The message from Istanbul

Updated June 25, 2019


The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

IT was an uplifting moment at the Trafalgar Square protest against Donald Trump’s visit to London. The carnival of protesters reminded me of the way we used to hold demonstrations in India not long ago against practically everything that was wrong with the world, of which India was an increasingly worrying unit.

The solidarity was instant and unpretentious. How the students wore black bands to protest Bhutto’s execution by Zia or against the CIA-backed coup against Allende, and how many were beaten by police during protests against the US invasion of Iraq.

The tradition is not recent. I remember learning from family seniors and their friends the pronunciation of ‘Dien Bien Phu’, the venue of a valiant patriotic battle the Vietnamese fought against the French occupiers before I was born.

In London the other day, there was this group advocating their strong opposition to Brexit. Another wanted early elections. Some were asking the US to lay off Iran with placards held aloft by women, including those whose dress code could make it somewhat difficult for them to find entry into the country they supported.

Did it matter though? Evidently not. A Trump look-alike, replete with a make-believe security detail, stern-looking men with their earpieces plugged to a make-believe communication base came on a walk. He was uttering inanities. “Fake news. I’m the best. Evil Hillary.” A huge plastic doll of Trump was the centrepiece. It had him sitting on the commode and speaking rubbish to everyone’s amusement.

It seems that not all is lost across the world for democracy and humanity.

There were gay rights groups hand in hand with those who wanted Palestine freed. Jews for Labour was another actively involved lot that wanted to see the back of Trump. Jeremy Corbyn delivered a powerful speech against the visit. When Home Secretary Sajid Javid was sulking with Prime Minister Theresa May over his exclusion from the guest list for the Queen’s banquet, a move some thought to be part of Trump’s profiling of him, Corbyn had loudly and clearly turned down his own invitation to the high table. Not all is lost across the world for democracy and humanity it seems.

In an echo from Trafalgar Square, the people’s verdict in the globally watched mayoral contest in Istanbul should be putting the autocratic Erdogan government on notice, and it ought to give heart to people fighting right-wing authoritarianism everywhere. Obviously, it has a message for the defeated opponents of Prime Minister Modi’s communal rule in India. But unless the scattered and self-absorbed opposition joins the battle there’s little chance of anyone returning the country to its lofty democratic ideals any time soon.

That Modi’s India is adamant in staying its destructive course was evident from the external affairs ministry’s laughable but not entirely unexpected rejection of the US State Department’s report on basic religious freedoms that have been curtailed by India’s right-wing Hindu government. Things were much more different, say, in 1992 when J.N. Dixit was foreign secretary. The Babri Masjid was razed in Ayodhya, and Indian embassies everywhere were in a tizzy with embarrassment. They sought guidance from New Delhi about how to explain the outrage to the world.

Dixit was a clear-headed and secular diplomat. His advice to his embassies was to be upfront: “Tell them that we have a bunch of rowdies who are bent on harming our secular constitution. We regret the outrage in Ayodhya and will leave no stone unturned to restore to the minorities their confident and equal stake in India’s democracy.” That’s what he told me he said to his colleagues.

India’s incredible response to the US report was published on Sunday by The Hindu. It quoted the external affairs ministry’s spokesperson as saying that foreign governments did not have the right to criticise India’s “vibrant democracy and dedication to rule of law”.

Effectively rejecting the annual report on religious freedom to the US Congress, the Indian spokesman was quoted as saying that the US had no business to write the analysis. “We see no locus standi for a foreign government to pronounce on the state of our citizens’ constitutionally protected rights.”

The comments were as absurd as the ones made by an Indian representative to the UN recently about India’s democracy leaving no space for torture to exist.

The US report was released on the eve of the visit of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to New Delhi on Tuesday. Mr Pompeo himself released it and he referred to the issue of religious freedom as a “deeply personal” priority.

The State Department’s 2019 Report on International Freedom referred to multiple instances where the Modi government at the centre and various state governments of the Bharatiya Janata Party took steps that hurt the Muslim and Christian communities.

The official spokesperson, however, was sanguine about India’s “secular credentials”, saying that “it is widely acknowledged that India is a vibrant democracy where the constitution provides protection of religious freedom, and where democratic governance and rule of law further promote and protect the fundamental rights”. Of course, Dixit could have said those tame words and moved on, but he didn’t. That’s the difference in then and today.

Apart from the murders and lynching by cow vigilante groups, the US report pointed out that there were several attempts to undermine minority institutions and change names of cities that reminded one of the pluralist nature of India. In this regard, the report highlighted the change of the name of Allahabad to Prayagraj.

That the report was prepared by an utterly right-wing US administration was ironical, not any less so than a defeated Erdogan greeting his opponent on a verdict that he never knew was coming. Raat bhar ka hai mehma’n andhera/ Kiske rokay ruka hai savera, went an old Hindi movie song, inspired by a Faiz verse. The night is dark, but it is only a night. That’s the message from Istanbul.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, June 25th, 2019