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What does UNHCR intervention on CAA mean?

March 04, 2020 19:33 IST
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'It may serve the interests of the rule of law if the Supreme Court were to appoint the UNHCR as amicus curiae in the CAA case,' notes Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar.

IMAGE: Rioters mercilessly beat up a man during the Delhi riots, February 24, 2020. Photograph: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

The UN human commissioner for refugees's move to approach the Supreme Court on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act is already triggering a response in our country that can only be called a manifestation of 'Pavlovian conditioning' -- a classical conditioning which, during the 1890s, the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov first noted while researching salivation in dogs in response to being fed.

The Indian spokesman's tweet in response to the UNHCR move is that the CAA is an 'internal' matter and no foreign party has any locus standi on issues pertaining to India's sovereignty.

But this knee-jerk reaction in its narrow interpretation of Westphalian sovereignty is irrelevant when it comes to the UN as the watchdog, since the UN has been founded on the basis of universal principles and ideals.

We always have a choice to quit the UN if we find the world body to be a tormentor who doesn't respect India.

But so far we have only refused to abide by UN resolutions.

Now we are in strategic defiance of one of the UN's most prestigious flag-carriers.

There is a paradox here.

Remember, one of the first foreign policy initiatives by Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi after coming to power in 2014 was to address a letter to all UN member countries soliciting their support for India's claim to be represented permanently in the UN security council.

Whereas, the Modi government is now lamenting that the UN itself is intrusive.

The Indian establishment's stance is that the UN move on CAA is 'unsustainable'.

Indeed, many powerful countries will wholeheartedly endorse the Indian argument -- Russia and China, for instance. But that is not the whole point.

The heart of the matter is that the UNHCR's proposed appeal to the Supreme Court has a poignant backdrop -- whether the Indian establishment likes it or not.

Its plea is to be appointed as an assistant or amicus curiae in a pending case on the CAA where the Supreme Court has not been in a tearing hurry to pass judgment.

Simply put, the UNHCR has the skill and resources that may help the Supreme Court to expedite the case.

Which is, of course, a great thing, since the CAA is no doubt the most pressing issue in the national discourse today, for the public as well as for the government and political leadership.

Equally, a perception is gaining ground within India -- and, more importantly, in international opinion -- that the Modi government has put the judiciary on a tight leash as part of its project to emasculate dissent and opposition of any form.

There is no point in pretending that we do not notice such a perception growing or that it is a most unfortunate thing to happen, since we all take immense pride in India being hailed on the global stage as a country with the rule of law.

Incidents such as the sudden transfer of Delhi high court judge Justice S Muralidhar within hours of passing harsh strictures against the Delhi police's apathy in the recent communal riots is a telling example of where matters have reached.

Arguably, in the prevailing apocalyptic climate in our country, it may serve the interests of the rule of law if the Supreme Court were to appoint the UNHCR as amicus curiae in the CAA case.

This is vital since the Supreme Court verdict on the CAA is going to be a momentous event for India's political economy and its foreign policy for a foreseeable future.

IMAGE: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Michelle Bachelet in Geneva, February 27, 2020. Photograph: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Succinctly put, the UNHCR offers an insurance cover at a crucial juncture when the Supreme Court is expected to act impartially, but is also seen as doing so -- both nationally and internationally.

Since Mahatma Gandhi, India has not produced a figure of such high moral stature like Michelle Bachelet.

Therefore, we seem to have a problem in understanding her motivations.

Bachelet herself has been a victim of torture at the hands of a dictatorial regime who subsequently rose to become the elected president of her country when the brutal fascist dictators ended up in the dustbin of Chile's modern history.

Suffice to say, she knows what she is talking about and silencing her when she holds a torchlight on the grotesque face of present-day India is going to be an uphill task.

Her tenacity and the weight of the office she holds pose a severe challenge to the Modi government.

Above all, Bachelet carries immense prestige in Western capitals, whose acceptance Modi and External Affair Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar -- and the ideologues of our current regime as a whole -- so eagerly crave for behind the veneer of belligerent nationalism as strategic asset for India's future trajectory as a regional power.

Make no mistake, Bachelet's shadow will follow Modi when he sets out for Brussels later this month.

Modi's European Union interlocutors will certainly not embarrass him.

But what is of enduring significance will be the silent thoughts that cross their mind when they sit across the conference table with Modi -- what happened to the wonder that was India during the past five-year period under his watch?

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years. He has served as India's ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan and has been a contributor to for well over a decade.

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