What India’s silence about Xinjiang at the UNHRC says about itself

Indra Mani Pandey, the Indian speaker at the UNHRC meeting held on 6 October. India’s abstention on a crucial vote about the human rights situation in China’s Xinjiang province says more about its internal policy rather than long-maintained principles in foreign policy. COURTESY UNITED NATIONS
13 October, 2022

India’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which does not support the West’s strident line, has attracted a lot of commentary, from explanations rooted in history and geopolitical realism to the country’s pressing economic and security interests. Consequently, the West has been considerate in understanding India’s predicaments, providing New Delhi the space to uphold its longstanding relationship with Moscow and simultaneously further its growing ties with western capitals. A similar consideration is unlikely to be available to India for its recent vote on the Xinjiang issue at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, allowing China to barely avoid embarrassing public scrutiny.

Last week’s draft resolution on “holding a debate on the situation of human rights in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China,” presented by a core group consisting of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States, was rejected in the 47-member council. New Delhi was one of the 11 abstentions, with no explanatory statement for its vote at the council. A day later, an Indian foreign-ministry spokesperson stated that India had taken note of the assessment of human-rights concerns in Xinjiang and hoped that “the relevant party will address the situation objectively and properly.” He justified the abstention as being “in line with our long-held position that country-specific resolutions are never helpful. India favours a dialogue to deal with such issues.”

The ministry’s excuse is not borne by facts. During this Geneva meeting itself, India voted on two country-specific resolutions, on Ethiopia and Afghanistan. In 2012 and 2013, India voted on resolutions in the council against Sri Lanka on war crimes. Moreover, the idea that the current ultra-nationalist government led by Narendra Modi is dictated by precedents of the past militates against the regime’s fundamental premise of establishing a “New India” by discarding past practices. Two and a half years after losing control over territory to China in the contested Ladakh region, with Beijing unequivocally refusing to revert to the situation as it existed before April 2020, the situation is unprecedented enough to throw precedence—if one existed—out of the window. 

Astonishingly, last week’s utterance by the foreign ministry was reportedly India’s first ever official statement on Xinjiang. The Modi government has been equally reticent and guarded in its comments on Hong Kong and Taiwan. Even the minister of external affairs, S Jaishankar, known for using his tongue sharply against western democracies on various issues, has carefully avoided declaring India’s position on the Uyghurs—the Turkic ethnic group that calls Xinjiang home. To a media question posed abroad last year, he said, “I don’t know if you are going to get a perspective from me as I have enough issues with China as it is. I would rather focus on the issues that are already on my plate.”

The UNHRC is less about human rights and more a forum for power plays and global geopolitics at the best of times. Jaishankar has boasted of a strong realist line being the defining feature of Modi’s foreign policy, which would rationally mean putting Beijing under pressure on the Xinjiang issue at the council. Not only has the Chinese leadership snubbed the Modi regime with regards to control over strategically vital territory in Ladakh, India has also got no reciprocal consideration from China at multilateral forums during discussions on Kashmir or on sanctioning Pakistan-based terrorists. Modi’s failure to pay Beijing back in kind on Xinjiang is driven by reasons that are deeply revelatory about today’s India.

Foremost among the reasons is an Indian insistence on its own sovereignty when it comes to international intervention on human rights. As a postcolonial developing nation, India was always wary of humanitarian issues being used by powerful countries as an excuse to dictate policies to it or its newly independent compatriots. For years, India bristled at any hint of a multilateral statement or scrutiny of its actions in Kashmir, where New Delhi’s policies over the past three decades have not held up to the values espoused in the Constitution. Modi’s policies in Kashmir have been even more heavy-handed, with a bar on the entry of foreign journalists and a systemic targeting of local independent journalists through draconian laws. In a questionable move, the state was downgraded to two union territories in 2019 and has had no democratic representation since.

Much to India’s chagrin, United Nations special rapporteurs have issued strong statements about the human-rights situation in Kashmir. Such is the Indian sensitivity on Kashmir that a statement by the German foreign minister, in a joint press conference with her Pakistani counterpart, got a hyperventilating rebuttal from the Indian foreign ministry. The use of the term “Azad Kashmir” for Pakistan-administered Kashmir by the US ambassador to Pakistan after a recent visit to the region also earned an objection from the ministry.

The argument used by the Chinese foreign ministry that “issues related to Xinjiang are not related to human rights there but are countering violent terrorism, radicalisation and separatism” is eerily similar to the language of “international terrorism, especially of a cross-border nature” in Kashmir, used by New Delhi while rebuking the German foreign minister. By allowing Xinjiang to be open for scrutiny on human rights, India fears that it is opening itself to a similar possibility on Kashmir. This is a situation New Delhi wants to avoid at all costs, even if it means giving Beijing a free pass at a critical moment.

Under the Hindu nationalist regime in power in today’s India, the religious denomination of the Uyghurs, who are mostly Muslim, also matters to decision-making. Since 2014, India has been behaving as a de facto Hindu Rashtra, even as it remains a secular republic de jure. Besides the oppression in the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir and the targeting of Muslims in the rest of India, as has been noted by the US Commission on International Religious Freedoms in its reports for the past three years, New Delhi has been hesitant to take up causes of oppressed Muslims abroad. In the case of recent communal violence in the British city of Leicester, the Indian government formally took up the case of only Hindu groups, even though many Muslims in the area are also of Indian origin.

In the citizenship law that Modi’s government brought in 2019, Muslims from other South Asian states were specifically excluded from its humanitarian provisions. Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have been constantly demonised and harassed by Indian authorities, while Muslims from Taliban-run Afghanistan—even those belonging to targeted sectarian minorities—have been denied visas for education, medical care and other important purposes. Harshly put, Indian solidarity for human rights globally is now unfortunately circumscribed by its religious predilections.

All this is happening in an environment where China is India’s biggest strategic challenge, one that is keeping New Delhi under sustained pressure. There is a distinct possibility that the Modi government is operating out of a fear of provoking China, as witnessed with the Indian insistence on having strictly non-security items on the Quad agenda—a strategic dialogue between India, Australia, Japan and the United States. Already under pressure from Chinese military deployments and infrastructure construction on their shared disputed border, India is acting in a timorous manner. This also ensures that China does not see India to be acting in concert with, or at the behest of, the United States. It creates an environment of lessened distrust that could be a precursor to a resumption of talks with China on the Ladakh border crisis, perhaps after the national congress of the Communist Party of China ends later this month. It is a policy borne out of hope alone, more than any material changes in the relationship they share.

Whatever be the actual reasons, this approach raises questions about the Modi government’s willingness to safeguard India’s interests by standing up to China—particularly on issues where Beijing can be put under pressure. It is also a comment on the kind of values this “New India” seems to be espousing, away from the popular trope of “shared values” articulated by US officials trying to get India on their side in their contest against China. If neither interests nor values count, then the whetting stone of decision in New Delhi is being sharpened on a basis that does not portends well for those looking towards India. For Indians itself, it could be worse: adrift, like a ship without a mast or a compass.