Human rights are a matter of both democracy and hypocrisy, certainly in India.
Two recent examples, India’s flat-out fight for one of its own and its flat-out denial of human rights violations aimed at entire communities, highlight it as nothing else.
There is little ground for dispute that a country must stand by one if its own, as India has done for Kulbhushan Jadhav, accused of espionage by Pakistan and sentenced to death by that country’s loaded judicial system. Ace Indian lawyer Harish Salve argued India’s case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague and won the man a reprieve, even if temporary, on 18 May.
Salve was fêted by India’s leaders and media. External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj praised his handling of the matter and highlighted the fact that the pricey lawyer had accepted only a token fee of one rupee for the cause-case. The media has since remained on overdrive, with one newspaper praising the “piano-playing lawyer”.
A couple of years ago, the same newspaper had praised Salve in a headline: “Harish Salve: The man who saved Salman Khan from going to jail.” So be it.
Surely, though, if a country can stand by one of its own so admirably, so publicly, in front of the world, taking on arch-enemy Pakistan, scoring brownie points at home at a time of a slowed economy and growing joblessness, it would have the courage to own up to its ills in a vaunted democracy?
Far from it. India’s human rights hypocrisy is staggering, and it’s not a matter of this government or that. India has practised such hypocrisy in the face of any human rights query at any global forum, and during its four-yearly universal periodic reviews under the aegis of United Nations, through all runs and flavours of government, from Congress to the Bharatiya Janata Party.
At India’s third such periodic review earlier this month – sparsely reported by most media in India except to highlight attorney general Mukul Rohatgi’s swashbuckling performance in front of United Nations’ Human Rights Council – India’s position was: there’s nothing wrong with India or its human rights record.
It bears repetition as Rohatgi’s response still has free-thinking citizens and the human rights world reeling from its Zimbabwe-ness, or China-ness, if you prefer that brazen application of dictatorial blindsiding.
There is no Afrophobia or racism in India, maintained Rohatgi, because “we cannot have a racist mindset” as India is a land of Mahatma Gandhi and Gautama Buddha. Even a child would demolish that assertion with a shallow reading of events since the Partition, not to mention Gandhi’s assassination: evidently a Gandhian and very Buddhist act of peace and piety.
“As such, the concept of torture is completely alien to our culture and it has no place in the governance of the nation,” maintained the attorney general. Cases and convictions in the courts of India and the well-documented and validated records of human rights organisations, both Indian and global, point to the opposite.
Numerous instances of torture of non-combatants in Chhattisgarh, for instance, is a matter of pursuit of India’s National Human Rights Commission; and has formed a substantive bulk of petitions in the Supreme Court against state-sponsored vigilante groups in Chhattisgarh. Let us take some more names in India’s torture chronicles and that of human rights abominations: Assam, Manipur, Jammu & Kashmir, Odisha, Jharkhand, West Bengal, etc.
India is yet to ratify the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment – commonly called CAT. Not that signing a document or ratifying an undertaking has ever really stopped a country from doing anything it wanted. But this is about appearances, right? About wanting to be seen as good, and doing good.
(I’m not even going into our easy attitude towards torture: the routine glorification of torture for decades by India’s film industry, as the upright police or army officer extracts a confession from the baddies, when a kiss, intense cuddle, or feminist statement faces the wrath of censors. In private police and armed forces, officers admit to the routine use of torture and a tool of judicial extension for the sake of law and order, internal security, and national security.)
In the blaze of adverse publicity over cow-vigilantism, openly encouraged by adjuncts of the Hindu nationalist Far Right, India’s attorney general reiterated: “India is a secular state with no state religion.” And then, last week, we had the incident in Jharkhand.
Similar blandishment accompanied statements on every manner of victimisation, from gratuitously gunning for non-governmental organisations to aggressively putting down dissent. Free speech and expression, which exists despite the government, on the sheer strength of citizens, civil rights organisations and upright members of the judiciary who uphold constitutional imperatives, was trotted out, ironically, as a virtue of government, not a citizen’s right valiantly fought for each day.
But it’s all global now, all out there. Human rights review, Jadhav, the whole lot. There are fewer places to hide even within the shadows of our denial.
Here’s another thing, an ironical cut, and perhaps an unintended one.
What India has effectively done in Jadhav’s case, admirable as it may be for the sake of public patriotism and loyalty of a country to one of its own, and its cascading effect on domestic political leverage by the government of the day, is the very thing India has shied away from doing all these years: “internationalise” its animosity with Pakistan.
To maintain at every opportunity that everything between India and Pakistan, including the festering sore of Jammu & Kashmir, is nobody else’s business; not that of the United Nations, or any other multilateral agency or a third country.
The Jadhav incident has officially made it the world’s business. And I for one am delighted with this possibility: if India has done poorly with Kashmir and Pakistan these past seventy years, maybe it’s time for the world to take a look-in, stop the bleeding of our citizens – non-combatants and armed forces alike – and stop the bleeding of our economy.
(Of course, this precludes the earliest ceasefire and line of control along Kashmir and India’s border with Pakistan, effected with the help of United Nations and its agencies; and the Indus Water Treaty brokered by the World Bank, but what’s a factual oddity or two for an ostrich?)
And as far as human rights go, all that India has done for itself in front of the world and its own citizens who are still able to think freely and express themselves is buy time, as it has done for Jadhav. Not credibility, just time.