The US secretary of state Anthony Blinken may have put it diplomatically when he said that the US was monitoring the rise in human rights abuses in India. But it was important that he said so at a joint Press conference at the end of 2+2 confabulations (between foreign and defence ministers) in Washington. The significance of Blinken’s observation could not have been lost on the two senior most Indians ministers whose meeting with their US counterparts has been greeted with much hoop-la in India.
What lends a sharper edge to Blinken’s words is the undeniable fact of rising incidences of right-wing groups in India. This year the Hindu festival of Ramnavami was marked by communal flare ups in at least five states.
One case that attracted wide attention was in Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi where the controversy appeared to be centred round vegetarian versus non-vegetarian food at a mess. The JNU violence brought back memories of January 2020 when a group of lathi-wielding men and women with saffron scarfs entered the campus and beat up ‘anti-national’ (Left) students.
Two years on, nothing is known about the case. Police are not willing to take action against the saffron intruders because they could not be identified; many in JNU however claim that the culprits are easily recognizable in the videos of the incident.
But perhaps there was an even more important prelude to Blinken’s statement. Just a few days before the 2+2 meeting, a US Congresswoman (Democrat) of Sudanese extraction, Ilhan Omar, accused the Biden administration of being ‘reluctant’ to criticize the Modi administration on human rights violations.
‘How much does the Modi administration have to criminalize the act of being Muslim in India for us to say something?’ she asked in a biting indictment of the Narendra Modi government’s human rights record.
She did not stop there. A more devastating remark of hers was that the US seemed ‘willing to let Modi become our new (Augusto) Pinochet’, in a reference to the late Chilean dictator infamous for his brutal 17-year rule from 1973 after usurping power from Salvador Allende. The CIA was believed to have backed the military junta in Chile that helped Gen Pinochet remain in power for long and later escape to the UK to avoid prosecution in his native country.
The US administration might have been discomfited by the sharpness of Ms Omar’s accusations. The deputy secretary of state, Wendy Sherman, who was in India a little while ago, denied what Ms Omar said but was still a little ambiguous in defending the Biden administration’s stand on alleged HR violations in India, saying that the administration has been raising the human rights issues ‘with all the countries’—still not specifying India.
She made a rather far-fetched comparison to declare that the HR situation in India was not that bad: On her last visit to Delhi she was able to talk to a group of LGBTQ activists, something that was not possible on previous occasions.
It can be understood why the US would like to be cautious in making public remarks on human rights situation in India, given the growing ‘strategic’ relations between the two countries and US relations with the Asian giant China reaching near point of no return. But it should also be clear to anyone in India who cares to watch and listen carefully that India’s reputation as a liberal, tolerant society has taken a beating in the US.
If this graph continues a downward journey it may have serious repercussions. India’s standing as a front rank IT nation will stand sullied. Investors would think twice before they park their funds in a country which denies individual the right to eat, dress, live and practice a ‘minority’ religion.
The current rulers and their followers are happy to delude themselves by claiming that Modi has become the ‘Vishwa Guru’ and no world leader makes a move without receiving the signal from him. The more rabidly pro-Modi sections in the media show world leaders falling at the feet of Modi.
But people in countries outside India have been reading and watching screen shots of things that do not show up India in flattering terms. The media in foreign countries, particularly the US, is the opposite of the genuflecting Indian media.
We may debunk the US for ‘double standards’ on human rights but it is one issue that is frequently debated and discussed by opinion makers in that country. Many Americans, for instance, would have read and been angered by reports that in recent days two prominent Indians were prevented from flying to the US—one of them a former head of Amnesty International in India and the other a trenchant critic of the Modi Sarkar and also a contributor to US journals.
The grounds on which they were stopped at the airport would appear to be trumped up and not good enough to prevent them from flying to another country. Yet, the government would like everyone to believe that there was no abuse of their rights and liberty guarantted by the Constitution.