Defending the indefensible?

The United States State department has over 50,000 employees. Of these, just under 14,000 are foreign service officers who are assisted by another 50,000 bureaucrats. The Indian Foreign Service has 850 officers. Most of these are deployed in Delhi and concentrated in a few missions abroad. Many, if not most, of these are junior (the service takes in three dozen recruits a year, and so at least 300 of them have less than 10 years of experience) and not authorised to take decisions.


Our diplomats are all bureaucrats. There are no ambassadorial positions that are given to political appointees. This means that the service is hierarchical and designed for line functions rather than initiatives. The ministry of external affairs lists the diplomats’ functions as:


“Representing India in its Embassies, High Commissions, Consulates, and Permanent Missions to multilateral organisations like the UN; protecting India’s national interests in the country of his/her posting; promoting friendly relations with the receiving state as also its people, including NRIs/ PIOs; reporting accurately on developments in the country of posting which are likely to influence the formulation of India’s policies; negotiating agreements on various issues with the authorities of the receiving state; and extending consular facilities to foreigners and Indian nationals abroad.”


This is what the diplomacy is geared to do. India is not equipped to aggressively take on the world. We don’t have the capacity to bite off more than we can chew. We aspire to things such as being added to the permanent five in the United Nations Security Council, and this means that we need to have proactive diplomatic capacities in addition to extracurricular activity like hosting “Namaste Trump” and “Howdy Modi” and all of that.


On March 2, the foreign minister of Iran Javad Zarif tweeted: “Iran condemns the wave of organised violence against Indian Muslims. For centuries, Iran has been a friend of India. We urge Indian authorities to ensure the well-being of ALL Indians & not let senseless thuggery prevail. Path forward lies in peaceful dialogue and rule of law.”


What he said was unexceptionable. How he said it is how adults speak. If we are to be honest with ourselves, we have to admit that he spoke the truth. India’s response was to throw a tantrum, summon the Irani ambassador and say that “it was conveyed that his selective and tendentious characterisation of recent events in Delhi are not acceptable. We do not expect such comments from a country such as Iran.”


On March 3, in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons, Labour, Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats and Conservative MPs, including Indian-origin MPs, queued up to criticise India over the Delhi violence and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). In the House of Lords on March 1, speeches were made over India abusing its minorities. India has not yet responded to these.


The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has been active for months on India and has released a fact sheet warning that the CAA “could lead to the widespread disenfranchisement of India’s Muslims” and that it “represents a significant downward turn in religious freedom in India.” It has also been active in monitoring the Delhi violence.

illustration: Binay Sinha
On February 27, India put out statements that “strongly rejected comments by a US commission on religious freedom, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and US presidential nominee Bernie Sanders on violence in the national capital, calling their criticism factually inaccurate, misleading, and an attempt to politicise the issue.”


Other leaders like Elizabeth Warren and the young and charismatic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have also attacked India at the same time. On March 4, the Modi government announced that it had been informed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet that the UNHCHR was going to intervene in the Supreme Court on the issue of the CAA’s unconstitutionality. The UNHCHR would “assist the court to examine the compatibility of CAA with India’s Constitution, in light of India’s obligations under international human rights laws. The interpretation of India’s international human rights obligations would include the right to equality before the law and the prohibition of discrimination among refugees and migrants,” the UN body said. It also talks about “the CAA’s impact on the protection of human rights of migrants, including refugees in India.” And UNHCHR said its intervention was “not restricted to issues raised by the petitions in the court on the CAA.”


India was caught off-guard by this, and even the ministry of external affairs journalists who usually toe the line on “national interest” were appalled that this should have happened. India’s official response was that the CAA was an internal matter. Columnist and former diplomat M K Bhadrakumar wrote that “there is a paradox here. Remember, one of the first foreign policy initiatives by PM Modi after coming to power in 2014 was to address a Circular letter to the heads of governments of all UN member countries soliciting their support for India’s claim to be represented permanently in the UN Security Council. Whereas, Modi government is now lamenting that the UN itself is intrusive.”


On March 4, Colorado Democrat Joe Neguse became the 66th Congressman to sign the United States House Resolution 745. It urges “the Republic of India to end the restrictions on communications and mass detentions in Jammu and Kashmir as swiftly as possible and preserve religious freedom for all residents.” The resolution has bipartisan support and has been snowballing in numbers. It is because of this pressure that India opened up the Internet to Kashmiris on March 4.


There is another resolution in the European Union, which has to be voted on at the end of this month. It condemns the CAA and dissects the problems with it. This week there were protests and sit-ins in 18 European cities against the violence in Delhi and the government role or inaction in it.


India has become overwhelmed by the tidal wave of antipathy globally to the path it has taken under this government. A path of naked majoritarianism that is sidestepping the Constitution and introducing law and practice that the world does not see as being correct or in line with India’s traditions and history.


There is no possibility that we will be able to resist pressure of the magnitude described above in the longer or medium term. The writing is on the wall.


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