It’s become almost a habit now, India sitting out on issues of democracy and human rights at the UN. A few decades back India would have been in the forefront of mobilising support for such a vote. But this is new India, where realpolitik and strategic considerations are paramount. India no longer occupies the moral high ground it once enjoyed.
On Friday when the UN General Assembly voted on a resolution on the murder of democracy in neighbouring Myanmar, India abstained. Yet Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks with pride about India’s democratic traditions and respect for liberal values. In fact, India is a signatory to the Open Society Declaration adopted by the G-7 in the just-concluded Summit in Cornwall.
Last month India again sat out and refused to add its weight to the vote on excessive use of force by Israel in the Gaza Strip at the UN Human Rights Council. India’s stand shocked and disappointed the Palestinians more so as New Delhi had consistently supported their struggle and was the first non-Arab country to recognise Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation as the legitimate representative of Palestinians. The PLO was also allowed to have office space in New Delhi. Palestine’s foreign minister wrote a letter to his Indian counterpart expressing his people’s disappointment at India’s stand.
This time it is Myanmar. The resolution adopted at the UNGA called “upon the Myanmar armed forces to respect the people’s will as freely expressed by results of the general election of November 8, 2020, to end the state of emergency, to respect all human rights of people of Myanmar and to allow the sustained democratic transition of Myanmar, including the opening of the democratically elected parliament, and by working towards bringing all national institutions, including the armed forces, under a fully inclusive civilian government that is representative of the people’s will.”
119 countries voted for this resolution while 35 abstained. Among them were India, China and Russia. Explaining its decision India said that ``our views have not been reflected in the draft being considered for adoption today. We would like to reiterate that a consultative and constructive approach involving the neighbouring countries and the region, remains important as the international community strives for the peaceful resolution of the issue.”
India also pointed out that the neighbouring countries meaning the 10-member ASEAN group had also not supported the resolution. Myanmar is a member of ASEAN. Anyway, the ASEAN has never been vocal on human rights and believes in solving problems the Asian way, that is through closed door discussions and not through resolutions and sanctions. India said, adding that it does not believe that the tabling of this resolution for adoption at this juncture, is “conducive to aiding our joint efforts towards strengthening democratic process in Myanmar”.
For India, Myanmar is of strategic importance. Fearing China’s increasing influence and presence in Myanmar, Delhi had changed its pro-democracy stand and support for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National league for Democracy, by engaging with the military junta. That policy begun in 1992 under Congress government of Narasimha Rao has continued. Delhi is in no mood to dump the generals and work with America and the West to restrain the Burmese military.
New Delhi now has little stomach for human rights activism. Soon after the coup in Myanmar, India’s home ministry issued instructions that refugees from Myanmar coming into the border states of Mizoram and Manipur should be sent back. This is in sharp contrast to India’s usual welcome for people escaping persecution in neighbouring countries, be it Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka or Afghans fleeing the Taliban. It is the Mizoram chief minister who has quietly allowed people from neighbouring districts of Myanmar to take shelter in his state. The government has kept quiet as it can do little to prevent local sentiments that are sympathetic to their kinsmen across the border.
Unlike in the past when Aung San Suu Kyi was first detained in 1989 protests for her immediate release were held in Delhi and other places in India. Public sentiment against the assault on democracy was high in India. After the February 1 coup this time, apart from Mizoram and Manipur, there was not a ripple in other parts of the country. New India does not care.