September 27, 1999

by Praful Bidwai

What is common between Paris, Bosnia, Kosovo, Kashmir, Dilli (East Timor) and New Delhi? Each of them signifies an embarrassment or crisis for India’s foreign policy establishment. The way the Foreign Office is behaving is so amateurish and so uninformed by larger principles that the just-deceased Rajeshwar Dayal, a father of the Indian Foreign Service, must already be turning in his grave. Take the episode involving Lalita Oraon, the maid working for an Indian diplomat in Paris, and the disgraceful manner in which our Foreign Office has handled the issue of her mistreatment and probable physical abuse.

In the absence of an independent investigation, we still do not know what happened to Ms Oraon before September 6, when she was handed over to the French authorities in a state of extreme distress, knife in hand. But she was clearly the victim of a horrendously exploitative relationship with her masters, and was very nearly driven to suicide by their decision to sack her without notice or compensation. We also have it on the authority of one of France’s most respected physicians, and the highly regarded Committee Against Modern Slavery (CCEM), that Ms Oraon recently sustained serious injuries, even genital mutilation, which could “not have been self-inflicted”.

Clearly, this was a case deserving the most serious and sober attention and inquiry on the part of our mission in Paris, especially once the matter attracted the attention of the French legal system. After all, the very first duty of the mission is to protect the life and limb of Indian citizens. Instead, our embassy rushed, without ascertaining the facts, to blame the victim and defend her employer. Worse, it disingenuously tried to turn the tables on the CCEM by accusing it of having harmed Ms Oraon and the French media of practising “defamation and disinfomation”. Embarrassed, New Delhi tried damage control by announcing that it would despatch an additional secretary to inquire into the matter. This was stalled and sabotaged. Meanwhile, the Paris mission issued another aggressive statement, citing the Vienna Convention on diplomatic privileges. The crisis brews on.

Our embassy’s reprehensible conduct is symptomatic of the attitudes many Indian diplomats have towards their servants. Most pay them a pittance (Ms Oraon received less than a tenth of the legal minimum wage) while overworking them—an 18-hour day is normal—without offering a semblance of security or dignity. These “heaven-born” worthies do not understand that such attitudes are regarded as uncivilised in the societies where they are posted--in most cases, have sought to be posted, for the comforts they offer-. Few people will uphold the Vienna Convention against numerous human rights conventions. The mission’s sanctimoniousness and hypocrisy (in accusing the CCEM) has only further compounded matters..

Equally deplorable is South Block’s tendency to see the Oraon issue through the prism of Indo-French relations. This is similar to the government’s reaction to the outbreak of bubonic plague in 1994: Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao was much less bothered about the grave tragedy or its worrisome causes, than its likely impact on India’s “image” as an investment destination. But what is of vital importance in the present case is whether full justice is done to Ms Oraon and whether her dignity as a woman and a worker is defended.

The mistreatment of our citizens abroad should occasion serious reflection, rather than speculation over whether France will support India in scuppering G-8 attempts to promote nuclear restraint, or whether Paris sell (dangerous) nuclear reactors to us. India’s “image” will not be enhanced through posturing about diplomatic immunity and national sovereignty. It will be burnished only if India comes across as a nation seriously committed to values like equality, dignity of labour, fairness and justice, not raw privilege and hierarchy. For this to happen, our Lalitas have to get a fair deal.

The Foreign Office’s myopic, inward-looking and self-obsessed calculus in the Oraon case is typical of the way it has recently dealt with major issues. New Delhi has played no role worth the name in shaping the great events of the 1990s—whether the post Cold-War resettlement of Europe, ethnic crises in the former Yugoslavia and Sub-Saharan Africa, or flashpoints such as Iraq, Bosnia or Kosovo. India has been a passive spectator to the further skewing of North-South imbalances, and the virtual takeover of policy-making in some 120 Southern countries by the World Bank and IMF along lines which the Bank itself now admits were flawed: they failed to redress poverty, regional imbalances, and low industrial and agricultural capacities.

Compared to the progressive role India played until the 1970s, its recent part in global affairs has been marginal. Earlier, India was a strong advocate of decolonisation, national liberation, non-alignment, balanced relations between states, strong multilateralism, and peace and nuclear disarmament. These worthy causes received a boost due to India’s moral stature, not military might, which was always limited. India also represented an autonomous model of development, not just an imitation of the market-driven paradigm practised by what Nehru used to call “those Coca-Cola countries.” India was heard with respect as a force of reason, rather than feared as a powerful state.

Now India’s global role has become increasingly conservative. It tacitly, if not explicitly, supports policies which erode democratic economic decision-making. India does not advocate South-centred policies. On environmental matters and social policies too--e.g. human rights, population, labour, gender—it is status quoist and pro-Western. Since the 1991 Gulf War, it has moved in a generally pro-U.S. direction. Its topmost post-Cold War priority is to find accommodation with the West, especially Washington. Rather than advocate multilateralism, it now favours an increasingly bilateral approach to the West. Between 1992 and 1995, for instance, India held four rounds of bilateral talks on nuclear weapons with the U.S., against its own proclaimed policy. Since Paokharan-II, it has held another eight rounds. From being an opponent of machtpolitik ,or power-based politics, India has become its practitioner. From being a campaigner for peace and disarmament, it has become one of the biggest obstacles to it. For five years, it demanded a special UN session on disarmament. Today, it opposes it tooth and nail.

New Delhi has become an obsessive defender of absolute national sovereignty—unfettered by human rights or other universal criteria. It failed to take a stand on the genocidal threat to ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. On East Timor, it has not let out a squeak on the horrific repression unleashed by Indonesian forces—one of the worst cases of near-genocidal terror anywhere, killing a third of the population. One reason is that Indonesia helped India get entry into the Asean Regional Forum. However, perhaps a weightier reason is New Delhi’s Kashmir and Pakistan preoccupations. It fears that supporting intervention in one regionhowever genuinely humanitarian, well-intentioned, multilateral and balancedwould invite similar demands in Kashmir, opening the issue of human rights violations there.

India’s insecurities over Kashmir have intensified despite Pokharan-II. After all, nuclear weapons are utterly useless in the face of low-intensity warfare or insurgencies. New Delhi is not at peace with the Great Powers, with its neighbours, not even itself. Its horizons have shrunk even as its ambitions for a greater global for itself—largely through the shortcut of military weapons—have vaulted. There is no coherent link between India’s foreign policy and pursuit of democratic domestic priorities. With the BJP’s aggressive, bellicose, chauvinistic nationalism, these tendencies have got further accentuated.

              New Delhi’s aggressively asserts sovereignty. But this is divorced from the people and the public interest. It is happy to surrender policy-making on industrial, agricultural, trade and investment policies to Western capital. It has done so through the 1990s in the name of “pragmatism” or by citing TINA (there is no alternative). It affirms sovereignty only as regards human rights violations, threats to religious freedom, and the “right” to make weapons of mass destruction. In other words, sovereignty is relevant only when oppressing people or developing the ability to massacre them; it is irrelevant to the public interest. Why else should New Delhi be so touchy, for instance, about the U.S. proposal to examine the state of religious freedom abroad? It does not question this on principled grounds, viz that the U.S. cannot arrogate to itself such an interfering role. In fact, it wants the U.S. to send this “intrusive” mission to Pakistan! In other words, its assertion of sovereignty is  Pakistan-obsessed and self-serving.

Our foreign policy establishment’s horizons have shrunk. It now advocates expedient positions separated from general principles or doctrines. This narrowing has come along with a reduced role for India in the world. It is fully in conformity with an unbalanced relationship with the U.S. on the new bandwagon slogan of fighting “terrorism” or Islamic “fundamentalism”. This totally ignores the graver danger from state terrorism and exaggerates commonness between different forms of political Islam. Osama bin Laden, for instance, is not to be equated with the azadi movement in Kashmir. Nor is the Muslim fighting a secular battle for survival in U.P., Maharashtra or Gujarat to be branded “Islamicist”. Ultimately, such reductionism not only represents parochialism. It denigrates India itself.