Let's admit our flaws, work to correct them

Bashar al-Assad could give a similar answer if questioned about using poison gas on the Syrian rebels.

From Afrophobia (Haiti) to communal violence (Britain), from potable water and sanitation (Singapore) to transgender rights (Spain), from minorities and NGOs (Germany) to religious intolerance (Kazakhstan), United Nations members are concerned that life might be less than idyllic in India, that is, Bharat.

The May 4 Universal Periodic Review Process at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva highlighted a number of issues that cannot all be put down to Pakistani or Chinese propaganda.

Of course, some of the criticism may have been partisan enough to recall former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s supposed comment about Anastasio Somoza, the Nicaraguan dictator, that “he may be a sonofabitch, but he’s our son of a bitch”. The US refused to see any wrong in the Pakistani military crackdown on helpless Bangladeshis in December 1971.

But I remember that when someone from a bunch of international journalists observed at the time that India could never commit such crimes, a well-known British writer interjected: “Ask the Nagas!” When the late B.K. Nehru, governor of Nagaland, was asked about alleged atrocities, his reply was: “Rebellion isn’t a drawing-room party. Everywhere else rebels are lined up against the wall and shot!”

Bashar al-Assad could give a similar answer if questioned about using poison gas on the Syrian rebels.

Allowance must always be made for national biases and vested interests. But 112 speakers from nations as different as Norway and Turkey, Italy, the United States, Australia, Ireland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia may not have asked so many probing questions in Geneva if it hadn’t been for what John Connell called in his account of the 1956 Suez Crisis “a priggish and sanctimonious consciousness of moral superiority” that is a “dominant trend in the Indian character”.

India’s attorney-general Mukul Rohtagi reinforced scepticism in Geneva by harping on the “secular, non-violent nature of India”. The gang that raped Bilkis Bano was hardly “secular”. Those who cruelly abused and murdered the girl who is honoured today as Nirbhaya were hardly “non-violent”. An attorney-general is paid to project his government’s point of view, but Mr Rohatgi would have earned greater respect for his high office by distinguishing between country and people. He was absolutely right to claim that “India is a secular state with no state religion” (although some might add “as yet”), but that cannot be said of Indians who set fire to the railway coach in Godhra, went on a three-day killing spree in Gujarat and now lynch people on suspicion (often unfounded) of eating beef.

The video showing a young man in pheran and jeans bound to the bonnet of a military jeep cruising through Kashmir’s villages must have shocked civilised opinion the world over. Apparently, the military was using Farooq Ahmad Dar, a 24-year-old Kashmiri shawl weaver, as a shield against stone-throwers.

We are told in justification that the morale of our “brave jawans” (the adjective has become mandatory) must not be weakened with criticism and that the pelting demanded a human shield. That seemed to be Mr Rohtagi’s rationale in arguing that “peculiar situations require peculiar measures”, and exposing Dar was “the best way to defuse the situation.”

I remember that some justified the infamous Bhagalpur blindings on the grounds that the courts were too lenient with the dacoits whose eyes the policemen pierced and filled with acid.

The attorney-general told the UN: “The concept of torture is alien to our culture.”

A candid admission of the burden of governing a multi-religious, multi-ethnic country that owes its unification to colonial conquest might save India from the usually unspoken charge of hypocrisy.

I was chairing a conference at Oxford once when a European Union official expressed wonder at New Delhi’s writ running in remote Mizoram. As I was explaining the punitive 19th-century British military expeditions that annexed the Mizo Hills, a prominent Congress politician attending the conference exploded that India’s unity owed nothing to British rule and everything to the Emperor Ashoka. Honesty does pay dividends in diplomacy, although he may not have known that Britain refrained from signing the European Convention on Human Rights until the Good Friday agreement of 1998 allowed some of the stringent security provisions that applied to Northern Ireland to be dismantled and abolished. I suppose in a similar situation, an Indian politician like him would unhesitatingly have signed the convention while piously denying that the restrictive laws were at all restrictive.

If the NDA government regards human rights as an administrative obstacle it should say so instead of waffling about the Supreme Court’s 2016 order against blanket immunity for the security forces and the Justice J.S. Verma Committee’s recommendation to do away with prior sanction for prosecuting security personnel for sexual offences.

Likewise, India should proclaim that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is necessary for the security of the Northeast, that a terrorist threat looms over Jammu and Kashmir and that only the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act can prevent sabotage by subversive NGOs.

It might be understood if India explained all this, adding that public opinion was not yet reconciled to repealing Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code on “unnatural sex” and that India lacks the resources and expertise to prevent child labour or provide drinking water and sanitation to all village homes. Similarly, caste-based violence and violence against minorities should be explained as passing phenomena that are being stamped out.

We are not yet a developed nation and need not pretend to be one. It would suffice to show that the government is aware of the failings and is determined to correct them.

It’s the pretence of perfection that exposes the gap between practice and precept, and invites the charge of Orwellian newspeak.

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