Considering there are some 170-180 million Muslims in India and about 25-30 per cent of this population are Shias, the country’s West Asia policy, not unreasonably, has walked on eggshells. It has refused to tilt the majority Sunni or the minority Shia way and inertness of posture has, for once, been a virtue — commended as much by realpolitik as common sense. Then in February this year, the Congress-led coalition government seemed to throw it all away, jettisoning caution and the long-nursed attitude of aloofness to the usual tumult in that region. As temporary member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), India voted against the Alawaite-Shia regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Following upon the vote for intervention against Gaddafi’s Libya the year before, it heralded India’s tacking to a new policy of supporting interventions at the behest of major Sunni states backed by Western powers.
The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) was quick to put out, however, that the February resolution did no more than ask for a cessation of hostilities by all sides and, in that sense, was unobjectionable. Except, the campaign against Damascus was kick-started by this resolution, and the groundwork was laid for a more intrusive approach. Sure enough, a resolution in the General Assembly followed on August 4 with Saudi Arabia and Qatar taking the lead in crafting a resolution that imposed sanctions and demanded that Assad step down. Much politicking later, the resolution was whittled down to merely urging Assad to go. Indian permanent representative at the UN, Hardip Puri, explained that the offending part was its reference to a previous Arab League resolution, absent which, he indicated, India may well have supported the resolution and, perhaps, got the country deeper into a jam.
The fact that the Arab League has been turned by Saudi Arabia into an essentially Sunni Muslim platform is not a surprise — oil and money speak. Riyadh’s using it to oust Shia governments in the region is a new development. The Saud family fears both physical endangerment and the possibility of Tehran and Damascus instigating a Saudi Shia rebellion. Were a separate Shia homeland within Saudi Arabia to be carved out, Riyadh will lose most sources of its oil found in the Nejd and other provinces populated by Shias. That this is also, quite literally, a fight to the death was brought home to the Sauds with the killing on July 23 of Bandar bin Sultan — former ambassador in Washington and close to the US government — by a bomb that exploded in the offices of the General Intelligence Agency he headed. If Bandar couldn’t be protected, no one in the Saud family is safe. It explains the Saudi vehemence in dealing with Iran and Assad.
Or just, may be, terrorism that the Sauds have spawned for decades is coming home to roost. So far Riyadh escaped the winds of Islamic extremism because it had managed to direct the extremist-Wahabbist impulses outward. No regime has been more responsible for spreading terror world-wide than the Sauds. This has been done through the Islamic charities that channel funds, especially to trusts in South Asia. The result is a profusion of Hafiz Saeeds frothing at their mouths and the various Lashkars active in Pakistan. In India, Saudi monies have incubated communalism by polarising previously peaceful societies, such as in Kerala, for instance, and funded the building of a series of new mosques in India’s terai region to propagate Wahabbist beliefs, as the Intelligence Bureau has been reporting to government. For Saudi Arabia to blame Bashar for the violence in Syria then is a bit rich. For India to associate itself in any way with Saudi moves is to get sucked inexorably into the big Sunni-Shia conflagration in the making. The timid Congress-coalition government has yet to issue a demarche to Riyadh to cease and desist on the Wahabbist funding front or even to implement some basic policing — like monitoring just how and where the Saudi and Gulf funds go to do what.
Consider the larger picture. Four Russian warships, presumably laden with military hardware and stores, have docked at the Tartarus naval base on the Mediterranean in northern Syria that Damascus has provided for Russian naval use. A Chinese missile destroyer has entered the Mediterranean ostensibly for naval exercises with Russian and Syrian warships off Syria’s coast. With Russia and China committing military support for the Assad regime, it is even less likely Bashar will bow to external pressure. With US President Barack Obama deciding overtly to arm the Sunni rebels and making it Washington’s business to oust Assad, the fat may be on fire because Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to restore Russia’s lost status and stand up to the United States. Syria is the regional hotspot where Russia may decide to eye-ball America.
Worse, Turkey is being drawn into the fray. With Turkish Alawites sympathetic to Syria and insurgent Turkish Kurds likely to join with the opportunistic Syrian Kurds in seeking independence, a largely Sunni Turkey may get together with the US and the Sauds, though this will not restore the status quo ante that would, other than Bashar, benefit it the most. With the Battle for Aleppo developing into a decisive encounter and Aleppo bordering Turkey, American material assistance is bound overland to transit through this Sunni majority town, seriously compromising Ankara.
West Asia is a hornet’s nest. Russia and China are doing the heavy lifting of vetoing UN resolutions targeting Syria. It is best for India, in the circumstances, to abstain on all UN votes relating remotely to West Asia and otherwise distance itself, foreign policy-wise, from the unfolding drama in those parts. There is no other way of minimising the adverse fallout on the law and order situation in this country when the situation blows up. Union home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde better anticipate trouble, alert the state intelligence agencies, order strict policing, and take pre-emptive measures now, unless he wants again to be in the dark when crisis hits.
Bharat Karnad is professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com