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No moral compass

I wonder how many of you winced when Barack Obama admonished India for failing to stand up for democracy in Burma? Our MPs, who had resoundingly applauded his commitment to support India's candidature as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, sat in silence, their smiles giving way to sullen looks. Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: May 21, 2011 16:55 IST
Karan Thapar

I wonder how many of you winced when Barack Obama admonished India for failing to stand up for democracy in Burma? Our MPs, who had resoundingly applauded his commitment to support India's candidature as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, sat in silence, their smiles giving way to sullen looks. In TV studios, where I was anchoring, a sudden hush descended as panelists shrank back in their seats after hearing the US president.

Well, au contraire, I was pleased. I applauded Obama. I enjoyed his forceful, passionate ticking-off. He said what I have myself repeatedly written and suggested, albeit in vain.

The truth is there's a small body of Indians who feel dismayed, even betrayed, by the way our governments have turned their back on Aung San Suu Kyi and the struggle for democracy in Burma. Inder Gujral and George Fernandes are its stalwarts. Amartya Sen is a recent and very welcome addition to the list. But, sadly, our pleas have fallen on deaf ears. The Congress and the BJP have remained impervious to our exhortations. Nothing has changed.

So, clearly, the time had come for someone like Obama to remind us that by forgetting Burma, democracy and Suu Kyi we're actually damaging our principles and diminishing ourselves. The question is will it have any effect?

Before I answer that, consider the plight of Burma which we, a democracy, a neighbour and a friend, are contriving to ignore. For six decades military generals have quashed the country's democracy. The results of elections held in 1990, which Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won overwhelmingly, were ignored. Of the last 21 years she has spent over 15 in jail. Meanwhile, the country languishes in poverty, malnutrition and despair whilst the junta attempts to usher in sham civilian rule.

If we really believe in democracy, the values inherent in our Constitution, and the principles we claim to cherish, do we not have a moral duty to stand up and defend them when they are under attack? Can we really claim that the Burmese military junta's support in the fight against Bodo, National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) or Mizo rebel groups constitutes a higher national interest than upholding our beliefs?

Don't take my answer, listen first to Amartya Sen: "It breaks my heart to see the prime minister of my democratic country … welcoming the butchers from Myanmar and … be photographed in a state of cordial proximity."

Now, this is what Obama said: "When peaceful democratic movements are suppressed … the democracies of the world cannot remain silent. For it is unacceptable to gun down peaceful protestors and incarcerate political prisoners decade after decade …it is the responsibility of the international community, especially leaders like the United States and India, to condemn it."

How true. But did we really need to be told something so obvious and elementary? Sadly, yes. Because Obama added, "If I can be frank, in international fora, India has often shied away from some of these issues."

Once upon a time India's moral voice was heard clearly, forcefully and, often, effectively. But not today. Obama was, in fact, reminding us of the passion we've lost.

Yesterday Suu Kyi was released but hereafter will India behave differently? I hope so. If we want to be recognised as a leading nation we need the courage and conviction to speak out. On the other hand, small men prefer silence. Cowards shrink from challenges. Opportunists choose expedience over principle.

The key question is, are our politicians moral pygmies?

The views expressed by the author are personal.