Atithidevo Bhava (the guest is equivalent to god) is an embarrassment in India today. Howsoever lofty its original resonance in the Taittiriya Upanishad, the Sanskrit aphorism has been jolted out of its pedestal by the experience of women tourists routinely gawked at by Mr. India and, in cases not few by any standards, molested and raped. The high and now hollow sounding formulation has, in current times, been given > a further pounding by the attacks on Africans studying, working and domiciled in India .
On the eve of his recent visit to Morocco and Tunisia, Vice-President Hamid Ansari described these incidents as “despicable”. The term was self-searingly honest. As were President Pranab Mukherjee’s words deploring the attacks at the recently-concluded meeting of Heads of Indian Mission. He too was about to embark on a tour of African countries. >External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Home Minister Rajnath Singh have done much damage control on this as well.
Question of racism But the unabashed racism underlying these scarring events will be a trouble to >Prime Minister Modi during his current visit to four African nations , Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya. We must wish him more than success in overcoming the resultant tension. The recent experience of Africans in India will be on his hosts’ minds and could well feature in the columns of newspapers and questions from independent media. Our Prime Minister is no stranger to tough questioning, and we can expect him to fend off the expected piquancy with the ‘steely coolth’ that is his signature style.
The Ministry of External Affairs is bound to have briefed him diligently, with its own suggestions ranging from ‘expression of unambiguous disapproval’, ‘sharing of deep and sincere regret’, ‘contextualising the episodes — and they are only episodes, Sir — against the ages’-old tradition of mutual respect’, ‘aberrant incidents’, ‘the infernal presence of drug cartels’, and of ‘the most active pursuing of investigation into the happenings’. His hosts will observe our own Atithidevo Bhava instinct and not continue with the subject.
Prime Minister Modi is not from the Gandhi and Nehru school, and so he will not say, as those two might have in these circumstances, that India is a land of many human types, some of who, unfortunately, are of a singularly prejudiced bent of mind, steeped in race-bias, colour-bias and the narrowest of narrow insularity.
He will not say that because he has not been advised to do what those two might have done, and what Nelson Mandela would have liked to see him do, which is to have convened a meeting of ‘foreign students’ in India, asked them what they would like to see being done to increase their sense of comfort and security, and expressed the nation’s remorse for what has happened.
Interpreter of India Remorse? From the Prime Minister? How utterly preposterous! Is how the Indian mandarinate would respond. A Prime Minister of India showcases India, he does not shame it. He unfurls India, proclaims its strengths, its triumphs. And when he goes abroad, he does so with his head held high in self-confidence, not turned down in self-doubt. So would our mandarins say.
But a Prime Minister of India is not just a head of government. He is also the head of a diverse and frequently divergent family and in that role becomes something of an interpreter of India, a sociologist, an anthropologist — indeed, a philosopher. And frankness, introspection, open-ness to criticism are attributes of reflection. From Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation enjoining his fellow citizens to repent for “our national perverseness and disobedience to God” during the Civil War and asking forgiveness for the sins that led to so many deaths, to an expression of remorse last year by Japanese Emperor Akihito for the atrocities of the Japanese military in World War II, and, this year, Pope Francis’s apology to the LGBT community, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology for the Komagata Maru episode (which we in India have lauded), there are great instances of contrition from ‘the Crown’.
But, no, our Prime Minister is not an Angela Merkel who in a stunning speech in Israel apologised for the Holocaust, nor a Kevin Rudd who apologised — the first Australian Prime Minister to do so — for his country’s maltreatment of the aboriginals. He is Narendra Modi. He has gone to Africa as he has gone elsewhere, not to reflect on the human condition, but as India’s new CEO, its architect, engineer, master-technocrat, the human equivalent of a fighter jet, an aircraft carrier, a nuclear submarine, a missile, its lunar explorer, Mars orbiter. Above all, as an economic titan who has done business with the behemoth heads of Microsoft, Facebook, Google.
Economic ties, commodity trade, investment, maritime and civil aviation ties will ‘dominate’ his meetings with business hosts now indistinguishable, globally, from government hosts. Trade exchange rather than an exchange of ideas and money dividends, not valuational draws, will take the bulk of his time. Security from the grim reality of Islamic State terror will have to be and will be at the core of dialogues. And all this will be more than welcome to his hosts, who are as governed by the winds of the day as we are.
It is human nature and diplomatic practice to focus on the pleasant, on ‘areas of convergence’. It feels good to do so. But there are areas, far from pleasant, which should be discussed by an Indian Prime Minister visiting African states. Not just far from pleasant, they are inconvenient — to us. That is, we show up poorly in those issues which Nehru would have discussed with Mandela, Nyerere, Kenyatta. The future of world peace, for instance, and disarmament.
When security collaboration is going to be at the head of the agenda, there is no chance of disarmament being even mentioned, let alone discussed. But it would be sobering for Prime Minister Modi to recall that South Africa, under the newly-installed government of Nelson Mandela joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and seven weeks later the country signed a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Had Mandela and Sisulu, not Jacob Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa, been his hosts, our Prime Minister could have expected to be asked in Pretoria: is there anything that India and Pakistan can do next year, the 70th anniversary of their founding, to startle the world by a new bilateral agreement on nuclear arms limitation?
Two inconvenient issues There are two other issues which we can be certain will not be raised during Prime Minister Modi’s African tour, either by the visiting or the hosting side. The reason is simple: they are civilisational, not commercial. And they are inconvenient.
The first is the death penalty. Death penalty? Why, of all subjects, should this be discussed in Africa? For the simple reason that in three of the four countries he is visiting, namely, Mozambique, South Africa and Kenya, the death penalty now belongs to the past, the first two having abolished it by law and the third stopped it de facto. With 385 persons, as on date, on its active death row, India is behind these three countries. And Asia as a whole is behind Africa. The Continental Conference on the Abolition of the Death Penalty in Africa in 2014 recognised the trend towards abolition and asked African countries to support the abolition of the death penalty in Africa.
The matter is not theoretical. It is integral to any discussions on terrorism. One of the main justifications advanced for retaining the death penalty is that it acts as a deterrence against terror. But does it really? By making martyrs of terrorists, it makes role models of them for ‘the cause’. And does the death penalty have any value against men who are not just prepared to, but want to die for their cause? What abolitionist Africa feels on this is important for us to know.
The second is the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (commonly known as the United Nations Convention against Torture). India signed the Convention in October 1997 during the Prime Ministership of Inder Gujral, but it has yet not ratified it. Neither the two NDA governments nor the two UPA governments thought fit to ratify it. Tanzania too has neither signed nor ratified it. Mozambique, Kenya and South Africa have, all three, signed and ratified it. Why are we behind them? What are our constraints? Is it discomfort with external inspection? Home Ministry advice? A habituation to the ‘third degree’?
If torture is savage, Africa is civilisationally ahead of Asia and, more specifically, these three countries are ahead of India. Africa’s ‘sense’ of India is two-fold: it has great admiration for the political support it has received from India’s leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru in particular. But it has anything but admiration for commercial India’s glad-eyeing of its resources, for the latent racism of large sections of its people. It has great scepticism about present-day India’s craving for superpower status. Africa knows India and Indians. It knows them all too well.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a former Governor of West Bengal, is distinguished professor of history and politics, Ashoka University. He was also India’s High Commissioner to South Africa and Lesotho.