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Why Antonio Guterres Questions Democracy in India, But Keeps Silence on Uighur Persecution in China
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Kanwal Sibal | Date:25 Oct , 2022 1 Comment
Kanwal Sibal
is the former Indian Foreign Secretary. He was India’s Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia.

In his address at the IIT Mumbai on October 19, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres chose to slam India on democracy and human rights issues. He gave little consideration to the fact that he was invited to launch Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s LIFE (Life for Environment) initiative in the context of battling climate change issues with altered life-styles and consumption worldwide. Courtesy demanded that he avoided any criticism of the host country, especially on politically sensitive issues with both international and domestic dimensions. The invitation to him was to show him respect. In return, Guterres was expected to show respect to the country that invited him.

He had clearly made up his mind that he would use his India visit to echo the criticism in Western circles about the weakening of democracy and increasing curbs on freedoms and persecution of minorities in India, etc. His office has frequently through his spokesperson expressed concern about amendment of citizenship laws, minority issues, farmers’ agitation and the like. This is uncalled for interference in our internal affairs, prohibited by the UN Charter itself.

A narrative has been built up internationally of a backsliding of India’s democracy, majoritarianism, press curbs, minorities threatened by Hindu right wing nationalist forces, capture of institutions by the government in power, loss of judicial independence, etc. Western NGOs like Freedom House (backed by the State Department) and Sweden-based V-Dem have downgraded India to a “partly free” or an “electoral democracy”. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has attacked India repeatedly on curbing religious freedoms in the country. NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have targeted India for decades.

This year, in June, while releasing the State Department’s annual report on international religious freedom, US Secretary of State Blinken for the first time ever at that level orally mentioned “rising attacks on people and places of worship” in India. The US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain added gratuitously that in India “some officials are ignoring or even supporting attacks on people and places of worship”.

Earlier in April, on the occasion of the 2+2 Dialogue, Blinken in a joint press briefing with US Defence Secretary, India’s Defence and External Affairs Ministers present, chided India on human rights, stating that the US “is monitoring some recent concerning developments in India including a rise in human rights abuses by some government, police and prison officials”. This was taking political liberties with us. Two days later Jaishankar retorted that India too had concerns about the human rights situation in the US.

Guterres with a “human rights” background, having been the UN High Commissioner of Refugees for 10 years, carries that baggage to his position as the UN Secretary General. He is not seen as being active enough on issues of peace and security as he should be. Many reproach him for that, arguing that he can be more bold on issues of conflict resolution. On the Ukraine issue, he has chosen to confine himself to the issue of humanitarian aid to the country and the flow of grains from Ukrainian ports to forestall acute food shortages in developing countries, especially in Africa. He has not pressed for dialogue and diplomacy to resolve the Ukraine crisis as that would put him at odds with his mentors in the US and Europe. Many believe that having obtained his second term he can afford to be more proactive in pursuing peace efforts in Europe, as the situation is deteriorating and the potential of a nuclear confrontation cannot be ruled out if escalation continues.

The US mainstream press, which Guterres no doubt reads sitting in New York, is deeply biased against India, berating it on democracy and minority issues and the rise of Hindu nationalism. The US academic world is deeply engaged in such propaganda against India. There are accusations that the Foundations of some philanthropic US billionaires finance this campaign.

Guterres has chosen during his visit to belabour India on human rights and related issues in line with the campaign unleashed against us in America and parts of Europe. He has done this knowing that what he says will give his imprimatur to the narrative of the decline of democracy and minority rights in India. The UN system, human rights and democracy promotion organisations, academics, the media, countries hostile to India like Pakistan will take a cue from this to censure India further.

In his IIT address, Guterres says that “as an elected member of the Human Rights Council, India has a responsibility to shape global human rights, and to protect and promote the rights of all individuals, including members of minority communities”. This implies that India is not shouldering this responsibility. The irony in this is that Guterres has been conspicuously silent on the Uighur minority issues in China. He has not directly said anything himself on the subject, leaving it to his spokesperson to reflect his views — mildly worded — on the report of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights on her visit to Xinjiang.

He further says that “India’s voice on the global stage can only gain in authority and credibility from a strong commitment to inclusivity and respect for human rights at home”. This implies that the present government is not sufficiently committed to inclusivity and respect for human rights at home, and that this makes India’s voice on the global stage lose credibility — a strong indictment indeed.

He then questions India’s commitment to diversity, suggesting that there is no guarantee that this will endure and therefore this birthright of every Indian has to be fought for. Belonging to a civilisation that has historically accepted diversity and even now seeks to spread its values as “universal”, this is ironic. There is an innuendo that the values of Gandhi are not being practiced, that enough concrete action for inclusion is not being taken and “the enormous value and contributions of multicultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic societies” is not being recognised. All the inclusive programmes of the government have been ignored.

He implicitly chides the government for not condemning hate speech unequivocally, which is a propaganda line that “secular” forces in India and their supporters abroad are promoting. The Supreme Court of India has now expressed its anguish at hate speech not being curbed in the country. It has directed police chiefs in three Indian states to file criminal charges suo moto against those guilty of hate speech under pain of contempt of court if not done. It is interesting how Guterres remarks seem to have been prompted by certain lobbies which are selective in the targeting of communities for hate speech.

Naturally, Guterres would not have completed his laundry list of democracy and human rights failings of the present government if he had not spoken about “protecting the rights and freedoms of journalists, human rights activists, students and academics” and “ensuring the continued independence of India’s judiciary”.

He ends by urging Indians (which ones?) to be vigilant and to increase their investments in an inclusive, pluralistic, diverse community and society. What does being vigilant mean? Street protests?

Here is an international civil servant lecturing a sovereign government on its own soil. We should have reacted to this affront appropriately, which we haven’t done.


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