The street in a bustling area of central Mumbai is a jumble of clothing stalls and toy stores, and though it keeps up with developments, the war in Ukraine, some 4,500 kilometers away, seems distant for shopkeeper Geeta Patel.
“We all love peace. This should have been settled through talks,” she said.
That sentiment was echoed by Gopal Jhaveri, who was on a run before stopping to tell CBC News that many Indians are watching the conflict unfold worried about the ripple effects it will have on the economy and on geopolitical tensions in South Asia.
“We are against any kind of war, we don’t support Russia or Ukraine either,” Jhaveri said.
The reluctance to choose a side in the ongoing conflict is very much in line with India’s official stance of committed neutrality and non-aligned foreign policy which enjoys strong domestic support despite intense pressure from Western leaders. for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take a bolder approach. to denounce Russian aggression.
“India cannot ignore the fact that Russia has been its ally for so many years,” said client Hilary Pinto.
His comments highlighted the delicate balance that the country’s officials seek in their response to the conflict, especially as there are reports of war crimes that appear to have been committed by Russian troops in Ukraine.
The images of mass graves in areas around the Ukrainian capital, kyiv, have given Suprit Karkera, an entertainment official, pause, even though he supports the Indian government’s neutral stance.
“India is a developing country, it is not a G7 [country]. Commercially, I think India is making the right decision, but emotionally not,” he said, referring to the war crimes allegations.
“We are neutral…because we don’t want to rub shoulders [Russia] the wrong direction. Who will supply us then?”
Russia supplies more than half of India’s military equipment, including tanks, weapons and fighter jets, often at a lower price than weapons from Western countries. This is a key consideration for India, surrounded by countries with which it has frosty relations.
Skirmishes have broken out for the past two years along its disputed border with China to the east, and there is constant tension along the Line of Control in disputed Kashmir on India’s western border. with Pakistan.
Western leaders urge India to take a stand
A series of Western leaders and foreign ministers have visited India since the start of the war, urging the country to criticize Russia more forcefully, but the pleas have not moved Modi. India continued to abstain in a vote after a vote condemning Russia at the United Nations. He also did not impose sanctions on Moscow.
India has stubbornly pursued a foreign policy of neutrality and non-alignment with any bloc of nations since its independence in 1947, but its relations with the United States have warmed in recent years with the rise of China’s influence. In the region.
On Friday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the latest Western leader to land in New Delhi for trade talks, acknowledged that India’s long-standing and historic ties with Russia were well known and would not change.
He seemed to arrive armed with a different approach to endearing Indian leaders to Western partners. Johnson proposed a defense partnership to “strengthen [India’s] own national defense industry” which would see Britain support India with the technology to manufacture its own fighter jets, as a way of reducing the country’s dependence on Russian arms.
At the press conference following his talks with Johnson, Modi took the opportunity to again call for a diplomatic solution in Ukraine. Earlier this month, India’s prime minister strongly condemned the killings in the Ukrainian town of Bucha and called for an independent investigation into possible war crimes – but refrained from blaming Russia.
Modi’s approach resonates with some citizens. Ashita Shah is not a big fan of his domestic politics, but her view of the prime minister has changed since the invasion of Ukraine and what she saw as his “very strong response”.
The 23-year-old is impressed with Modi’s still neutral foreign policy despite increased pressure from the West.
“I consider the United States a bully,” she said from her family home in south Mumbai. “India is not just another country that you can suppress.”
Shah’s childhood friend, Rajvi Shah (no relation), also 23, agreed, saying Russia was a good friend of India.
“They supported us,” Shah said. “They helped us to become this country militarily strong so that we could defend ourselves.”
Rajvi Shah said his heart aches for what Ukrainians are going through. Even so, she said “neutrality is more important than anything to us.”
Save money on Russian oil
Along with its defense equipment, India also started buying more Russian oil after the invasion of Ukraine, taking advantage of the reduced price as other buyers pulled out – a move that drew criticism from states -United.
US President Joe Biden had also previously described India’s response to the war in Ukraine as “somewhat flimsy” compared to its so-called quad compatriots Japan and Australia. The Quad, to which the United States also belongs, is an informal coalition created to counter China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific.
The comments angered Kanwal Sibal, a former foreign minister of India, who sees Western rhetoric as hypocritical.
“We are a developing country and with oil prices soaring and with all the COVID backlog and everything, our growth prospects are affected,” he told CBC News from his home. in New Delhi.
“If we can buy a little more oil at reduced prices from Russia, what’s the problem?”
Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishanker also defended his country’s energy purchases from Russia at a press conference on April 11, saying Europe has more to explain than India. “Our total purchases for the month would probably be less than what Europe does in an afternoon,” he said.
Indian imports of Russian oil represent only about 2% of the total oil entering the country.
Sibal is certain that repeated visits by Western leaders are unnecessary and ineffective.
“The West does what it does in terms of national interests and we must protect our national interests, which are served both by our stronger ties with the United States and by maintaining the stability of our ties. with Russia,” Sibal said.
“We cannot afford to be isolated from Russia,” he added. “Or lead Russia to believe that we have now firmly settled into the Western camp.”
This reality has imposed itself on many buyers of the Mumbai complex, including Hilary Pinto, who is convinced that the only countries that will support India if its territory is threatened are long-time allies like Russia.
“I don’t think India did anything wrong,” Pinto said. “The United States can continue to criticize and I believe India will continue to maintain its neutral stance.”