Essay

Akhand Bharat: The RSS' imperial pretensions

Print edition : April 23, 2021

Mohan Bhagwat, RSS sarsanghchalak, at a book launch in Hyderabad on February 25. He said “Akhand Bharat” was possible and that countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan were “ours”. Photo: PTI

Bob Menendez, Democrat Senator and chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has expressed concerns about India’s “deteriorating situation of democracy”. Photo: GREG NASH/Bloomberg

Jimmy Carter, former U.S. President, in a 2019 photograph. Soon after becoming President, he said that “no member of the United Nations can claim that mistreatment of its citizens is solely its own business”. Photo: USA TODAY Sports

India expects its smaller neighbours to call it uncle and the Great Powers to call it brother.

Very shortly after Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, he cancelled a meeting of Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan for no other reason than that Pakistan’s High Commissioner Abdul Basit had, as over the years in the past, invited Kashmir’s Hurriyat leaders to the High Commission office in New Delhi.

Shortly thereafter, a swarm of locusts descended on New Delhi in the form of Pakistan’s dissidents. They enjoyed lavish hospitality and repeated exposure on television, including on channels one respected. One, who stayed the longest and was the loudest of the swarm, was a Pakistani who had settled down in Canada and made good use of his dissident cover. Obviously, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) had close contacts with the swarm of Baluchi, Sindhi, and other dissidents long before. They were well-fed. India needed them. Interestingly, not only the notoriously servile TV channels but also the ones one respected extended their facilities to these turncoats. The Pakistani Canadian extended his stay. Never mind. R&AW is well-funded.

Double standards are the signature of a Great Power. It always says “do as we tell you, not as we do”. India expects its smaller neighbours to call it uncle and the Great Powers to call it brother. It is not amusing that Narendra Modi’s guru, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat, said in Hyderabad on February 25 that “Akhand Bharat” is possible with Hindu dharma. “We consider countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan as ours. Once they are with us it does not matter what they practise or what they eat” (The Times of India, February 26, 2021). Around this time, he also declared in Hyderabad: “It is Bharat which can guide the world on the right path” (Organiser, March 14, 2021). Vishwaguru, always.

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The National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC) has improved somewhat. But its origin was sordid. India sent to the Human Rights Commission (Council now) in Geneva in the early 1990s a typical Establishment M.P., Vithal N. Gadgil of the Emergency fame. He asked Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to scale down her secular rhetoric. “We are losing votes.” Returning to New Delhi, he persuaded Home Minister Shankarrao Chavan to set up a National Human Rights Commission so that its report could be flung in the face of critics in Geneva. A former Chief Justice of India, Ranganath Misra, was appointed its first Chairman. His report on the Delhi riots of 1984 was despicable.

A report by Anisha Dutta in Hindustan Times on March 17 said that A. Surya Prakash, a former Chairman of Prasar Bharati and former journalist with Indian Express, had written a letter, dated November 20, 2020, to the Prime Minister’s Office urging that “India should counter reports such as the report of the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute and the Press Freedom Index by defining its own parameters on democracy.” The report said that “two officials aware of the development confirmed” this. Prakash’s letter, written some four months before reports by V-Dem Institute and Freedom House downgraded India’s democracy rankings, must be published in full.

But all hell broke loose when the House of Commons in the United Kingdom debated the decline in respect for human rights in India and adopted a resolution. On March 20, the Supreme Court of India ruled that a State legislature can pass a resolution disapproving of the Central legislature. It is well settled in law in India as well as in the United Kingdom that a resolution of one part of the legislature has no force of law and does not bind another. During British rule a Congress legislator, R.K. Sidhwa, moved a resolution in the Sindh Assembly. In 1956, the Bombay Municipal Corporation passed a resolution denouncing Soviet invasion of Hungary. A single judge of the Bombay High Court held it void. He was reversed on appeal. A point deserves note. The British MP is not a stooge of the party bosses. He is awarded the party ticket on a free vote by members of his constituency. That is real democracy. The MP is not bonded labour. He can defy his party bosses and vote against the party whip in the House of Commons.

In 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru, as member of the Governor-General’s Executive Council in charge of External Affairs wrote a letter to Justice M.C. Chagla of the Bombay High Court while nominating him as a delegate to the General Assembly of the United Nations. The father of the Bombay Bar, Sir Chimanlal Setalvad, strongly and rightly censured this gross impropriety. Chagla welcomed it, as he did later favours. The letter was quoted in the Constituent Assembly. Nehru said he wanted the Indian delegation, headed by his sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, to make a “splash”. It did. It vigorously fought for the adoption of a motion on Indians in South Africa and succeeded. Technically that was an internal or domestic affair. But by the end of the Second World War international public opinion was fast nearing towards international protection of human rights. The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

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The General Assembly proceeded to draft a binding treaty with some teeth in it on December 10, 1966. The General Assembly also adopted the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Their enforcement depended on their ratification by the States. Indira Gandhi would hear none of it, of course. On March 27, 1979, the Janata Party Government of Morarji Desai ratified it. That government fell in July 1979. It is doubtful if any of its successors would have taken this fateful step. It was subject to reservations on “self-determination” (read: don’t take Kashmir away from us); there is no enforceable right to compensation for unlawful arrest (a Law Ministry babu’s idea which the Supreme Court nullified) and a few others (for the text of India’s Instruments of Ratification see Public Law in India edited by A. G. Noorani, pages 53-54).

Here comes the snag. The Covenant sets up a Human Rights Committee (Article 48) elected by the States Parties to the Conventions to serve in their personal capacity. They submit reports to this Committee and their representative appears before it periodically to explain and justify the report. There is scarcely a provision in the Covenant which does not have a corresponding provision in the Indian Constitution. India has been consistently tardy in submitting its report. Its Attorneys-General range from G. Ramaswamy, the very worst, until then, rising upwards irregularly. The Committee members are erudite and are briefed by international organisations such as Amnesty International. One Attorney-General routinely cites provisions of the Constitution and is reminded by the members of the committee with increasing sharpness that it is not the Constitution but its practice they are concerned with. A country which meddles with the framing of Nepal’s Constitution and that of Sri Lanka (Article 13) and protests to Malaysia and Fiji on human rights should understand that.

The point is that the entire body of human rights is now codified in the Covenant and India has been and still is answerable to an international body for its observance of human rights.

In international law any matter that is the subject of a treaty ceases to be a domestic matter. Under the Vienna Convention on the Treaties Conventions are treaties. Krishna Menon said that the two resolutions of the U.N. Commission for India and Pakistan are “international treaties”. India’s claim that Kashmir is a domestic matter is false, as the Shimla Accord of July 3, 1972, says.

For the rest, it is puerile to find fault with international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) when India has to appear before the U.N. Human Rights Commission periodically in sackcloth and ashes. Why strain at the gnat when you have swallowed a huge camel?

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We have now returned to the Emergency rhetoric. When the International League of Human Rights accused the Government of India, in a letter to the U.N. Secretary-General, of violation of human rights, India’s Permanent Mission at the U.N. was instructed to retort, on June 7, 1976, that “the protection of fundamental human rights is the concern of each sovereign state and is a mater which is essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of member-states of the United Nations”. It advanced arguments commonly urged by South Africa, the Soviet Union, Chile and such.

The reply bitterly complained that “this sort of gratuitous interference in India’s internal affairs is certainly not calculated to serve the best interests of the people of India, but rather to encourage the subversive elements to try once again to destroy the framework of constitutional democracy that the Government of India has been sustaining in a country with a formidable diversity of problems of scaring magnitude”.

But the world moved on. Soon after he became President, Jimmy Carter declared in a speech, at the United Nations on March 17, 1977: “No member of the United Nations can claim that mistreatment of its citizens is solely its own business. Equally, no member can avoid its responsibilities to review and to speak when torture or unwarranted deprivation of freedom occurs in any part of the world.”

Bob Menendez is not a nobody. He is Chair of the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee. President Joe Biden needs the senator. So does Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His letter of March 17, 2021, to the Defence Secretary preceding his visit to India raised hackles but did not provoke thinking. Among the concerns that Menendez cited were crackdowns on journalists and critics of the government, the handling of the farmers’ protests and the use of sedition laws, and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA).

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“The Indian government’s ongoing crackdown on farmers peacefully protesting new farming laws and corresponding intimidation of journalists and government critics only underscores the deteriorating situation of democracy,” Menendez wrote.

“Moreover, in recent years, rising anti-Muslim sentiment and related government actions like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the suppression of political dialogue and arrest of political opponents following the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, and the use of sedition laws to persecute political opponents have resulted in the U.S. human rights group Freedom House stripping India of its ‘Free’ status in its yearly global survey.”

This is what the world thinks of India today.

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