Ranvir S. Nayar
India abstained from a recent vote at the UN General Assembly on a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. In doing so, the country indirectly aligned itself with a number of Western nations that voted against the motion.
By abstaining or voting against the resolution, countries revealed that they had acquiesced to Israel’s incessant and indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza, which has led to thousands of casualties, including many among children and even patients in hospitals.
While Western nations, most notably the US and those in Europe, have traditionally been pro-Israel on the issue of the Israel-Palestine conflict, India’s abstention from the UN vote marked a very significant shift in the country’s stance on an issue in which it had steadfastly remained neutral, and on humanitarian issues even pro-Palestinian.
The Indian Foreign Ministry said it did not vote in favor of the resolution because the text failed to explicitly condemn the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel. This explanation was received with skepticism and cynicism in India, where many critics pointed out that the country could easily have voted for the resolution while also stating its concerns about the lack of a clear condemnation of the attack on Israel.
Many critics saw the close relationship that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoys with his Israeli counterpart, Benjamin Netanyahu, as influencing the decision.
The popular perception is that the Indian stance on the vote represents a huge shift in its position on the protracted dispute between Israelis and Palestinians, and the decision to abstain attracted sharp criticism across the country. Many major political parties criticized Modi’s government for sacrificing India’s decades-old stance on the Palestinian issue.
In the past, India has consistently called for ceasefires not only in conflicts between Israel and Palestine but also in others in the Middle East. Even in the war between Ukraine and Russia, India has consistently refrained from criticizing either side and repeatedly called for a ceasefire and a return to diplomacy in an effort to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict, which has now dragged on for more than a year and a half.
Even though Russia has traditionally been a much stronger ally of India than any other country, including Western nations and Israel, Indian authorities did not hesitate to call for an immediate end to violence in the war with Ukraine.
Voting for the resolution on Gaza would therefore have been very much in line not only with India’s own stance on numerous international issues, but also with the sentiments of almost every other developing nation, a grouping of 120 countries that India aspires to lead, with some justification.
Almost every other member of that 120-strong group supported the call for a ceasefire and India ought not only to have taken the lead in consolidating the bloc’s vote, but also tabled any tangible amendments to the resolution, such as clear criticism of the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel that caused hundreds of civilian deaths.
This ill-timed and unreasoned abstention came just weeks after India hosted a rather successful summit of G20 nations in New Delhi, during which, despite all the doubts about whether a joint communique would be issued, the host nation did indeed manage to get all parties, despite the polarization between Russia and NATO members, to sign off on the communique.
By abstaining from the UN resolution on Gaza, India lost a unique opportunity not only to reassert its position on Palestine, with which it has historically enjoyed a very close relationship, it also rubbed up many Islamic countries the wrong way, potentially undoing decades of work by numerous Indian governments to foster a closer relationship with the Islamic world, including Gulf Cooperation Council nations.
In fact, one of the biggest foreign policy successes of Modi’s government has been its balanced relationship with GCC nations and Israel, thanks to which trade and strategic ties with both the Arab world and Israel have prospered over the past 10 years or so.
Instead of abstaining from the vote, therefore, India should have opted for sharp criticism of the excessive violence unleashed by Israel in Gaza, which has gone on for over a month.
India seemed to undertake a certain degree of course correction in a subsequent vote in the General Assembly, last Sunday, in which it joined 144 other nations in delivering a sharp rebuke of the Israeli policy on settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
India should not rest, content with this condemnation, however. It could indeed take the lead by trying to convince the Israeli leadership that the objective of total destruction in Gaza is hardly likely to bring peace to the region. It can only fuel anti-Israeli sentiment in Palestine and other Arab nations, with dire consequences for Israel.