Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | Democratic freedoms: Should India worry about internation...

Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | Democratic freedoms: Should India worry about international criticism?

In this episode of Worldview, we discuss the reaction of the Indian government to international comments on democratic freedoms in the country, how much should the government worry about these, and what is the impact on Foreign policy

With increasing regularity, India is facing comments from abroad expressing concern and criticising the government for failing to keep its commitments on democratic freedoms, religious freedoms, media freedoms, and so on. Just in the past week there were a number of such statements- many of them eliciting strong reactions from the Ministry of External Affairs:

1. UN High Commission for Human Rights criticised India’s detention of 3 activists who had criticised the government over the 2002 Gujarat riots investigation

The MEA issued a statement calling the comments “unwarranted” and an “interference” in India’s judicial system.

2. US Commission on International Religious Freedom tweeted three comments on India, calling for India to be designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) by the US State department- referring to dententions of human rights advocates and a fact checking website founder

An MEA statement called the commission motivated and said the concerns showed a severe lack of understanding of India and its constitutional framework, its plurality and its democratic ethos.

3. Four US Congress representatives- Ilhan Omar and 3 others introduced resolution 1196 in the US House that will “condemn human rights violations and violations of international religious freedom in India, including those targeting Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, Adivasis, and other religious and cultural minorities. Another resolution this week came from Congressman Juan Vargas, seeking to commemorate activist and Jesuit priest Stan Swamy who died in police custody in India last year

The government has not yet responded to the resolutions. In 2019, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had refused to attend a US House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting as a Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal was present- as she had introduced a resolution calling on India to restore internet freedoms in Jammu and Kashmir and release political prisoners

4. The US ambassador at large for religious freedoms Rashad Hussain, who is a US government official- addressed a conference in Washington saying that India is even at the risk of seeing a genocide

The comments were a follow up to an International Religious Freedom Report issued by US Secretary of State Blinken and Amb Hussain at the beginning of June- which the MEA had slammed the US government for, calling it the practice of “vote bank politics” on the international stage

5. The German Foreign Ministry then said it is also concerned about the arrest of the fact-checker – Muhammad Zubair, adding that its embassy is monitoring the situation in India and coordinating with the EU on this.6. And then there was a UK-hosted international conference on the Freedom of Religion and Belief-India was not mentioned directly at the conference, but neither was India among the 30 countries that attended. In addition, reports suggest that India put off a visit by British Minister Tariq Ahmed who hosted the conference and was due to visit Delhi in Mid-June to invite India to join. That visit now rescheduled to end-July.

So why is this interest in India’s domestic matters increasing recently?

1. As India grows in prominence on the international stage- a growing number of events in India are catching international attention- While earlier, this was primarily concern about hate crimes in India by various groups, since 2019- the concerns have been about government decisions and judicial processes- the reorganisation of Jammu Kashmir, CAA, Farm bill and action against protests, Hijab ban, Use of bulldozers against protestors, arrests of activists, journalists and human rights advocates and so on

2. In the US, the Democratic administration under President Biden has taken a more traditionally proactive stance on global human rights. As a result, even during the Blinken Jaishankar meetings, we see references to human rights concerns coming through. As the US makes this its policy, other partner countries like the UK, European Union members, Canada, Germany are all also becoming more vocal. Remember, one of Mr. Biden’s initatives is the Democracy Summit he held in December 2021. In December 2022, the US plans a bigger summit- and will call to account countries for the commitments they made last year. The UK FoRB conference in July is also a precursor to the December Summit.

3. In the past decade, the government has also acted against international NGOs under the Foreign Contribution Regulatory Act (FCRA), stopping foreign funding for different causes in India, and this has led to the shut down of many international NGOs- these include Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch, Compassion International, Oxfam- about 12,000 NGOs in all have lost their licenses to recieve funding here as of 2022. Some of these decisions have been reversed- as in the case of Ford Foundation and the Missionaries of Charity, but for the rest, the fact that they now operate from overseas makes them even more likely to express their concerns abroad and to governments in the countries that they are based.

4. Then there is the upcoming review of India’s Human Rights record at the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Universal Period Review, or UPR of India is expected to begin in November 2022, and India is due to give its own report at the end of August. As a result, the vocal concerns being expressed in Western capitals may actually increase.

5. The growing interest in Human Rights in India is also linked to the growing polarisation in the Global world order- as US-Europe and other allies pit themselves against the Russia-China combine, as a fight between democracies and authoritarian regimes. In the past few years, the US even tried to turn the G-7 into a D-10 of 10 Democracies with large economies as a counter. The Quad is a coalition of Indo-Pacific democracies. This is what led to a statement of “Resilient Democracies” signed at the G-7 outreach in Germany last month- a statement PM Modi and other invitees also signed on to.

6. Finally, the concerns are being amplified by Pakistan, given tense ties between the two countries. For the past few years, former PM Imran Khan would devote much of his UNGA speech to India, the ruling party’s ideology and Islamophobia. Pakistan hosted Ilhan Omar shortly before the US Congresswoman brought her resolution out, and Pakistan has been pushing for India to be held accountable at the UN Human Rights Council- especially after the UN OHCHR brought out a report on Jammu Kashmir that was very critical of New Delhi’s actions.

Let’s tell you about what New Delhi should watch out for:

1. Ties with the US could be deeply impacted if there is any action on the basis of its International Religious Freedom Act of 1998- Under it, the US President is required to annually review the status of religious freedom in every country in the world and designate each country the government of which has engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). At present there are 10 countries on the list, as of November 2021: Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.There is also a Special Watch List of 4 countries: Algeria, Comoros, Cuba, and Nicaragua.

2. In addition the USCIRF can recommend sanctions against specific officials under the IRFA- in 2005, the then Bush administration decided to revoke PM Narendra Modi’s visit, who was then Gujarat Chief Minister under Section 212 (a) (2) (g) of the US Immigration and Nationality Act that makes any foreign government official who “was responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom” ineligible for a visa to the United States.3. Then there are what are called Global Magnitsky Sanctions that work for accountability for human rights violations worldwide. Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian tax advisor and whistleblower who was beaten in custody and died of injuries in 2009, and since his death there has been an international campaign to put financial sanctions against officials involved in HR violations. The US, UK, Canada, Australia and the EU countries all have Magnitsky sanctions. About 300 individuals and entities from 40 countries have been designated thus far- mostly from China, Russia and Saudi Arabia.Last year the US put Bangladeshi police officials including the Rapid Action Batallion anti-terror force on its list as well.

4. It is also necessary to watch for the economic impact of these sanctions or designations- as private companies in the US and Europe have begun to follow their foreign policies- During the Trump administration- many US companies pulled out of China unilaterally, During the Russia Ukraine war, dozens of western companies have pulled out of Russia voluntarily- amidst worries that Human rights violations can lead to MNCs working there being penalised back home.

5. Finally, Western foreign policy is fickle- There have been flip flops over Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey in the past decade that show that when ties with the West are good, Human rights concerns are often brushed to the background. With India too, while India’s ties with the US and Europe are gaining strength, and the need for India as a bulwark against China in the Indo-Pacific remains, such laws, sanctions and human rights concerns may not make as much of a difference.

While the government is correct that international concerns are interference into India’s internal matters, it must be remembered that India is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights- and the government has a duty to ensure human rights, religious freedoms, media freedoms to its people. Eventually, any impact of global concerns on India’s foreign policy will be transitory, but the impact of government actions- and its fulfilment of commitment to stand up for these rights domestically is lasting- as is the impact on India’s goodwill in the world as a pluralistic inclusive democracy- and not a reactive authoritarian regime.

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