Updated: August 25, 2016 1:56:36 am
On Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that his government would speak up against human rights violations by the Pakistan government in Balochistan. The sudden interest in the human rights situation in that restive province of Pakistan has fired the imagination of many who believe this “muscular” approach is the silver bullet to India’s problems in Jammu & Kashmir.
Aside from the exhaustively dissected merits of the PM’s statement, a look at some other human rights causes that New Delhi has supported can be instructive on the cherry-picking that India has done in the name of oppressed people around the world, why and how it has chosen some, and abandoned or ignored others.
Perhaps the most principled human rights position that India took was the one against apartheid, cutting off all links with South Africa for over 40 years after the racist National Party government enacted laws to segregate black people. Nehru led the movement against apartheid from the front. New Delhi re-established diplomatic ties with Johannesburg only in 1993, in the run-up to South Africa’s first democratic election.
India’s support for the Palestinian people in their struggle to prove that they were the original inhabitants of the land that has been known as Israel since 1948 was also born of principles. India voted against the Partition Plan for Palestine at the UN in 1947 and opposed Israel’s entry to the UN. India was among the few countries in the non-Arab, non-Islamic world to permit the Palestinians to set up an office in New Delhi. It was not called an embassy but functioned like one. India has recognised Palestinian statehood since its declaration in 1988. But since the 1990s, New Delhi has walked a fine balance between expressing solidarity with the Palestinian cause and improving ties with Israel. India and Israel have broad and deep cooperation in varied sectors, including in the purchase of military hardware, science and technology, and agriculture.
India voted in favour of accepting Palestine as a full member of UNESCO, and for making it a non-state member of the UN General Assembly. In 2015, India abstained from voting against Israel at the UN Human Rights Council, over a UNHRC report that found evidence of war crimes by both Israel and Hamas in Gaza in 2014 when 2,300 Palestinian civilians were killed in Israeli airstrikes.
Twelve years after Indian independence, Nehru opened India’s doors to the Dalai Lama, sealing China’s decade-long suspicions of New Delhi’s intentions in Tibet, amid a boundary row. Three years later, India and China fought a war in which India was mauled, a humiliation that still haunts the Indian psyche and determines our responses to Beijing to date. Meanwhile, what of the Tibetans? The Dalai Lama continues to stay in India, and so do a large number of Tibetans who have settlements in various parts of the country. During visits by high-ranking Chinese dignitaries, police clamp down on protests in order to not embarrass the visiting dignitary. India has never shifted from its one-China policy after recognising the People’s Republic of China in 1950.
Cut to 1971. India sided with the Bengali population in what was then East Pakistan as the Pakistan Army began its brutal Operation Searchlight in March that year. Millions of East Pakistanis poured across the border into India. In Parliament, the atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army were described as “genocide” and “medieval butchery”. The Indian government imparted military training to thousands of Mukti Bahini cadre. Over nine months, India prepared to liberate East Pakistan. The effort climaxed in December in a war with Pakistan. Two weeks later, Bangladesh was born. By dismembering Pakistan, India had scored a huge existential point over its twin, one that continues to haunt Pakistan and shape its responses to us. All this, as it fought for the oppressed East Pakistanis. It was described as Indira Gandhi’s, the Indian Army’s and the Indian intelligence agencies’ “finest hour”. Contrary to what anyone might have expected, India’s relations with the new country were never a honeymoon. Bilateral ties have had their highs and lows.
The next decade saw India take up the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka. India had been troubled by the growing US presence in Sri Lanka. After the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, amidst the outpouring of political support and sympathy for the Sri Lankan Tamils in Tamil Nadu and a flow of refugees across the Palk Strait, the Indian government trained Tamil militant groups in camps in Tamil Nadu and in the Garhwal Himalayas. India bet on Velupillai Prabhakaran and the LTTE, turning a blind eye to its killing spree against rival Tamil groups. Just when the Tamil people were fully convinced that India was about “to do a Bangladesh” in Sri Lanka, India made a deal with Colombo which provided federal powers to the Tamil-dominated north and east. The Indian Army sent the IPKF to ensure that the LTTE behaved. The LTTE turned against the IPKF, which found itself fighting a war in which its adversary continued to get secret supplies from India. As it turned out, the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government made a deal to turf out India. As many as 1,200 soldiers were killed and 3,000 injured, before the IPKF pulled out in March 1990. The costs, in terms of India’s prestige and that of its army, were as high as the human losses.
A year later, an LTTE suicide bomber assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, under whose leadership the India-Sri Lanka Accord was signed. For the next 18 years, India left the Tamils pretty much to their fate, including at the time of the Sri Lankan Army’s final assault on the LTTE in May 2009. Conservative estimates place the number of civilians killed in those last few days at 40,000. Only under pressure from Tamil Nadu politicians, and to snub president Mahinda Rajapaksa — whose proximity to Beijing was a finger in India’s eye — did New Delhi vote against Sri Lanka at two sessions of the UNHRC.
The Islamic Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region have been waging a long struggle against Beijing. Earlier this year, the Modi government gave a visa to Dolkun Isa, a US-based Uighyur leader, in apparent retaliation for China blocking the Security Council designation of the Pakistan-based Jaish chief Masood Azhar. But a tight rap across the knuckles from Beijing was all it took to cancel the visa.
New Delhi abandoned Aung San Suu Kyi for the nearly two decades she was kept under house arrest by the Myanmar junta. Ditching her was the price that New Delhi paid to cosy up to the generals, as it persuaded them to end safe havens for insurgent groups from the north-east, and competed with China for economic and strategic influence. On Suu Kyi’s visit to China last week, she was accorded a welcome reserved for heads of state. On her return, Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj rushed off to Naypyidaw. Now, Myanmar is sending its army chief to New Delhi. He’s powerful, but he’s not DASSK, as she is known. Meanwhile, the stateless Rohingyas cut no ice with Delhi.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it should be clear to the oppressed Oromos of Ethiopia that the Indian PM is not going to be speaking up for them, despite the Oromo athlete’s protest at the Olympics to highlight the plight of his people. Fair enough, after all, in an international community that is brimming with hypocrites. What that means though is that when New Delhi rakes up Balochistan, it should be prepared for the world’s gaze on its own record in Kashmir, on Muslims, on Dalits, on freedom of speech and religion. And in this game, booking Amnesty for sedition over an event on Kashmir, on the same day as Modi spoke for Baloch rights, doesn’t get you far.
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