There is something ominous going on in Ukraine. But India maintains a stoic silence on this — and has been doing so ever since the problems began in that part of the former Soviet empire. The two words, Soviet empire, are used advisedly since Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, if his actions are any indication, does harbour grandiose designs about reviving that empire. His ambitions and the resultant clash with the Ukrainian nationalists who want to preserve their country’s independence are in obvious conflict, with violent consequences, of which the shooting down of a civilian aircraft is the latest horrible instance. All available evidence seems to suggest that there was some kind of Russian involvement or complicity in this heinous act. It is not clear if the firing of the missile had a tacit or more than a tacit nod from the Russian government. Mr Putin is caught with very few trumps in his hand but, as is his wont, he is holding his cards very close to his chest. In contrast, India’s position is somewhat exposed. A few days before the aircraft was brought down, the prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, told Mr Putin about India’s love for Russia. After such a gratuitous expression of adoration, it is difficult and embarrassing to issue a condemnation or even a note of criticism.
But India’s reticence has deeper and ambivalent roots. Indian foreign policy has not over the years been able to work out a consistent approach to secessionist and separatist movements in various parts of the world. If India’s role in the creation of Bangladesh out of Pakistan is to be kept aside because of the profound humanitarian concerns embedded in that separation, India’s stand on separatist movements has lacked consistency. One reason for this has been the most unpleasant and bloody experience with the movement to create Khalistan. But India has dabbled covertly in Sindh and not so covertly with the politics of the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Whenever there have been the seeds of secession in any of the Northeastern states, the Indian State has not been too kind to such movements and their participants. Thus it is difficult to pin India down on its position regarding Ukraine’s attempts to maintain its independence and Mr Putin’s aims to impose Russia’s dominance on the people of that country. India’s silence is rooted in this ambivalence. Like Brer Rabbit, India’s foreign policy mandarins are lying low and saying nothing. This cannot be a policy.