India came out in support of French President Emmanuel Macron recently, after the latter was lampooned by countries like Turkey and Pakistan for his comments on Islamist terrorism. New Delhi’s statement condemned the “terrorist attack that took the life of a French teacher” and also deplored the “personal attacks” on the French president by governments in the Muslim world.
Given New Delhi’s traditional reluctance to comment on sensitive political issues abroad, its vocal support for Macron was refreshingly welcome. But the Indian government was not talking about the same things as Macron. While New Delhi saw the whole episode in the light of its struggle against terrorism, particularly emanating from Pakistan, Macron has been casting it as a fight for French values and freedoms.
In multiple statements through October, the French president repeatedly talked about his country’s fight against “Islamist separatism” – a movement which, he said, wanted to separate itself from France’s values of secularism and freedom of religion. He said that France was fighting to retain its basic system of human rights: “the freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and the right to blaspheme.”
Terrorism, to him, was merely a symptom of this problem: By taking young French people away from the values of the Republic, Macron said, the radicals cause bloodshed. He described those who left for Syria as “children of the Republic who stray down this path.” In order to meet that challenge, the French president wants his country to double-down on its principles and stand for them more proactively.
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Such aggressive proselytization of human rights is anathema to Indian diplomacy today. India has long maintained its silence on issues of freedoms and human rights, seeing them as part of the sovereign domain of other countries. While New Delhi wants to speak up against terrorism, it doesn’t want to publicly stand up on the world stage for the ideals that Macron sees as the foundation stone of that battle. It wants to delink the global human rights discourse from the war on terrorism.
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Take as an example India’s recent statement at the United Nations on Xinjiang. As countries – including France – issued a scathing critique of China’s “political re-education camps” that hold millions of Uyghur Muslims, Indian representatives refused to join in. Instead, India said that it was skeptical of promoting human rights by “undertaking aggressive and overly intrusive methods without consultation and consent of the country concerned.”
Back home, India has suffered multiple tests of its commitment to Macron’s values in recent years. Take the “right to blaspheme”: For years, authors from across the spectrum have faced death threats from various religious groups for their provocative writing, from Wendy Doniger to Salman Rushdie. More recently, a surge in mob violence and incidents of lynching has been associated with suspicions of cow slaughter, which many Hindus claim is offensive to their religious beliefs.
India’s commitment to secularism has also been severely tested in recent times, with the advent of calls for a “Hindu nation.” The controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) marked the first time that India considered the practice of conferring citizenship on the basis of religion. Even the coronavirus pandemic was given a communal anti-Muslim hue in public discourse.
French-style secularism may not yet be for Indian society. But India’s narrative as a responsible power, standing up for the world against terrorism, would be far more credible if New Delhi espoused its own principles of secularism and freedom more proactively, both at home and abroad, as Macron wants his own country to do.
In recent times, many commentators around the world have begun to see India’s silence on human rights violations abroad as a conscious effort to keep the global spotlight away from its own human rights problems – a case of those in glass houses not throwing stones, as Ashoka University’s Arkoprabho Hazra put it. The growth of this perception worldwide is now a direct challenge to India’s credibility as a global leader against Islamist radicalism.
Terrorism, as Macron said, is a battle that is waged against principles of freedom and basic human rights. It is not possible to fight against it without actively speaking up for those same rights.