Commonwealth must adopt a common standard on rights

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At the next Commonwealth Summit, the Secretariat should make public figures relating to the trend line of the proportion of minorities in countries of the group, writes Prof. Madhav Nalapat

Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri initiated the Green Revolution and began transforming India from a famine-stricken nation to an exporter of food grains. In this task, Shastri received substantial help from both Indian as well as US scientists. Both sides worked to ensure better farming methods, seeds and easier access to items needed to boost productivity. In the future, the provisions of the Farm Bills that were withdrawn in a gesture to the relatively small percentage of farmers (mostly from a single state) who opposed it need to be made effective at the state and not the union level.

Just as Prohibition (of alcohol) is a state subject, so too should be several other fields of policy and legislation such as the farm bills. It was Prime Minister Narasimha Rao who initiated the process of changeover from the Soviet model that had been imposed by Prime Minister Nehru and continued in various forms under his successors. As PM, Rajiv Gandhi did make efforts at reform, including in the field of telecom and in seeking to devolve responsibility to the panchayat level. India was a country where the then Finance Minister opposed in the 1980s the introduction of colour television. Once Rajiv took over as PM in 1984, such a recalcitrance to embrace rather than shun the change that progress brings was sought to be cast aside.

Unfortunately, very soon the entrenched party and state bureaucracy began to have an overpowering influence over Rajiv Gandhi, thereby emasculating his attempts at reform. Although Satyen Pitroda ensured that a trunk call, even to a faraway location, became a matter of routine due to the changes made by him, ensuring that telecom innovators were permitted in the private sector as well had to wait until Narasimha Rao took over in 1992.

Had there been a Roosevelt or a Kennedy rather than a Clinton in the White House, Rao as PM could have gone much further than he did. Where the world outside the Atlantic Alliance was concerned, President Clinton (a) ignored the growing risk caused by Wahhabi extremism, while (b) ensuring through measures initiated or backed by the White House that the Chinese Communist Party was given as much help as possible to someday overtake the US as the world’s most consequential country. Only after Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister in 2014 did a more constructive relationship develop between 7 Lok Kalyan Marg (the official home of the Prime Minister of India) and the White House, whether under Presidents Obama, Trump or now Biden.

Once Modi took over, the same upward movement in bilateral relations was visible even where the UK was concerned. Both Prime Ministers David Cameron and Boris Johnson adopted a friendly tone, a situation likely to continue once 10 Downing Street becomes the official home of either Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss. The latter as Foreign Secretary has hopped with zest onto the reckless sanctions and weapons supply bandwagon piloted by Biden and Johnson since the war between Ukraine and Russia erupted less than six months ago. Seeking to exclude trade and contact with Russia, a country that is half the size of Europe, while being half the size of Asia, is another of the exercises in self-destruction that European leaders seem prone to, as was witnessed during the first half of the 20th century.

Candidate Truss has announced in the Global Britain forum that the Commonwealth will be a priority for her, should she get more votes among Tories than Sunak and take over from Johnson. This easygoing organisation needs to focus on a matter of supreme importance to human rights, which is an alarming fall in the number of minorities within some of the members of the Commonwealth. Apart from holding soirees and generating events filled with light entertainment, it is not clear as to what the Commonwealth as an organisation actually does. The Commonwealth Secretariat needs to compile a statistical tables of the number and proportion of minorities within the countries in its ranks. There are countries where minorities have almost disappeared, while in some other member states, their number is dwindling at an alarming rate.

Oddly, supporters within the UK of the extremists that are killing and driving out Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh are precisely those who seek to divert international attention from such crimes by instead obsessing on India, a country where there are 230 million citizens belonging to the minority communities and counting. It would appear that a knowledge of mathematics is not the strong point of the leaders of the Atlantic Alliance, who have thus far ignored the fate of the minorities in Pakistan or Bangladesh, reserving their obloquy for India in the face of evidence that points to the need to do the contrary. At the next Commonwealth Summit, what is needed is for the Secretariat to make public figures relating to the trend line of the proportion of minorities in countries of the group.

Any country where the minorities are made to feel unsafe and who therefore relocate (forcibly or otherwise) to other countries needs to be called out. Not just wealth but values are important in a group that is significant in its size although not as yet in its influence. A common standard for rights and common values ought to be made an accurate description of the Commonwealth. For such an outcome to come about, the organisation needs to get serious about ensuring that human rights are protected in every member state, and that women and minorities in particular are given equal treatment within any member state and not discriminated against.

Majority and minority ought to be equally and fairly treated. Ignoring the need to have universal accountability for universal values is a moral morass that the Commonwealth needs to avoid. Instead, it must ensure that countries where minorities are diminishing in plain sight ought to be called out. Such an “inconvenient truth” has all too often been ignored by self-proclaimed champions human rights. Principles need to be universally and not selectively applied, at least in the Commonwealth.

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