World

Why many people in India aren't condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine

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 Prime Minister Narendra Modi. And he appears to have widespread support within India.

PM Narendra Modi holds firm on neutral stance despite Western pressure

Why India remains neutral on the Ukraine war

6 months ago
Duration 2:02
India’s reluctance to denounce the war in Ukraine can be explained by decades of close ties with Moscow and the country’s reliance on Russian weapons.

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.

Many Indian citizens support Prime Minister Narendra Modi's neutral positioning on Russia's invasion of Ukraine. 'I don't feel India has done anything wrong,' said Hilary Pinto as he shopped in Mumbai. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

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.

Suprit Karkera, middle, with his son Darsh, 9, and wife Gunjan. Suprit, an entertainment executive supports India's attempt to stay neutral toward Russia. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

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."

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures as he speaks during a joint press briefing with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi at the Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India, on April 22, 2022. The British government is looking for ways to help reduce India's dependence on Russia. (Stefan Rousseau/Reuters)

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.

Ashita Shah, left, and Rajvi Shah (unrelated) both support India's neutral stance on the war in Ukraine. (Salimah Shivji/CBC)

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."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Salimah Shivji

Journalist

Salimah Shivji is CBC's India correspondent, based in Mumbai. She has been a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau and has covered everything from climate change to corruption across Canada.

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