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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 40


Wednesday 26 September 2007, by Nikhil Chakravartty


The unprovoked shooting down of an Iranian civilian airbus by the US warships in the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf on July 3 killing nearly 300 innocent lives, has shocked the world public.

In a pathetic bid to cover up this ghastly crime by the American armada, President Reagan called it “a terrible human tragedy” but sought to justify it by saying that it was “a proper defensive action” by the US Navy. Through a series of false insinuations, the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sought to pass it off as a case of mistaken identity—a plea which has been rejected by many American authorities apart from responsible circles the world over, including Indian Defence experts.

This dastardly attack on a civilian aircraft killing innocent civilians has come as a climax to the blatant banditry being committed for months now by the unprecedented build-up of the US Navy in the Persian Gulf on the plea of protecting the sea lane for Middle East oil shipment.

This role of self-appointed gendarme arrogated to itself by the American Navy is indeed the crassest example of an international bully forcing its way into theatres far away from its own frontiers and having no bearing at all on the defence of the United States. Nor can this be compared to the shooting down of the South Korean airline’s civilian aircraft by the Soviet Air Force five years ago, since that aircraft had quite openly strayed into a sensitive security zone at night without light, and was not flying over international waters in broad daylight as was the Iranian airliner. Even so, that terrible disaster, it is worth recalling today, had shocked the world and the Soviet Union had to bear the brunt for that incident which had led President Reagan to brand it as “the evil empire”—the appellation which he withdraw only last month during the super-power summit in Moscow.

This latest misconduct committed by the American Navy is bound to have its repercussions on the coming US presidential campaign. There is little doubt that the Republican Party would have to pay heavily for it in political terms. Besides, the fact that the heavily armed guided missile cruiser, Vincennes, could mistake on its highly sophisticated radar screen a wide-bodied airbus for a small jet fighter, brings out the unreliability of the state-of-the-art weapons systems which is the basis of Reagan’s “Star Wars” programme. It is to be noted that the Democratic presidential aspirant, Dukakis, has already attacked the “Star Wars” adventurism with its enormous budget.

It is ironical that Iran haunts the American presidential establishment over and over again. One of the factors behind Carter’s losing of the election was the siege of the US embassy at Tehran by Iranian revolutionary guards. One of the biggest drawbacks for the Republican Party this time is the Iran-Contra scandal, which is now going to be compounded by this unprovoked shooting down of an Iranian airliner by the US Navy, an episode which is bound to bring into question the entire Reagan policy on the Persian Gulf. The round of international condemnation that the American naval action has provoked is going to have its impact on American public opinion as it is a big blow to the US prestige, particularly for its military might, in the eyes of the world.

Against this background, one has to judge the extraordinary muffled reaction of the Government of India to the shocking incident. It took the government more than twenty-four hours to come out with a statement on it. Throughout the day, the Prime Minister and his aides were engaged in preparing it, and all that their sweated deliberations could produce is the “deploring” of the incident and not the condemnation of the action. Meekly it observed that “the use of military force against clearly civilian targets is unjustified”—an observation which is as good as an age-old cliché. Was the civilian airbus, then, a target? Why could the statement not be more explicit?

More serious was the appeal in the statement to the US Administration itself to conduct investigation into the incident. One would have expected New Delhi to at least demand an investigation by the United Nations or some other international agency. How could the investigation into such a reprehensible act by the US armed forces against another country committed not on US soil but in international waters thousands of miles away from American shore, be left in the hands of the US authorities? On this point, the Government of India’s response is far weaker than that of the Indian public. This is clearly borne out by the fact that the eminent jurist Dr L.M. Singhvi, no fire-eating radical hothead, has branded the American action as “a mid-summer madness at its worst” and has demanded “impartial international investigation” into the incident and “a UN initiative in the Gulf”.

By the standards of the Non-Aligned Movement, the Indian Government’s reaction has been disappointing. Even President Mugabe, by no means a very aggressive Chairman of the Movement, has demanded investigation by “our international team of experts” and has told President Reagan that the incident was a direct consequence of “the vicious big power naval build-up in the trouble-ridden Gulf region”.

This conspicuously supine reaction on the part of New Delhi should not come as a surprise as one notices the continued inaction on the part of the Rajiv Government to the fearsome American naval build-up in the Gulf. Not once has the Prime Minister expressed serious concern over this development nor has he cared to mobilise world public opinion, not even that of the Non-Aligned Movement, for defusing the dangerous situation created by the US naval presence in the Gulf, let alone even the endorsement of the demand that the responsibility of ensuring the freedom of navigation in the Gulf should be entrusted to the UN and not arrogated by the United States.

The Gulf policy of the Rajiv Government—if there is such a policy perspective at all in the South Block—shows definite erosion of India’s time-tested foreign policy. At this moment of a crisis issue developing in the region, the Rajiv Government has emerged as a weakling in the eyes of the world public as well as the people at home. New Delhi can still retrieve its position by taking a firm stand at the United Nations as the American action comes up for scrutiny there.

(Mainstream July 9, 1988)

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