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Cat got our tongue?

A long suffering people led by their valiant monks have launched a silent, but powerful, movement for the restoration of democracy, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Sep 26, 2007 23:12 IST

I write in anguish, not anger. But resentment is no less powerful an emotion than rage. The latter can blow over. The former lingers and persists. And each day this week, my sentiments have been stirred, my emotions lit and rekindled by constant, even unceasing, reminders of the original, but now growing, grievance. Consequently, today, disappointment has hardened into disillusionment and approaches despair.

Why is the voice of Indian democracy silent about the momentous struggle for liberty and rights in neighbouring Burma? A long suffering people led by their valiant monks have launched a silent, but powerful, movement for the restoration of democracy. But instead of supporting them, we are standing aside. Why are we unwilling to speak out? Why have we suppressed what should be our natural, instinctive, automatic support for democratic struggle anywhere in the world? Because we are scared of the bemedalled generals, of the very men who torment their people, and fear that we may incur their wrath if we express any criticism.

What has sealed our lips? The fact that the Burmese junta may cease to curb the activities of Indian militants and secessionists from Burmese soil. I don’t deny that it’s an important concern. It affects the integrity of our North-east.

But surely the government could have found a form of words to support the cause of democracy without breaking its relationship with the generals? No doubt they would have been upset, but how much are they doing for us? Despite their cooperation — or perhaps because of it? — Ulfa and NSCN flourish. Our pact with them is Faustian and we need to break free of it. More importantly, which is the greater principle — to stand up for democracy, the core of our national existence, or to pander to the false and foolish pride of a repressive junta because we need them to stomp on our militants?


If democracies have a duty beyond that of ensuring the liberty and welfare of their people, surely it must be to come to the defence of those outside who are struggling for the same cause? The spirit of democracy grows by multiplication. It suffers and diminishes when it is restricted within artificial boundaries. It needs to be a vast ocean, not small islands in a sea of denial and dictatorship.

I’m sorry, the Indian government has shrunk by its silence. But not just the government, Indian politicians of all stripes, shades and sophistication have diminished themselves by their lack of concern. If the United States government, which depends on Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf for its failing fight against the Taliban and terror in Afghanistan, can, nonetheless, criticise the arrest of politicians in Islamabad, then I fail to understand — and refuse to accept any explanation — why we, the biggest democracy in the world and, more importantly, the most effective democracy in South Asia, cannot, indeed will not, speak in support of those fighting for the same cause in a neighbouring country.

We seem to have forgotten that Aung San Suu Kyi grew up in India, was educated in Delhi and once considered this country a second home. In 1992, we gave her the Nehru Prize. We’ve forgotten that the tens of thousands of monks marching in silent protest through the streets of Rangoon, Mandalay and Pegu look on India as a spiritual shrine. Indeed, we call ourselves the land of the Buddha.

We’ve forgotten that lasting relationships are built between people, not governments. The people of Myanmar need our support. If we give it to them, they will repay us with friendship when they are restored their rights. If not, we may turn potential friends into distrusting and suspicious neighbours.

On the right occasion, even the faint-hearted and pusillanimous have learned to squeak. Surely, towering democrats in a free State should be in full possession of a booming voice? Or are our politicians pygmies, creatures of convenience and not conviction, little men and women masquerading as leaders? In the 60th year of our Independence, Burma is a test for Indian democracy. Alas, we are in danger of failing it.

Karan Thapar is President, ITV