In Myanmar, a test for India’s values
If we are blind to the brutal repression next door, we’ll diminish our integrity. That will affect how we see ourselves, it will damage how the world views us
I often ask myself the question — “what sort of democracy is India?” I don’t need Freedom House to confirm that, at home, we’re only “partly free” or V-Dem to categorise us as an “elected autocracy”. To me, that’s been clear for a while. But, outside its borders, does the world’s largest democracy stand up for the principles it’s supposedly committed to? Do we support popularly elected governments, liberty, human rights, free speech and fair process abroad?
If you judge by India’s response to the tragedy playing out every day for the last two months in Myanmar, the answer till last week was a resounding “No”. Our papers, no doubt, reported the unceasing resistance against military rule and even our inward-looking parochial television news channels occasionally covered it. But our government, the one institution elected to speak for us, was silent. Not a word of criticism when the numbers killed daily by the army climbed from the tens into the hundreds. Not even concern when the generals threatened to shoot their own citizens in the back or, worse, in the head.
Yet this is happening next door. It’s a neighbouring country. Part of a region we want to be the acknowledged leader of. One of the more important countries embraced by Buddha’s message of love and peace first propounded at Sarnath. In short, this is our part of the world. Yet, for two months, we closed our eyes, plugged our ears and sealed our lips. We even shut our doors to refugees who fear for their lives.
Since then, we’ve spoken but sotto voce. Our comments are mild, non-specific and uncritical of the army. They sound reluctant. They smack of timidity. I expected more from the world’s largest democracy.
Sadly, this is not the first time we’ve turned our back on the people of Myanmar and their struggle for democracy. Our response was no different in 1988 when the army refused to recognise Aung San Suu Kyi’s first electoral triumph. Thirty years of military rule followed. The world stood by Suu Kyi. India, after giving her the Nehru Prize, tried to forget her. Yet India is almost her second country. She was at school and college in Delhi. Her mother was ambassador from 1960 to 1967 and the doyenne of the diplomatic corp.
Of those dark decades when India did nothing to keep alight the flickering flame of democracy, this is what Suu Kyi said to me in 2015: “They tried to keep away from us … it saddened me that India, the largest democracy in the world, was turning its back on democracy in order to maintain good relations with the military government.”
And now we’re doing it again. I know this time Suu Kyi is a fallen icon but her National League for Democracy is the freely and fairly elected government, and she is by far the most popular leader of the country. How can the world’s largest democracy forget these simple incontrovertible facts?
Simply by claiming our true interest lies in retaining the support of the Myanmar junta tackling separatists and insurgents in our Northeast. I don’t deny that’s important. But democracy is even more. And our principles should always be our first concern. They must not be trumped by expedient interests.
Let’s never forget what legitimises our fierce determination to defeat separatism and insurgency and keep India intact is our commitment to democracy and human rights.
But if we’re deaf, dumb and blind to the brutal repression next door, we’ll diminish our integrity. That will affect how we see ourselves, it will damage how the world views us. The truth is India matters because it’s a democracy. One that has survived — even if not always flourished — in trying circumstances. That’s why we’re special. In comparison, the size of our market is of secondary importance.
So, remember, today the sound of the tolling bell may come from across the border, but tomorrow it could toll for you and me.
Karan Thapar is author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story
The views expressed are personal