By Shankar Roychowdhury
Apr 13, 2015
The Indian Navy has once again kept the country’s flag flying high, in the emergency evacuation of a large number of Indians from Yemen. INS Sumitra and her sister ships, carried out an evacuation under fire reminiscent of the battle of Dunkirk during World War II. Air attacks by German Stuka bombers were absent of course, but even that factor might have been added had rebel pilots of the Yemeni Air Force joined the fray in their decrepit but still flyable MiG-21s.
So what are the lessons for India from the bloody conflagration that is consuming Yemen? The ans-wer is simple — Yemen must not be allowed to occur in India. The wild-eyed, politico-religious hate figures should be restrained. Religious ideology apart, an equally important question is whether the outbreak of sectarian war in Yemen has some hidden agenda as well?
Could it be oil?
The Arab Spring, which ignited spontaneously in 2010 as a mass movement for restoration of democracy in Tunisia and spread throughout the Arab world, took place in oil-rich countries, but oil or its politics was not amongst the specific causes for the upheaval. . The Arab Spring and the Shia-Sunni jihad it created, has unleashed its own djinns like the Al Qaeda and its local chapter the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS). These have unleashed a reign of Sunni terror pogroms against the hapless religious and tribal minorities of the region, including Yazidis, Alawites, Ibadi Coptic Christians, and Christian Arabs who have been massacred and expelled from their lands.
The Arab Spring seems to have morphed into a demonic mutant — a full-blown Sunni-Shia conflict which had first manifested itself in Syria and Iraq, and has now spread to Yemen. It is pitching Saudi Arabia against Shia Iran, in a savage war for the leadership of the region through terrorist proxies like the Al-Nusra and Hezbollah.
Yemen lies on the fringe of the OPEC heartland in West Asia. It is a troubled land with a population that is 70 per cent Sunni and 30 per cent Shia, a pattern almost made-to-order for instability.
However, like most other countries in the region, it has been compensated for its harsh, bleak landscape by oil reserves, though amongst its richer, and more powerful neighbours, Yemen still remains a poor relation. Sunni-Shia equations in West Asia are markedly skewed in any case — most of the region is Sunni, but with significant Shia power centres in Iran (Persian, not Arab, with a Shia majority of over 90 per cent), Iraq (Arab, and nearly 65-70 per cent Shia), Bahrain (Arab nearly 60 per cent Shia) and Kuwait (Arab, 30-35 per cent Shia). The present sectarian situation is like a Molotov cocktail, a recipe for an almost permanent confrontation, which can destabilise the region.
Yemen is located on the rimland of India’s geopolitical “Near Abroad”. The country has to consider its options very carefully, and “walk smart” between the contending parties in Yemen
Saudi Arabia, which considers itself a putative regional leader, has called for the creation of a regional multinational force of Muslim countries to intervene in Yemen and has reportedly approached Pakistan to provide both troops as well as military leadership. This is a matter of concern for India which would be opposed to any expansion of a Pakistani presence, an issue important enough to be conveyed to Saudi Arabia at an appropriate level.
But Pakistan has decided to step back from the brink, since the Pakistan Army itself was none too enthusiastic about an expeditionary commitment into an untidy Shia-Sunni melee in distant Yemen even to oblige Saudi Arabia, its fraternal Islamic ally and generous paymaster of long standing.
Saudi military leadership is based on heredity, and carries a reputation of being unprofessional and effete. But unlike the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the sacred cities of Islam, which are held under the direct stewardship of Saudi Arabia and its ruling family, the war in Yemen is an international issue, which cannot be regarded as exclusively Islam-centric, to be resolved only by intervention of Islamic Arab countries, least of all Pakistan, which is not Arab, and is also guilty of widespread repression of its own Shia minorities, who have been under constant sectarian attack in that country.
The war in Yemen affects regional stability, and requires to be urgently placed for consideration before the United Nations Security Council, which is the only body which can authorise external intervention in the human tragedy unfolding there.
India has no direct role to play in the situation in Yemen. However, since this country has traditionally been on good terms with all its Arab neighbours, it is very suitably placed to mediate in Yemen, should its services be invited by all parties to the conflict there.
India has to be eternally vigilant that the Shia-Sunni madness that seems to be gaining ground by the day in the Islamic world is not allowed to manifest itself in this country. Firm measures, even pre-emptive where necessary, have to be put in place, to ensure that the contagion is stamped out even before the first signs are fully manifest.
Shankar Roychowdhury is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former MP