India: Language To Confuse and Confront

2003

Auriol Weigold

Both houses of the Indian Parliament spent two days in early April debating whether to ‘condemn’ or ‘deplore’ the US-led invasion of Iraq, before adjourning to decide on their next moves. The Opposition in the Lok Sabha demanded that the text of the resolution be agreed upon before the House resumed. In the Rajya Sahba, the sitting was adjourned pending a decision on whether a resolution should precede the next session, or the other way around.

The problem was one of language, specifically the English language. If the resolution was framed in Hindi the word nida can be translated in a number of ways, solving the problem of needing to keep on side the broad Indian community, the US-UK coalition and the rest of the world. Nida could be interpreted by the US as to ‘criticise’, by the rest of the world as to ‘condemn’ and by India as ‘deplore’ the war – the latter being the official preference.

Jaswant Singh, then Minister for External Affairs, had not been squeamish about the language of war in Washington, when six months previously he said that ‘every country has the right to pre-emption …’. Nor had the present Minister, Yashwant Sinha, been ambiguous when on 4 April he said that India would be justified in a pre-emptive strike against Pakistan, and that Pakistan was ‘a fit case’ for US military action because it has weapons of mass destruction and harbours terrorists. Such provocation brought the expected reaction from across the border and from a US State Department spokesperson, who said that ‘any attempts to draw parallels between the Iraq and Kashmir situations are wrong and are overwhelmed by the differences between them’. Indeed, at the end of March, Colin Powell and Jack Straw had cautioned India not to equate Kashmir with Iraq.

The rhetoric heated up further on 7 April when Pakistan accused India of escalating an arms race between the two countries after New Delhi’s announcement that an Agni III missile, which can carry a nuclear warhead, would be tested later this year. The response from Islamabad was that Pakistan could and would defend itself against any strike by India. Again the US intervened.

While the US State Department may look askance at India’s utilisation of the US' own argument for pre-emptive strikes, one consequence of the war in Iraq is that conventions surrounding the norms of international law and interpretations of self-defence in UN resolutions have been challenged by the US. India will not be the only country to take up the challenge. Pakistan has done so too.

In terms of regional security and the economic relations of other countries in the Asian region with India, escalation of the India-Pakistan conflict, even rhetorically, is alarming.

WATCHPOINT: In the longer term, how will the US-led war in Iraq affect the balance of power in the sub-continent, especially in the light of ongoing US attempts to deal with 'terrorism'?

 

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