The deportation from New Delhi’s international airport of British MP Deborah Abrahams is one more example of how thin-skinned our Government is to foreign criticism of its policies.
Ms Abrahams, chairperson of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Kashmir in Britain’s House of Commons, was stopped at the Delhi airport on Monday even though, according to her own statement, she possessed a multiple-entry e-visa valid till October 2020. She was told upon her arrival by Indian immigration officials that her e-visa had been rejected. She was then deported to Dubai.
Turning a Critic Away is Unworthy of a Democracy
There is, in the Government’s view, good reason for its actions. Ms Abrahams is a well-known critic of the Government’s decision on 5 August last year to abrogate the special status accorded to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 and to bifurcate the state into two Union Territories. As the chair of a British parliamentary group on Kashmir, she was identified with sympathy for Kashmiri separatism and had written to the Indian High Commissioner in the UK on 5 August expressing grave concerns on the rescinding of Article 370. She has made no secret of her views: her Twitter timeline has several posts critical of Indian government actions on Kashmir.
But so what? Don’t we have Indians who disagree with the Government on the way they have handled Kashmir, detained political leaders, muzzled free expression by cutting the Internet and restricted Mobile communications? Are we afraid of their views if these come in the mouth of a foreigner?
Refusing to admit a critic into our country is conduct really unworthy of a democracy. It makes her the aggrieved party, with morality entirely on her side. "I became a politician to promote social justice & human rights FOR ALL”, Ms Abrahams tweeted. “I will continue to challenge my own Government & others while injustice & abuse is unchecked".
Government’s Counterproductive Action and Well-Deserved Bad Press
Worse, if refusing to admit her was intended to deny her an opportunity to meet people who would fuel her criticisms of India, her expulsion is guaranteed to give India a far worse press than if she had been admitted. Assume she had come, as she claims, to visit “friends and family” in India, stay with a cousin and pay a condolence visit to the family of a relative. Would anything she said about Kashmir, or any other Indian policy, have made news either in India or abroad? Deborah Abrahams is not exactly a household name. I had certainly never heard of her. Now her deportation has made her, if not a celebrity, somebody whose views will be paid far more attention to than before.
This is the worst thing about Government heavy-handedness: it is always counterproductive. Ban a book or a film, and the number of people who want to see it or read it will multiply exponentially. People who find no traction for their views suddenly become the cynosure of all eyes (and ears) when they arrested, attacked or, in this case, deported.
So the Government has succeeded in making a relatively obscure British MP famous, and a martyr to boot. She will no doubt hold press conferences decrying how undemocratically India behaved, and our country will have one more bitter critic in the British parliament, this time one who will get more attention for her criticisms because she is the one who was deported by India.
If Kashmir is ‘Normal,’ Why Fear the Critics?
The irony is compounded by the fact that the Government claims the situation is normal in Kashmir. Why, then, is the government so scared of critics? If things are fine in Kashmir, shouldn't the government encourage them to witness the situation themselves to put their fears to rest? Instead of conducting tours for pliant MEPs and polite Ambassadors alone, surely the head of a Parliamentary Group on the subject is worth cultivating? If you don’t succeed in moderating her views, you are no worse off than you were before; but if she realises that things are not as awful as she had been led to imagine by her Pakistani sources, you might have the beneficial effect of less strident criticism coming from her.
This way you have guaranteed her resentment and enmity. That doesn’t sound like the smartest course for a government that wants to present itself to the world as a responsible and admirable democracy.
I do realise, as the government of course does, that its decision to deport the MP is quite popular in India: my social media timeline demonstrates that, and even one of my party colleagues has come out openly in support of the government’s action. I found it ironic that some of the same people who applauded me for going to Britain as an Indian MP and telling them off about their colonial misbehaviour, are now attacking me for wanting India to grant a British MP the same privilege! As I observed on Twitter, if we can dish it out, we should be able to take it.
India Comes Across as Intolerant of Criticism
The refusal to engage with foreign critics is dismaying behaviour on the part of the government of India. I felt the same way about Foreign Minister Jaishankar cancelling a meeting with the House International Relations Committee when he heard that Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a known Congressional critic of India’s behaviour in Kashmir, would be present. I believed Jaishankar was more than capable of holding his own in a debate with the Congresswoman; refusing to meet her at all, rather than to listen to her and rebut her views, was a poor reflection of Indian diplomacy under this government.
Net result of all this: India comes across as intolerant of criticism, undemocratic in its behaviour, and as executing a policy so indefensible that it is unwilling to defend it in debate with its challengers. Not exactly a great advertisement for the richness and strength of our democracy.
(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)