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India’s disregard for human rights and how it influences its foreign affairs

By Upasana Hembram

US Senators transcending party lines collectively expressed their concerns over shrinking space for civil society, the rise of Hindu nationalism, increased scrutiny of Hindu nationalism, unequal treatment of foreign businesses including increased scrutiny of some foreign NGOs. This rising concern about the scale of India’s human rights challenges could pose a threat to India-US bilateral relations. At the 69th UN General Assembly Session in New York, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asserted India’s commitment to multilateralism in his speech. Today, India’s multilateralism mostly comprises of pursuit of exceptions for itself in global institutions be it UN Security Council (UNSC) or the conclusion of an agreement on nuclear cooperation for civilian purposes which made it the only non-party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) with access to internationally regulated markets for nuclear technology and materials.

India’s take on fundamental rights

‘Fundamental Rights’ form a salient feature of the Constitution of India but the existence of a strong legal framework has been more often proven ineffective due to the Indian government’s failure at implementing a powerful human rights regime. With police officers and government security themselves being the worst offenders of human rights, violations of civil and political rights have penetrated in large numbers of the population. Lately, there has been a rise in levels of terrors as those who interest themselves in politics or institutions of ideas are forced to embrace murder threats, disappearances and torture as a common part of life. This legal and ideological commitment to human rights accompanied with a disheartening implementation is also reflected on the global stage. Despite being a signatory to various human rights conventions and treaties including International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR), Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Convention Against Torture (CAT) and Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), it has not signed optional protocols that allow citizens of a country to individually file complaints with international monitoring committees when their home countries fail to implement these rights. This hesitation indicates the concern of lawmakers in India that international treaties could be used against them and interfere with the power structure of domestic authority in the state.

India’s downturn on multilateralism

India’s approach to multilateralism went from being supportive after independence to being selective in the post-cold war era.  The present disconnect between New Delhi’s foreign policy and multilateralism is a result of the placement of power and status within the new global order. India is unlikely to shoulder the responsibility of upholding global order without a simultaneous boost to its rank and status within the global order while the major powers consisting of the US and its allies are unlikely to assign higher status and power to a country like India without evidence of its commitment to act responsibly in maintenance of global peace and order. The current situation presents a classic chicken and egg problem. Particularly in the area of human rights, India is reluctant to actively campaign for human rights. Despite being a liberal democracy with a philosophical commitment to human rights, India abstains from employing it as a foreign policy goal. The reasons for this norm of silence adopted by India are deeply rooted in India’s strategic culture. New Delhi yearns for strategic autonomy complemented with an eagerness to be recognized by other nation-states as a global power. After the cold war, India’s attitude towards multilateralism changed because it found greater autonomy chasing a unilateral or bilateral path. New Delhi realized that as long as economic diplomacy with select countries flourished, its economic weight in international affairs would also be enhanced. However, the cold war period was also followed by a dramatic surge in militancy in the Kashmir valley, to which Indian armed forces countered with increased oppression accompanied by a growing insurgency in the northeast and Naxalite belt. As India’s ability to act ‘responsibly’ was increasingly scrutinized by the West, India defended its autonomy by counter-questioning the ability of external human rights organisations in preserving India’s interests while making room for India’s perspective on civilian protection and national security.

India has found its comfort zone in the space between the West and the East in UNSC, where no articulation of a clear stance on human rights and state sovereignty is called for. India already has an unsullied record of supporting some of the most totalitarian and thuggish regimes in the world even the decisions are strategically sound.  Meanwhile, India’s political leadership is extremely sensitive to any criticism of its domestic political reality. PM Modi’s nationalist domestic policies can undermine the forging of stronger ties with the West and hinder India’s strategic interests. Since certain norms, principles and rules for the sake of human rights vary across the approaches preferred by emerging powers, it is likely that the international order for the protection of human rights will undergo structural changes owing to shift in the global power.

Featured image source: Wikimedia Commons

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