India's reluctance to promote human rights at home and abroad is surprising, considering the nation’s pride in its democratic traditions. In the past, ironically, following India’s independence from Britain in 1947, the country’s global voice against decolonization and for justice, universal dignity and freedom was loud and clear. Over time, however, India has withdrawn more and more into its shell, and today its voice is seldom heard on issues of human rights – globally or within its borders.
This reluctance stems in large part from India’s resistance to its arch-enemy, Pakistan, which has consistently tried to get third countries involved in resolving the long running dispute over Kashmir, the only Muslim majority-state in an overwhelmingly Hindu country. Pakistan has consistently raised human rights violations in Kashmir at the United Nations (U.N.). As a result, India is generally wary of outside interference in its own affairs, and prefers the principle of non-interference on human rights issues more generally.
This stance is disappointing, considering the historical role India played at the U.N. in supporting decolonisation and combating racial discrimination. In 1976, for example, India was instrumental in setting up the first U.N. investigation into crimes committed by the apartheid government of South Africa. Noninterference in domestic affairs was the rule in those days, but India worked hard to make a principled exception for South Africa.
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was one of the architects of the Non-Aligned Movement. To be sure, the extent to which India maintained its distance from both the United States and the Soviet bloc is a subject of debate. What is clear, however, is that India’s Foreign Ministry still contains a large number of officials suffering from “Cold War Syndrome” with respect to human rights. Yes, the West once used “rights” and “freedom” as slogans against the Soviet bloc, but the world since has changed.
Consider Burma. While visiting India, Burmese democracy leader and Nobel laureate Aung San SuuKyi admonished India for not doing enough to oppose Burma’s ruling junta.
Consider also Nepal and the Maldives. India long supported two authoritarian leaders, Nepali King Gyanendra and Maldives President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, and ignored democratic forces in both countries. India finally came around to supporting democratic groups in Nepal, and in recent months, has repeatedly called for free and fair elections in both countries. Indian Foreign Secretary Sujata Singh visited both Kathmandu and Male’recently to drive home the point.
Although some of India’s interventions may seem aimed at promoting human rights, they are more likely related to political considerations. India’s resolution on Sri Lanka at the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2012, for example, was mainly aimed at pleasing its Tamil Nadu coalition ally. India’s support to pro-democracy forces in Nepal, moreover, was mostly aimed at backing its favoured political parties there.
Backing democracy in the Maldives, similarly, is intended to ensure maritime security balance in the Indian Ocean, rather than to fulfill a commitment to human rights. Indian self-interest and strategy, in other words, outweigh other considerations. But then again, this is true of most major countries worldwide.
There also have been
unintended consequences of interventions on rights and democracy. India had
supported Bhutan’s ethnic cleansing of Nepalese in the 1990s, but India’s
recent economic sanctions against Bhutan just prior to the Bhutanese National
Assembly elections on July 13, 2013, ensured the victory of the opposition
People's Democratic Party after it swore allegiance to India. India’s economic
sanctions came in July 2013 after Bhutan’s then Prime Minister, Jigme Y. Thinley
of the Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party, met Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on the
sidelines of the Rio + 20 Summit in June 2012. It’s guaranteed that in the not-too-distant
future, India’s policy on Bhutan, if not anti-India sentiments, will be the
most critical issue for electoral politics in Bhutan.
India’s economic sanctions against Bhutan ahead of its national elections was roundly criticised in the Indian media. Such adventurism works as long there is nothing at stake, but in the global village where democracy has been spreading, India is losing its buffer zone.
With the exception of Sri Lanka, the role of Indian civil society groups on India’s interventions has been nonexistent. While the Tamil political parties and Tamil civil society groups campaigned for a resolution against Sri Lanka at the U.N. Human Rights Council in March 2012, Indian civil society groups mostly remained silent on this issue. Indian human rights groups have traditionally been parochial, focusing on thematic, ethnic, caste or geographical issues.
Unless India develops its policy on human rights, it will continue to view human rights and U.N. human rights mechanisms through the narrow prism of a nonexistent Cold War. At the recently concluded 24th session of the Human Rights Council in September 2013, India opposed the resolution on “Civil society space: Creating and maintaining, in law and in practice, a safe and enabling environment.”
India, among others, opposed the resolution, which urges “States to acknowledge publicly the important and legitimate role of civil society in the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and to engage with civil society to enable it to participate in the public debate on decisions that would contribute to the promotion and protection of human rights and the rule of law and of any other relevant decisions.”
The opposition to space for civil society is to be expected from the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea, but not the world’s largest democracy.
India’s intent to deny space to civil society at home and at the U.N. will reverberate globally. But, unfortunately, Indian civil society has not reacted. Until it does, it’s unlikely that human rights issues in the rest of the world will be reflected on India’s priority list.