An image in tatters

Published : May 01, 2002 00:00 IST

Faced with perhaps the most serious form of censure that the international community could reserve for a sovereign state, the Indian foreign policy establishment reacts with little prudence.

SINCE mid-April, no official briefing of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has been complete without a few barbs being flung at the European Union and the United Kingdom. Interspersed with the Prime Minister's admonitions of unnamed countries that have purported to teach India the virtues of religious tolerance, the MEA spokesperson has kept up a persistent chorus line, deprecating the alleged interference in India's internal affairs.

The climax came in the first week of May, when the MEA spokesperson momentarily dismounted the high horse of outraged nationalist virtue. In a seeming mood for conciliation, she claimed that all unfortunate "misunderstandings" with the E.U. and the U.K. had been sorted out. When contacted for their own version, E.U. sources admitted to a sense of mystification at the elaborate spin that had been placed on the demarche served, consistent with accepted diplomatic practice, on the Indian government.

With a group of British nationals being among the first victims of the mob frenzy in Gujarat, the High Commission of the U.K. in India had a legitimate interest in ascertaining the facts on the ground. The results of the inquiry, though normally reserved for internal consultations, were on this occasion leaked to the Indian media. Its upshot was clear. Like most reasonable observers who had been to the State since the violence began, the U.K. team concluded that the carnage was premeditated. It observed that Godhra was without doubt the spark that had lit the fire, but in the absence of that atrocity, another pretext could have been found for unleashing the forces of ethnic cleansing on the hapless Muslim population in the State. And underlining the common sense findings of most Indian observer groups, the U.K. team concluded that the Gujarat State government, with Chief Minister Narendra Modi being the prime offender, had played a most unsavoury role in the troubles. As long as Modi remained at the helm, it concluded, there would be little prospect of repairing the embittered state of inter-community relations in the State.

Even as the Indian government was rousing itself to the appropriate pitch of moral outrage at the leak of these findings by the U.K., the E.U. came up with its own findings. Again, in a subtle hint of the damage that the events in Gujarat were doing to India's international image, the findings were leaked to the media. And the indictment here was explicit. "The carnage in Gujarat was a kind of apartheid and had parallels with the Germany of the 1930s," said the report of the E.U. fact-finding team. The violence, it observed, had been planned in advance and was led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other extremist groups aligned with the ruling party. The State administration, in turn, had been quiescent or worse, with Chief Minister Modi instructing officials not to intervene and his Cabinet colleagues actually taking part in the violence, according to the report. Raising the image of "ethnic cleansing", which after the Balkans break up is accorded under international law the status of one of the most serious crimes against humanity, the E.U. team concluded that the aim of the violence was clearly to purge Muslims from certain Hindu areas.

Faced with perhaps the most serious censure that the international community could reserve for a sovereign state, the Indian foreign policy establishment reacted with little prudence or strategic commonsense. It decried the effort by certain foreign powers to "inject" themselves into the domestic situation and later rebuked them for ostensibly "playing to the gallery". It disclaimed any intention to curb the freedom of diplomats to make independent assessments of facts in crisis situations, but nevertheless objected to these findings being leaked.

What was lacking in this assertion of moral outrage was any recognition that the subtleties of diplomatic procedure adopted by both the E.U. and the U.K. were occasioned by the recalcitrance of the Indian foreign policy establishment. Served an early warning of the concern of the international community through the diplomatic mission in Spain, which currently holds the E.U. presidency, the Indian government sought to brush off and trivialise the issue. When confronted with the fait accompli of the media leaks, it took a combative posture on the battlements of national sovereignty. And when finally served with a demarche by the E.U., it sought to downplay the entire episode as the consequence of an unfortunate misunderstanding that had been rapidly cleared up.

Privately, many of the MEA officials who have been fielded in the vanguard of the damage control exercise confess to a serious crisis of conscience. At no stage in the recent past has Indian diplomacy proven itself quite so inept and insensitive. And the consequences have been apparent even in the immediate neighbourhood, where India held an enormous moral advantage till recently. Fighting a desperate battle to claim democratic legitimacy for the referendum he had scheduled for April 30 (article on Page 49), Pakistan's military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, could fob off all adverse comparison with India without serious challenge. Speaking to the media in the midst of his campaign for a five-year term as President, Musharraf brushed aside Indian democracy as "more or less a bluff". And the specific basis he cited in support of his assertion was the violence against minorities that had become endemic in the Indian political system.

India has never had time to spare for the intrusive morality of the Western powers, which seek to impose criteria of political conduct that they have only recently awoken to. But for some reason, the effort by the Prime Minister and the MEA today to brush off the adverse observations on Gujarat have failed to carry credibility. The Congress(I) has broadly endorsed the government stand, but other parties - notably those on the Left - have condemned the hypocrisy inherent in this appeal to national sovereignty in defence of the worst atrocities seen in years.

Part of the reason for the credibility gap is the stewardship of the MEA by Jaswant Singh who has to all appearances tailored his policy stance in accordance with the volume of applause he wins from the Western powers. A Minister who travels to Israel to announce that India's consistent and principled support for the Palestinian cause was an unfortunate consequence of Muslim vote-bank politics and maintains an eloquent silence as the infrastructure of an incipient Palestinian state is reduced to rubble, perhaps carries a few unfortunate cultural biases. Unfortunately, this renders him a less than credible figure when he insists in other circumstances that India is committed to a civic vision of nationalism which would render impossible any form of compromise with the narrow denominational variant that prevails in Pakistan.

The international community has today begun to read the Kashmir problem in the context of the ingrained anti-minority bias that Gujarat reveals. And that cannot be very good news for India, when it faces the imminent prospect of elections in both the States of Jammu and Kashmir and Gujarat in the near future.

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