External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has wowed people back home with his sharp response to criticism over two issues: India’s enhanced purchase of oil from Russia and the human rights situation here. To the first, he responded substantively, reminding the questioner at his joint press conference after the 2+2 meeting that Europe imported from Russia in one afternoon what India did in a month. So look who’s talking. Brilliant.
To the second, his somewhat belated counter was pure rhetoric, and it’s no surprise that has cheered the fans at home even more. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a somewhat gratuitous reference to the US’s concern over the human rights situation in India. Decades of diplomatic training restrained Jaishankar from responding instantly, as doing so at an event meant to showcase strategic solidarity and warmth would have yielded the wrongest possible headline.
But he responded at a subsequent event, saying the human rights issue wasn’t discussed at the talks. To get even, he added that India, too, sometimes had concerns about the human rights situation in the US. This was particularly so when it affected people of Indian origin.
Predictably, this evoked that heady ‘Dekha, Amreeka ko suna diya’ (See, how he told off the Americans) response back home. Finally, India has a minister with this incredible confidence. All of that is fine, but is that the point? Is international diplomacy at the highest level to be seen as a television debate, if a civilised one?
It is also true that whenever people of Indian origin are targeted in the US, as with the recent attacks on Sikhs, India has spoken up. But this line of attack as India’s defence and the breathless excitement it has generated misses the central point. First of all, this was a conversation between friends. And friendship in international relations involves some criticism of each other, unless of course you are Pakistan, Russia or the entire OIC to China.
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India and the US have argued for decades. In the early 50s, Nehru lectured Eisenhower on China, Korea and Communism. Even when Rajiv Gandhi met Reagan on his early, ‘honeymoon’-phase visits to Washington, the post-summit briefings included a delightful sidelight. Rajiv, it was said, picked up a couple of roasted almonds from the table and said how much he liked them. These are from my state, California, Reagan said. When do you think will we be able to sell these in your country? That argument is still not fully settled.
From human rights to trade, sanctions to Afghanistan, India and the US have disagreed even in this epoch of their strategic partnership which began evolving post-Kargil. Until about a decade back, they’d fought over the continued US arming of Pakistan, notably when the first consignment of AMRAAM air-to-air missiles for PAF F-16s was delivered in 2010. Or more recently over India’s purchase of the Russian S-400s. But friends also know how to deal with differences.
The human rights issue has been a thorn in India’s relations with the West for a little over three decades now, say since 1991 when insurgency first broke out in Kashmir. P.V. Narasimha Rao’s government dealt with it with an iron fist, as it did at the same time with terror in Punjab. Western human rights organisations ran a massive campaign. In the early glow of their victory in the Cold War, it also hit home with their governments.
India’s global political capital was then not a fraction of what it is now. Rao therefore responded firmly, but tactfully as one like him would.
He answered the criticism aggressively: We are a democracy, we have a free media and activists. Then he defeated the Pakistan-sponsored (and West-backed) resolution on human rights against India. But he also lifted the ban imposed earlier by governor Jagmohan on the foreign press visiting Kashmir, and set up the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) under Justice Ranganath Misra. Why do we need foreign human rights organisations here when we have our own?
The picture is very different now. But if the Americans, friends rather than hostile as they were in the early 1990s, particularly during Clinton’s first presidency, are needling India over human rights, they aren’t talking about Kashmir or Punjab. Those two issues are seen as settled, including the change in the constitutional status of Kashmir. They are talking instead about the treatment of India’s minorities, especially Muslims — though Christians feature in the US thought process too — activists, and Modi government critics.
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In his response, Jaishankar also alluded to India understanding (the Biden Administration’s) “vote bank” compulsions. The large Muslim minoriy, by and large, votes for the Democrats in the US. Also, the ‘progressive’ group within the party is strongly committed to Muslim voters, and interests. We could therefore translate his responses as, we know where you are coming from. But surely, you do not want the ‘Squad’ to undermine the Quad?
But are our larger national interest, the stature of our nation, the respect in which it is held globally, its moral authority, all going to be determined by debating points?
Now, you might point out to me a contradiction in my own views. Because just three weeks back I had argued that self-interest, not morality, determined serious nations’ strategic policy.
It isn’t contradictory because it is the BJP, its prime minister and government, and ideological guru, the RSS, which see India rise as the ‘Vishwaguru’, the teacher to the world, as Buddha and Lord Krishna might have been in ancient times and Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo more recently.
It is we who so covet sermonising rights to the world. Our pitch is, learn from us how the most diverse large population in the world lives in harmony in a robust democracy. We claim lecturing rights on democracy (we are the oldest. Google Vaishali, you silly Westerners), diversity (did we slaughter our tribals like your Native Americans?), and equality (when did we have slavery, and that too,based on race?).
Does our present conform to that brilliant tradition? Can we aspire for that moral stature if we respond to all criticism with this prickly whataboutery? Of course, the partisan would cheer. But that doesn’t mean we lose the ability to look within. Or stop listening to friends.
Many of the stories, the pictures going out of India worldwide lately with these provocative Ram Navami processions, taunting of Muslims, bulldozers targeting mostly their properties, the sweeping “othering” of a community of 20 crore, are painting the front pages and TV screens in the democratic world.
That is where most of the friends we covet lie. Soon enough, as happened following the CAA-NRC campaign and the subsequent violence these will also make our vital friends among the Muslim nations, from Bangladesh to Saudi Arabia and UAE, uneasy. The best time for course-correction is now.
Postscript: You can always trust Indian diplomats to outsmart just about anybody in an argument, especially in English language. In 1985, Mani Shankar Aiyar was part of a delegation in Washington negotiating an agreement on dual-use technology transfers. The Americans changed a particular word. When the Indian side objected, an American said in part-jest that his colleague who made the change had been to Harvard, so he must be right. Mani said, you see, he went to Cambridge “mass” (play on Mass. or Massachusetts). But I went to Cambridge “elite”. So, what I say on the English language must be right. The Americans conceded the point.
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