US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin is holding talks with his Indian counterpart Raksha Mantri Rajnath Singh and other Indian leaders, including External Minister S Jaishankar, today, 19 March 2021.
These meetings will be held under the shadow of the Chair of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), Robert Menendez’s demand that Austin should urge the Indian government to “uphold democratic values and human rights”.
Menedez, a veteran US politician, belongs to the Democrat party. He has been a Senator since 2006.
The SFRC plays an influential role in US foreign policy. No administration can completely ignore the views of the Committee’s Chair.
In a letter to Austin, Menendez noted “The Indian government’s ongoing crackdown on farmers peacefully protesting new farm laws and corresponding intimidation of journalists and government critics only underscores the deteriorating situation of democracy in India”.
Jaishankar’s Recent Response to International Criticism of His Govt
The question is: can the Modi government treat Menedez’s view with the same disdain as it has shown towards the assessments of some Western non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the current state of Indian democracy?
The most recent example of the Indian dispensation’s attitude towards these NGOs / think tanks was witnessed five days ago, on 14 March, during Jaishankar’s televised interview. He accused them of “hypocrisy”.
Specifically, Jaishankar was responding to a question relating to Freedom House, a US think tank, that had downgraded India to ‘Partially Free’ status from ‘Free’, and V-Dem Institute, a Swedish research centre, classifying India as an ‘electoral autocracy’.
Calling them a “set of self-appointed custodians of the world” Jaishankar said that these NGOs “found it very difficult to stomach that somebody in India was not looking for their approval, is not willing to play the game they want it to be played”.
He went on to accuse them of “inventing their rules, their parameters, pass their judgments and then make it as if this is some kind of global exercise”.
There is much validity in Jaishankar’s critique of Western NGOs. They are not the independent organisations motivated by idealistic and objective considerations to steer all countries towards greater democracy and civil liberties and freedoms that they profess to be. They often follow agendas set out by their funders from behind the scenes.
Is It Enough for Modi Govt to Rail Against International Critics?
These funders include states as well as corporations who give grants directly or, in some cases, route them via third parties. Thus, they can be construed to be arms of some states’ diplomatic apparatus meant to promote the interests of these states. In this sense they are guilty of, as Jaishankar asserted, “hypocrisy”.
But hypocrites or not, they are part of the international civil society landscape and they have to be dealt with. The question then is this: what is the best way to deal with them. Is it sufficient to rail against them?
Or should their ‘hypocrisy’ be exposed either through engaging them or independently subjecting their views to rigorous academic analysis or through proceeding on both tracks? And how should observations like those of Menendez be handled?
To seek answers to these questions, a brief look at the international system in the context of democracy and human rights would be useful.
The primary actors on the international stage are countries which follow different political models. Among them are democracies which seek, some assertively like the US and the Nordic countries, and others softly like India, to project the virtues of democracy as a system. They also seek to be defenders of human rights.
These democratic countries are often critical of other countries where democracy falters or human rights are perceived to be under threat. India is no exception though it is very cautious in criticising domestic developments in other countries. The case of Myanmar is relevant in this context.
Can NGOs, Independent Organisations Criticise the Political Situation in Another Country?
The government conveyed its latest position on the Myanmar coup in its response to a Rajya Sabha question on 18 March. While noting India’s interests in its neighbour —and that necessitates going soft on the Myanmar military’s actions — it could not refrain from noting that “India believes that the rule of law and democratic process must be upheld…”.
The clear inference of this comment is that as a state, India feels that it has the right to comment on the derailing of democracy in another country. Yes, a military coup is an extreme measure and the killing of protestors is reprehensible but the point is that India has no reluctance in commenting on the political process of another state.
Thus, while Jaishankar opines that NGOs have no right to comment on their perception of the condition of democracy and political processes of states, this restriction does not apply to states. Jaishankar obviously believes that states can unilaterally comment on political conditions in other states.
The point at issue is not the merits of comments but who has the right to make them. Clearly, in Jaishankar’s view states possess these rights. What of intergovernmental multilateral institutions including UN bodies and those commissioned by them to examine specific issues relating to the political processes of states?
Modi Govt’s Approach to Censure from NGOs Is To Be ‘Dismissive’
While the Modi government has repudiated critical comments of the heads of UN bodies on human rights, it has never questioned their right to make such observations nor has it claimed that they are framing their own rules and setting their own parameters. Thus, when the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights criticised the government’s approach to the farmers agitation last month and accused the government of seeking to curb freedom of expression, it asserted that the High Commissioner was neither objective nor impartial — but did not go to the extent of questioning her right to make these observations.
Clearly, then, the Modi government distinguishes between states, intergovernmental organisations and international civil society on the issue of their respective rights to make observations on issues of democracy and human rights in various countries.
Its preferred approach though, of dealing with criticism on these fronts, is to be dismissive — and not engage. Interestingly, it has applied the same strategy towards its Indian critics. It has especially poured scorn on those who it perceives are liberals.
It may have to reconsider its approach and be compelled to engage its foreign critics such as Menendez.
Such engagement is part of the international processes and is an inherent part of any democratic polity. And, finally, the Modi government, including its ministers who are recent converts to its philosophical underpinnings, would not be unaware that debate — shastrarth — is part of India’s ancient intellectual tradition.
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He tweets at @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)