The Indian government’s decision to abstain in the UN General Assembly vote last month on protecting civilians and upholding legal and humanitarian obligations in Gaza (A/ES-10/L.25) has been widely criticised by commentators as well as opposition politicians. India, in its explanation of vote (EOV), said it abstained because the draft had not condemned the October 7 terror attack on Israel.
While this argument has some merit given its oft-repeated ‘no-tolerance’ policy towards terrorism, India’s own ambivalence towards Hamas suggests its position is more nuanced than the domestic debate admits.
Ironically, India abstained in 2018 when the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution condemning Hamas for “repeatedly firing rockets into Israel and for inciting violence, thereby putting civilians at risk”. Thus, one must question if India’s latest abstention was really about the terror attacks of October 7 not being mentioned.
In fact, this is the first time that India has labelled attacks by Hamas as ‘terror’. In the past, India at different forums has only condemned some of Hamas’s actions, whereas other countries explicitly called Hamas’s actions terrorism.
For example, in May 2021, when Hamas launched rocket and mortar attacks against Israel, India only opposed such firing and no mention of terror attacks featured in its statement to the UN Security Council at that time.
Since Hamas’s attacks have now been labelled as terror, will India be looking at designating Hamas as a terrorist organisation? At the MEA briefing on October 12, spokesperson Arindam Bagchi did not provide a concrete answer when asked about this.
A few days back, Israeli ambassador to India Naor Gilon said that it is time for India to recognise Hamas as a terrorist organisation and hinted at the two sides having a dialogue along these lines.
However, a similar request in 2004 by then deputy prime minister of Israel, Silvan Shalom, to designate Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist outfits was rejected by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
During Vajpayee’s prime ministership, in fact, India actually condemned Israel for assassinating two Hamas leaders.
“We are appalled by the killing in Gaza of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, spiritual leader of Hamas, yesterday in an Israeli missile strike,” the Ministry of External Affairs said in March 2004.
A few weeks later, when Israel killed his successor, Abdel Aziz Al-Rantisi, India again censured Tel Aviv.
Speaking at a special meeting of the UN Security Council in April 2004, ambassador Vijay Nambiar said the “targeted killing of al-Rantisi was unjustified and unacceptable, and could not be condoned under any circumstances. Such action, following closely after the killing of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, could only lead to a further deterioration of the situation in the region and escalation of the cycle of violence and counter-violence.”
It will be interesting to see if India, under Narendra Modi, will shift from the past or maintain continuity.
While India has designated certain transnational groups as terrorist entities – including ISIS and Al-Qaida – this was done pursuant to listings by ISIL and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee of the United Nations, pursuant to UN Security Council resolution 1267.
Given that Hamas isn’t a terrorist entity under the UN list, India’s designation of Hamas as terrorists would be setting a new precedent – which is something the MEA might be unwilling to do.
For now, it seems likely that India will continue with its dichotomous approach, invoking terror acts by Hamas in order to justify a diplomatic stand that is driven by political considerations but stopping short of designating Hamas as a terrorist organisation under Indian law.
So far, only terrorist groups directly impacting the subcontinent or transnational outfits recognised by the UN have been listed under section 35 of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, and that position does not seem to be changing.
Arkoprabho Hazra works as a manager at Aakhya India and writes occasionally on matters related to Indian foreign policy. He tweets at @ArkoprabhoH. Views expressed are personal.