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When Genocide Masquerades as Nationalism

by Praful Bidwai

IT is astonishing, and distressing, that the United States’ decision to deny a visa to Mr Narendra Modi should have caused a great outpouring of crude nationalistic sentiment and anger at Washington’s supposed discourtesy, its “interference” in India’s affairs, and lack of sensitivity towards its democratic process. This issue produced the strangest of bedfellows: some secularists who rightly regard Mr Modi as the perpetrator of India’s worst state-sponsored communal pogrom found themselves on the same side as Bharatiya Janata Party apologists of the gruesome violence.

The Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh strongly protested against the US “discourteous” decision, saying it is not “appropriate to use allegations or anything less than due process to make a subjective judgment to question a constitutional authority.” His government got worked up enough to ask the US to reconsider its decision. Many of the BJP’s political adversaries too joined the chorus. Even sections of the Left were ambivalent on the issue.

This column argues that the visa denial should be unreservedly welcomed by all secular democrats who believe in justice, in particular, justice for the victims of the Gujarat carnage. The cause involved here — politically punishing a crime against humanity — transcends national boundaries and considerations of protocol or “courtesy” — something no criminal can demand. Anything that promotes the political isolation of and denies respectability to communal criminals like Mr Modi should be a cause for celebration. This rationale remains valid even if one takes — as I do — a strongly critical view of the US’ hegemonic and largely negative global role and the double standards and hypocrisy that characterise American policy.

To start with, four points are in order. First, the denial of a visa to Mr Modi does not constitute interference in India’s affairs. All states reserve the right to grant or deny visas to foreign nationals. India routinely rejects thousands of visa applications every year. So does the US. In the past, the US used to bar the entry of anyone who is a member of a Communist party or related organisations. New Delhi never took up cudgels on the behalf of those who were denied visas on this ground. Doing so in the Modi case presumes that some fundamental right or worthy principle has been violated.

Yet, getting a visa is not a right. No foundational human value is injured by its denial. Mr Modi was not invited to deliver some elevated discourse at a learned society or perform a diplomatic duty, but to address the Asian-American Hotel Owners’ Association. A large proportion of its members are ethnic-Gujarati sangh parivar sympathisers.

Second, the Indian government is wrong to claim that Washington made a “subjective” or baseless judgment. The US based itself on findings of our own Supreme Court and National Human Rights Commission!

Third, it is incorrect to invoke Mr Modi’s status as a “constitutional authority” (which he is not), or even a duly elected chief minister. Mr Modi was not acting constitutionally, but in violation of the Constitution when he instigated the violence that led to the killing of 2,000 innocent citizens and the rape of thousands. That is the material fact here.

The US is not hostile to the BJP. It bears recalling that the first Bush administration reacted to the Gujarat violence without outrage and serious concern. On the contrary, it coddled the BJP. Unlike the European Union, the US did not issue a protest demarche to India. And Mr Modi boasted of similarities between President Bush’s campaigning style and himself!

Finally, while we must always guard against, and counter, the US’ abuse to imperial ends of the enormous power it holds, it is important to comprehend that it is not the Bush administration that took the initiative in the present case. Rather, the initiative was taken by US-based NRI civil society activists who have long been campaigning for secular causes.

The US revoked Mr Modi’s visa under Section 212(a)(2)(G) of the Immigration and Nationality Act “for carrying out severe violations of religious freedom.” The accuracy of the assessment is indisputable. At least 20 independent inquiries by Indian jurists and scholars have found Mr Modi guilty of instigating and guiding the Gujarat pogrom.

Serious crimes of the kind that Mr Modi committed demand universal corrective action, including boycotts and visa denials everywhere. Perpetrators of genocide should be shunned by all countries. The issue of justice transcends considerations of state sovereignty. In fact, sovereignty does not vest in states. It vests in people. It must never be invoked as a shield to protect horrendous wrongdoing and gross human rights violations.

The world has only made modest progress towards establishing criminal liability at the international level. Most states are notoriously unwilling to abridge the notion of absolute sovereignty sanctified in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. The most important abridgments lie in the Geneva Conventions, conventions like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and disarmament agreements, and the International Criminal Court which is designed to try crimes against humanity. But the ICC is opposed by the US, China and India, among others, and remains ineffectual.

The world must do better. The slap delivered to Mr Modi is a step in that direction. But it’s more. For one, it underscores the crying need to bring the guilty of Gujarat to book-through systematic and earnest prosecution, which demands rectifying defects deliberately introduced in recording FIRs. For another, it’s a reminder that if a state fails to punish crimes against humanity, the world can and must intervene. That’s why Slobodan Milosevic is on trial and Pinochet has been indicted in numerous countries for crimes committed in the 1970s and 1980s-despite his old age. And for a third, India must not take refuge under words like “due process”, which it says, the US has not followed. India has itself failed on due process in Gujarat-as in Delhi in the 1980s, and Kashmir in the 1990s.

The Modi visa issue should become an opportunity to draw global attention to the persecution of religious minorities and the need to punish it effectively. Bringing Mr Modi to book means abjuring the temptation to take a chauvinist or jingoist position. Nationalism is no defence against genocide. (Navhind Times)

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