. Rather than fight the much better armed and equipped People’s Liberation Army, the Indian government decided instead to draw out a treaty of non-aggression, enshrined in the Panchsheel Agreement. This was rightly criticized by Chinese Trotskyist Peng Shuzhi as a reactionary foreign policy, which abandoned spreading the socialist revolution out of China. The Panchsheel Agreement was enshrined in five points which assured: 

  1. mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty,
  2. mutual non-aggression,
  3. mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs,
  4. equality and cooperation for mutual benefit, and
  5. peaceful co-existence

Unfortunately, for the framers of this Agreement, there would be no peace and, in October of 1962, the Chinese attacked Indian positions along the entire border. The war lasted 2 weeks and coincided with the Cuban missile crisis. Nehru’s friendship with President Kennedy meant very little when he was preoccupied with a potential nuclear war in Cuba. 

The Chinese would unilaterally announce a ceasefire and pull back, having taken their main immediate territorial objectives. The US was unable to help India, and India for its part would reverse its long-standing military pacifism. In this, India would not turn to the United States which had just abandoned it in its hour of need, but to the Soviet Union, which Nehru greatly admired and with whom India had already been building close economic cooperation. At the same time, India had been acquiring a greater degree of economic independence with the establishment of various public sector enterprises in core sectors, particularly oil and mining. 

Indo-Soviet ties 

Ideologically, India and the Soviet Union were distinct. Despite the socialist rhetoric of the Congress party, India was very firmly capitalist. The richest Indians in the two big business families maintained their economic hegemony over the economy, even during the period of state-led development. However, this did not stop independent India and Stalinist Russia from becoming strategic partners. After WWII, India needed to find for itself a unique and balanced position which avoided dragging it into international conflicts, at the same time, they needed an ally which could help combat India’s two belligerent neighbors, Pakistan and China. 

Since the early 50s, Pakistan had joined a US-led alliance, the CENTCOM and remained a strategic partner of US imperialism in the region till recent years. This made it impossible for India to strike such an alliance with the United States, despite greater ideological affinity. The USSR was therefore the default choice for India to secure an international partnership. Soviet assistance brought technical assistance, access to advanced industrial technology and superior weaponry. The last of these three would acquire decisive importance as India found itself at war with Pakistan, just three years after its defeat to China. The 1965 Indo-Pakistan war arguably ended in a draw but India was able to put its modernization efforts to test, and emerged successful. 

Over the course of the decade ending in 1975, Indo-Soviet ties would reach a peak, in the signing of the Indo-Soviet treaty of friendship, this relation has been so strong that the treaty outlived the Soviet Union, and now forms a key basis of India’s relationship with the Russian Federation. The consequences of India’s partnership with the Soviet Union were manifold, the most positive outcomes were the establishment of various technical institutes, the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), access to advanced heavy machinery and industrial equipment which helped boost its capitalist economy, the protection of a super power at the UN (thanks to the Soviet veto power), and access to advanced weaponry which helped India build up its capabilities to deter any potential imperialist attack or interference in sovereign matters. 

On the political front, India and the Soviet Union never had any adverse political goals in the region. The Soviet Union found a good ally to cancel or outflank US influence in the region, while the Indians found a shield with which to protect its own political interest. The cornerstone of this relationship was pure geopolitical expedience; it is why the Soviet Union turned away when the Indian bourgeoisie initiated a reign of terror in Hyderabad to destroy the communist revolutionaries who started a peasant uprising against the Nizam. Neither did the Soviet Union express any concern when the Communist Party was targeted. As far as the Soviet bureaucracy was concerned, the Indian bourgeoisie was an ally in its geopolitical aims. 

This relation reached a high point during the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war, where India intervened on the side of the Bengali nationalists fighting for independence from Pakistan. The United States under Nixon expressed full support to Pakistan during this period, including supplying arms and providing aid, as well as giving diplomatic support. The Soviet Union supported India during this time. So, when the US navy threatened to bombard Indian air fields in retaliation to India’s military operations in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), the Soviet Union sent its fleet as a deterrent. The liberation war lasted about nine months, but India’s military operations ended in a few weeks, with the liberation of Bangladesh, and the surrender of 90,000 Pakistani soldiers. 

The success of the intervention buoyed prime minister Indira Gandhi at a time when India was reeling from an economic crisis, and massive social unrest, fueled by student protests and worker uprisings. The masses of the country welcomed this victory, as it was a victory of the people of Bangladesh in a righteous struggle for independence. However, the military intervention wasn’t enough to pacify the workers in India, and the struggles would culminate in 1974 with the great railway strike. The Indian state responded to this harshly and in 1975 a national state of emergency was declared. India practically ceased to be a democratic country, Indira Gandhi assumed de-facto dictatorial powers, fundamental rights were suspended, and massive political and social repression took place throughout the country. During this time, India’s ties with the United States and its allies fell to their lowest point, while its relations with the Soviet Union remained strong. The Soviet Union was willing to turn away, while India was throwing thousands of left-wing activists in jail or killing them in fake ‘encounters’ with the police. The United States, hiding under the cover of human rights, only took this opportunity to try and push India. After the emergency was lifted and elections took place, Indira Gandhi lost but the new government headed by the Social-democratic J.P Narayan did not last a full term. By 1980, Indira Gandhi returned with a strong majority, and India’s pro-soviet foreign policy was back on course. 

With Indira’s last term in office, however, a shift came in place. The Soviet economy was stagnating and India did not wish to maintain a permanent hostility with the United States. Instead, it assumed a policy of opening up, with pro-liberalizing reforms, though under Indira Gandhi these reforms were very limited. India remained firmly allied with the Soviet Union during this period, and this showed when India refused to stand against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. On the contrary, it cooperated with the Soviet Union to help arm Baloch independence fighters. The two nations also cooperated to foil a coup in the Maldives and Mauritius. Russia helped India build its space programme which is today one of the largest in the world and is the second-largest in Asia after Japan, and it helped build India’s nuclear technology. For the Soviet Union, India was a long term investment, which would pay even after its dissolution. 

After the end of the Soviet Union 

While the Soviet Union was collapsing, India was also experiencing the collapse of the Congress Party and the Congress Party system. This saw an end to state-led development and the aggressive turn towards neo-liberal development. The one-party hegemony of the Congress era effectively came to an end. It seemed as though the status quo of India’s foreign policy would also end, as the Soviet Union no longer existed as a viable partner to counter U.S. influence in the region, and help shield against Pakistan and China. Post Soviet Russia underwent its worst economic and social contraction since the second world war and the remaining states of the former Soviet Union were in no position to fulfill the power vacuum left by it. China was still a developing nation, though it had a large military it was nowhere nearly as capable as the Soviet Union at its peak, and worse still it was an adversary of India. Pakistan became more emboldened during this time, further encouraged by the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, brought about in great part by Pakistani military assistance. During the entirety of the cold war, Pakistan remained allied with the US and China, even facilitating Nixon’s pivotal visit to China which cemented China on the US side during its competition with the Soviet Union. 

After the fall of the Soviet Union, India was left without any potential allies that could serve its purpose in dealing with the United States, and had only itself to rely on. It is in this context that we must understand India’s turn towards nuclear proliferation, especially after 1998, when the Pokhran tests took place, much against the wishes of the United States. A year later, nuclear-armed India would go to war against nuclear-armed Pakistan on Kargil, representing the final conflict between the two nations in the 20th century. Its end was in part achieved with the intervention of the United States and led to a thaw in Indo-US relations. The opening up of the Indian economy also drew it closer to US economic interests, despite India staying away from any American military endeavours, and even condemning the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.

India had been primarily reliant on Soviet military exports to equip its army for most of its post-independence history, after the turn towards neoliberalism and opening up to the United States, India began importing more weapons systems from the United States and Europe, however it never stopped importing from Russia. In the post-soviet economy, Indian military imports from Russia played a critical role in the maintenance of Russia’s defense industry, as well as the expansion of India’s military power. Unlike the United States or European exporters, the Russians were willing to exchange intelligence and designs, and were in essence easier to negotiate with than the Western suppliers, chiefly because the Russians were more dependent on this. Thus, one could say that between India and Russia there is a mutual dependence, the former relies on Russian weapons systems to keep its ever-larger army equipped, and the latter relies on Indian imports to keep its defense industry funded. This cooperation is built on the basis of the earlier Indo-Soviet military cooperation, which now continues in a changed form. 

India’s vote on Ukraine 

The long-standing relationship with the Soviets continued over into its relationship with the Russian federation. As Russian power re-emerged after the 1990s, India began finding use for Russia once again, not only as a valuable defense partner, but also as a key diplomatic ally in defending its interest in international forums like the United Nations. Russia has always consistently voted in favour of India, and the latter has always consistently voted in favour of Russia, often the two nations would vote on the same line on key issues, such as Kashmir. Both India and Russia stand on the same side when it comes to the Kashmir struggle and ibid for the Chechen struggle. 

While defense and political ties remain strong, Russia was nowhere near as significant as an economic partner, as the Soviet Union was. On the contrary, Russia today is dependent on finding stable export markets, which means being dependent on selling oil to Europe, China and India, three of the largest oil importers in the world. This has shaped its political vision and strategic planning. Russia does not wish to be too dependent on any one market. So, in order to counter its dependence on Europe, it has China, and in order to counter its dependence on China, it has a partnership with India. Likewise, India is wary of Russian dependence on China and is doubtful of its ability to take a stand against China should it have to choose, so India is building up its relationship with the United States and Europe, while also keeping its relations with Russia intact. 

This tightrope was put to the test when Russia invaded Ukraine for the first time in 2014. India took no stance against Russia then, and the two continued to keep healthy political and economic relations, despite having grown closer to the United States, especially so after the right-wing BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) under Narendra Modi took power in 2014. India today is the largest importer of weapons in the world, and most of it continues to come from Russia. Even after the imposition of sanctions by western nations, Indian defense procurements have not changed, even though India is in the process of indigenizing its weapons systems, and procuring more from Europe, particularly France. India has also remained one of the key purchasers of Russian oil and Russia in turn has given India the privilege to buy oil at discounted prices. The United States has so far failed to convince India against these oil and military purchases, nor has it succeeded in convincing India to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Much like India’s stance on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, India has been quiet and tacitly supported Russia’s endeavours. India is not likely to change this position any time soon unless it becomes prohibitively costly for it to keep it. 

Conclusion 

The Indian state represents the interests of the Indian bourgeoisie, and the Indian bourgeoisie does not wish to lose the flexibility of foreign policy which has been a legacy of the non-aligned movement. It is not founded on solidarity between oppressed nations, but on the material interests of the Indian bourgeoisie. India, under the leadership of its bourgeoisie, would happily throw the workers and peasants of oppressed nations under the bus to achieve its geopolitical objectives, as they did in Afghanistan, and are doing so presently with Palestinians as India improves its ties with Israel. It should not surprise us, Marxists, that India would take a stance that ends up being supportive of Russia.  

Against the cynical self-serving politics of the bourgeoisie, we must posit a policy of solidarity that places the interest of the working class everywhere ahead of all.