Who lit the fires?

Days of rioting later, northeast Delhi lies battered and bruised. Its battles are now being fought in court rooms and Parliament where there’s a blame game on. Who lit the fires? How could a street clash over the new citizenship law turn communal, claim the lives of over 50, that too in the national Capital?

The explanations proffered, the claims and counter claims reflect the divide over a law that has convulsed the country for three months now, drawing international attention to the protests on the streets and the pushback from those aligned with the ruling party.

Delhi bristled when the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet Jeria, informed India’s Permanent Mission in Geneva that she intends to file an intervention application in the Supreme Court on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act because “an examination of the CAA in the present case raises important issues with respect to international human rights law and its application to migrants, including refugees”.

The OHCHR, mandated by the General Assembly to promote and protect all human rights for all people, has underlined the “potential implications for the application and interpretation of India’s international human rights obligations, including the right to equality before the law and the prohibition of discrimination as well as the CAA’s impact on the protection of human rights of migrants, including refugees in India.”

The response from the Ministry of External Affairs has been on expected lines, sharp and swift. Rejecting any intervention, it said the CAA is an internal matter of India and no foreign party has any locus standi on issues pertaining to its sovereignty.

But India can ill-afford to ignore, insulate itself from growing concerns all around. The communal violence in Delhi has even drawn condemnation from Iran, an old friend with ties going back centuries. No less than its Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has told India that it runs the risk of isolation in the Islamic world if it is unable to stop the attacks on its Muslim population. There’s no mistaking the message, the wake-up call: India must protect its minority population, not allow any discrimination.

Let it not be lost that it was India which, in 1946, dragged South Africa to the United Nations, and lodged a former complaint over state-sanctioned racial discrimination against Indians in South Africa. Field Marshal Jan Smuts, Premier of South Africa, defending the policies of his government, cited domestic jurisdiction – read internal matter – to oppose India’s complaint. But the General Assembly voted to go with India and told the Smuts government that its treatment of minority South African Indians must be in line with the basic principles of the UN Charter.

India’s initiative which led to global criticism of South Africa’s racial segregation made Smuts rethink his policy. He went on to back the Fagan Commission recommendation that a stabilised population of African workers must be allowed in urban areas for the creation of a
reliable workforce. By then, Smuts’ popularity had declined and his support for a permanent African workforce was used by the rival National Party and its leader Daniel Malan to oust him from power in the 1948 elections.

It was the Malan government that steeled the apartheid policy in White South Africa and India continued to oppose it. Such was the Indian stand against segregation and discrimination that it forfeited a Davis Cup final against South Africa in 1974 – many still believe that the Amritraj brothers would have brought home the Cup had the Indian government not been so firm on boycotting any contact with apartheid South Africa. India refused to travel to South Africa for the final, and the Cup was awarded to South Africa. India waited another 19 years to restore ties with South Africa, opening a culture centre in the country in 1993 after the end of apartheid.

Incidentally, 1993 was also the year of the birth of the OHCHR, the very organisation that has now riled India with its wake-up call. That year, the international community, at the World Conference on Human Rights, decided to “establish a more robust human rights mandate with stronger institutional support. Accordingly, Member States of the United Nations created OHCHR by a General Assembly Resolution in 1993”.

In a globalised world, India can no longer cite domestic jurisdiction to shut out international concerns. It must engage, assure the world that it is taking steps to protect its social fabric, its credentials of a vibrant, throbbing, secular democracy with enough space for dissent and divergent views.
On the home front too, the worries persist. A riot in the national Capital is no good news, for any government. There are enough pointers to the deepening of the divide, a growing distrust about the neutrality of law enforcement agencies, the intent of political parties which failed to act against their own who fuelled passions with inflammatory speeches or simply watched from the margins as a part of Delhi got singed.

The government must not delay the discussion in Parliament on the Delhi violence. Charges will fly thick and fast, the blame game will run its course but calls for accountability, addressing concerns and restoring confidence of people in institutions cannot be ignored.