India and the Tsunami

New Delhi has clarified that assistance is welcome, “provided it is given in a form that is politically acceptable to the broad masses of the people and not just to the section directly affected by the disaster.”


By M. D. Nalapat

REBUILDING HOME: Indian tsunami victims build simple huts with the help of local government and non-governmental organizations

Unlike the other countries hit by the last December’s tsunami, India refused foreign assistance even as New Delhi was sending relief to two of its three stricken neighbors, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Maldives. Many international commentators have viewed India’s reaction as a symptom of “great power arrogance” and an attempt to use the disaster and the accompanying “tsunami diplomacy” to reinforce India’s “big country” image. The reality is that it is only the continuation of a geopolitical philosophy that goes back to the struggle against British rule. It lies in the concept of swadeshi (self-reliance), or depending on oneself as much as possible for as long as possible.

The records on foreign aid to different countries will show that the 57-year-old republic has been among the lowest recipients of external assistance throughout its existence. Both per-capita and total foreign aid have been substantially lower than countries that are much smaller in size, such as Egypt. In fact, more than 87 percent of the foreign “aid” accepted by India has come in the form of loans that need to be repaid or grants that are tied to the purchase of goods from other countries. New Delhi has a record of never defaulting on a loan repayment, even in situations when the country had to mortgage a part of its gold reserves to pay back interest on foreign debt. India has shown that progress is possible without foreign giveaways.

In the scientific and technological field, India-though not by choice but by circumstance-has developed substantial capability in critical fields such as space applications and nuclear research. The United States, in particular, has a powerful lobby of “non-proliferation” activists who have targeted India for sanctions. As a result of the influence of this vocal group on U.S. policymakers, Washington has led the effort among the major powers to deny India access to high technology, a process it continues. If there seem to be moves now to relax the restrictions, it is because the United States realizes that it has only succeeded in ensuring that its target country has developed a strong base of scientific talent and institutions that owe nothing to other countries. While the former Soviet Union had a history of helping India, once it disintegrated, Moscow has largely gone along with U.S. desires concerning India, and even today are refusing to sell more atomic power plants to India, clearly under U.S. pressure.

In the economic field as well, the share of foreign trade in India’s total output is much smaller than for its giant neighbor, China. The flow of foreign capital into India is not even 10 percent of the amount flowing into China. In fact, for many years it was less than 1 percent of China’s level. It is therefore clear that “going it alone” has become second nature to India, and the stance taken by the Indian Government after the tsunami disaster is in line with this longstanding policy

CARE CAR: Relief materials are shuttled to disaster areas along India’s southern coast

In view of the decades-long U.S. activism in blocking technological cooperation with India and the massive assistance being given to the military in Pakistan, it is not possible for India at present to consider Washington a country that is friendly to India’s security interests. In the period ahead, the United States will need to choose between military assistance to Pakistan and a defense alliance with India. The two cannot coexist so long as the Pakistani army seeks to change the status quo by the use of force. Only by the Pakistani military removing the threat of conventional, asymmetric and nuclear force from the table can India accept a situation where one of its own military allies arms Pakistan.

Unless the United States were a full military ally of India, it would have been risky to have exposed two very sensitive parts of India-the Tamil Nadu coast and the Andaman Islands-to hundreds if not thousands of U.S. military personnel and equipment, coming into the area under the guise of “tsunami relief.” While several analysts would like to see a strategic partnership between the United States and India, it is a destination that has not yet been reached and may never be in view of the intense attraction that so many U.S. policymakers have toward the Pakistani military. Under such circumstances, it would be reasonable to assume that Washington may-in the hypothetical situation of another India-Pakistan war-seek to even the odds between the two sides by sharing information with Islamabad, the way the United States did with Baghdad during the 1980s war between Iran and Iraq. Only as a full military ally can the U.S. military be given the access and freedom it has in locations where it is involved in “Tsunami relief” operations. This is because of the fact that, along with the noble endeavor, it would be possible to gain information on terrain and population that would be of immense help in a future conflict, either to the United States directly or to its ally Pakistan.

While the risk of the Washington preferring Islamabad to New Delhi in a future conflict might be small, policymakers in the Manmohan Singh government will need to keep all deadly options in view and respond to each. Wisely, the Indian Government decided not to take the security risk of opening sensitive zones to foreign troops. Washington is now trying to have it both ways by continuing to give Pakistan the means to harm India, even as it attempts to strengthen defense links with Asia’s second-biggest country. Until New Delhi is certain that one country will desist from arming another that it holds as hostile, there will not be a military alliance between the two. And until there is such an alliance, the type of operations conducted by military units in the disaster zones pose a risk. Of course, this can never be directly stated officially.

Another reason why the situation in India is different from that of Sri Lanka and the Maldives is that while India had a powerful liberation movement that finally succeeded in removing British colonialism, the local population in Sri Lanka has never participated in a similar movement. In fact, relations between the British and the Sri Lankan elite were excellent throughout the period of colonization, unlike those in India. In the Maldives, too, there has never been an anti-colonial movement of the kind seen in India, Indonesia or Iraq.

It is this undercurrent of anti-colonial sentiments that has made the U.S. policy in Iraq so self-destructive. By setting themselves up as the overlords of the Iraqi people, resentment has been created that will affect the security interests of the United States for decades. The anti-colonial sentiments in India are still too strong to tolerate such a presence. The same situation applies to China as well, where the Chinese would never accept the presence of foreign soldiers on their territory. As for Indonesia, the new administration there is taking a calculated risk by permitting foreign troops to come to the affected areas, I would like to warn my old friend, Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono, not to test the patience of the Indonesian people by permitting the presence of Australian or other soldiers in Indonesia for too long. Otherwise, the same type of radical element that gained in influence in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s will emerge in Indonesia.

Of course, unlike Indonesia, India has the good fortune of having a strong disaster relief machinery in place, which was created after the cyclone in Orissa and the earthquake in Bhuj five years ago. Since then, a disaster management program has been implemented in India, with district officials being given special training in handling calamities. However, a suggested coordination committee on disasters has not been formed, although during the tsunami havoc, an informal inter-departmental group was formed to coordinate action. Apart from the government, private institutions in India are now paying attention to disaster relief. For example, the Manipal Academy of Higher Education is in the process of setting up a disaster management center that will have the capability to intervene in health, earthquake, flood and nuclear disasters. It is because of such a well-knit indigenous anti-disaster capability that the ambassador of India to China was able to thank the many Chinese friends who offered to help, but requested them to focus their attention on countries with a greater need for foreign help.

Indonesia, however, will need to balance the benefits of foreign assistance with the important condition that anti-colonial sentiments not become inadvertently ignited. Fortunately, because of India’s strong capacity, the government in New Delhi did not need to confront the dilemma that faced policymakers in Jakarta. Those commentators (especially in the Western media) who show surprise at the “ungratefulness” of the Indonesians need to understand the anti-colonial sentiments there that result from memories of centuries of oppression. Indeed, while the British in India took about 1.5 percent of the country’s wealth each year, the Dutch removed as much as 12 percent each year from Indonesia. It is instructive to note that in the early 1800s, India accounted for a quarter of world output and China for a third. By the end of that century, both countries had been weakened by outside forces so badly that their share dropped to less than 5 percent. A similar decline afflicted Indonesia.

In countries with a history of resistance to colonialism, such as China, India and Indonesia, it would be politically risky to accept the presence of foreign troops, even those engaged in the noble task of disaster relief. Under the circumstances, the comments of some scholars that the decision of the Government of India to refuse foreign assistance, which would have come in a military form, was a symptom of “arrogance” are wrong. Indeed, New Delhi has clarified that assistance is welcome, “provided it is given in a form that is politically acceptable to the broad masses of the people and not just to the section directly affected by the disaster.”

Countries such as the United States, France, Germany, Japan and Britain need to keep in mind local sentiments so as to avoid the mistakes that have been made-and are being made-in the Middle East. France, for example, has become a country of controversy in Africa by its frequent military interventions there. Hopefully, the peoples of Africa will not go the way of some others in fomenting violence within France in retaliation.

An interesting offshoot of the Tsunami Crisis was the announcement by U.S. President George W. Bush that a “Core Group” was being set up comprising of India, Australia, Japan and the United States to coordinate relief. This was a public acknowledgement by the most powerful individual in the world about India’s capabilities, as even today, many within the U.S. establishment seek to downgrade New Delhi to a level far below Tokyo, while others-especially those in favor of an Asian NATO-accept that India is the only country that can form the southern prong of such an alliance the way Japan holds up the north. However, because the United States and India are not yet full military allies, the Indian forces did not coordinate with U.S., Australian and Japanese units the way these three did with each other in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.