Why many people in India aren't condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine
PM Narendra Modi holds firm on neutral stance despite Western pressure
The street in a busy section of central Mumbai is a jumble of clothing stands and toy stores, and even though she is following developments, the war in Ukraine some 4,500 kilometres away feels distant for shopkeeper Geeta Patel.
"We all love peace. It should have been settled through talks," she said.
That sentiment was echoed by Gopal Jhaveri, who was running an errand before he stopped to tell CBC News that many Indians are watching the conflict unfold amid worries of what ripple effects it will have on the economy and on geopolitical tensions in South Asia.
"We are against any kind of war, neither are we supporting Russia or Ukraine," Jhaveri said.
The reluctance to pick a side in the ongoing conflict is very much in line with India's official stance of committed neutrality and non-aligned foreign policy that has strong domestic support despite intense pressure from Western leaders for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take a bolder approach in denouncing Russian aggression.
"India cannot ignore the fact that Russia has been their ally for that many years," said shopper Hilary Pinto.
His comments highlighted the delicate balance that the country's officials are treading with their response to the conflict, particularly as accounts emerged of war crimes that appear to have been committed by Russian troops in Ukraine.
The images of mass graves in the areas around Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, gave Suprit Karkera, an entertainment executive, pause, even though he does support the Indian government's neutral stance.
"India is a developing country, it's not a G7 [country]. Business-wise, India I think is making the right decision, but emotionally not," he said, referring to the allegations of war crimes.
"We are neutral … because we don't want to rub [Russia] the wrong way. Who will supply us then?"
Russia provides more than half of India's military equipment including tanks, weapons and fighter jets, often at a cheaper price than arms from Western countries. It's a key consideration for India, surrounded by countries with which it has icy relations.
Skirmishes have broken out over the past two years along its contested border with China to the east, and there's constant tension along the line of control in disputed Kashmir, on India's western border with Pakistan.
Western leaders urge India to take a stand
A string of Western leaders and foreign ministers have visited India since the war began, urging the country to criticize Russia more forcefully, but the pleas have not moved Modi. India has continued to abstain in vote after vote condemning Russia at the United Nations. It has also not imposed any sanctions on Moscow.
India has doggedly pursued a foreign policy of neutrality and non-alignment with any bloc of nations since its independence in 1947, but its relations with the United States have grown warmer in recent years with the rise of China's influence in the region.
On Friday, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the latest Western leader to land in New Delhi for trade talks, acknowledged India's historic and long-standing ties to Russia are well-known and would not change.
He seemed to arrive armed with a different approach to endear Indian leaders to Western partners. Johnson offered a defence partnership to "strengthen [India's] own domestic defence industry" that would see Britain support India with technology to manufacture its own fighter jets, as a way to reduce the country's dependence on Russian weapons.
At the news conference following his talks with Johnson, Modi took the opportunity to again call for a diplomatic solution in Ukraine. Earlier this month, India's prime minister strongly condemned the killings in the Ukrainian town of Bucha and called for an independent probe into possible war crimes — but stopped short of blaming Russia.
Modi's approach is resonating with some citizens. Ashita Shah is not a big fan of his domestic policies, but her view of the prime minister has changed since the invasion of Ukraine and what she deemed his "very strong response."
The 23-year-old is impressed with Modi's consistently neutral foreign policy despite the increased pressure from the West.
"I consider the U.S a bully," she said at her family home in south Mumbai. "India is not just another country that you can suppress."
Shah's childhood friend, Rajvi Shah (no relation), also 23, agreed, saying Russia has been a good friend to India.
"They've supported us," Shah said. "They've helped us become this militarily strong country so that we can defend ourselves."
Rajvi Shah said her heart aches for what Ukrainians are enduring. Even so, she said "neutrality is more important than anything for us."
Saving money on Russian oil
Along with its defence equipment, India also started to buy more Russian oil after the invasion of Ukraine, taking advantage of the discounted price as other buyers withdrew — a move that drew criticism from the United States.
U.S. President Joe Biden had also previously called India's response to the war in Ukraine "somewhat shaky" in comparison to its fellow so-called Quad countries Japan and Australia. The Quad, to which the U.S. also belongs, is an informal coalition created to counter China's influence in the Indo-Pacific.
Those comments irked Kanwal Sibal, a former foreign secretary of India, who sees the rhetoric from the West as hypocritical.
"We are a developing country and with the oil prices shooting up and with all the backlog of COVID and everything else, our prospects in terms of growth are being affected," he told CBC News from his home in New Delhi.
"If we can buy a little more oil at discounted prices from Russia, what is the problem?"
India's external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishanker, also defended his country's energy purchases from Russia at a news conference on April 11, stating that Europe has more to explain than India. "Probably our total purchases for the month would be less than what Europe does in an afternoon," he said.
India's imports of Russian oil make up only about two per cent of the total oil entering the country.
Sibal is certain the repeated visits from Western leaders are unnecessary and ineffectual.
"The West is doing what it's doing in terms of its national interests and we have to protect our national interests, which is being served both by our stronger ties with the United States and maintaining the stability of our ties with Russia," said Sibal.
"We can't afford to be isolated from Russia," he added. "Or to let Russia believe that we have now moved solidly into the western camp."
That reality has sunk in for many of the shoppers at the complex in Mumbai, including Hilary Pinto, who is convinced the only countries that will stand by India if its territory were threatened are long-standing allies like Russia.
"I don't think India has done anything wrong," Pinto said. "The U.S. can continue to criticize and I think India will continue to maintain its neutral stand."