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PREDICTABLY, the UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s speech at the United Nations on the occasion of Mahatma’s Gandhi’s birth anniversary, henceforth to be celebrated as International Day of Nonviolence, has generated somewhat cynical, if not derisive, reactions. In the well-honed tradition perfected by our leaders, Sonia Gandhi reminded the audience that while it is easy to laud Gandhi, living up to and practicing his ideals is far more difficult, both for individuals and states.

In itself, this is unexceptionable. Yet, though high sounding, empty rhetoric is par for course on such occasions, in a world where both state policy and everyday life is governed by self-interest and realpolitik, living a moral life, and that too by the high standards set by the Mahatma, appears near impossible. So why the clamour of dismay?

Is it because, we as Indians, find it difficult to swallow such exhortations by the representative of a family and party that many hold as responsible for the decline of standards in public life? Or is it also because, precisely at the moment that Sonia Gandhi was reminding the world of the enduring importance of Gandhian ideals, her government was maintaining a studied silence over the brutal crackdown on ‘peaceful’ pro-democracy protesters in neighbouring Myanmar. Even as the western world, and for once even the ASEAN states, were unequivocal in their condemnation of the military junta, often recommending further stringent sanctions against the regime, the Indian government preferred to hide behind an innocuous ‘No comment’, or worse, ‘This is an internal affair’.

Many sensitive Indians have been horrified by both the happenings in Myanmar – the brutal violence on ordinary citizens, including Buddhist monks, arbitrary arrests and detention, the shooting down of innocents – as also our official (non) response. Aung San Suu Kyi, in a world dominated by jaded public figures, represents a striking contrast, prepared to suffer for her beliefs and people. Many believe that she more than any other public figure represents the ideals and practice of the Mahatma.

What further causes dismay is the fact that she, and her family, have had strong links with India. Her father, Aung San, was a close associate of the stalwarts of our freedom struggle and Suu Kyi studied in Delhi. So, why our silence in the face of an unfolding tragedy, and that too in our neighbourhood? Surely a country which never tires of proclaiming its status as the world’s largest democracy and now wants to be recognized as an emergent regional power, should be able to act in a manner congruent with its proclaimed ideals and perceived status?

Without for a moment excusing the hypocrisy of our official position – be it studied silence or reliance on ‘quiet diplomacy’ – it might be worth asking what the Indian state can actually do to ease the horrifying situation in Myanmar. Do official statements of condemnation help to nudge the generals into a more accommodative policy? What will be the impact of further sanctions on a country and people already cutoff from the rest of the world? Will it perchance result in a more brutal crackdown? More starkly, does our understanding of national sovereignty permit space for humanitarian interventionism?

Or is it, as many suspect, more than concern about democracy in Myanmar, or the fate of those struggling for greater freedom and human rights, it is perceived ‘national self-interest’ that drives our policy. We are told that we need to be on the right side of the military junta because we need their cooperation against militant insurgents operating in our North-East; to access the petroleum and gas reserves of the country; even to not leave the field clear for the Chinese, the other Asian power that has so far refused to go along with the outrage over the developments in Myanmar.

Our foreign office mandarins, of course, are loath to admit that India does not have an active Myanmar policy, much less that we possibly have little leverage with the generals. In short, we are marginal players for whom silence is a preferred option. All this may well be true, though such explanations appear self-serving. What we seem to have missed out in such calculations of ‘national self-interest’ and ‘realpolitik’ is the loss of credibility with the pro-democracy elements – the activists who at some stage will either prevail or at least have to be accommodated in a new power configuration.

It seems pointless to belabour the point that had the Mahatma been alive today, he would have acted on the situation in Myanmar, even if it went against national interest. Or that our current leadership is incapable of bridging the gap between public exhortation and private action. Little surprise that attempts to appropriate Gandhi only generate public disbelief.

Harsh Sethi

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