India’s diplomatic reaction to Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: Simply an act of realism?

Photo Courtesy: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

    By Yash Singh on October 22, 2022

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) is one of the most significant vestiges of the Cold War. The group became an anchor for newly-decolonized nation-states to project their political sovereignty, economic ambitions and security aspirations in the pursuit of collective prosperity. It provided a political dais for countries that did not identify with either of the superpower blocs, led by America and the Soviet Union respectively, to uphold their cherished principles.  

Such speculation, however, that the NAM leaders always had unanimously supported the autonomy of the members on sovereign political, economic and security matters is debatable. Moreover, the selective mobilization of the group by its founding members on issues such as condemning acts of aggression of the superpowers (direct/proxy) against the weak states or cases of human rights violations committed by its members, etc., had raised reservations on their adherence to its much-championed principles. This was observed on several occasions, such as the Indo-China wars, the Cambodian genocide by the Pol Pot-regime, acts of structural violence against the minority Tamils by the majority Sinhalese in Sri Lanka since the 1960s, and failure to prevent the Iraq-Iran war.

India, one of the founding members, is privy to the lack of abstract application of the group’s principles. The country was found wanting the NAM’s solidarity during the military conflicts with its neighbours. First, Ghana and Indonesia, two NAM founding-members, “adopted explicitly pro-China positions” during the 1963 Sino-India war. Similarly, Egypt (founding member) and Indonesia had put their diplomatic weight behind Pakistan during the Indo-Pak war in 1971. (, 2016)  

New Delhi, however, is no stranger to such insincerity in the field of foreign policy. Pursuing its national interests (here, close military relations with Moscow), the country has not hesitated to abandon the NAM principles. Katju (2022) mentions certain precedents such as India’s abstention in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) motion to condemn Soviet invasion of Hungary (1956) and in the UNSC vote to condemn USSR’s intervention in Czechoslovakia (1968).  

The case study of the essay is another critical geopolitical event which entailed a similar clash of ethics and interests in the Indian foreign policy discourse and led to an exhaustive scrutiny of the country’s adherence to the non-aligned principles. Such scrutiny assumes even greater significance as the flashpoint was in India’s backyard thereby bringing the Cold War to the Indian Subcontinent.   

Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on 24th December 1979. Given that a superpower had invaded a country in the Subcontinent, which India considers within its sphere of influence, the unsuspecting Indian government was taken aback by the suddenness. The then Prime Minister Charan Singh’s government was committed to the policy of “genuine” non-alignment. He informed then Soviet ambassador Yuli Vorontsov that India will not “endorse the Soviet military intervention” of a country situated in its neighbourhood. (Dixit, 2003, p.134) Much to the USSR’s fortune, however, the incumbents lost the parliamentary elections in January 1980. This brought Indira Gandhi’s Congress Party back to power. The change in government did not result in a 180-degree turn in its posture. However, India softened its stand by limiting the criticism to bilateral meetings while reinforcing its commitment to the aforementioned principles of the NAM at multilateral forums without explicitly calling out the USSR’s actions. 

India’s first official reaction at the multilateral level came at the UNGA meeting on 11th January 1980. Thakur and Thayer (1992, p.41) mention that India’s permanent representative to the U.N. Brajesh Mishra rationalised this posture by stating that Moscow intervened militarily at the request of Afghanistan’s ruling party. They (1992, p.41) also note that India abstained in a UNGA resolution ES-6/2 calling for unconditional withdrawal of the foreign military from Afghanistan and continued to do so in similar resolutions during the regular sessions till 1988. Furthermore (, 1980, p.448), Foreign Minister (FM) P.V. Narasimha Rao at the 1980 UNGA reaffirmed India’s commitment to Afghanistan’s right to the political sovereignty and territorial integrity without being partisan against the Soviets. During the 1983 UNGA session, PM Indira chose the path of diplomacy by arguing that the “…non-aligned have always stood for non-interference and non-use of force… (and the) complex situation in Afghanistan can be solved only on the basis of these twin principles.” (, 1983, p.107)

At the bilateral level, India was more explicit in its disapproval. During the official visit of the then USSR’s FM Andrei Gromyko early in 1980, his Indian counterpart expressed his “reservations with respect to direct military intervention”. (Dixit, 2003) During his meeting with the PM, Indira Gandhi informed Gromyko that India doesn’t “… approve of the presence of the Soviet troops in Afghanistan… [as it had] brought the Cold War very close to our area.” (Gujral, 2011) J.N. Dixit (2003), former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan during the 1980s, further notes that India’s FM reciprocated with a trip to Moscow to persuade them to withdraw from Afghanistan at the earliest. Thakur and Thayer (1992) mention that India further signalled their disappointment to Moscow when they declined a request by the Soviet leadership for a state visit by PM Gandhi or FM Rao in 1981 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the bilateral Friendship treaty. They (1992) also note that India, nevertheless, papered this crack by avoiding any mention of Afghanistan in official joint statements throughout the intervention thereby keeping the sanctity of the relationship intact, at-least overtly. 

Was India’s diplomatic posture at the multilateral-level simply an act of realism?

The paper argues that India’s acquiescence to the Soviet line was a function of dovetailing of two variables: rational conclusion rooted in realism to secure its national interests; and ad-hoc tolerance for Soviet actions spearheaded by US-sceptic PM Gandhi owing to a historical and consequential pattern of events vis-à-vis Washington; 

–  PM Gandhi’s government was “personality-driven” rather than institutional-directed as the PM secretariat was at the top of the hierarchy from which power and command flowed. Her judgement of history via personal experiences in steering foreign policies engendered an implicit bias towards the Soviets which was evident in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections. That the posture was executive-driven can be gauged from the fact that, as Paliwal (2017) mentions, senior Congress leaders such as Manubhai Patel, V.B. Raju and Dinesh Singh had criticised the government’s position vis-à-vis the invasion in the Parliament. In the lead up to the elections in April 1979, an adopted resolution by the party’s committee read “It may be recalled that on the Kashmir and Bangladesh issue, the Soviet Union supported us, while the USA… created problems for us…”. (Ghosh and Panda, 1983) Such a diplomatic distrust vis-à-vis the US was not an instant phenomenon but a discourse which got instituted gradually within the party and was practiced by Mrs. Gandhi. Her era “… was the first turnaround in Indian foreign policy, which can be traced back to both personal and structural origins.” (Rauch, 2008)

The US had put an arms embargo on New Delhi post the 1956 Indo-Pak war. This was during a period when India was augmenting capabilities of its air force following the disastrous defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian War. This shifted India’s dependence for defence imports profoundly on Moscow. Thakur and Thayer (1992) note that India purchased over USD 15 billion-worth defence and related critical supplies from the Soviets between 1951-85 which was 62 % of the expenditure. This helped the Soviets develop their perception as a trustworthy ally. This trust was amplified during the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war and the potentially vexatious maritime military intervention by Washington which never materialised owing to Moscow’s threats to escalate tensions by deploying nuclear-armed submarines in the Bay of Bengal. 

Another major factor was the 1974 Peaceful Nuclear Explosions (PNE) conducted by India that incensed the US. Washington termed it a violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty negotiations. The punitive economic and nuclear sanctions which the tests attracted, after it was revealed that it was conducted using west-supplied CIRUS reactor and heavy water, must be juxtaposed with the Soviet reaction which was a soft approval. Their official reaction, a repetition of India’s statement, read that the explosion was meant for “peaceful purposes…(with) no intention of manufacturing nuclear weapons”. (Thakur and Thayer, 1992) They (1992) further mentions that the Soviets even stepped in to assist India’s civil nuclear program by supplying heavy water and low-enriched Uranium. 

The emergency declaration, another critical variable, by PM Gandhi in 1975 that had suspended democracy and civil rights in India, was heavily chastised by the West. (Mastny, 2010) However, Ghosh and Panda (1983) note that Moscow had supported the move. Paliwal (2017) reveals that PM Gandhi’s threat perception from the US to her premiership had reached a feverish level when she blamed the CIA for her loss in the 1977 parliamentary elections. If the above mentioned variables are observed as a chain of events, each one has had a knock-on impact as an intervening variable influencing the outcome of successive events, thereby increasing India’s (read Indira’s) perception gap with the US by adopting a by-default pro-Soviet line on critical geopolitical events. This was apparent when India was the only “only non-communist country [to recognise the Democratic Kampuchea regime] …” (Udom Deth, 2009, p.29). 

 What reinforced such apprehensions was the government’s priority to secure India’s national interests, i.e., military hegemony in the Subcontinent. In 1970, PM Indira Gandhi contended that the critical issues faced by the “third-world” must be faced “not merely by idealism…[or] sentimentalism, but by very clear thinking and hard-headed analysis of the situation”. (Ganguly, 2010) From the realist perspective, India’s security interests were limited to the Subcontinent. Following the 1979 Iranian revolution, there were fears that the religious movement might spill over into and mobilise the neighbouring conservative Afghan society against the then ruling (unpopular) communists. “… Indian motivation… was that if Afghanistan were to have a… secular and modern democracy, this would suit India’s interest in terms of…[its] adversarial relations with Pakistan”. (Dixit, 2003) further reveals that Pakistan, since the 1970s, assisted acts of subversion against India by supporting, diplomatically and materially, secession movements in the states of Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. That Pakistan was America’s frontline state, as Washington had agreed to provide USD 3.2 billion in military and economic assistance to the Soviet invasion, pivoted India’s diplomatic stand (by default) favourably to Moscow throughout the invasion owing to the balance of power dynamics. 

The invasion also brought the Cold War to India’s doorsteps with numerous powers (US, China, Saudi Arabia) pumping unaccounted-for weapons, money and men into the Afghan battlefield and thrusting religious extremism across the region. This threatened the region’s stability and propelled New Delhi into an arms race with Pakistan to maintain an edge (if not hegemony) as a regional power. Ghosh and Panda (1983, p.262) note that there were even fears that the Cold War might even materialise in increased maritime activities by extra-regional naval powers in the Indian Ocean, thereby forcing India to pre-empt this power imbalance by band-wagoning with Moscow.  India’s strategic silence did pay off in the immediate term. Doder and Donsa (1980) mention that Moscow in May 1980 granted a USD 1.63 billion credit line at a 2.5% interest rate payable over 15 years as well as a defence transfer of 100 T-72 aircraft, 5 MiG “Foxbat” aircraft and fast-attack boats loaded with missiles.


An infant democracy with functioning but weak institutions will always have to contend with and (sometimes) accommodate the popular leader’s bias. The essay doesn’t deny the agency that the top foreign policy advisors to the PM carry. Within this advisory group, an objective analysis of the merits/demerits of soft support to the Soviets might have advocated India to take such a posture. However, the partisan leadership here operationalised its authority to push for this approach, thereby, giving an unfair advantage to the pro-Soviet argument and hindering the critical discourse on formulating a steady policy on the pursuit of long-term national interests. Hence, this essay contends that the leadership bias towards Moscow dovetailed seamlessly with a realist perusal of national interests in the short and immediate term. The collapse of the USSR and India’s failure to manoeuvre the Taliban regime (1996-2001), which had significant security consequences for New Delhi, exposed the lack of farsightedness in the Indian policy-making.