This has not been the best season for New Delhi's "chhavi" managers. Just when freak late-winter storms shook much of the U.S., stories and pictures of Disha Ravi's arrest began to trouble America's significant pro-India community. As one large U.S. network, NBC News, puts it, "A 22-year-old climate activist has emerged as a symbol of the Indian government's crackdown on dissent."
No matter their race or country, young environmentalists are loved in the U.S. Millions of American youth see Sweden's Greta Thunberg, with whom Disha Ravi has been accused of joining hands, as a role model. The picture is probably not very different in Europe, Canada, Australia or Japan, or indeed in any other part of the world. Like it or not, 18-year-old Greta Thunberg has come to symbolize something widely nursed: concern for our planet's future.
For India's government to be seen as confining Disha Ravi behind bars for allegedly encouraging Greta Thunberg to show sympathy for protesting farmers has probably undone months of diplomatic work. Understandably, the government in New Delhi and its embassy and consulates in the U.S. have been trying for month to persuade members of the Biden administration that the Modi Government shares most of their pro-democracy values.The memory of earlier displays of Trump-Modi camaraderie had required this diplomatic toil, which will now need to be resumed all over again. The task will not be easy. NBC has informed its large American audience that "Ravi's arrest prompted protests throughout [India] and renewed concerns of an authoritarian backlash to the farmers' protests that have rocked the country." The perseverance of India's protesting farmers had already been noticed by the U.S. media. The prickly and harsh reaction to a pair of tweets by two young female climate activists will not only not be quickly forgotten; the reaction will probably direct more sympathetic attention towards the farmers and the reasons for their continuing protests.
America's pro-India community includes many in the U.S. Congress and administration. These men and women are now likely to absorb the fact that the laws being opposed by India's farmers were promulgated through a woefully insufficient democratic process. Some of these influential Americans may also notice that India's farmers have calmly, clearly and fearlessly done what most other sections in India have so far hesitated to do. They have responded to pressures from the government with a peaceful and firm "No."
It is of course true that, like the previous administration, this one under Biden wants India's support. Across their sharp divides, Americans see Xi Jinping's China as their biggest adversary, and India as a natural counterweight. The picture of India as a core constituent of the U.S.-India-Japan-Australia Quad is shared by America' strategic community, and also by a wider community of Americans believing in the virtues of democracy.
The U.S. needs and takes support from other countries, too, from, for example, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, but it will be a sad day when India is content to be merely "useful" to the U.S. The common cherishing of pluralism and democracy is a deeper bond between India and America, and one which the new U.S. administration values more than the previous one did.
Even the Trump administration did not object to a comment or tweet where a private Indian criticized Washington's policies, or supported American critics of Trump. The extreme touchiness and roughness displayed by New Delhi in respect of the tweets by Disha Ravi and Greta Thunberg reveal the fragility in the Indian government's commitment to democracy.
Perhaps our courts will rescue the freedom of expression of young activists?
I may be allowed to point out that the above-mentioned fragility was also revealed in the mildness of the language of concern expressed by India's Ministry of External Affairs when Myanmar's military arrested Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party had clearly won in the country's recent elections. Unless I have missed something, the ongoing (and seemingly ruthless) suppression of popular protests there has not so far drawn protests from our government.
Daw Suu Kyi was rightly criticized for her failure, when she had considerable clout, to protect her country's Rohingya when they were targeted by state-supported mobs. That, or other failures on her part, cannot possibly justify the dispatch of tanks to flout a popular vote, or her arrest, or the arrest of President Win Myint, or the imprisonment of numerous others. Nor can India's silence be defended by the reasoning that Myanmar's military should feel that it has non-Chinese well-wishers as well. Some at least may remember that in her youth Daw Suu Kyi enjoyed deep personal links with India and some of its colleges. Of far greater moment is the elimination of democratic rights in an entire land in our immediate neighborhood.
Not surprisingly, the Biden administration has imposed sanctions on Myanmar's military leaders. It is planning further steps to show its opposition to the suppression of dissent, and has used strong language to criticize the shooting down of protesters.
Much goes into the making of a country's "chhavi". While there is little evidence that peaceful protests hurt a nation's global image, and even less evidence that a couple of tweets can sully it, there is ample proof that silencing people, whether by imprisonment or by bullets, can damage it in the eyes of all in the world who love democracy.
(Rajmohan Gandhi is presently teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.)
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