By P. K. Balachandran
The on-going Ukrainian crisis, unlike other crises in the recent past, has divided the world into two distinct and sharply antagonistic blocs in a throwback to the Cold War era. With Europe being the scene of military action, the world appears to be at the brink of war.
In the Cold War era, there was at least the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) which enabled more than a hundred countries to look at issues in a detached and independent manner and make distinctive contributions to world peace. Of course, there are “neutral” States in Europe, but these are themselves desperately wanting to opt out of neutrality and join the US camp.
While a peace initiative on Ukraine is an immediate need, it would do the world a world of good if NAM is revived. Fortunately, NAM still exists, though it is but a pale shadow of its past profile. The death of its founding fathers and the unipolar world that emerged after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 weakened it. But NAM continued to organise conferences to discuss current issues. At its 60th anniversary conclave in Belgrade in October 2021, 105 countries and nine international organisations were represented. The guest of honor, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu urged NAM to become stronger. Serbia’s Foreign Minister described NAM as “fresher and younger than before.” NAM is attracting Central Asian countries. Russia was formally accepted into NAM as an observer in July 2021. For Russia, NAM is a refuge, since it was ousted from G7 after it annexed Crimea in 2014.
NAM is actually a mixed bag that casts doubts about its ability to speak with one voice. It has pro-Russian Belarus as well as EU member Croatia and EU candidates or potential candidates such as Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. These countries had taken clashing stands on Ukraine. But NAM does enable opposites to interact and seek common ground.
In 2020, there were signs that India was moving towards Non-Alignment after abandoning it following the disintegration of the USSR. Indian PM Narendra Modi participated at the NAM virtual summit on 4 May 2020. That was the first time Modi was participating in a NAM meeting after he came to power in 2014. Between 2014 and 2020, two NAM summits were held (in 2016 and in 2019), but in both, India was represented by its Vice President.
According to Ahuthosh Nagda, Modi moved away from the West after it lambasted him for ending the autonomy of Kashmir, passing the communal Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and turning a blind eye to the anti-Muslim riots in Delhi in 2020.
In his intervention in the May 2020 NAM summit, Modi described NAM as the “world’s moral voice”. Modi mentioned the “limitations of the existing international system” and pitched for a “new template of globalisation, based on fairness, equality, and humanity.” He stressed the need for international institutions “to promote human welfare” alongside economic growth, and highlighted India’s “championing” of such initiatives through the International Day of Yoga, the International Solar Alliance, and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, Nagda points out
Indeed, India could emerge as the leader of the 120-nation NAM given its size and economic status. By leading NAM, India can realise its passion for strategic autonomy, a wish that it has pursued despite its strategic partnership with the US. India could also realise Modi’s wish to make it the “Vishwa Guru.” Lastly, NAM could give Modi an international profile matching Jawaharlal Nehru’s.
At a 2021 seminar in Chennai on ‘Positioning India in the New World Order’ M.K. Narayanan, former Indian National Security Advisor, had urged India to reclaim its moral leadership and revive NAM. India must reopen communications with Pakistan and China and revitalise its relations with Russia to enable it to play that role, he said. Narayanan feared that given the growing Indo-US strategic partnership, the US could undermine India’s strategic autonomy which is one of the givens in Indian foreign policy.
India could be the catalyst for the revival of NAM. It had remained neutral in the Ukraine conflict to be able to find a solution to the conflict. China’s stand in the UN indicates that Beijing could give a helping hand to a peace initiative vi-a-vis Ukraine and play a balancing role in the world. Beijing has a vital economic interest in a peaceful resolution of conflicts if only to further its Belt and Road Initiative. Bangladesh and
Sri Lanka, which had also abstained from voting in the UN General Assembly on the Ukraine issue, could also join a move to re-activate NAM.
Value of NAM
The value of non-alignment was bought out clearly by Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka in the 1960s and 1970s when NAM was at its zenith. Being one of the leaders of NAM, Sirimavo Bandaranaike got a platform to propagate Sri Lanka’s and the world’s interests as seen from the view point of the Global South. It gave a moral sanction for her independent stand on critical international issues.
In 1962, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru expected her, a family friend, to condemn China’s aggression against India across the Sino-Indian border. But Sirimavo Bandaranaike chose neutrality to be able to mediate. NAM gave her the platform to attempt mediation. She called the ‘Colombo Powers Conference’ in December 1962 with the participation of NAM countries Burma, Cambodia, Egypt, Ghana and Indonesia. The conference submitted a set of proposals for a negotiated settlement.
The relationship between Sri Lanka and India was jolted again in 1971 when Sirimavo Bandaranaike rejected family friend Indira Gandhi’s call for full support for India’s stand on the East Pakistan’s liberation struggle against Pakistani military oppression. She gave Pakistan refuelling facilities in Colombo after India closed its skies to Pakistani aircraft. But at the same time, she took care to attach a key condition, namely, transiting Pakistani aircraft should not carry weapons or military personnel. She did not condone Pakistan’s suppression of the Bengalis of East Pakistan.
Her Secretary, MDD Pieris, explained her stand thus: “The Prime Minister clearly did not approve the manner in which (the founder of Bangladesh) Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was treated. She considered it an undemocratic, reactionary and unwise act. She was appalled that an elected leader was treated in that fashion. Nevertheless, Pakistan was a friendly country that had come to our (Sri Lanka’s) assistance in our hour of need (insurgency in April 1971). Therefore, the Prime Minister decided that whatever assistance that was legitimately possible was to be accorded to Pakistan.”
“She was aware that both in the political and emotional context at that time, this could cause considerable strain with India. But she reckoned that her relations with the Indian Prime Minister (Mrs. Indira Gandhi) would overcome these. Therefore, permission was granted for Pakistan civilian aircraft to overfly Sri Lanka and refuel here. Permission was not granted to military aircraft. Pakistan was also requested not to ferry soldiers or armaments but only civilians.”
Her non-aligned approach secured Pakistan’s support when Sri Lanka badly needed rice in 1972-74. Sirimavo Bandaranaike asked diplomat Stanley Jayaweera to find out if Pakistan could rush rice to Sri Lanka. Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto received Jayaweera even though it was midnight, and immediately ordered four Pakistani ships carrying rice to Latin America to be re-directed to Colombo.
At the international level, in 1971, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution initiated by her, to declare the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace. She had correctly foreseen that the Indian Ocean will be a flash point sooner or later. And it was the Non-Alignment Movement and the prestige that it enjoyed at that time, which enabled her to make that historic proposal, which is valid till date.