Getting delusional

Published : May 01, 2002 00:00 IST

Indian diplomats are trying to intimidate journalists covering the Gujarat events even as they substitute fictional accounts for facts.

IT is only very rarely that India's former Foreign Secretaries - that highly articulate category of policy-shapers - agree on the international implications of domestic developments. But Gujarat has produced a new unanimity among diplomats as varied as S.K. Singh, Muchkund Dubey and Salman Haidar. They have all taken a stand on the Gujarat pogrom and its disastrous effect on India's standing in the world, and even more important, on the Vajpayee government's paranoid reaction to international expressions of concern. They are agreed that the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has seriously misread these expressions and acted immaturely by "trying to put a gloss on dismal events".

Thus, writes Haidar, "India has already suffered a severe loss of prestige. This can only be restored by effective action on the ground, and not by scolding envoys and Ministers of foreign countries." S.K. Singh, who is hawkish and conservative in defending "national sovereignty", is even more forthright: "India, as a major humane power should sit up and take note when in the international media one of our Chief Ministers is called 'Narendra Milosevic Modi' and terms like genocide start being thrown around. All of us Indians need to worry and agonise."

S.K. Singh says the international community is naturally unable to "square" Gujarat's communal carnage "with the verdict of our own Supreme Court... that secularism is an established feature of the basic structure of India's Constitution". He concludes: "Our diplomats must judge if by asking all foreigners to desist from mentioning the Gujarat carnage to us, they serve the national interest."

Dubey, who has a liberal position on many issues, barring India's nuclear weapons, is clear that demarches by foreign missions regarding Gujarat do not constitute "interference in our internal affairs". India is a signatory to numerous international conventions, which stand mauled in Gujarat. The sheer magnitude of the butchery, and the collusion of the state, have deeply shocked people everywhere. Besides, says Dubey, the "philosophical basis" of the European Union (E.U.), involving as it does diluting sovereignty in favour of larger principles such as human rights, makes it natural for the E.U. to express strong feelings about the Gujarat events.

The MEA has resorted to incredible contortion, hair-splitting and dissimulation to ward off criticism, to deny its very existence, and to repudiate legitimate concerns - without convincing facts, but with assertions of national "sovereignty". For days, it strenuously denied that the E.U. had issued a demarche to India on April 23 by summoning Dilip Lahiri, India's Ambassador to Spain, the current Chair of the Union. The MEA called the demarche "mutual consultations". The E.U. showed some sensitivity to the MEA's tendency to fly off the handle by deciding to issue a demarche in Madrid rather than in New Delhi. In fact, Spanish Ambassador to India Alberto Escudero resisted characterising the Madrid meeting and merely said that Lahiri was "acquainted" with the E.U. position on Gujarat.

The MEA has made much of the fact that the demarche was verbal, not written. In reality, a demarche can be verbal or written; it is nothing but a diplomatic communication by one state of its feelings or sentiments, with or without soliciting a response from the other state. However, the truth was soon out: it was confirmed that the E.U. had indeed issued a demarche.

On May 2, at the India-E.U. biannual summit, the E.U. once again expressed its concern "regarding violence, loss of life and property and the requirement for urgent humanitarian relief" in Gujarat. So keen was the MEA not to use the word demarche that its spokesperson merely said that the controversy caused by media reports on the E.U. position was "regrettable" but refused to either confirm or deny whether there was a "demarche". She only said that Gujarat was discussed in "an open and candid manner". The MEA statement said that the E.U. recognises that its concerns "had already been addressed vigorously and effectively in the Indian media, public opinion and civil society and by the Indian government and Parliament". This was the MEA's way of saying "we are internally doing all that's necessary; don't bother us any more..."

The plain truth is, the government has been badly rattled by the demarches and expressions of concern from the international community - specifically the E.U. and numerous donor states, including Britain, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland - as well as adverse press comments appearing virtually throughout the world on Vajpayee's appalling mishandling of the situation in Gujarat and his shielding of Narendra 'Milosevic' Modi.

One of the most scathing editorial comments appeared, characteristically, in The Financial Times, which represents the voice of the enlightened sections of international business. It says that the violence was "backed by the state". It "was not spontaneous but a pre-planned policy involving State Ministers to purge Muslims and destroy their economy". The editorial endorses the finding of independent investigations that Godhra was no more than a "pretext" for communal violence, "which was planned months before" and that "free swords were being distributed... days before the riots began". The paper earlier reported that some diplomats described the Gujarat events as "genocide", but the E.U. report stopped short of using that word. It concludes: "India's treatment of its minority population has become a matter of international concern."

Equally upsetting to the MEA are reports that a number of foreign nationals of Gujarati origin, who have been seriously affected by the violence, are planning to prosecute criminally functionaries of the Central and State governments.

The only redeeming feature, as some Indian officials see it, is the United States' extraordinarily soft and "understanding" attitude regarding Gujarat. They desperately hope that American help will somehow pull Vajpayee out of the present mess. They note that State Department spokesperson Philip Reeker on April 16 went out of his way to treat the Vajpayee government with kid gloves. He said: "This type of violence doesn't benefit anybody," and promptly added that the U.S. accepts Vajpayee's (patently disingenuous) "clarification" about his crassly communal remarks on April 12 in Goa as being taken "out of context".

In practice, the MEA has peevishly targeted not just foreign diplomats but even journalists. Take the case of Marina Forti, an experienced South Asia hand, who works for the reputed Italian newspaper Il Manifesto. Forti recently spent some weeks in India and Pakistan and filed a series of reports on the violence in Gujarat and the anti-communal protests in various parts of the country.

On April 24, she was summoned by Yogesh K. Gupta, India's Deputy Chief of Mission in Rome, and told: "[New] Delhi is very disturbed by the articles you wrote." Says Forti: "I couldn't believe what I was hearing. The embassy had my articles translated... and sent to Delhi. Mr Gupta got back a note, which I saw before him, with a list of accusations... This is the first time ever that a top diplomat of a democratic country has summoned me to say that my articles are not in the line of his government."

Gupta took strong exception to Western journalists not using the handouts sent out by Indian missions abroad, which claim that there are only "isolated incidents" of violence in Gujarat and that "calm and communal harmony has been restored..."

Specifically, what did Gupta find objectionable? One passage included a quote from the preliminary report of the National Human Rights Commission, citing Justice J.S. Verma on the prevalence of insecurity in Gujarat. Gupta apparently exploded: "How dare you say this, do you think you are the Indian Human Rights Commission?" Gupta accused Forti of having only "listened to only one side". (When she asked "what side", he said "those massacred"!)

Another "objectionable" article was an interview with Yasin Malik of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, whom the Indian and foreign media quote regularly. Gupta called it "outrageous", and to him it amounted to "siding with terrorists". Another "outrageous" remark was Forti's statement that "there won't be strategic security in the subcontinent until there is peace in this border, and there won't be peace in Kashmir without a negotiated solution involving the local population".

Gupta was also infuriated by Forti's reference to an award-winning documentary film on uranium mining in Jadugoda, which exposes unsafe practices and serious health damage among occupational workers. This film was publicly screened at the India International Centre in the capital. Gupta saw this as "unbalanced", "provocative" and "a clear attempt to attack the nuclear policy of India". He also accused Forti of having "betrayed his trust".

IT is ludicrous that Indian diplomats should be going to such irrational lengths to intimidate and censor independent journalists and assert archaic notions of sovereignty of the type embodied in the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648. That Treaty gave the then novel nation-state the "inherent" right to promote its interests in whatever manner it chooses, without limitation or restriction.

However, our diplomats should know better. The world has spent the best part of the past century in diluting, taming and "civilising" the concept of national sovereignty. Right since the Geneva Conventions (1925), a collective body of nation-states has placed constraints upon the state's exercise of sovereignty - for example, by agreeing not to use biological weapons, and by accepting codes for the conduct of war and treatment of civilians. It has evolved a rich body of international humanitarian law.

This process gained momentum with the formation of the United Nations, the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the signing of numerous conventions and covenants over the years - on civil and political rights, labour rights, the rights of the child, women's rights, migrants' rights and so on. All these abridge national sovereignty in the absolute sense. Equally important are arms control and disarmament treaties such as the Partial Test Ban Treaty or the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the latest protocol on biological weapons abolition. These too limit the extent to which nations may go in defence of their interests.

The most important of such voluntary self-limitation efforts by nations relate to human rights, which are a universal concern. This universality is at the centre of the evolution of international criminal jurisprudence after the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals. Genocide and crimes against humanity are, by their very nature, a global concern. The rationale of multilateral intervention and preventive diplomacy against such horrors has never been in doubt. A strong case can be made out even for unilateral intervention in extreme emergencies - where the very existence of an ethnic group is at risk.

The MEA, led by Jaswant Singh, is getting delusional. It reckons that India's "strategic partnership" with the U.S. will come to its rescue, just as U.S. indulgence helped Pervez Musharraf conduct the farce called "referendum". New Delhi under the Bharatiya Janata Party's dispensation is indeed beholden to Washington, thanks to the Vajpayee regime's zealous pro-globalisation economic policy, its shameful silence on and complicity in Ariel Sharon's vicious attacks on the Palestinian people, and its acquiescence in Washington's assault on international agreements on arms control, human rights and the environment. India kowtowed to a Star Wars-style missile defence even before the U.S.' closest allies did so.

India's "strategic" intimacy explains why Washington's response to the Gujarat pogrom has been so extraordinarily muted and polite. Washington is mollycoddling a government that has launched a murderous assault on India's secular-constitutional order and practised ethnic cleansing a la Slobodan Milosevic.

Should the U.S. continue to indulge the Vajpayee government - and in effect Modi - it will have proved one thing: Unbalanced alliances with that hyperpower, which has never learned to use its clout prudently or subtly, rarely promote good causes such as human rights. The Pakistani people have already paid an onerous price for Washington's cosy relations with Musharraf. (The U.S. has even refused to comment on the bogus referendum.) India too may end up doing that - at the expense of the people of Gujarat, and by hacking away at the foundations of secularism in this country.

Postscript: It now turns out that there is a big discrepancy in the MEA's account of the India-E.U. summit. The European Union denies that the May 2 statement issued by the MEA spokeperson was a "mutually agreed" draft. According to The Times of India (May 4), the MEA delegation apparently stooped to the childish level of physically refusing to accept a document - a formal demarche on Gujarat - which the E.U. delegation was trying to hand over to it. This surely must be a new low in Indian diplomacy.

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