Human rights, Jaishankar and India’s foreign policy – 01 May 2023


Last year, a 300-year-old mosque in Uttar Pradesh that stood in the way of a highway was razed

Do human rights really matter when viewed through the geopolitical prism? They do find place in formal protestations from the UN and leading western platforms but bear little – if any – consequence for the incumbent countries.

Take India’s example as a leading case study of geopolitical expedience. Atiq Ahmed, a former member of Indian Parliament convicted of kidnapping, and his brother Ashraf Ahmed, a former state legislator, were recently shot dead on live TV while in police custody in the northern city of Prayagraj, in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

A historic 16th-century mosque, Shahi Masjid, in Prayagraj city was demolished by bulldozers on January 9 under a road-widening project.

Last November, a 300-year-old mosque in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district that stood in the way of a highway was razed. The demolition took place even though a local court was supposed to hear a petition seeking a stay on the city administration’s plans on January 16, a week later.

Another mosque, one of the largest and oldest in India, Shamsi Jama Masjid, an 800-year-old national heritage site in Budaun, Uttar Pradesh, became a matter of dispute last year when a local Hindu farmer — backed by the right-wing Hindu nationalist group Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha (ABHM) — claimed it had been built on a demolished 10th-century temple of Lord Shiva.

The above examples are a near reproduction of an article by Sara Athar, a New Delhi-based independent architect and writer, published by Al-Jazeera.com (3 April, 2023).

But is somebody listening at all? Well, viewed against the phenomenal position of India in the US-led global politics, all these instances appear inconsequential. India is a member of G-20, QUAD, BRICS, SCO, OIC (Special Observer) and many other multilateral partnerships. The country now occupies the fifth slot in the world economy.

Economic rise apart, India’s foreign policy today rests on some fundamentals such as ethnic nationalism, pride in civilisation, geopolitical pragmatism, assertion of national interest even if it caused a marked departure from the too principled ideals of a permanent foreign policy. Indians “must rely on their own traditions to equip them in facing a tumultuous world. That is certainly possible in an India that is now more Bharat [the name of India in Hindu antiquity],” writes Jaishankar in his brilliant book, The India Way. (p. 67)

The book indeed embodies flashes of Diplomatic Brilliance, Political Pragmatism, and Nationalistic Pride – all of them at play in India’s foreign policy at the moment.

For Jaishankar, India’s nationalism mandates the preference for multilateralism over alliances. This is not the nationalism of yesteryear that went hand in hand with a non-alignment based on Gandhian values of non-violence, but an ethnic nationalism based on Hindu culture of which the Mahabharata is one of the flagships: “As an epic, [the Mahabharata] dwarfs its counterparts in other civilisations, not just in length but in its richness and complexity.” (pp 48-49).

Jaishankar’s postulations on India’s engagements abroad as well as with Pakistan lay bare the experience that he accumulated as a four-time ambassador – including to both China and the US – and the coveted post of foreign secretary before Narendra Modi picked him up to project and market India abroad. In the process, Jaishankar has emerged as the lynchpin in his country’s foreign policy because of his excellent articulation and clarity of thought.

According to Christophe Jaffrelot, one of the reviewers of the main lessons of The India Way, it is precisely the low esteem in which Jaishankar holds the West, “the hegemon of yesterday that Asia will be called upon to replace.”

“The mantra of unchanging foreign policy axions has discouraged an honest review of our performance … the world that awaits us, not only calls for fresh thinking … putting dogmas behind us is a starting point for that journey, postulates Jaishankar in a tellingly candid way. He deploys as much candour when talking about Pakistan; our handling of Pakistan, a society which we are supposed to know well, also raises many questions… there is no one time fix and no Indian response should be judged by the impossible yardstick.”

For Dr Jaishankar, “Pakistan predictably has been the cause of the greatest debate that India could offer a hand of friendship, but nevertheless respond strongly to acts of terror is hardly a contradiction except for those determined to see one. Clearly, different actions, players, and times call for different responses,” he asserts.

Jaishankar’s brilliant book is a must read for all those interested in the art of diplomacy and those who take pride in their national roots and are publicly committed to protecting to national interests.

Moral of the story: Ancestry and dynasty don’t evoke authority nor an entitlement to top positions. Respect comes from the strength within i.e. clarity, integrity, independence of thought and commitment. These elements in governance and foreign policy are the best defence against any form of foreign intervention and aggression – regardless of however duplicitous a country may be internally.

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