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Bhopal gas leak to illegal surveillance, Indian leaders have a history of kowtowing to the US

Monday, 23 December 2013 - 7:05am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

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Regardless of ideological variations, the Indian government usually likes to see itself as an acolyte of the United States of America. On several occasions in the distant and not so distant past, successive governments of the day have chosen to ignore America’s brazen transgressions into another country’s sovereignty, including India’s as well. It’s precisely this awe-struck submission to its (erstwhile) economic and (continuing) military might that has enabled the US political establishment to impose its will on ‘lesser developed’ nations.

Most of the time such will has been aided by force, not by consent and diplomacy. Straying from official US historiography, those who have read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States are aware of the country’s long and dark history of riding roughshod over others; at best bullying them through economic sanctions, at worst marching in troops to bring to heel recalcitrant governments and heads of states. But as far as the Indian government is concerned, the White House has been somewhat of a sanctum sanctorum — a hands off territory for the Indian ruling elite.

Both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – led governments alike have mostly dismissed out of hand criticisms arising out of what is perceived to be their genuflecting before the mighty US. I shall give concrete examples later to substantiate my argument. The sudden resurgence of anger at the US over its treatment of the Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade allegedly furnishing false information to the US authorities therefore comes as somewhat of an ‘unpleasant’ surprise.

‘Unpleasant,’ not because almost overnight the Indian political establishment has found its hitherto muzzled voice to take the US to task for its ill treatment of Khobragade — but because the cause it has chosen to make its own to lampoon the US, is in itself not the worthiest one. While most opinions seem to converge on Khobragade being treated in violation of the Vienna conventions, not all seem to agree about the correctness of the Indian diplomat’s conduct in paying her domestic help Sangeeta Richards far less than the minimum wage stipulated by US law. Moreover, Khobragade, a diplomat — a status which she is now claiming as her passport to access immunity and privileged treatment — is accused of a serious crime: tampering with the law; an offence the Indian government now wants the US to write off.

Suddenly kid gloves are off and Indian politicians are speaking their mind. Senior politicians have come out with outlandish retaliatory threats like incarcerating US homosexuals in India following the recent Supreme Court’s ignominious verdict criminalising same-sex relationships.

Let’s just contrast the Indian political establishment’s present fulminations with its cloying acquiescence to illegal US surveillance. Recently, when countries like Germany, France and Brazil were crying foul following whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelation of massive surveillance programmes operated by the US, India was singing a mollifying tune. Our External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, in fact, defended the surveillance project targeting India as the fifth most tracked country, saying, “It’s not actually snooping”.

“This is not scrutiny and access to actual messages. It is only computer analysis of patterns of calls and emails that are being sent. It is not actually snooping on specifically on content of anybody’s message or conversation”, the honourable Minister said. By contrast, here is what the Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff did: She cancelled her visit to the US in protest over being spied on by the National Security Agency.

And the German Chancellor Angela Merkel called US President Barack Obama to say that Germany “views such practices... as completely unacceptable”.

India’s timid cowering before the US has a long history. Think back to the 1984 Bhopal gas leak disaster (billed as the world’s gravest industrial calamity) and the insidious role of one of US’s giant multinational companies — Union Carbide — in it. Two decades and nine years later thousands of victims of that gas leak incident still await decent compensation and justice. The dispensations at the Centre have since changed several times but none of the ruling incumbents found the courage or the will to press the issue with the US government.

In a setback to the gas tragedy victims , a US court recently observed that neither Union Carbide nor its former chairman Warren Anderson were liable for environmental remediation or pollution-related claims at the firm’s former chemical plant in Bhopal. Meanwhile, the Indian government, ruling party and various shades of opposition, have done precious little to square up with the US and the Multi–National Corporation concerned. If anything, the Indian government, in full knowledge of the details, has let the Union Carbide off the hook in bringing the guilty to book and cleaning up the polluted site at Bhopal.

According to news reports then Congress Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh Arjun Singh had a crucial role in flying the Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson out of the state to the US. Why did the Indian government not feel a twinge of the same hurt national pride that now propels it in defending an indefensible crime like producing fake visa documents? Why is it trying to make virtue out of a crime in the eye of the US law? Why did it not make the crime committed by a US MNC punishable?

Sentiments of national sovereignty and pride are selective. India’s elite has mostly chosen to forgo such pride when it comes to the US. It might be worth recalling here the amazing sight that was on display on India’s national TV channels when former US President Bill Clinton addressed a joint session of Parliament in March 2000.

Forgetting that only couple of weeks before the visit a section of the House was resisting being party to a joint session addressed by the US president, the MPs were seen jostling each other, reaching out to shake Clinton’s hand! And who can forget those famous words Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh uttered in the White House in September 2008: “People in India deeply love you”, he said embracing none other than George W Bush, by far one of the most controversial and problematic heads of state to have been elected to office in recent years.

Yes, solid arguments can be made against US bullying, and even the hypocrisy of their own diplomats. Illegal wars, nuclear energy and online surveillance among other things, all deserve strong statements from our vitriolic patriots. But when opinion–makers let those issues slide and take the airwaves in defence of extremely tenuous cases, a little caution is called for among all concerned.

The author is National Editor, dna of Thought

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