The newly appointed United States Ambassador to India Eric Garcetti made a rather quixotic statement in Kolkata. He said:
"Let me speak about Manipur first. We pray for peace there. When you ask us about the concern of the United States, I don’t think it’s a strategic concern. I think it’s about human concern… You don’t have to be Indian to care when you see children and individuals die in the sort of violence that we see [in Manipur] and we know that peace is the precedent for so many other good things. There have been so many good things in the northeast and the east here and those can’t continue without peace. We stand ready to assist in any way if asked. We know it’s an Indian matter and we pray for peace and that it may come quickly. Because we can bring more collaboration, more projects, more investment if that peace is in place. One very clear message I want to send — the east of India and the northeast of India matters to the United States. Its people, its places, its potential, and its future matter to us..."Eric Garcetti , United States’ Ambassador to India
The statement obviously raised certain eyebrows in India, notwithstanding the current state of bonhomie in Indo-US relations with the opposition reacting to the articulation and the government ducking a response.
The Official Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs feigned ignorance by stating: "I haven’t seen those comments by the US ambassador. If he has made them, we will see…. I think we would also seek peace there and I think our agencies and our security forces are working, our local government is working on it..."
Convoluted and Tortuous Relations
Some discerning observers of International Affairs were of the view that the US Ambassador got ‘tripped’ by a rather long-winded question on democratic backsliding in India. However, as a career politician, he obviously must be used to ‘trick’ questions so therefore if he chose to answer that question at some great length he obviously wanted to answer it. That is fine for if we are a democracy and believe in freedom of speech and expression in its rawest manifestation, then we should not get too prickly and tilt at windmills, notwithstanding Article 41 of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
The Convention states it is the duty of the one receiving immunities and privileges to respect the laws of the receiving state. It is also their duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of that state. The premises of the mission must not be used for any other purpose than those outlined in this treaty, or by other rules of international law.
Why did the statement then cause consternation? The history of bilateral relations between the US and India is rather convoluted and tortuous, to put it mildly, now going back almost eight decades.
While it is a fact that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pushed Prime Minister Winston Churchill during the Second World War to liberate India telling him in no uncertain terms that the fight against fascism and Nazism cannot go hand in hand with continuing imperialism and colonialism, it is also a fact that once the war ended and the iron curtain descended across Europe and by extension the rest of the world India and the US found themselves on the opposite sides of that curtain. That hiatus persisted throughout the Cold War from 1945-1991.
History is Loaded With Examples
A moment of light came in 1962 when India which was at the receiving end of a Soviet green-lighted Chinese invasion into Indian territory turned to the US for help. President John F Kennedy responded very positively to India’s entreaties but before concrete help could manifest itself China announced a unilateral ceasefire on 21 November 1962.
Strangely President Kennedy’s successor Lyndon Johnson pulled back on the earlier initiative. US declassified documents reveal as to why this soft peddle took place. In a note, President Johnson on 19 November 1968 the then US Ambassador to India Chester Bowles recalled: "In 1963-64 following the Chinese war, after providing limited assistance to India, we rejected its request to help modernize its defence establishment at a rate of about $75 million annually because of fear of upsetting our relationship with Pakistan. In return for this assistance, the Indians had been prepared to:
Agree not to buy lethal weapons from the Communist nations
Negotiate a military force-level agreement with Pakistan
Work with us on a political basis to establish greater stability in Asia and Southeast Asia. Only in August 1964, when it became clear that we were not prepared to give India this assistance, did India turn to the Soviet Union as its major source of military equipment."
It is therefore rather evident if one was to go by the Chester Bowles account that India moved to the erstwhile USSR only after being cold-shouldered by the US. Ironically, as mentioned earlier it was the same USSR that had winked and nudged the Chinese transgression in 1962 to ensure that Communist solidarity on the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 does not flounder given the serious Sino-Soviet Split of the 1950s and 1960s that finally came to a head in 1969 with the Sino-Soviet border war.
In 1971, the US again opted to side with Pakistan because the Nixon-Kissinger Duo considered Pakistani dictator Yayha Khan’s role in providing an opening to China more important than the wanton massacre and mass rape being perpetrated by the predominantly Punjabi-Pathan West Pakistani Army on the hapless people of East Pakistan.
The crowning glory of this support for Pakistan by the US came in the form of Task Force-74 of the Seventh Fleet that steamed towards the Bay of Bengal to stave off the fall of Dacca to the Indian Army and the Mukti Bhaini. It was headed off by the Soviet 10th Operative Battle Group (Pacific Fleet) before it could fulfill its mission objective. This left an institutional scar on the Indian strategic memory.
Again in the 1990s, as the situation deteriorated in Jammu & Kashmir because of the proxy war initiated by Pakistan US diplomats in the Clinton administration led by the loquacious Robin Raphel chose to side with the Pakistani narrative on Jammu &Kashmir not only in public utterances but indirectly even multilateral organisations like the United Nations Commission on Human Rights.
To add to that, in the year 2002, on Pakistan’s asking, during Operation Parakram launched in the wake of the horrific attack on the Indian Parliament, the US came down heavily on India over the reported movement of India’s 2nd Strike Corps (Kharga Corps) over the Upper Gang canal which is beyond it’s holding areas. This US intervention cost the 2nd Strike force commander Lieutenant General Kapil Vij his job.
The reason why the US intervened at the level of General Colin Powell then US Secretary of State and Donald Rumsfeld was because General Musharraf was helping the US by allegedly claiming to seal the Pak-Afghan Border as the US carried out anti-Al Qaida and Taliban operations in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. The US realized a little too belatedly that they had been played by Pakistan assiduously in the so-called War on Terror. Pakistan has perfected the art of running with the hare and hunting with the hound.
Discounting all the above, the late Jaswant Singh and Strobe Talbot authored the reset of the Indo-US strategic relationship between 1998-2003 that led to the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) between India and the US in January 2004. In May 2004, with a change in government in New Delhi Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and President George Bush-43 took the bilateral relationship to a hitherto unimaginable zenith with the Indo-US Nuclear Deal in 2008.
Manipur: A Colossal Failure, but an Indian Problem
Prime Minister Modi also built on these foundations with the signing of the three defense foundational agreements and some of the other recent initiatives announced in the Joint Statement of the United States and India dated 22 June 2023, though concerns with the rather portentous language of paragragh 14 remain. They need to be clarified as to whether this may be tantamount to giving basing rights to the United States.
Strategic establishments have long memories on both sides. Given some elements of the Indian appreciation of the memory that I have endeavored to narrate above, it is therefore but natural to raise eyebrows when the US Ambassador makes an unsolicited offer, “We stand ready to assist in any way if asked…," and more ominously, "the east of India and the northeast of India matters to the United States. Its people, its places, its potential, and its future matter to us." The implication of the latter articulation is not lost on anyone. Such utterances are best avoided.
Manipur is undoubtedly a humongous tragedy. It is a colossal failure of both the Central and State government. What is happening is heart-wrenching. The state has virtually withered away in Manipur. It is more than just a human tragedy. It must make all of us hang our heads in collective shame. However, it is an Indian problem and we as a nation, people, and society have to apply the healing touch and put Manipur back on the rails of peace, progress, and prosperity again.
(The author is an MP, Lawyer, and Former I&B Minister. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)