THEY ABSTAINED- Choice, National Interest, and a Rare Case of Learning from History

India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan together form the majority of South Asia. They are the four biggest economies with the youngest population in the world. All four countries have been former British colonies with entangled history. The region is the birthplace of three faiths – Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism and is home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations, the Indus Valley civilization. Apart from Sri Lanka, the other three (India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) formed one nation until 1947. Sri Lanka too has a direct connection with the subcontinent. The ‘Mahavamsa’, which is considered the greatest chronicles of Sri Lanka narrates the story of the founder of the Sinhalese people, which have their origin in West Bengal and Odisha, two eastern states of India. In August 1947, India and Pakistan became nation-states, while Sri Lanka and Bangladesh gained independence in 1948 and 1971 respectively.

These four countries are culturally, socially, and historically related to one another and many have families across the borders. Today, all south Asian countries border India by either physical or marine boundary. The Hindi and Urdu speakers in India and Pakistan can understand each other, while Bengali speakers of West Bengal can converse easily with people from across the border in Bangladesh. Moreover, Tamil speakers predominantly from Tamil Nadu in southern India share a similar tongue to the Sri Lankan Tamils in the northern part of Sri Lanka.

India gets its name from the river ‘Sindhu’ which is mentioned in the ancient Indian script of Rig-Veda. The Arabs pronounced Sindhu as Hindu and Greeks called it ‘Indu’, thus the land over a period came to be called ‘India’. This river from which India derives its names is today part of Pakistan and not India. Bangladesh’s national anthem and that of India is written by the same noble laureate Rabindranath Tagore. While one of the greatest Emperors of India Ashoka who is credited for the spread of Buddhism beyond India, sent his son Mahendra and daughter Sanghamitra to Sri Lanka to spread Buddhism. Their names are also mentioned in the Buddhist text ‘Mahavamsa’. In a sense, therefore, these four countries share a historical, cultural, and social past.

But as a nation-state, each has charted its own path differently from the other. India became the biggest democracy in the world, and Pakistan is included in the UN’s grey list. While Bangladesh became the fastest growing economy and Sri Lanka grappled with civil war. Moreover, although a highly significant region for international relations, South Asia remains a ground for political mistrust. There are historical events that cause this deep-rooted mistrust in the region. So much so, that intraregional trade between the countries accounts for barely 5% of South Asia’s total trade. It is 20% cheaper for a company in India to trade with Brazil on the other side of the globe, instead of a neighboring South Asian country.

There have been various initiatives for regional cooperation, like the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), to economically integrate the region with an expectation that a more economical interdependence can pave the way for the greater overall integration of the region. Yet SAARC remains in limbo with many questioning its initiative. There have been bilateral initiatives of course like India-Bangladesh economic initiatives, India granting economic aid to Sri Lanka as the country faces some of the worst economic crises in history. Yet overall regional synergies are missing.

On 28th February 2022, when the UN security council resolution convened a rare emergency special session of the UN General Assembly on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, there were 35 countries that abstained. Each country abstained due to its own standpoint and national interest. What was surprising is that all four South Asian countries – India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan had abstained from the vote. No other region in the world voted in the same nature as South Asia.

This stand, by South Asian countries, seems to be a rare testimonial of ‘learning from history'. There has been a history of loss of life, betrayal, and forced famine in South Asia in another such war fought in Europe. One-sixth of all British forces who fought in the World War I were Indians (that included Pakistan and Bangladesh which were then part of India), 54,000 Indians lost their lives, 65,000 were wounded and another 4000 remained missing or imprisoned. Britain’s colonial rule dragged South Asia into a war to save Queen’s empire. India supplied 70 million rounds of ammunition, 600 thousand rifles, and machine guns. 1.3 million Indian personnel served in this war. Moreover, India was promised a self-governing dominion state for its support in WW I. But after the war ended, Britain betrayed its promise. There were nationwide protests which were curbed by implementing the Rowlatt Act, which replaced the wartime Defence of India Act 1915. The Act authorized the government to imprison people for up to two years without any trial if they were suspected to be terrorists/conspiring against the British Raj.

In WW II, three and a half million Indians were in uniform. Of Britain’s total war debt of three billion pounds in 1945 money, 1.25 billion was owned to India and never paid. In addition, in 1943 during the Bengal Famine, PM Winston Churchill deliberately through written militant policy preceded to divert essential supplies from civilians in Bengal for Europeans as reserve stockpiles, which resulted in the death of 4 million Indians.

It can be argued that during both the World Wars, these four countries were British colonies. Essentially, the places Britain brutally extracted resources, tortured its native population, and looted its wealth. Moreover, India was considered the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ in British Empire and therefore suffered the most. Although inhuman, the people of these four countries came under Britain and therefore, were forced to be part of both the World Wars.

As independent countries, therefore, when another war erupted in Europe, these four countries that were no longer British colonies chose their own, which was completely in the national interest. Moreover, there has been a historic record at the UN when western powers abstained for their own national interest when these south Asian countries were fighting a battle of their own. For example, during the 1960s UK and USA moved a joint resolution in the UNSC deploring the use of force when India was liberating Goa, Diu, and Daman from the Portuguese colonial power. Even as the wave of decolonization was sweeping the world in the post-world war period, the western powers supported Portugal’s colonization of Indian territories.

In the case of Bangladesh, since its fight for independence from Pakistan, the US has been historically disregarding the Awami League, the party of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who is considered the father of Bangladesh. In 2014 when the Awami League won the national election, the US called it a ‘sham’. US had consistently supported Pakistan in UNSC against Bangladesh. During the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war, the US sent a ten-ship naval task force towards the Bay of Bengal and the UK sent its aircraft carrier HMS Eagle in aid to Pakistan. For Sri Lanka and Pakistan too, there have been such incidences when the western powers teamed up against these countries on an international platform.

Abstaining does not mean supporting nor does it mean opposing. It essentially means, to choose not to choose. It’s deliberate refraining. It’s the path south Asia, especially India, is familiar with. India championed NAM (Non-Alignment) completely out of national interest similar to the national interest that dominated US and USSR’s foreign policies. Non-Alignment although criticized by many world leaders and IR theorists was a foreign policy approach unique and customized to the period and the circumstances in which South Asian countries found themselves. Pakistan during the cold war sided with the USA, which today is highly critical of the US, wanting to influence its foreign policy. In the case of Bangladesh, Gary J. Bass in his book ‘The Blood Telegram’ remarks that the US displayed ‘moral blindness’ in its foreign policy by ‘actively and knowingly’ backing Islamabad’s control over Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). Thus, both directly during the cold war, and indirectly through UN abstention, western powers have tactfully used all means in their national interest. Yet criticizing other countries when they do the same.

What is more is that during the recent vote on removing Russia from UNSC, all four countries once again abstained. This was perceived by the west as a support, which had criticized the South Asian countries for their earlier abstention during the emergency special session. Voting at the UN can be understood as a game of perception. Abstaining is another such perception. A perception of the four South Asian countries for themselves, which at times is convenient for the west, and sometimes Russia.

After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the western countries put sanctions on Russia, cornered them at UNSC, and removed it from the G8 country grouping. This did little to solve the problem. The current war between Russia and Ukraine is a testimony to it. This is because the security council’s objective is to stop a conflict by addressing its cause. But as Syed Akbaruddin, India’s former permanent representative to the UN, puts it, ‘for years now, UN has taken on the subsidiary pursuit of being a humanitarian council’. Therefore, South Asian countries' approach to such a humanitarian council is apt. The four South Asian countries have time and again criticized Russia’s action, but when came to vote of symbolism, these four countries independently and coincidently abstained.


The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Brief Bulletin.


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