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The Nobel dispute reflects India’s tussle between idealism and realpolitik

Norwegian Birch
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Norwegian Birch
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For a growing power such as India, it’s not always easy to strike a balance between adopting a moral, idealistic position and pursuing a pragmatic policy to further its interest. The first wins you universal praise, the second translates into security or monetary dividends. What should India choose? This dilemma confronted New Delhi this week as Beijing issued a demarche asking the UPA government to boycott the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony at the Norwegian capital, Oslo, where a Chinese national, Liu Xiaobo, was to be bestowed the prestigious award.

For a nation, to have its citizens win the Nobel peace prize is usually a moment of celebration. But not for China, which calls Liu a “criminal” who has been sentenced to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power”. Others, particularly the West, though, think of Liu as a champion of human rights and democracy and an advocate of non-violent protests—precisely the reasons why he has been awarded the Nobel.

A growing and assertive China views the prize for Liu as an act challenging its authority and sovereignty. To protest it, China has already snapped trade ties with Norway, and wants other countries to endorse its tough line against Liu. It consequently summoned a large number of foreign diplomats posted in Beijing, including Indian ambassador S. Jaishankar, and requested them to stay away from the ceremony in Oslo. Implicit in China’s request was the threat—there could be consequences for those countries not willing to accede to its appeal. A senior Indian diplomat told Outlook, “China had unnecessarily raised the bar on the Nobel Prize issue.”

India was in a terrible bind. To begin with, it had to figure out whether the decision to attend the Oslo ceremony could jeopardise Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India beginning December 15. Second, many in India see China as essentially a rival and competitor. Conceding Beijing’s request could have incurred the wrath of this section of conscientious objectors, as also undermine India’s democratic credentials worldwide.

India decided to attend the ceremony due to the belief that China has shown scant regard for New Delhi’s sensitivities.

What prompted India to swing in favour of attending the Oslo ceremony was the belief in the Indian establishment that an assertive China has shown scant regard to issues New Delhi considers sensitive. For instance, Beijing has been reluctant to condemn Pak-sponsored terrorism directed against India. Furthermore, the Chinese have adopted a stance on Kashmir that is more in consonance with Pakistan’s. Nor is India, like many others in the region, happy about China’s assertiveness—it sided with those countries at the asean Regional Forum which outright rejected Beijing’s exclusive claims to the South China Sea. And so before Manmohan Singh flew to Brussels to attend the India-EU summit, India made it known that its ambassador in Norway, Bambit Roy, would attend the Nobel ceremony.


Suu Kyi after her release

However, South Block officials maintain that the forthcoming visit of the Chinese premier could be an ideal opportunity for both countries to not only sort out some of the outstanding issues but also provide the chance to step up close cooperation that could help in strengthening bilateral ties. But it is not clear how Beijing might react to India’s rejection of its request. At the time of writing this report, the Chinese reaction to the Nobel peace prize ceremony hadn’t yet come.

India’s gradual rise, lament activists, also coincided with it relinquishing its old, idealistic convictions.

The Indian decision has pleased most sections in the country, including the human rights activists who have often criticised New Delhi for junking its idealistic position in favour of pursuing a ‘pragmatic policy’. Many of them recall that India pioneered the anti-apartheid stand that ultimately led to the abolition of the policy. In global economic negotiations, it consistently championed the cause of the underprivileged and downtrodden of the world. But India’s gradual rise and economic growth, lament activists, also coincided with it eschewing the high moral ground that it used to occupy with such pride and panache. For instance, India’s support for Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi wasn’t really robust, and successive governments chose to engage the military leaders.

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director of Human Rights Watch, says: “If there has been a moral position in the past, then it is a tragedy that India is falling in the same groove as many other countries by compromising its ideological position to pursue a pragmatic policy.” Maya Daruwala of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative agrees, “Foreign policy often trumps over human rights to the detriment of human rights. I would like to see India as the vanguard of all progressive policies, on the side of the angels, wherever they are.”

Daruwala says India is advantageously placed to pursue progressive policies now that it enjoys both political and economic clout, which should insulate it from acquiescing to the expediency of big powers. She adds, “Even on the pragmatic front, I would like to see India take an unequivocal pro-human rights stand rather than a non-committal, defensive position.”

There are others who say India’s stand on foreign policy of late reflects the policies that it has been pursuing at home. Tapan Bose, secretary-general of South Asia Forum for Human Rights, says that India has been siding with other neighbouring countries like China, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to block international resolutions seeking probes into war crimes or human rights violation. This New Delhi does, Bose contends, as it doesn’t want to create a precedent for others to demand a similar inquiry into India’s alleged human rights violations. “It is a smokescreen to cover up our misdeeds. We don’t want any such probe of human rights violations either in Kashmir or during campaigns like Operation Green Hunt,” Bose told Outlook. “Our stand on such issues in our foreign policy is in conformity with our national policies.”

However, officials of the ministry of external affairs point out that most countries always take care of their own national interests, even raising the human rights issue to promote those interests further. The Nobel dilemma is unlikely to be a one-off affair. With its growing stature, India will increasingly find itself in predicaments where it has to make tough choices, particularly as it now readies to join the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member. Asks Ganguly, “Will India opt for personal interest or take the moral position? Because competing with countries like China seems to have very little value.” We can only hope that the mandarins in South Block are listening.

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