How to intervene

All big nations have enduring myths about their foreign policies. India is no exception. One of its principal myths, the presumed commitment to non-intervention in the internal affairs of other nations, has been purveyed widely in the last few days as the world debates the use of force against Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya.

At New York, India has gone along with the United Nations Security Council Resolution imposing a few sanctions against the Libyan regime — arms embargo, travel ban, freeze on accounts of the leadership.

But New Delhi has found it necessary to explain its vote because of domestic squeamishness about Western intervention in Libya.

Senior officials have suggested that Delhi was not even for sanctions, but had to go along with the consensus in New York.

The government's defensiveness suggests that Delhi has reverted to form — with all its humbug and hypocrisy about non-intervention as a high principle of India's foreign policy — at the very first major diplomatic test since it joined the UNSC as a non-permanent member in January.

It is a good moment, then, to scrutinise the Indian myth about non-intervention. For one, it is attributed to Jawaharlal Nehru who supposedly invented "Panchsheel", the alleged foundation of India's foreign policy.

The truth, however, is it was Chinese premier Zhou Enlai who insisted on putting the Panchsheel into the preamble of the 1954 agreement on trade and intercourse with the Tibet region of China and India.

Zhou Enlai had good reasons. When China emphasised non-intervention, it was about insisting that India lay off Tibet and cede the many special privileges Delhi had inherited from the Raj.

Paradoxical as history tends to be, Delhi and Beijing have conformed to Panchsheel more in breach than observance.

Second, if you ask any of our smaller neighbours in the subcontinent about India's commitment to Panchsheel, they might laugh but for the fact that they find themselves at the receiving end of Indian interventions.

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