Aakar Patel | A benign mask for whole world; fangs bared to citizens at home

The Asian Age.  | Aakar Patel

Opinion, Columnists

India’s government does not want to be recognised abroad for what it is — a majoritarian, authoritarian State

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with USA President Joe Biden and Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau. (PTI)

Having been kept busy by the government in various matters, I have not had the chance to catch up with the news much in the last couple of weeks. This is why I was taken aback — shocked is actually the right word —  to learn that India had “reiterated its commitment to protecting and promoting all human rights”.

These words are part of a joint press release from the “10th India-EU Human Rights Dialogue” (I did not know there had been nine others previously) held on July 15.

The document makes for interesting reading, given the circumstances in which Indians find themselves on the issue of human rights. It lists nine points. The first is that India and the European Union refer to themselves as “open and democratic societies”, which “emphasised the universality, indivisibility, interdependence and interrelatedness of all human rights”.

These are grand words and set the stage up for the text to come. The next substantive point is that India and the EU exchanged “views and concerns on civil and political rights, the rights of persons belonging to the minorities and vulnerable groups, freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression and opinion online and offline”, among other things. After this, more remarkably, the Government of India says that it and the EU “concurred on the importance of safeguarding the freedom, independence and diversity of civil society actors, including human rights defenders and journalists, and respecting freedom of association and peaceful assembly”.

And then India “expressed the need to foster greater engagement on human rights issues, based on internationally recognised human rights laws and standards. Both sides recognised the importance of strengthening national and international human rights mechanisms for the protection and promotion of human rights and the important role of national human rights institutions, civil society actors and journalists”.

On and on the document goes, reiterating all the things that India has abandoned in practice but is preaching in theory. The question is why. Given that India’s government has not only disregard but pure hatred and contempt for human rights defenders like the Bhima Koregaon 16 and journalists like Mohammed Zubair and activists like Teesta Setalvad, why is it then pretending to actually like them and their work? The reasons are also quite clear. The first is that India’s government does not want to be recognised abroad for what it is — a majoritarian, authoritarian State that thrives on using its considerable power against its own citizens. When India’s diplomats abroad engage with officials and representatives of other democracies, they still pretend that India is Nehruvian and secular. They do not use words like Hindutva here and the language that the BJP and its leaders use against other Indians, especially the minorities, aren’t to be found in our external engagement.

This is not because the BJP is ashamed or embarrassed of what it says and does; it is merely because it is a hypocrite and has no problem being two-faced. The Western world has moved over the past century to a consensus on the issue of human rights and free speech and the rights of the minorities. India’s government opposes all of these but cannot do so abroad because we have neither the confidence or the strength to do so. This is why we lie.

The second reason we do this is because external pressure is effective. If it were not, we would tell the European Union to get lost. Consider that one year ago EU officials said that “human rights defender and Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy has died in custody, nine months after his arrest on false charges of terrorism. Jailing human rights defenders is inexcusable.”

The special representative for human rights from the European Union, Eamon Gilmore, said that the “EU had been raising his case repeatedly with the authorities”. These are the same people with whom we are now agreeing, when we say that we respect human rights defenders and their right to do their work. Why are we doing this? Because we have no option. An honest, powerful and truly sovereign government would not need to lie about its behaviour. China does not hold human rights dialogues with the European Union. This must be understood by those who think that the outside world has no influence on India. In an interconnected globe, there is no nation that can claim to be beyond the influence of others.

Naturally, the amount of influence exerted and felt will depend on the issue and the strength of feeling on either side. Human rights is something that many states in the EU take seriously because their citizens do so.

India’s leaders likely understand this very well and are trying to figure out how to manage this reality with the desire to continue doing mischief at home. One indicator of the discomfort at being made to do this was that while the EU was represented in this human rights dialogue by its ambassador, the Indian side was represented by a low-level diplomat (Joint Secretary for Europe West). Another indicator is that there was almost no news about this meeting. The external affairs ministry didn’t tweet about it as it usually does with all engagements at this level. This then is the behaviour of our government, which shows a benign mask to the entire world beyond its borders, behind which its fangs are bared against its own citizens.