By Swapan Dasgupta
The spat involving Canada’s visa policy and India’s national honour has been resolved much to New Delhi’s satisfaction. The Intelligence Bureau functionary who is part of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s advance party for the forthcoming visit to Toronto has been belatedly granted a visa; the Canadian Government has issued what Toronto’s Globe and Mail called a “grovelling apology”; and it has been clarified that Canada has the “highest regard for Indian institutions and processes”, not to mention the Indian military and security services.
Just as the initial insensitivity of the provincial Government in Victoria after a rash of attacks on Indians was fast replaced by some frenzied damage control by the Australian federal Government, Canada has acted quickly after New Delhi made it clear that it was considering collateral retaliation. The BJP may have thought that the pig-headedness of Canada’s immigration authorities was evidence of the weakness of India’s foreign policy. Actually, the prompt remedial action by Ottawa suggests that India has become too important a global player for countries to be insensitive to its national pride. This is a far cry from the situation just a couple of decades ago when an Indian passport was not a great facilitator of smooth travel.
The pragmatic response of the Canadian Government to a mischievous interpretation of a section of its Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, 2002, has, for the moment, saved bilateral relations from taking a nosedive. The official Canadian description of the BSF as a “notoriously violent para-military unit” that is “responsible for war crimes in India” and the equation of the IB with rogue intelligence agencies may strike Indians as odd. But such rash and sweeping generalisations are the inevitable consequence of countries like Canada arrogating to themselves the role of global watchdogs on human rights.
The right of Canada to deny a visa to any Indian is undeniable, just as India possesses the sovereign right to tell any foreigner that he or she is not welcome. Most countries have used that right both judiciously and arbitrarily. India denied a visa to Salman Rushdie for nearly a decade after The Satanic Verses controversy erupted. A similar flight of whimsy may soon, I fear, be repeated in the case of the writer Taslima Nasreen. Where Canada differs is by statutorily barring all those it considers guilty or complicit of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
On paper this may sound unexceptionable. The problem arises in deciding who and what constitutes the offence. Since there are no accepted global yardsticks, Canada has set up its own war crimes section where, presumably, gullible, starry-eyed youngsters, fresh from university and an internship with some ridiculous human rights activist body, sit in judgement over the Indian Army. More absurd, these assessments are based on ‘open sources’ which is a euphemism for random, subjective research based on what is available on the Internet.
That a Government can behave so amateurishly is inconceivable. Yet it is well known in Delhi that junior diplomats, with little or no experience of the complexities of a country, are often asked to make human rights assessments. Predictably, their most valued sources are the professional activists who have a vested interest in exaggerating and misreporting ‘atrocities’. For these activists, human rights are more than a cause: It is a livelihood issue.
Some years ago, for example, the British High Commission in Delhi arrived at a highly tendentious assessment of human rights abuses in Gujarat based on the report of a well-meaning but inexperienced Third Secretary. The junior diplomat spoke to only those who grace NDTV studios but who have little standing in Gujarat. On such casual exercises are lofty policy pronouncements made.
Canada’s assumption of the role of global ombudsman for human rights is similar in many respects to the US Congress sub-committee that sits in judgement each year on ‘religious freedom’. Both are examples of an infuriating sanctimoniousness, premised on the unstated belief that all that is good and noble in the world is to be found in North America. Conversely, there is also the assumption that the ‘Third World’ is being ruled by a cynical, corrupt and brutal elite that must be accorded pariah status. To these noble idealists, there is no real difference between India and Rwanda; both are areas of darkness.
If the underlying condescension of those who claim to have risen above the colonial mindset is pitiful, it is important to remember that these attitudes are fuelled by Indian activists financially nurtured by multilateral bodies and Western Governments. The gratuitous human rights concern of countries such as Canada don’t exist in isolation, they compensate for the political and social irrelevance of the liberal contrarians in India.
If, for example, the activists can’t make headway within India defending Kashmiri separatism or, for that matter, Maoist terrorists, they make up for their own deficiencies by getting other gullible Governments to tar the reputation of the Indian Army, para-military forces and security agencies. The Home Ministry has lists of all those activists who rubbish India before foreign parliamentary committees. If these are made public, India would realise that the fault is not confined to gullible Canadians.
There are times when the arrogance shown by China in dealing with assaults on national pride need to be emulated. Indians are naturally courteous and as a country we don’t like picking fights — not even with those who send bombers across the border. Yet, it is time New Delhi did show that it is capable of baring its fangs. The Government has acted with the right blend of restraint and firmness in dealing with the Canadian visa problem. Maybe it should now address the root causes of this dementia.