Opinion: Opinion | It’s Time The US, Forever Preaching To Others, Got Off Its High Horse

In releasing the State Department’s 2023 International Religious Freedom report recently, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken referred to India by name for violating religious freedom. The report covers 190 countries. In his short introductory remarks, Blinken had to decide which countries he should mention by name, as he could cite only a few that are of most concern” to the US.

Blinken obviously made the assessment that India was one of the countries he needed to draw specific attention to. He had also to weigh the diplomatic consequences of naming and shaming any country at his level, and evidently thought that he did not need to be too concerned about India’s reaction.

In 2022 too, while introducing a similar report, Blinken had listed India by name. This was the first time that the country was being singled out in this manner at the Secretary of State level. The spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had reacted sharply back then, and Blinken would have taken into consideration that India would react similarly again. He evidently felt that the US could take that in its stride.

India’s Response

In his latest remarks, Blinken expressed American concern about anti-conversion laws in India, hate speech and demolitions of homes and places of worship of minority communities. This broadside against India could not go unanswered. As expected, India has reacted strongly. The MEA spokesperson has rejected the report, calling it deeply biased, lacking understanding of India’s social fabric, visibly driven by vote bank considerations and based on a prescriptive outlook. He went on to decry the exercise of compiling the report based on inputs from government officials, religious groups, NGOs, journalists, human rights monitors and academics a mix of imputations, misrepresentations, selective usage of facts, reliance on biased sources, and a one-sided projection of issues”. This, the spokesperson said, extends even to the depiction of our Constitutional provisions and duly enacted laws of India”. He added that the report “has selectively picked incidents to advance a preconceived narrative as well” and that it appeared to challenge the integrity of certain legal judgments given by Indian courts.

To emphasise the point that discussions as well as rights and wrongs on these issues were not one-sided, the spokesperson referred to numerous cases of hate crimes, racial attacks on Indian nationals and other minorities, vandalisation and targeting of places of worship, violence and mistreatment by law enforcement agencies, as well as the according of political space to advocates of extremism and terrorism that India had officially taken up with the Biden administration. Such dialogues, the spokesperson said, should not become a licence for foreign interference in other polities”.

US’s Superiority Complex

Such kind of reports issued annually are one of the many ways through which the US seeks to exercise its political hegemony and assume moral superiority at the global level. The US has huge problems of its own on all the issues it seeks to name and shame others on. Its record on the genocide of the indigenous population of America and slavery and racial discrimination against Blacks is a dark blot on its history. The violence endemic in American society is compounded by its gun laws. The scale of random attacks on streets, schools, concerts, malls, etc., is unequalled in the Western world. Democracy itself in the US is under great stress given the rampant political polarisation, politicisation of justice, the influence of lobbies in the political process, contested elections, and so on.

Externally, the US has sought to impose its values” on other countries through interference in their internal affairs, regime change policies, and military interventions that are inevitably accompanied by human losses and destruction of property and infrastructure. Ironically, for geopolitical gains, the US has in some geographies promoted the very ideologies that it also seeks to combat.

All this does not deter the US from publishing annual reports on international religious freedom, terrorism, human rights, etc. These reports are part of an eco-system of American or West-sponsored human rights and democracy promotion organisations, which include a large number of groups that work on ranking countries in areas such as press freedom, freedoms in general, corruption, etc. They serve as tools to exert political pressure on countries.

An Uneven Field

India and other targeted countries can no doubt publish their own reports on the ills of the US political and social system. However, given that the flow of information is largely controlled by the West, these reports will have no international impact and would be seen merely as a reflexive defensive response. It might give India and others some self-satisfaction that they have hit back, but they will do little to dent the international image of the US or make its political class, media, think tanks, academia, or other internal opinion-making forces introspect about the country’s ills. In fact, such retaliatory attempts might even invite some political and economic penalties given the bilateral and international levers that the US has at its command.

Blinken has, unfortunately, touched on sensitive issues in his remarks. Why should he implicitly claim that the US has a right to promote religious conversion in India? Why should foreign religious organisations or religions that convert have any right to seek to change the religious beliefs of others through inducements or otherwise? Conversion is not merely a religious mission, it is also rooted in politics. Clearly, Blinken, who is a Jew – and Judaism is not a missionary faith – is speaking for Christian evangelist organisations unhappy with Indian laws banning conversion and stopping the flow of funds to India for Christian charities, etc.

US Needs To Introspect

As regards hate speech, the US needs to look inwards at the level of political hate between Republicans and Democrats as well as against immigrants, besides the intolerance that ‘woke-ism’ represents.

Knowing well the legacy of India’s Partition and the history of communal tensions in India, the US should not encourage tensions and foster a sense of victimhood in the Muslim community – especially when talking so loosely about the demolition of their homes and places of worship. The MEA spokesperson has responded adequately to this accusation. For a country that has sown mayhem in the Islamic world and is itself under attack for the position it is taking on Gaza, some reticence while pointing a finger at India would have been advisable. This uncalled interference in India’s affairs should have been avoided. This is not a lever that the US should want to use to pressure the Indian government.

India, will, of course, absorb this needling as it has high stakes in its ties with the US, which has also sent several positive signals on other fronts, and these can be built upon to mutual benefit. However, this undercurrent of America’s diplomatic high-handedness with India causes misgivings and affects trust-building. On the one hand, India is lauded as the world’s biggest democracy and much is made of the values that the two countries share. On the other hand, Blinken has chosen to chide India shortly after it concluded the biggest democratic exercise in human history. This shows a lack of refinement in US diplomacy.

(Kanwal Sibal was Foreign Secretary and Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia, and Deputy Chief Of Mission in Washington.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author

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