Two American gibes at India’s human rights record, one of them about Prime Minister Narendra Modi — and New Delhi’s reaction has not been as aggressive for the kind of its muscle-flexing over the past months. Add to this, the West’s select branding of nations on the terrorism front, and their partisanship could be touched and felt. The question is if it would take such ‘victim nations’ to gang up and return the compliment, in such fora as the UNHRC, UNSC and UNGA, in their turn, only that they have not started doing it as yet.
Objecting to the US State Department’s comparison of immunity given to PM Modi, but only after he came to power in 2014, with the legal immunity now given to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), Arindam Bagchi, spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), said that Washington’s comments were not ‘relevant, necessary or contextual’.
Poor, if not mischievous comparison
Even as he was Gujarat chief minister, Washington imposed a visa ban on Modi, when he was invited to address a conference by a Sangh Parivar group in 2005, under the 1998 US International Religious Freedom Act (USIRFA), for his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots. Eight years after the US unilaterally withdrew the ban as it had imposed it, US State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel has raked up the Modi past in what at best could be an oblique and possibly motivated manner.
The first American-Indian to host the daily press briefing whenever his boss is absent, Patel, 33, is the principal deputy spokesperson of the US state department. In this instance, he was answering American journos’ multiple queries on President Joe Biden’s decision to give Saudi Prince Mohammed immunity in the Jamal Khashoggi murder case, as MBS is also the nation’s prime minister now.
Patel compared the MBS immunity to those given to Modi and many other global leaders like then Presidents of Zimbabwe (Robert Mugabe), Congo (Laurent Kabila) and Haiti (Jean-Bertrand Aristide). Clearly, they were all poor, if not mischievous comparison, from an Indian majority view. It is in this context that MEA’s Bagchi pointed out how “our two countries enjoy a very special relationship that is going from strength to strength, and we look forward to deepening it”.
“We have seen the biased and inaccurate observations about India by the USCIRFA. Their tendency to consistently misrepresent facts shows a lack of understanding of India, its constitutional frame-work, plurality and robust democratic system,” Bagchi said.
The question is if President Biden is beginning to draw the line between his nation’s relations with India and his personal equations with PM Modi, either out of own volition, as per his Democratic Party’s ‘liberal values’ or under pressure from such constituencies inside the administration, as often happens — or, both. It is inconceivable to think that a State Department spokesman would define/redefine US-India relations and personal equations between their leaders, on his own.
Yet, it would not be out of place for top ministers to refrain from making statements like ‘BJP taught perpetrators of violence a lesson in 2002’. Such statements might have been made during the campaigning for the ongoing Assembly polls in Gujarat, but in this social media era, their audiences are not as confined to the state. Instead, they go beyond the country.
In many individual nations, especially in Western Europe and also those like Canada and Australia, for instance, the people and constituencies have a very strong say in moulding political and governmental opinion on human rights, in these decades after the Second World War. It’s unlike in the US, where much of it is ‘guided’ by the incumbent administration. With access to social media, people make their own linkages between high-voltage political statements and what they perceive as ‘governmental inaction, and at times perceived complicity’ on the human rights front.
These are thus avoidable situations, where domestic politics and politicians too needed to be schooled by foreign policy priorities and constraints, whose negative effects would be known only over time. Either when the rulers of the day become politically weak nearer home, or the West’s dependence on India become less in geo-strategic and geo-political terms becomes less, would their governments be dusting piled-up documents on human rights from all these past years to ‘fix’ the nation for no fault of it as an entity, per se.
It may look implausible and impossible just now, but there are other nations, say, like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which the US backed when they wanted it to fight Iran after the ‘embassy crisis’ but came down on him citing democracy violations, real and imaginary. The examples are too many to narrate or repeat.
Crackdown on dissent
In the other instance pertaining to the US and human rights in India, USIRFA’s report for the US congress expressed ‘concern over human rights and religious freedom in India’. It referred to ‘recent incidents and government actions, which it called a ‘crackdown on civil society and dissent’, pointing to the imprisonment and harassment of ‘journalists, lawyers, rights activists, academics, political leaders, religious minorities, and others critical of its policies’.
The report also said that the Modi government’s actions have ‘eroded the secular principles of the Indian Constitution and India’s pluralistic democracy by promoting and implementing its Hindutva ideology through government policy’. Hence, it wanted the US state department, which periodically releases a list of countries being watched for religious freedom issues, to designate India as a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ (CPC).
It is anybody’s guess why New Delhi chose not to take up the UNIRFA’s current report with the Biden administration at some level, as it was based on one such report in the past that a predecessor imposed the visa-ban on Modi. It is not about the rights and wrongs of Modi or various others who were criticised and/or charged for their alleged roles in the ‘Gujarat riots’ or any other act of violence.
But following the ‘due process’ that it saw fit, the Indian supreme court had acquitted Modi and such others. And the US reference to the immunity granted to Modi long afterwards is not about an individual — whoever it be. By extension, it tantamount to contempt of the Indian judiciary and the Indian constitutional scheme, about which the USIRFA expresses undue and unnatural concern.
‘Terrorism’ as a tool
In the normal course, diplomatic decency demands that the US and the rest of the West do not carry the ‘colonial baggage’ that they alone know what is good for the world and the rest of ‘em all, and how it was their god-ordained duty to ‘civilise’ (?) nations and peoples, if only it suits their own geo-strategic ends, using the self-given tools of geo-politics and geo-economics. Instances of this kind are many in the post-colonial era. This in turn was triggered by Europe losing its face and place after the Second World War, when the US usurped the global fulcrum in return for fighting for ‘democracy, liberalism and market capitalism’ all rolled into one — and winning that war, too.
The Cold War and its sudden and successful conclusion in the West’s favour created a void in global equilibrium that they thought could be filled by a weak entity like terrorism, centred on the forgotten ‘clash of civilisations’, from the forgotten past, and focussed on Afghanistan. When Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda proved too unpredictable and unruly as ‘non-state actors’, they had to go and a new candidate had to be found to fill the slot. A rising, totalitarian China fitted the bill. With too much at stake and to gain, Beijing has been playing along since — but not as unpredictable as Al-Qaeda first and the ISIS later. It’s more like the erstwhile Soviet Union, a state actor, whose adversity is as predictable as accommodation.
In the interim, the US, especially under Republican President George Bush, Jr, began designating nations, not just individuals and organisations, as ‘sponsors of state terror’. Post-9/11, he called Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an ‘Axis of Evil’. However, between them, Iran and Iraq on the one hand and North Korea on the other had nothing ideologically or politically common other than in the prevailing American perception, their rulers and ruling systems had to be finished off. Why, between them, Iran and Iraq also had only larger Islamic identity as the common link, they having fought each other in the stalemated eight-year war (1980-88), with the US funding and arming Iraq, to teach ‘post-Revolution’ (1978) Iran a lesson after the ‘Tehran embassy hostage crisis’, a year later in 1979.
It is in this context that the recent European Parliament’s designation of Russia as a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’ needs to be viewed. Nations and analysts may have different perceptions and views on the Ukraine War, which Russia admittedly launched in February, for reasons and justifications that the US-led West does not accept as valid. In doing so, the EU has argued that Russia’s military strikes on Ukrainian civilian targets such as energy infrastructure, hospitals, schools and shelters violated international law.
Yes, the EU does not have a common legal framework to follow up on what thus remains a ‘symbolic’ gesture in Ukraine’s favour — barring of course the economic sanctions that it has already imposed in conjunction with the US, but only up to the point it does not hurt their natural gas imports from Russia. While Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy expectedly welcomed the EU designation, and said, ‘Europe should avoid division and set a low price for Russian oil’. In turn, Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, made light of it all by proposing ‘European Parliament as a sponsor of idiocy’.
There is a saying in most Indian languages: When you point one finger at another, three of your fingers (invariably folded inside) points to you. The West does not either understand it, or seem not wanting to acknowledge it. To begin with, there is the Indian experience that the US and the rest of the West has gone on branding other nations not fitting into their geo-political agenda as ‘state sponsors of terrorism’ or ‘terrorist state’, they have invariably been indifferent to anti-India cross-border terrorism from Pakistan, and has also given shelter to Indian terror-fugitives, which New Delhi has established beyond doubt for decades now.
The saddest part is when the US began turning to name Pakistan, though reluctantly after 9/11. Government leaders and strategic analysts in Delhi were seen celebrating it. No one said it was still too little, too late. That it was only as much came to be proved more recently when the Biden administration began warming up to Pakistan, in what it might consider as an initiative to isolate China, this time after de-hyphenating the nation’s India-Pakistan relations.
The larger picture remains. At present, as in the post-War past, the West has assigned to itself the exclusive right of branding and name-calling. Whether in the UNHRC, UNSC or UNGA, ‘past victims’ could ‘gang up’ to put through a resolution against their own perceptions of human rights violations and terrorism-support by the West — though not any time soon. For instance, there is the recorded continuance of ‘racial violence’ in the US, which is also blamed by local populations, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, for ‘war crimes’.
‘State victims’ of tirade
Maybe because they are funded by the West, institutions like Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have always been soft on the West, whenever and wherever they err. Of course, the general belief is that they are not acting according to the political agenda of their pay-masters but that is never ever the case.
Incidentally, the post-9/11 Afghan expedition involved NATO, most of whose members were there to call Russia a ‘state sponsor or terrorism’. On different occasions, some, if not all of them, had named China for ‘human rights violations’. In comparison what the USIRFA has said now about and against India may not matter much, but there are such other client-states of China, if not Russia, who may fall back on them both if Beijing began taking the initiative. At present, or for now, China has stopped with political backing for ‘state victims’ of Western human rights tirades, in UNHRC and UNSC — and may not stop here after a time!
The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst & political commentator. Views expressed are personal.
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