India’s Role in West Asia

M.L. Sondhi

Weekly Round Table, August 5, 1973

There exists undoubtedly a historic basis for Indo-Arab friendship. During the freedom movement in the period after the First World War a dialogue was initiated between Indian and Arab freedom fighters and communications were established between a whole generation of Indian and Arab social and political thinkers. This heritage is a sound basis for building future relations and both sides have a common interest in preserving and augmenting this asset.

Even at the risk of becoming unpopular, it is the serious obligation of students of international relations to avoid sentimental rhetoric, which only serves to blur the political landscape. If India and the Arab nations are to serve constructive political ends, they must avoid the cloudy vagueness, which is born of an apocalyptic imagination, and firmly adopt carefully considered and planned measures for achieving realistic and enduring political and economic relationships.

The recognition of the state of Israel by the United Nations created a reality and the acceptance of the frontiers of Israel marked out in 1947 would have been vastly preferable to the Arabs than the concrete results which have followed the use of violent political rhetoric by Arab leaders. Similarly, India’s acquiescence to the Arab demand for the withdrawal of the United Nations Emergency Force did not, in retrospect, help the Arab cause.

The self-perpetuating pattern of antagonism and hostility between the Arabs and the Israelis has actually converted the Middle East into the cockpit of the super powers. An Indian policy for the Arab countries must begin with the recognition that the Soviet-American rivalry in West Asia leads to proxy wars, which place formidable obstacles in the way of stability and economic development of the region. If India is to play an appropriate and constructive role, it must lie in the direction of practical measures for the settlement of problems and a realistic appraisal of interests of the parties concerned in West Asia. India must work for the withdrawal and disengagement of the super-powers, who have made a mess of things in West Asia.

Along with informed and sympathetic understanding for Arab aspirations, India must undertake constructive policy initiatives in situations where dangerous irredentism has a noxious effect on international life. A relevant example is the “Yemeni civil war”, which produced chaos and bloodshed and waste of precious resources of the Arab world. It bears repeating that India’s genuine friendship for the Arabs does not imply that India should support all the militant rhetoric which is symptomatic of Arab politics.

It has been increasingly difficult to argue in favour of “negotiations” with the Arabs, whether statesmen, intellectuals or revolutionaries. The effects of the Six Days’ War, which resulted in the loss of Jerusalem, the Israeli occupation of 30,000 sq. miles, the dispossession of the Sinai desert and the Golan heights, have led to understandable bitterness. Public opinion in India would support a negotiated peace between the Arabs and Israel, not because it is impressed by Israel’s military triumph, but because the potential for increasing political influence of the Arab states will be better expressed through imaginative and far-sighted diplomatic initiatives than through sabre-rattling.

As India knows from its own experience with the refugee problem the permanent settlement of the Palestinian refugee question is a priority item for West Asia. The important point to bear in mind is that a fearfully difficult situation has been created on account of the shameful neglect of a human problem. India’s views will naturally be shaped by its own attitude to the refugees from Pakistan at the time of partition and the refugees from Bangladesh in 1971.

The Arab states have objected to India normalising its bilateral relations with Israel. More attention to pragmatism would convince Arab policy-makers that an Indian diplomatic representative in Israel could play a constructive role in the context of the complex pattern of major power relationships. For example, India could examine more closely the case for the creation of a Palestinian Arab state on the West Bank. India’s voice and influence would be heard in favour of opportunities for political self-expression to Palestinian Arabs. Realistically, it is neither a sober nor an intelligent assessment to regard India’s diplomatic representation in Israel as anti-Arab.

India shares a “third world” consciousness with the Arab countries and economic realism also suggests substantial commercial advantages in trade and economic co-operation between the Arab countries and India. This wide spectrum of economic interests needs to be strengthened by practical measures to support mutually beneficial exchanges in science, technology and education. Much more can be done in the fields of tourism, shipping and trade by expanding horizons on both sides. India has done well to strengthen its representation in the Gulf area. India should pay more attention to the Arab Meghrib than has been the case so far.

Will war be renewed in West Asia on a major scale? Indians belonging to almost all shades of opinion do not believe that war will contribute to a West Asian settlement. It is not through messianic Zionism or through Pan-Islamism that a new era of reconciliation can be ushered in. India perceives its own opportunities and achievements through its democratic traditions and its faith in modernisation. It is not just an exaggeration to view India’s role in West Asia as that of healing the wounds of the Arab-Israeli war through international social responsibility and hard-headed realism.
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