A reformed role model: India, a reluctant rights promoter

A reply to Meenakshi Ganguly and Aseem Prakash.  A far more instructive question they might have asked is, ‘is it in India’s interests to promote rights globally?’ - and regrettably the answer is ‘no’. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Emerging Powers and Human Rights.

Ram Mashru
19 July 2013

openGlobalRight’s commentary on India has been laudably critical. Meenakshi Ganguly urged India to do more to secure rights globally, and Aseem Prakash shed light on India’s dismal domestic rights record. But the two pose the wrong question over India’s human rights diplomacy. The answer to their question ‘what should India do about human rights?’ is obvious: as much as it can. But such conclusions fail to explain why India refuses to assume a leadership role in international rights promotion. More instructive is the question ‘is it in India’s interests to promote rights globally?’, and regrettably the answer is ‘no’. This unfortunate response can be explained by the politics of the developing world and India’s unique great power ambitions.


Anna Hazare anti-corruption campaigners gather in New Delhi. Demotix/Rahul Kumar. All rights reserved.

Developing world diplomacy

Given the terrible rights record of the Raj, it may seem puzzling that India has shied away from encouraging rights protection elsewhere. But this paradox unravels when it is understood that a collective history of imperialism has elevated the value of state sovereignty to the status of a governing principle in the international relations of the developing world.

The valorisation of sovereignty, its unfettered enjoyment and exercise, manifests in a reluctance to interfere in the domestic affairs of other nations. This commitment to both sovereignty and non-interference extends to international rights diplomacy: India, as Foreign Minister Shyam Saran insists, is not in the business of ‘exporting ideologies’.

Academics and activists must concede that conceptions of human rights differ across regions. The writings of Rajni Kothari – one of India’s leading thinkers and a former president of the country’s largest human rights organization – is replete with dismissals of civil and political rights as foreign ideals; ill-suited to India’s communitarian polity in which collective rights – emphasizing social, economic and cultural empowerment – are more important. Meenakshi Ganguly’s piece explains how India’s foreign policy is reluctant to follow western-led initiatives, and prevailing understandings of human rights and international rights advocacy both fall into this category.

India’s great power politics: doing things differently

Perversely, despite India’s reluctance on the issue of rights promotion it is celebrated as a regional exemplar: as a functioning democracy with enviable rights standards. This contradiction can be reconciled by India’s efforts to be seen as a reformed role model, characterised by its non-imperialist foreign policy. The reformed approach is best evidenced by India’s reactive, not pro-active, democracy promotion strategy. In 2005 India, through making a  $10 million contribution, supported the establishment of the UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF). But when speaking on UNDEF in 2006 Shyam Saran, India’s Foreign Secretary, said ‘we do not believe in the imposition of democracy. But if there is an interest in any country in our democratic experience…we are ready to share this’.

A reformed role model approach, when applied to human rights diplomacy, takes the form of a laissez-faire attitude to rights promotion.  Doing so is strategically prudent for India on several levels. First, as Aseem Prakash suggests, it avoids embarrassing questions about India’s dismal domestic rights record. Second it avoids the charge of hypocrisy that muscular rights promoters face, that of enforcing rights abroad and abrogating them at home. Third, the international relations of human rights are highly charged, and India’s light touch on the subject avoids offending, and so alienating, potential strategic partners. Fourthly, reluctant rights promotion maximises India’s freedom of activity: by holding other nations to relaxed rights standards India grants itself equal licence to be unconstrained by rights concerns. These strategic freedoms, many of which are central to India’s great power project, combine to discourage India from using its growing international influence to encourage rights protection.

Salil Shetty raises a valid problem: how can developing countries be incentivised to promote rights? For him, the increasing global stature of emerging powers entails an increasing obligation to promote rights. But such assertions are based on a flawed assumption; they overlook the fact that rising countries have very different conceptions about the sorts of global power they seek to be. For India, the aspiration is to be a reformed, non-imperialist, role model.


Certainly India’s potential to secure rights globally remains unfulfilled. But human rights – highly contentious norms, often maligned as ‘western’ ideologies – are difficult to reconcile with India’s effort to be a reformed global role model. As a player of the politics of the developing world and as an aspirant great power, India’s diplomatic priorities are underpinned by notions of state sovereignty, non-imperialism and strategic freedom, which each deliver foreign policy advantages that trump any benefits that might accrue from rights promotion.

As Meenakshi Ganguly laments, India’s refusal to promote rights is detrimental to the world’s marginalized and oppressed. But as Stephen Hopgood and Hadas Ziv insist, it is activists and not states that will make the difference. Faith should therefore be placed instead in India’s social movements. The nationwide gender justice movement that emerged following the horrific Delhi gang rape, and persistent popular protests against official corruption are testament to India’s capacity to mount pro-rights collective action. It is through setting this example that India can best lead in the effort to secure rights globally.


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