Delhi trades its soul for Myanmese deals

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2007, 12:00am

In 1947, when India became independent, parliament adopted the republic's constitution and national symbols that every citizen was to uphold and respect. The national flag thus depicted the Ashoka Chakra (or Ashoka's wheel) emblem, taken from a pillar that emperor Ashoka of the Maurya dynasty had erected to extol the virtues of Buddhism.

Explaining the significance of adding this wheel to the national flag, former president Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan wrote: 'The Ashoka Chakra in the centre [of the flag] is the wheel of the law of dharma. Truth and virtue ought to be the controlling principle of those who work under this flag.'

Today, as the country hurtles along the path of modernisation, is it shedding the values that it was supposed to uphold? The subdued responses that New Delhi has offered to the crisis in Myanmar - and, more appallingly, indications that it is more interested in that country's gas fields than the plight of the people - seem to point that way.

Last month, when the monks were protesting on the streets of Yangon over a steep rise in fuel prices, India's petroleum minister was in the commercial capital, signing a deal with the junta worth US$150 million for a stake in Myanmar's gas fields on the Rakhine Coast on the Bay of Bengal.

As the protests escalated and the junta began its crackdown, Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee was in Bangkok. During a meeting at Chulalongkorn University, he was quizzed by the British and American ambassadors to Thailand about India's ties with the Myanmese junta. His reply was the lame excuse of a policy of 'non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries'. A few days later, when General Deepak Kapoor took over as chief of the Indian army, he said he was looking forward to more favourable ties with the junta.

Now, India is planning another coup, this time by signing a US$100m deal with Myanmar to develop the port of Sitwee on the Kaladan River. No doubt this is seen as a diplomatic triumph for New Delhi. Not only is India hungry for Myanmar's energy resources, but more crucially the deal also means keeping China away from the potential gas fields in the area.

By giving more importance to its fuel needs - plus enjoying the support of the Myanmese junta in its fight against insurgents in its northeastern states - India has conveniently ignored the Myanmese people's struggle. The deals may have economic benefit, but India has lost its chance to grab the moral high ground by using its standing in the region to rally world opinion and act as a catalyst for change.

Clearly, the values that its national emblem signifies are no longer the deciding criterion in New Delhi. How could India, which proudly displays a Buddhist symbol on its national flag, have been doing deals with the Myanmese junta at a time when Buddhist monks were being beaten and even killed?

Indian policymakers claim they are being pragmatic. But the nation is moving away from its founding principle of non-violent struggle against injustice and oppression.

Hari Kumar is a Post journalist