Friday, Jan 21, 2022

An Internal Matter Or An International Embarrassment?

After pop icon Rihanna's tweet, India over the past few weeks has been quoted in the same breath as Myanmar, a country which saw a military coup in the past week.

An Internal Matter Or An International Embarrassment?
Representational image. -

I recently had a chance to read a fascinating story about one of the world’s greatest sports personalities, Sir Donald Bradman. The story speaks not of “The Don’s” sporting ability which was on display for close to 20 years between 1928 and 1948 but, instead his tenure as a sporting administrator— a role he occupied for close to 40 years.

The story revolves around Bradman’s handling of the issue of whether Australia should ban the all-white South African Test cricket team from touring Australia for the proposed 1971-72 test series. While initially, Bradman was of the view that sports and politics should be kept separate and that the test series should go ahead as scheduled, he displayed a characteristic that one rarely sees in the world today: a desire to better understand issues instead of taking an easy stand.

As part of this exploratory endeavor, Bradman actually traveled to South Africa to meet its Prime Minister, John Vorster, an admirer of Hitler. As the story goes, when Bradman asked Vorster about why the black community in South Africa was denied the chance to represent their country, Vorster informed Bradman that they were “intellectually inferior” and could not cope with cricket’s intricacies. In response, Bradman said, “Have you heard of Garry Sobers?”. Sobers is widely regarded as cricket’s greatest all-rounder. The trip made an indelible mark on Bradman who on his return to Australia announced the tour’s cancellation in a press conference stating that “We [Australia] will not play them [South Africa] until they choose a team on a non-racist basis.” Years later in 1986 when a delegation from the Commonwealth countries, including the Australian Prime Minister, visited Nelson Mandela in prison, Mandela’s first question was – “is Don Bradman still alive?”.

This past week or so we have also seen certain sporting personalities and celebrities voice their view on a topic that has (much to the embarrassment of India) now attracted international attention and opinion. The farmer protests against the three farm laws passed by this BJP government have been going on for close to 3 months where thousands of farmers have braved and withstood the brutal North Indian cold and suffered numerous deaths while protesting against the farm laws that they believe will further ruin the state of the Indian farmer. In order to deal with these protests, the government has gone to war with its own people putting in barricades and nails and barbwire around Delhi and cutting of internet access. The borders of Delhi resemble a tense border more than the capital of the “World’s largest democracy”. Former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri who once famously said “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” must be looking down at us aghast at how the administration has turned “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” to “jawan Vs kisan”.

The shortcomings of the three farm laws and the manner in which they threaten to steal the plate of food from our farmers and offer a golden goose for large corporates have been well documented and debated. However, in my piece today, I wanted to examine the manner in which the BJP government has gone into meltdown after a host of international personalities drew attention to the fascist nature of the present government in dealing with the farmer protests. 

The present pickle for the BJP’s headline management team came about after Rihanna, a well-known artist, tweeted a CNN article about the government’s action against protesting farmers. Since then, while talking about human rights, India over the past few weeks has been quoted in the same breath as Myanmar, a country where there was a military coup over the past week. The parties that sought to shine a light on the breakdown of democratic processes in our country were not only celebrities who the Indian administration has dismissed as “ignorant” but also includes the United Nations Human Rights Office, who tweeted that “the right to peaceful assembly & expression should be protected both offline and online”. Considering that the internationally respected organization has the phrase “human rights” in its name, one would assume (hope?) that the BJP will not categorize the United Nations Human Rights Office as being “ignorant” about human rights.

These international observations were unsurprisingly met with a knee-jerk and ill-thought-out response from a government that is clearly rattled by the mounting international pressure to preserve India’s democratic values. The government essentially said that this is an internal matter and did not warrant intervention or views from people who do not have a true understanding of the issues. The government also said that these laws were passed after a full debate and discussion in Parliament. Neither of these claims is true. For starters, the government did not pass the three farm laws in accordance with the democratic process. The record of the Rajya Sabha clearly shows that the farm bills were passed in a completely unconstitutional manner where the parliamentary procedure was given a complete miss.

Secondly, the idea that this is an internal matter is facetious. Human Rights are inherent and intrinsic human rights that is granted to each human being by virtue of the fact that they are human beings. These rights are not given to us by a government and therefore cannot be limited by a government merely by calling it an internal matter. The Indian government’s argument holds no merit the same way, we cannot say that demanding a dowry is “an internal matter between two families” or how domestic abuse is “an internal matter between the husband and the wife”. There are some things that are on the face of it wrong at a fundamental level. The fact that the Indian government chooses to deal with protestors or dissenting voices by either slapping them with cases of sedition or other false charges and that we have the dubious distinction of being the internet shutdown capital of the world is on the face of it wrong and a source of international embarrassment. To call it an internal matter and hope that such acts will not attract international censure is naïve.

We have had Indian celebrities tweet in favour of the Black Lives Matter movement and have had Prime Minister Modi comment on the attack in Capitol Hill. Such incidents are a black mark on democracy and deserve international scrutiny. Therefore, such a comment was warranted. One would have hoped that the celebrities and the sports stars (since hardly any of them can qualify as ‘heroes’ any longer) who had the good sense to understand this very basic distinction between an “internal matter” and an “international embarrassment” then, would maintain the same stand now. However, just like in the case of Bradman, history will be the ultimate judge and where we stand depends on where our own moral compass leads us. While everyone may want to be a Bradman, it is this trying time that will reveal who is actually a John Vorster.

(The author is a member of the Indian National Congress, a former Lok Sabha MP and an ex-IPS officer. Views expressed are personal.)


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