New Delhi

The Indian public has long been suspicious of the US arguments for military action against Iraq and the legitimacy of any “regime change” executed by a superpower with imperial ambitions. Indians strongly opposed the 1991 Gulf War and supported the lifting of sanctions against Iraq well before they were relaxed in recent years. (India has since become Iraq’s biggest source of food and medicine.)

Indians saw the Security Council debate as a (failed) charade to win a fig leaf of legitimacy for an unjust war. More than 85 percent of people polled opposed the war. They are particularly horrified and revolted by the “shock and awe” operation. There is a surge of sympathy here for ordinary Iraqis–Indians see them as Third World people much like themselves, with similar tastes in music and food, who share a history of fighting colonialism.

There is a growing rift between India’s official policy and popular perceptions. The right-wing Hindu government has ducked a Parliament vote on Iraq–a near-unanimous opposition demand. It has wriggled between saying no war without Security Council authorization and (timidly) opposing “regime change.” Occasionally, Prime Minister Vajpayee piously says there should be no war anywhere.

The real reason for India’s pusillanimity is its courtship of America and the US offer of lucrative contracts in Iraq’s postwar reconstruction. New Delhi calls the United States its “strategic partner” and woos it as an ally in its parochial rivalry with Pakistan, which acquired an especially nasty, dangerous edge after the 1998 nuclear tests.

Indians are shocked and angered at their government’s statements that place the blame for war not on the United States but on the Security Council, for not “harmonizing” its positions on Iraq! Originally a founding leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, India has traveled a long distance at the governmental level. The public hasn’t. It instinctively abhors hints of empire and double standards on weapons of mass destruction.

The only Indians who support the government are confused right-wing liberals and “realist” hawks who confidently predicted a victory “within days” for the war coalition. Stiff resistance by Iraq’s army and militia guerrillas belies these predictions. Most Indians don’t want to see civilian deaths or a quick victory for the war coalition.

The antiwar sentiment among the people and civil society organizations is strong, although there haven’t been huge organized protests. On February 10 and 15 and March 15, 20 and 22, there were spirited (but underreported) demonstrations in more than 100 cities. On March 22 protesters chained themselves to the gates of the US Embassy in New Delhi. And antiwar campaigns are growing.

The war’s backlash will be strong in India’s neighborhood–especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where fundamentalists will try to harness anti-US sentiments. The March 23 massacre of twenty-four Hindus in Kashmir and the killing of a pro-ceasefire Kashmiri separatist guerrilla, Abdul Majid Dar–like last year’s butchery of 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat–underscore the growing fundamentalist danger. Unless the secular antiwar opposition grows, fundamentalists could hijack the issue, causing yet more trouble in this strife-torn, volatile region.