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The current protests against citizenship issues are serious and the Government has to find a way to reassure the minorities that citizenship will not be made contingent upon belonging to a particular religion. The perception that the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is the first step towards turning India into a “Hindu Rashtra” has given the opposition a stick to beat the Government. The logical thing for the opposition to do was to wait for the Supreme Court to determine its constitutional validity rather than launch violent agitation.


A new argument put forward by the opponents of the Government is that protests will hurt India’s relationships around the world and its foreign policy will fail and it will be isolated. This is more wishful thinking than reality. Dictatorships and repressive regimes, which have political and economic clout are sought after by other countries, regardless of their internal policies. The international order envisaged in the UN Charter is based on sovereignty and interfering in the internal affairs of nations is specifically prohibited. No regime, however repressive, is isolated for that reason. Foreign policy interests are never sacrificed at the altar of human rights.


Human rights issues have been used to discredit and isolate Governments during the Cold War selectively, but not even apartheid South Africa was isolated fully. The Non-aligned Movement was composed of several tin pot dictators who oppressed their people. India took pride in being close to them on the plea that internal policies had nothing to do with Non-aligned solidarity and fight against imperialism and colonialism. The only time India opposed a country from rejoining the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) on grounds of repression of its people was when the Burmese military regime imprisoned Aung San Su Kyi who had won the elections. At a meeting of NAM Jakarta, we blocked Burma’s re-entry. But we quickly changed our stand and recognized the regime and began dealing with it to protect our national interests.


Even after the Cold War, countries were singled out for criticism on political grounds and while countries like Cuba were dragged over the coal on grounds of human rights violations, China escaped action by resorting to gimmicks like ‘No Action Motions’ in the human rights bodies. We generally did not join in condemning individual countries for alleged violations of Human Rights and at one stage declared that India will not support any resolutions against individual countries if they were not consensus resolutions.


The US got agitated once about Libya becoming the Chair of the Human Rights Commission and started a move to prescribe criteria for membership of Human Rights bodies and went on to suggest that countries guilty of human rights violations should be expelled from such bodies. But the outcome of the long negotiations to change the Commission into a Council was so unsatisfactory to the US itself that it had to vote against its own resolution and boycott the Council for some time.


The concept of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) is of recent origin, promoted by France to encourage democracy against dictators and others, but protests have raged in France for months against its Government without losing friends abroad. Nobody has abandoned Chinese partnership on account of protests in Hong Kong and protests in Iran have not turned anyone away from Iran. We have been silent when such protests take place and continue our diplomatic engagement with these countries. If the criteria of internal peace or forms of Government are applied for international peace, even Russia and China will not be able to have any strategic partnership with democratic countries. During the golden era of Indo-Soviet relations, we proclaimed that it was an ideal relationship between countries with different political systems, which were chosen by the people of those countries. We did not endorse any opposition to any Government on any ground.


On the other hand, strategic partnerships and cordial relations do not preclude criticism of internal developments. Watching the state of the minorities around the world and reporting on them are specific duties of the US, Canada and others and they do so even when they have best of relations with countries like India, in which religious tolerance is a matter of faith. They collect the statistics of crimes against minorities and demand answers to allegations. In certain cases, resolutions are moved in the US Congress to reduce aid to countries. The annual Burton Amendment in the Congress was a Damocles’ sword hanging over India during the Khalistan Movement. India invested heavily in lobbying in the Congress to defeat the Burton Amendment.


US Presidential visits like those of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, which transformed the architecture of India-US relations ended with a bad taste in the mouth as they insisted on commenting on lack of religious harmony in India even when racism was rampant in the US itself. We took such criticism in our stride and built the bilateral relationship on mutuality of interests. When a Fijian military Government disenfranchised the citizens of Indian origin, nobody joined in when we imposed sanctions against Fiji even though they had no strategic interests in Fiji.


Barack Obama made an effort to build a “Community of Democracies” to export democracy abroad. However, even a definition of democracy became difficult and “non-conventional” democracies clamored for entry. One does not even hear of the “Community of Democracies” anymore, because nations wanted to be left alone with the systems that suited their genius.


Independent nations should take their decisions on merit even if game changing decisions lead to internal protests. It goes without saying that actions by the Governments should be proportional to the intensity of the agitation and solutions must be found sooner than later. The Constitution should be the only guide and the Supreme Court should be the arbiter as to whether any particular action is constitutional or not. Protests in any country cannot affect its foreign policy as friends are chosen for the contribution they make for the common good or for bilateral benefits. Equally, the absence of protests in a diverse country will not guarantee a trouble-free relationship. The old dictum that the success of foreign policy depends on the capacity of the country to help or harm others and not on the absence of internal protests is still valid.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.