Misplaced priorities? Global leadership and India’s domestic neglect of human rights


The world came to Gandhi to learn about his methods; he did not go abroad to preach and exercise global leadership. The Indian elite can perhaps learn from this. A response to Meenakshi Ganguly's call to India to take up its role as human rights global leader. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Emerging Powers and Human Rights.

Aseem Prakash
9 July 2013

There is much to agree with in Meenakshi Ganguly’s thoughtful piece on India’s potential role as a global human rights leader.

Yes, India has not exercised sufficient leadership on contemporary human rights issues, even when it was afforded ample opportunities to do so. This contemporary failure to lead stands in contrast to the India of the 1950s and 1960s, which, as a fledgling democracy without a significant resource base, sought to exercise such leadership. India gave asylum to the Dalai Lama, and Nehru enunciated the five principles of the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence,” or Panchsheel, which India and China codified in a 1954 treaty.

Nehru, along with Tito, Nasser, Nkrumah, and Sukarno, also founded the non-aligned movement in 1961, and while the extent to which that movement succeeded or failed is debatable, India did at least try, in those days, to fashion itself as a global human rights leader.

I can, therefore, understand the frustration that an economically vibrant and politically assertive India is not doing more today.


Child labourers working at a brick kiln on the eve of India's Childrens' Day in Sivasagar, Assam, India. Demotix/Luit Chaliha All rights reserved.

Nevertheless, think about India’s global human rights leadership from a different perspective. First, can a country with a poor domestic human rights record have the credibility to exercise global human rights leadership?  Second, should it even attempt so?

India’s record of domestic human rights is shocking. Consider women and children. The human rights of Indian women are violated every day. According to the Indian National Crime Bureau, 24,206 cases of rape were reported in 2011, or one every 21 minutes, and 26 percent of these cases resulted in conviction. The shameful Delhi rape incident in December 2012 provided testimony to the state of affairs.  

Assaults on women’s dignities in India take place daily. Consider, for example, the mundane issue of the availability of toilets; 70 percent of Indian women don’t have access, with harmful consequences. For example, women need to step out early in the morning because they need to defecate in the open, and while doing so, are often subjected to sexual violence. Lack of specially designated toilets in the workplace, moreover, can force women to drop out of the labor force. The 2011 Annual Status of Education Report suggests on average, girls aged 12 to 18 miss some five days of school per month, and about 23 percent menstruating girls drop out of school for the same reason.

Now, consider the human rights of children. The number of children going missing is very disturbing: in Delhi alone, in 2011 and 2012, an average of 14 children went missing each day. Many children are trafficked; they work in roadside shacks, brick kilns, factories, and even in brothels. A New York Times exposé revealed widespread incidences of child labor in India’s mining sector.  The same articles cited a UNICEF report that in spite of the 2010 law mandating that all Indian children between the ages of 6 and 14 attend school, about 28 million children do not do so. A quick Google search identifies several websites documenting continuing child servitude.

 A country with such an abysmal record of domestic human rights cannot serve as a credible global human rights leader.

So, why don’t Indian elites do something about domestic human rights? The quick and simple answer is that walking the human rights talk is politically and economically expensive. But then why entertain the aspiration of any kind of global leadership, including human rights? India’s contemporary obsession with global leadership manifests in several ways, including the quest for a permanent seat in the Security Council, sending an unmanned mission to the Moon, hosting the Commonwealth games, and more. India may have not done much on global human rights. But on so many other issues, India seeks a leading regional and global role. Why so?

My theory is that Indian elites continue to harbor an inferiority complex and seek validation from the western world. The debate over India’s possible global human rights leadership falls into this category. While international leadership efforts fan Indian elites’ vanity, allowing them to travel to exotic destinations on government expense and to make speeches to appreciative audiences, it does little for children working in brick kilns or women subjected to daily harassment and indignities.

India indeed is a country of misplaced priorities.

Like charity, human rights must begin at home. Instead of preaching to others, India needs to focus on domestic human rights. Gandhi himself recognized the need for a human rights revolution at home during the early stages of the freedom movement. The world came to him to learn about his methods; he did not go abroad to preach and exercise global leadership. The Indian elite can perhaps learn from this.

You need to set your house in order - or at least try really hard to do so – if you want others to emulate your example and grant you leadership privileges.  


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