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Modi, empire and the bandwagon of human rights

If an arrest warrant against Modi is suggested on the grounds of ‘universal jurisdiction’, will the author extend the same argument for a similar intervention on the part of the Indian judiciary, say, on war crimes committed by the western powers across the globe?

R.Radhakrishnan
10 September 2013

Human rights remains a buzz concept in an age of globalization whose 'modern' nations have begun to realize its significance. This has led to a call for some modicum of standardization and homogenization in the movement of humans and capital, with the advent of neoliberal reforms across the globe. At the same time, nations continue to display an ambivalence founded in their 'national interest' when it comes to seeking international intervention on the grounds of mass killings, and especially ethnocentric conflicts.

Recently an argument has been advanced by N Jayaram, urging that all is not lost when it comes to confronting Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat. In his article, the author invokes a rather elitist and Eurocentric bias when it comes to the recognition of ‘universal’ human rights in an ever-globalizing world. What he fails to take into account is the fact that since the end of World War Two, we have been living in a new post-colonial world order which has nevertheless witnessed multiple conflicts between nation states which have been imperial, colonial and racist in nature.

In India it is the political class which is held culpable for bad governance and the mishandling of issues including law and order, security and the communal conundrum. According to this account, any rational and liberal Indian should simply continue to knock on the doors of the Indian judiciary to seek redress for the resulting crises. But for anyone who pays closer attention, it may be noted that riots happen at regular intervals and that the pattern of such events gives the impression that the whole process is managed as an industry by various sectarian leaders in collusion with the political class. If an intervention in the form of an arrest warrant against Modi is being suggested on the grounds of ‘universal jurisdiction’, will the author, N Jayaram, extend the same argument for a similar intervention on the part of the Indian judiciary, say to address some of the issues like the organized race riots in Britain, the attacks on Maghreb Muslims in France, attacks on the Turkish minority in Germany, or war crimes committed by the western powers across the globe.

India’s communal riots by any yardstick are an abomination against humanity. But if we are to adopt this argument on the grounds of ‘universal jurisdiction’ in order to place Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, on trial for his alleged role in the communal riots of 2002, this will open a Pandora box which can only do much to increase the chagrin of the white world and their black foot soldiers in countries like India. This was recently indicated by another brazen attempt by some nondescript Indian parliamentarian who tried to implore the US regime not to revoke its visa ban on the Gujarat Chief Minister, on the same grounds. The resulting media controversy resulted in many MPs denying ever having signed such a petition, or having been willing to subjugate themselves to US sovereignty on such a matter.

What prevents the same champions of human rights from knocking on the doors of the Indian Judiciary for the trial of leaders like George Bush Senior and Junior, or the late Robert McNamara for their alleged culpability in acts against humanity, which is said to have resulted in the deaths of millions of hapless people in Iraq, Afghanistan and other regions? The rulers of United Kingdom are yet to be tried for colonialism, war crimes (now in Iraq) and the displacement of millions of hapless inhabitants in their former colonies.

Radhabinod Pal, one of the Indian judges who gave a dissenting note in the Tokyo Trial, in 1945 stated that it was “victors' justice” that reeked of vengeance. Incidentally the very same proponents of ‘universal jurisdiction’ and their camp followers continue to display benign ignorance over the deliberate exclusion of western colonialism and the use of the atom bomb by the United States from the list of crimes against humanity.

This logic is fraught with legitimate fears of the revival of colonial and racist rants regarding the ‘white man’s burden’. One must take into account the fact that with Modi you are not dealing with a Charles Taylor of Liberia, the late Slobodan Milosovic or Radovan Karadzic of Serbia or the PolPot of Cambodia in a situation in which the host nation and its judiciary finds it difficult to confront their villains. You are dealing with an India which has proved capable of democratically dethroning its political leaders when they have tried to cross the threshold of democracy, and displayed their fascist tendencies in the garb of a national emergency. This is the same judiciary which was perfectly capable of invalidating the election of the late Indira Gandhi. Unlike the western model, the Nehruvian state has ensured that nation building and democratic politics have primacy in India over national development and industrialization.

The view that many Indians believe Mr Modi to be guilty of having fanned the flames of communal killing and that therefore, “for human rights groups, the prospect of Modi’s London visit is not a crisis but an opportunity”, unfortunately reflects a very selective understanding of the communal crisis in India. The media coverage of the communal riots, (not pogroms, as these riots are sometimes misrepresented) for over a decade, has been spun by an anglicized Indian upper caste who control this media, which clearly reflects Eurocentric notions and bias. It is a selective reading targeting a particular political discourse in the name of ‘defending secularism’. For example it completely ignores the larger issue of the exclusion, annihilation and recovery of faith in a just order raised by the great poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko in his 'Monologue of Tomorrow's Men’.

In India, the self-proclaimed proponents of secularism have done considerable damage to the cause of secularism in their blatant use of selective targeting, that seeks to exclude politicians who have commanded great respect across the country and have held important positions in the government.  Invoking this argument one could describe Modi as ‘the Rajiv Gandhi of the 2002 riots’, given that under the stewardship of the late Indira Gandhi, many massacres took place, including the Nelli Massacre in Assam.

This is not to justify the crimes of 2002 riots or hold out an alibi for those who are guilty of having orchestrated it. The point I am making is that in the age of the sovereign equality of states, why is the Indian judiciary being held incapable of adjudicating on critical issues concerning human rights? This is the same Indian judiciary which handed over to justice the fugitive Maninder Pal Singh Kohli, the culprit in the Hannah Foster rape and murder case, who was evading British law enforcement and was apprehended in India. Kohli tried to invoke ‘racism in the British judiciary’ as a means of avoiding trial in Britain, promptly dismissed by an Indian judiciary that had taken note of the gravity of the crime and dispassionately assessed the issue. But the Indian state and Indians had to deal with the ignominy of the very selective reading of the British state and judiciary, when it wanted to extradite the fugitive music composer Nadeem Saifi, accused of conspiring to kill late music industry baron, Gulshan Kumar. The House of Lords upheld the London High Court's decision against extradition in the 1997 murder case, and turned down the Indian government's plea for a review of the decision.

Peter Bleach, a Briton, and one of the accused in the Purulia arms drop case of 1995 was given a presidential pardon in 2004 following requests by the UK government. In other words the western world’s attitude towards the largest democracy is patronising and smacks of hypocrisy. The Indian state was rebuffed on 30 June 2011, when its efforts to get Kim Davy, the Danish citizen who was the prime accused in the same case, extradited from Denmark, failed, after a Denmark court rejected it on the grounds of poor jail conditions and human rights in India. This development came even after the Indian government had, in principle, agreed on giving "sovereign assurance" to the Danish authorities on their conditions, which also included the waiving of the death penalty if Davy was convicted by a court for his involvement in the arms drop case.

The India that Tagore knew so well when he interrogated the liberal, democratic and secular nation-building exercise that many of India’s great leaders have wanted to usher in, is confronted by a range of challenges that are structural, periodic and at times sporadic.  However there have also always been many progressive and democratic movements which have paved way for a more inclusive, tolerant and constitutional democratic order in India in spite of its ‘million mutinies’ in a ‘wounded civilization.’

The issue of Modi’s guilt or innocence can be deliberated and adjudicated upon by the Indian judiciary, instead of relying on a trial by media. After all, it is the media blitzkrieg fanned by the anti-Modi political groups which has also catapulted Modi onto where we now find him, the world stage.

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