On Tuesday, Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, decided comment on the ongoing farmer's protests in India. "The news coming out of India about the protest by farmers is concerning and we are all worried about family and friends. I knew that is a reality for many of you," Trudeau said, adding, "Let me remind you, Canada will always be there to defend the rights of peaceful protests."
Two things were immediately obvious. One: Trudeau's remarks crossed the line about not commenting on another country's internal affairs that most world leaders respect. And two: Trudeau doesn't really give a damn about this line at least when it comes to India. After his disastrous visit here, he has clearly decided that it is much more important for him to pander to a domestic Sikh constituency than to bother about relations with India. So, no surprises there. And no surprises here either: South Block issued a statement objecting to the remarks. Various Indian leaders across political parties said that Canada had no business interfering in our internal affairs.
This was pretty much the same sort of response that Trudeau attracted during his visit to India when he dressed up as a bridegroom in a Punjabi shaadi video and brought along assorted Canadian Sikhs who India regarded as pro-Khalistan. South Block concluded that Trudeau was a shallow showboat who was less interested in improving relations with India than with bolstering his Sikh support in Canada. As one observer said at the time, "The man has never met a Khalistani he did not want to hug on the spot."
At that time, most Indians took the position that Trudeau had no business interfering in our internal affairs. This is a time-honoured position adopted by all sovereign nations and has always been the consensus view in India, across all parties. What surprised me this time was that the consensus was broken. Most politicians still adopted the line that Jawaharlal Nehru and the founders of our nation had articulated: nobody, especially the West, had any right to tell us how to run our own affairs. But many people on Indian social media supported Trudeau.
If you have been on Twitter as long as I have, you can usually identify the tweets that come from troll farms, IT cells and bots. This time too, we saw a war of the bots between pro and anti-Trudeau glove-puppets. But what intrigued me was how many otherwise liberal and moderate people-not bots or two rupee-tweeters - seemed to side with Trudeau on social media. The trolls farms worked to a script: if our Prime Minister could support Donald Trump and interfere in the US's internal affairs, then how could we object to Trudeau?
Another theme (emanating from many non-Indian accounts) was that India interfered in Bangladesh and Pakistan's internal affairs too. So who were we to complain? Once you got past the bots though, there seemed to be different concerns. Prashant Bhushan tweeted, "I am happy that Canadian PM Trudeau has spoken out for Right To Protest in a democracy & for our farmers rights. It is important for all leaders worldwide to stand up for the democratic rights of people in all nations. Those saying that this is an internal matter have got it all wrong."
Once upon a time, this sort of view would have been unthinkable or restricted to a tiny fringe. But this time around, it had considerable support. Judging by the views of the people I interacted with on social media (where I was abused for attacking Trudeau!), some of the support for foreign intervention (or critical commentary) came from a deep frustration at the way things are going in India. "Since we are now a majoritarian nation, we need the world to stand up for the rights of minorities" was a common response. Others pointed out that the government had changed the rules itself by vilifying minorities, by painting Muslims as traitors or fanatics and Sikhs as Khalistanis. In such a situation, said many people, and in the absence of any viable internal opposition, we would be mad to stop the rest of the world from interfering as India turned on its own citizens.
Personally, despite my lack of enthusiasm for this government and my empathy with the protesting farmers, I don't agree with any of this. I believe that whatever our differences, we must sort them out ourselves as any sovereign nation does. The West (or any other region) has no business telling us what to do. But sensing the strength of the (admittedly urban and liberal) feeling, I am starting to wonder if the Modi government has now gone too far (even by its own standards) in alienating minorities and driving frustrated moderates to desperation.
This is all the more important because I think that such situations will arise again and again in the near future. The Biden administration is almost certainly going to ask questions about Kashmir and about minority rights. Canada may be a country of little consequence in geopolitical terms but can we ignore the US at a time when the Chinese threat looms on our borders? Nor can we count on Indian-Americans to cheer along as they did at the ill-advised "Howdy Modi" rally. Polls suggest that the majority of Indian-Americans rejected Modi's support of Trump and voted for Joe Biden.
When the US starts asking questions, if public opinion in India is divided and many articulate Indian voices welcome global criticism, then the consequences for us could be dangerous.This is something we need to consider. Of course, Justin Trudeau was indulging in shameless politicking and of course we should condemn any interference in our internal affairs. But isn't it time the government paid more attention to domestic dissent? Isn't it time that the Sangh Parivar stopped demonising minorities in speeches and on social media? No matter what kind of India we want to see in the future, do we want to see one where moderates and minorities believe that their government has failed them so completely that the rest of the world must intervene?
Justin Trudeau is of as much consequence as Justin Beiber. But the Indian responses to his statements have me worried.
(Vir Sanghvi is a journalist and TV anchor.)
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