Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mentioning the suppression of human rights in Balochistan in his independence-Day speech continues to evoke mixed reactions, the latest being the interesting spectacle of the expatriate Baloch freedom fighters celebrating his speech on the streets of Germany on Saturday while the Islamabad-guided Balochistan Assembly has adopted a unanimous resolution condemning him.
Is highlighting the violation of human rights, which include political rights in a foreign country by India a "new' development, something that has to do with the unique Modi-factor? The answer is no, if one goes by the history of Independent India's foreign policy. I will like to highlight this theme in this analysis.
In what is considered “a significant shift in policy on Pakistan”, Modi in his speech had made a reference to the Baloch freedom struggle, just few days after he vowed before an all-party delegation on the Kashmir issue that he would take up take up atrocities by the Pakistani government in of Balochistan, as also in Gilgit and Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir.
“Today from the ramparts of Red Fort, I want to greet and express my thanks to some people. In the last few days, people of Balochistan, Gilgit, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir have thanked me, have expressed gratitude, and expressed good wishes for me. The people who are living far away, whom I have never seen, never met — such people have expressed appreciation for Prime Minister of India, for 125 crore countrymen,” Modi had said.
It may be noted that under the previous UPA government led by Manmohan Singh, the ministry of external affairs (MEA) had referred to Pakistani government bombing its people in Balochistan (in December 2005), and had criticised the killing of Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Shahbaz Khan Bugti in an airstrike (in 2006). But in the present instance, the fact that none other than the Prime Minister of India has spoken about Balochistan, the troubled unit of another sovereign country is an important development. But then, its importance cannot be overstretched.
Thanks to the immense influence of the Gandhian and Nehruvian thoughts during India's Independence, human rights constituted an integral part of Indian foreign policy. And this continued to be the case until the end of the Cold War, following the disintegration of the then Soviet Union. India was a leading advocate in the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. As historian Arnold Toynbee observed: "Nehru was a pioneer in taking nothing less than the world itself as the field for his public activity."
In fact, it was Nehru’s concept of “One World” and his sense of internationalism that led to Indian foreign policy developing some of some of the country’s core principles — non-alignment, decolonisaion, anti-racism and Third World solidarity. As an internationalist, Nehru saw human rights as a global value that required international scrutiny and intervention. He argued that “national sovereignty” should not be allowed to block the international defence of human rights.
Of course, as with every leader, there were streaks of contradictions in Nehru’s approach, evident in his silence on the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. But overall, we can say that in the first decades after independence, India was quite vocal in advocating the cause of human rights. It was reflected in its “assertive diplomacy” in opposing European colonialism, apartheid, and Israeli actions against Palestinians. And most significantly, on two occasions, it intervened militarily outside its borders, invoking human rights. On the first occasion, it participated in the struggle for liberation of Bangladesh against Pakistan in 1971. On the second occasion, it aligned with the then government in Sri Lanka in 1987 in fighting against the Tamil terrorists. And needless to say, on both these occasions, India had Congress Prime Ministers (Indira Gandhi in 1971 and Rajiv Gandhi in 1987).
However, things underwent a change as far as India’s approach towards human rights was concerned with the end of the Cold War and onset of the current process of globalisation. Significantly, this coincided with the aggravation of internal unrest or disturbances in Punjab, Kashmir, Northeast, coupled with Maoist violence and communal incidents. Instead of keeping up with its assertive diplomacy on human rights and pointing fingers at others, India now became a target of others; it had to be now “defensive” on matters of human rights. In fact, for India human rights meant now securing a population of more than one billion and working towards its empowerment and development.
As the then junior foreign minister Salman Khurshid told the Human Rights Commission in 1996, “Today, we are concerned that the spirit of consensus and cooperation that had marked the adoption of the Vienna Declaration [of the World Conference on Human Rights of the UN General Assembly in 1993] is being steadily eroded through the politicisation of the human rights agenda (and) the selective targeting of certain countries. Attempts to make human rights issues a matter of North—South or bilateral confrontation are an anti-thesis to what we had agreed a few short years ago. The politics of power in order to establish dominance and legally suspect theories of the right of intervention on humanitarian grounds unfortunately appear to have become popular with some countries.”
In other words, central to India's defensive human rights diplomacy now was opposition to the unfair and intrusive use of the international human rights regime by Pakistan, some Western countries, and non-governmental organisations (NGO). At the same time, careful attempts were made to exercise restraint in pointing out the Western double standards on human rights, evident through invasions of Iraq, Libya, former Yugoslavia, Haiti, and Rwanda, to cite few examples. One of the important reasons here was that India economy was opening up for which Western investments were crucially important. India simply could not afford to annoy the West.
Interestingly, this factor of economic development and Western assistance brought India and China together in 1990s. Both remained silent on the violation of human rights in each other. India did not join the rest of the world in condemning the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square incident in Beijing June 1989, and China came to India's aid at a crucial vote on a Pakistani resolution about Kashmir in 1994 at the UN Human Rights Commission. In fact, both India and China pursued a “realistic policy” on the matter of human rights – defend the charges against you but do not necessarily charge your critics, particularly if they are the developed countries whose contributions are required for your economic development. This was particularly the case with regard to the United States, even if the US Congress and Administration continued attacking India’s record, be it in child labour, religious intolerance and insurgencies in Punjab and Kashmir.
The rationale has been that once your economy becomes strong, countries like the United States will start respecting you, deal with you in multifarious ways and use human rights only as rhetoric. To a great extent, this rationale has worked, both for China and now India.
In other words, India’s foreign policy with regard to human rights has been conditioned by its perceived national interests in general and development, in particular, on the one hand and international discourse and action on human rights on the other. During initial decades after independence international discourse and actions mattered more, but now, in the post Cold War phase, it is national interests and development that weigh far more. Therefore, Indian policy will continue to be “defensive” on human rights, even under Modi.
Viewed thus, Modi’s remarks on Balochistan may not be more than oratory. Under the plea of human rights, Modi is unlikely to practice assertive diplomacy in favour of the Balochi freedom fighters, at least until and unless Pakistan crosses all the limits of its intervention in Kashmir and thus challenges vital Indian national interests