Indian left out of step over US
exercises By Siddharth
NEW DELHI - India's left
parties' antipathy toward the United States has
reached new heights.
The Indian military,
known to stay neutral vis-a-vis the politics of
the country, is facing the ire of pickets
organized by left parties angry over mock
exercises between the Indian Air Force and its US
Protest leaders say the plan
is to assemble 500,000 pickets across the country.
The exercises are ongoing this week in the state
of West Bengal, a left bastion.
reports suggested protestors were distracted by
the amazing array of aircraft on display, instead
of going about their job. But the mood changed as
more than 150,000 slogan-shouting communist
activists assembled and thousands more began
pouring in to demonstrate against the "American
military presence". Huge contingents of police
have been deployed, but so far the protest has
been peaceful - though the left is known to
orchestrate rallies that turn violent.
a conciliatory statement, the US Air Force has
said the left protest against the Indo-US military
exercise is an example of
freedom of speech and
expression in a democracy. "One of the reasons we
serve in the military is to preserve freedom of
speech in a democracy," said Colonel David Cannon,
Pacific Air Force's public affairs director.
Pacific Air Force is the sponsor of the joint
exercise, codenamed "Cope 05".
The left is
a crucial coalition partner to the Congress
Party-led government in New Delhi, without whose
support it cannot survive. It is the first time
Indian pilots have encountered the vaunted F-16
fighter planes in India, and also the first time
in decades that a military airbase is facing the
brunt of a political protest. Observers say that a
rally of this scale only occurred prior to India's
independence in 1947.
The exercises were
conceived almost two years ago as part of thawing
relations between New Delhi and Washington, which
previously had held back sending F-16s to India
out of fear of a reaction from Pakistan. This is
the third such exercise, though Indian and
American forces have been engaged in mock
exercises for more than a decade. More than 250 US
air force personnel along with equipment,
including a dozen F-16s, have arrived at the
Kalaikunda airbase in West Bengal.
Indian pilots are facing American F-16s from the
Misawa base in Japan, the Indian Air Force had
held an exercise with Singapore's F-16s earlier
this year. Established in the 1940s, the Misawa
base is Washington's main military buffer against
Beijing in the sensitive Pacific arena to defend
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last
week sought personal assurance from the chief
minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee
(who belongs to the left), that state
law-enforcement agencies would ensure that
protests did not get out of hand. According to
reports, the federal government threatened to
invoke the National Security Act that allows
unlimited powers to maintain internal security.
However, the state government promised that the
protest will be "peaceful".
has not prevented the high-decibel, anti-US
rhetoric the left parties are known for. At the
protest site, a stone's throw from the barbed
enclosure of the air force base, a left party
leader said: "The days are not far when we will
have red [US] flags flying over this airbase and
at other airports in the country. Who can tell for
sure that the US forces will not take over this
air force base should they find it to their
liking? As many as 130 countries in the world have
American military bases."
leader and former chief minister of West Bengal,
Jyoti Basu, has been quoted as saying: "We are
totally against such joint military operations. It
is unfortunate that the government seems to be
getting into the clutches of the Americans."
In a statement from New Delhi, the left
parties supported the call to hold demonstrations
at the Kalaikunda airbase, emphasizing that they
were not happy with ongoing talks between New
Delhi and Washington for a "big arms purchase"
from the US, which could include F-16 fighter
aircraft. "The missile defense cooperation
negotiations are also being held. The deepening
military collaboration does not augur well for
India's strategic interests and independent
Fearing mass protests
against the military exercises, a US Embassy
statement in Kolkata clarified: "These
developments do not compromise India's sovereignty
or independence. These are arrangements between
two equal, important partners who look to the
future and understand what some of their shared
values and objectives must be."
has been critical of the growing military ties
between India and US, including the defense pact
signed between the two countries in July.
India and US inked a 10-year defense
agreement, titled the "New Framework for the
US-India Defense Relationship", which was signed
by Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee and his US
counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld. The agreement is
vast in scope and envisages a broad range of joint
activities, including multinational operations,
strengthening the two militaries to promote
security and defeat terrorism, and deepening
capacity to take on the proliferation of weapons
of mass destruction.
A prominent left
party said in a statement the pact would only help
serve US strategic goals in Asia and "was fraught
with serious consequences" for the country's
strategic and security interests. "If this
agreement is carried forward, India will be
placing itself in the same category as Japan,
South Korea and Philippines, all traditional
military allies of the United States."
protests against military ties are an extension of
the overall antipathy of the left parties to the
US. It may be recalled that they have been
protesting against steps by the Manmohan Singh
government to unshackle the economy (which they
refer as capitulating to "consumerism" and
"imperialism" of the US) as well the "agenda" to
take Indo-US relations to new heights. Examples
include deals relating to nuclear energy and
Of note, no protests
occurred during military exercises with Russia,
and the left has always supported New Delhi's
moves to build relations with Beijing.
while some analysts say the left parties operate
in a time warp, the fact is the Manmohan Singh
government cannot survive without their support.
And, they have managed to slow down or force the
government to renege on many decisions. And they
pressure the government on numerous fronts.
There has been virulent criticism of the
Indian government's support of the US and European
Union at the International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA) for their stance against Iran due to its
insistence on pursuing an independent nuclear
In another attempt to pressure
New Delhi on Iran, the left parties extended
support to Natwar Singh, who was forced out this
week as foreign minister after being accused by a
UN report of taking bribes in the oil-for-food
program from the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.
According to reports, the deal was that the left
would back Natwar in exchange for his support of
Tehran. Noting the importance of the left, senior
Iranian diplomats in India have also been seeking
out left leaders to press Tehran's point of view.
Also, the left parties have stalled
attempts to remove foreign investment restrictions
in retail that are being actively lobbied for in
New Delhi by US giant Wal-Mart. The left has also
protested against moves at privatization of public
sector companies. Recently, a countrywide protest
was organized against the private sector taking
over management of the country's airports.
Government employees and the section of unionized
labor form a considerable support base and are
capable of holding the nation to ransom if they
Meanwhile, direct action by taking
to the streets against the growing military ties
with the US will come as another shocker for a
government that is feeling increasingly suffocated
by the demands of the left parties.
have been significant steps toward military
cooperation between India and the US, with
Washington also eyeing India's huge arms purchases
scheduled over the next few years, in a bid to
modernize the forces. New Delhi has been actively
courted by the US in the recent past, with the
country for the first time offering its complete
range of weapon systems and platforms last year.
Indian and US forces joined in the
northwest Arabian Sea for India's largest-ever
naval exercise. The 10-day "Malabar-05", which
concluded last month, involved more than 10,000
officers and sailors from the two nations. It was
the first time that aircraft carriers and fighters
from the two navies exercised together.
The Pentagon is extending an invitation to
New Delhi to witness the first flight next year of
one of Washington's most ambitious and classified
fighter aircraft, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
This is an important gesture as India is not a
partner country in the multi-billion dollar
project. US Army personnel are also learning from
the Indian Army's experience of combating
insurgencies over the past 50 years, including
recent operations at Kargil and Kashmir, to combat
the situation in Iraq.
Indeed, the US
wants to engage India independently and move
beyond the traditional hyphenation of
US-India-Pakistan relations toward being a
strategic partner to fend off China. This is the
first time in the history of India-US relations
that the US is looking toward India beyond the
axis of Cold War nations, when India was seen to
be allied closely with the former Soviet Union.
Although the US has upped the supply of
F-16 jets to Pakistan to 80 fighters, given
Islamabad's supposed cooperation in the "war on
terror", Washington has been looking to deal with
India independently, as evidenced by the nuclear
deal between the two, which seeks to recognize
India as the sixth atomic power nation.
However, the left parties have other
ideas. By taking to the streets once again, the
differences between the Congress-led government
and its main coalition partner has only become
is a New Delhi-based journalist.