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India learns the hard way

March 18, 2020 15:55 IST
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No nation is fully sovereign to do what it wants to do in the face of opposition from others, points out Aakar Patel.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/

How sovereign is India and to what extent can it do what it wishes to?

We are the world's largest democracy, second largest country and arms importer, with the third biggest army and fifth largest economy.

By any account this is an impressive set of numbers.

So can we do what we want to do in the face of opposition from the world?

We must consider this because for the first time in its history, India faces global pressure to change what it is doing internally.

The United Nations high commissioner for human rights wants to intervene in the Supreme Court case hearing the constitutionality of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

The United States house of representatives (their version of the Lok Sabha) has a resolution condemning Indian actions in Kashmir that has the support of 66 members from both parties.

The European Union parliament is scheduled to vote soon on a resolution condemning India for the CAA.

The United States commission on international religious freedom, which makes recommendations to the US president and congress, on March 5 took up CAA and the National Register of Citizens.

'There are fears that this law in conjunction with a planned National Population Register and a potential NRC could result in the wide-scale disenfranchisement of Indian Muslims,' USCIRF Commissioner Anurima Bhargava said.

'This would leave them vulnerable to prolonged detention, deportation, and violence. We are already seeing this process being conducted in the northeastern state of Assam... The NRC is a mechanism for identifying illegal migrants in the region.'


Individual nations have also condemned or cautioned India over recent events like the Delhi riots.

The United Kingdom's house of lords and house of commons both heard criticism of India's citizenship laws and the riots.

Indonesia, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (of which India wants to be a member), Turkey and Malaysia have all spoken against us.

Iran's political and religious leaders condemned the Delhi riots and blamed us for not protecting our minorities.

Other nations have sent signals in different ways.

The prime minister's trip to Bangladesh was cancelled this month.

The official reason was the coronavirus, but the day before the announcement there was a gathering of 5,000 people to condemn India and Modi for the CAA.

Further protests were planned on Modi's arrival.

The PM's visit to a European Union summit meet in Brussels was also cancelled.

Once again the virus was cited as the reason, but the vote against India by the EU MEPs is pending and we have been unable to head it off.

Our response has been to either get angry and summon ambassadors and tell them off (in cases like Iran), to disrupt trade with the country in question (Malaysia) to ignore the criticism (where the nation is too powerful for us to do anything, like the US) or to claim that this is our sovereign issue and that it doesn't concern the world (as we have done in the case of the UNHCHR intervention in the Supreme Court).

The ministry of external affairs is not equipped to deal with such volume of negative material and has been overwhelmed in 2020.

Many of the people leading the attacks on India are themselves of India origin, such as the author of the US congress resolution Pramila Jayapal so it is not easy for us to brush off the criticism as either being ignorant or malicious.

The question is, to go back to the start, can we do what we want to do in the face of opposition from the world? The only other times in recent memory that we have faced external pressure of significance is probably in 1991, 1998 and 2002.

In 2002, the world, and especially the US, leaned on India and Pakistan not to go to war after the Parliament attack.

No war happened through India mobilised its army on the Pakistan border.

In 1998, the US was angry that we weaponised our nuclear programme, but there was not much that could be done after the tests had already been carried out.

In 1991, the US and other agencies forced India to adopt economic liberalisation, which we duly carried out.

As can be seen, we are not immune to external pressure.

Sometimes like in 1991 we can also claim or pretend that our national interest is aligned to what the world wants so it is fine to change course.

The reality is that the pressure exists and will continue to exist because the world is an inter connected place.

Even with global trade low and declining the world is still so intertwined that what we do affects others.

On Friday, March 13, Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi proposed that India and its neighbours tackle the coronavirus problem together. The message produced a positive response from our neighbours.

It takes a disease to make us realise that the world is connected in ways that are inextricable, but it is true.

No nation in the world is fully sovereign to do what it wants to do in the face of opposition from others.

In the case of the CAA and NRC, India is learning the lesson the hard way.

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