India’s foreign minister ran away from answering question on discrimination

In an interview to Gen McMaster (rtd), former NSA to President Trump, S. Jaishankar said the BJP govt did not discriminate on basis of religion. The former diplomat was being economical with the truth

S. Jaishankar with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken
S. Jaishankar with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken

Aakar Patel

India’s foreign minister was till Saturday on a visit to the United States. The first half of his trip was apparently not very productive because the person he had come to meet, the American secretary of state (which is their title for foreign minister) had to go to the middle east on an urgent visit.

In the meantime, our S Jaishankar met with the Indian teams at the United Nations and other such meetings. He also had an interview with Trump’s former National Security Advisor Gen HR McMaster. The general, who is familiar with India and has visited it, spoke about radicalism in the region and how extremism had hurt Pakistan.

He then asked Jaishankar: "I wanted to ask you about how you see political developments in your own country. You are not a partisan person. You have served with great distinction across many administrations. There is concern in the midst of the pandemic about some of these Hindutva policies that could be undermining the secular nature of Indian democracy… and are India’s friends right to be concerned about some of these recent trends?”

Jaishankar first corrected McMaster to say that he was actually partisan: “Let me clarify something. I served multiple administrations when I was a civil servant. I am today an elected member of parliament. Do I have a political viewpoint and political interest? Of course, I do. Hopefully I will be able to articulate the interest that I represent.”

He then says he will give two replies, a “straight political answer” and a “slightly more nuanced societal answer”. His straight political answer is that in the past India had "vote bank politics” but no longer because democracy had deepened under the Bharatiya Janata Party. This had happened through "broader representation in politics and in leadership positions and in civil society of people, of people who are much more confident about their culture, about their language about their beliefs.

These are people who are less from the English-speaking world, less connected to other global centres. Jaishankar says there is nothing to be concerned about because there is no problem and that this set of people he is referring to are “judged politically harshly and it is often used to create a certain narrative”.

His nuanced societal answer is that the BJP government does not discriminate, Jaishankar says, because they gave extra rations to people in the pandemic and put money in people’s Jan Dhan accounts without separating them by religion.

We should perhaps be thankful to Jaishankar that India so far has not decided to give their entitlements to the poor based on what religion they are. But while we are thankful, we should also note that Jaishankar did not actually answer what was asked. McMaster’s question was framed around the word Hindutva and its policies.

What are they? They are introduction of religion into citizenship. The United Nations and the European Union and members of the United States Congress have expressed disappointment and alarm at India’s Citizenship Amendment Act. The United States International Commission on Religious Freedom’s report for 2021 has identified laws in India that criminalise conversion, especially of women to Islam.

These laws are the BJP’s Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion Act, 2018, Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2019, Madhya Pradesh Dharma Swatantreya Adhyadesh, 2020, Uttar Pradesh Vidhi Viruddh Dharma Samparivartan Pratishedh Adhyadesh, 2020 and Gujarat Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Act, 2021.

The USCIRF report (which recommends sanctions against India) says that while these laws "target interfaith marriage in particular, several other states prohibit conversion based on vague criteria, including force, inducement, allurement, coercion, fraud, or misrepresentation.

These anti-conversion laws are too often the basis for false accusations, harassment, and violence against non-Hindus that occur with impunity. In 2020, for example, mobs—fueled by false accusations of forced conversions—attacked Christians, destroyed churches, and disrupted religious worship services."

India under Modi has spent a lot of energy in drafting laws that go after minorities. The Gujarat Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill, 2017 punishes cow slaughter, which is ostensibly an economic crime, with life in jail. No other economic crime carries a life sentence. More than half of all arrests under the National Security Act in Uttar Pradesh in 2020 were for cow slaughter. This is a law that allows preventive detention, meaning the government locks up people without any crime.

Muslim men are the only community for whom divorce is not a civil wrong but a criminal one. This is the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act, 2019. It criminalises a non-act. Triple talaq in one sitting is not lawful in India. If I say talaq to my wife three times, our marriage does not end and it is not a crime. If a Muslim man says it to his wife, their marriage does not end but it is a crime.

India uses a 12-gauge shotgun firing birdshot into protestors in only one state. In no other state in India except Kashmir is the so-called pellet gun used on crowds. It has blinded and wounded thousands, including infants nowhere near the protest.

I could go on but you get the picture. These are the things that India’s friends are concerned about. They are the new laws that are the gift to us of Hindutva which is why McMaster used that specific term. Jaishankar replied to McMaster without using the word Hindutva once and without referring to any of the laws that India was getting pulled up for around the world.

The reason he ran away from the debate of course is that there is no defence. Obfuscation and avoiding the issue was the only way to respond to the accusation, which is a correct one, that India was harming itself and its own people through Hindutva.

(The writer is a leading columnist and commentator. Views are personal)

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