Sorry, Mr Guterres, no one is listening
With The Nation In Perpetual Election Mode, Perhaps The Opposition, Too, Is Convinced That Reacting To Criticism Like That Of Guterres Will Not Get Them A Single Extra Vote
Last week in Mumbai, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made a scathing indictment of the Indian government’s domestic record on social inclusivity and suggested that this had eroded its international credibility. He said, “As an elected member of the Human Rights Council, India has a responsibility to shape global human rights” but 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.”
He advised India to recognise its multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic society as “a richness” that needed to be safeguarded and that “must be nurtured, strengthened and renewed every day.”
The India celebrated by the world, according to him, was Gandhi’s India, which secured and upheld “the rights and dignity of all people – especially the most vulnerable.” He urged India to take concrete measures to recognise and unequivocally condemn hate speech; protect the rights of journalists, human rights activists, students and academics; and ensure the independence of its judiciary.
Neither the government, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, nor even the Opposition has reacted to the UN Secretary General’s statement. This is rather unusual. Only three months ago, India had slammed US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken for accusing India of religious intolerance, citing “rising attacks on people and places of worship.” Blinken’s statement was criticised, somewhat strangely, as being motivated by “vote bank politics being practised in international relations”, and the US was ‘advised’ to avoid making assessments based on “motivated inputs and biased views.”
It may be that India is hypersensitive to US criticism, especially in a post-Trump era. The fragility of relations between the two has become further pronounced after the invasion of Ukraine and India’s ambiguous stand on the international boycott of Russia. On the other hand--it may be said--the opinion of the UN has much less significance for India despite its desire to get permanent membership of the UN Security Council.
Domestic critics who have urged similar action Guterres have suffered. Some have even been jailed and termed anti-national. The judiciary has done very little as well, only taking a high moral ground on hate speech and religious intolerance in obiter dicta but doing little in specific cases. Recently a senior counsel bluntly told the Supreme Court that “the court or the administration never takes any action except seeking status reports.” His remarks were made when the Supreme Court asked the government to take suo moto action against hate speech on an urgent petition seeking its intervention to stop the targeting of Muslims.
Why are hate speech and religious intolerance considered par for the course today? Perhaps the main reason is that nothing matters anymore to political parties except winning elections. All international and domestic criticism that falls outside the prism of elections has become irrelevant to India’s political parties. Those in power seem to believe that domestic electoral success trumps everything else, as it is by winning elections that they have been able to implement the ruling party’s revisionist ideological agenda. For them, accusations made by the rest of the world on violation of human rights, religious intolerance, and majoritarianism are defanged by electoral victories, which according to them, legitimise their actions as the will of the people.
The Opposition’s silence, or the dog that didn’t bark, is not hard to comprehend in this context. With the nation in perpetual election mode, perhaps they, too, are convinced that reacting to criticism like that of Guterres will not get them a single extra vote. Consider, for example, that neither the Congress nor the Aam Aadmi Party expressed outrage at Muslim youngsters being flogged by Gujarat police during Dussehra festivities, although both claim that they can provide better governance in the state than the incumbent BJP.
Ordinary people stand largely polarised. Most would probably go along with the position of Hindutva followers that the UN Secretary General’s critical comments represent western prejudice against Hindus and India and thereby accept that any criticism of the present dispensation is anti-India. The other position is that of Muslims, busy trying to protect their lives and livelihoods with a modicum of dignity but increasingly aware that their Hindu fellow citizens are indifferent to their isolation.
The other institutions of democracy that should have helped India course-correct, the media and judiciary, have not stood up well to executive authority. The mainstream media, especially television, promotes communalisation by providing a platform for shouting matches between rabidly communal elements, bringing in both larger audiences and ad revenue. Consider how the media suddenly became ultra-nationalist to defend the misery wrought on the Kashmiris after August 2019, when its entire population was locked up and their communication links cut.
The judicial pillar of India’s democratic structure also looks increasingly fragile. Can one square the highest court not taking up a crucial constitutional issue like the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir for as long as three years? It has also delayed consideration of electoral bonds, which make political donations opaque and potentially institutionalise bribing the ruling party. On the other hand, the same court showed extraordinary eagerness in holding a special hearing on a Saturday to cancel the acquittal of a paraplegic Delhi University professor accused under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act!
Once the self-correcting mechanisms of democracy fail, it does not matter who criticises hate crimes and even makes a call to arms against the minority community (some saffron-clad monsters have even threatened to rape Muslim women). The electoral machine allows India to claim its democratic credentials, election after election. That is why what matters to the ruling dispensation is that the electoral machine is kept well-oiled. Hatemongers are the “useful idiots” essential for winning elections.
Suffering, intolerance and hate will be rationalised to claim the Orwellian truth that divisiveness makes the nation strong. In such a ruthless and cynical search for political power, Antonio Guterres’ call for inclusivity as an absolute moral value is bound to fall on deaf ears all around.