The state department of the United States of America does not normally circulate statements by its individual ambassadors, but a rare exception was made when the victim of the horrific assault in a moving bus in New Delhi on December 16 died in Singapore.
This departure from the routine struck those who follow events in Foggy Bottom — the seat of the state department — as significant because it came on a Saturday. Not just any Saturday, but on a weekend of a cycle when many Americans and other Westerners take their holidays from Christmas eve to New Year.
It is not uncommon for governments to say something about an incident that has taken place in another corner of the world because countries have to be seen or heard making a comment for the record. Many of such diplomatic statements are neither here nor there, and do not mean anything much. But not what Nancy Powell said on Saturday.
Hillary Clinton’s state department has often been cavalier with words, but Powell demonstrated in 71 words last Saturday that she understands India better than most previous American ambassadors in New Delhi. More importantly, she showed that she is willing, more than many of her counterparts around the world, to defer to the sensitivities of the host country.
When Anna Hazare began his fast against corruption in August 2011, the state department gave India some gratuitous advice and told the United Progressive Alliance government to “exercise appropriate democratic restraint” in dealing with the agitation against graft. “As you know, we support the right to peaceful, non-violent protest. That said, India is a democracy, and we count on India to exercise appropriate democratic restraint in the way it deals with peaceful protest,” Victoria Nuland, the department’s spokesperson, said at her daily briefing.
India did not, naturally, take kindly to her advice. The ministry of external affairs responded swiftly: “We have seen the needless comments by the US state department spokesperson on handling of peaceful protests in India. Freedoms of speech and expression, as well as, of peaceful assembly, are enshrined in the Constitution of India and exercised by citizens of this country of 1.2 billion people,” Nuland’s Indian counterpart said.
Manish Tewari, now minister of state with independent charge of information and broadcasting, threw the weight of the Congress party as its then spokesperson behind South Block’s response. “We do wish the state department spokesperson checked up facts, the context and the ground reality before making these sweeping generalizations which have no basis at all,” Tewari said, adding that Nuland was “completely oblivious to Indian reality.”
Saturday’s American statement on the gang-rape victim was not meant to make a point. It reflects an alarm that has gone round the world following revelations in the last fortnight that the treatment of women in India is a challenge to the country’s claim to be civilized, let alone its longstanding reputation as a cradle of one of the world’s greatest civilizations. Powell realizes that criticizing India may make Washington look good at a time like this and that it will please certain constituencies back in her homeland. But at the end of the day, it will only annoy those in India who need to act on the challenge. Also, it is certain to make the government dig in its heels in the face of criticism from abroad even if it does not react as it did in August 2011, only because the country’s statistics on rape can make any Indian cringe into silence.
So the Americans confined themselves to the praiseworthy effort to offer “heartfelt condolences” to the family of the woman who died as a result of the monstrous attack on her in a moving bus. Very smartly, Powell made the point that violence against women was a global problem. The aim of her statement, therefore, was to “recommit ourselves to changing attitudes” towards women. “As we honour the memory of this brave young woman, we also recommit ourselves to changing attitudes and ending all forms of gender-based violence, which plagues every country in the world,” her statement said.
Amidst the welter of emotions triggered by the death of the 23-year-old gang-rape victim and the ‘India Spring’ of sorts that the incident has brought on in many cities, it is easy to miss the worldwide impact of the shame the country heaped on itself on December 16. Not since the nuclear tests of 1998 has any news out of India created such ripples abroad as the capital’s gang-rape.
There was no surprise, therefore, when Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, like the Americans on a Saturday, reminded the world in the wake of the New Delhi horror that “every girl and woman has the right to be respected, valued and protected.”
Ban Ki-moon has dealt with India during his six years as the UN secretary-general as if India is one of the big powers. He has been sensitive to India’s concerns, except on a solitary occasion. He had Indian advisers right at the heart of the decision-making process in his 38th floor office at the UN headquarters during his first term. He has been accessible to all varieties of visitors from India, not the least because he cut his teeth as a South Korean diplomat in his country’s embassy in the capital’s diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri and his son-in-law is an Indian. Ban condoled the death of the student victim and his statement was innocuous on the face of it, but there is a message between his lines that must not be missed. While politicians, many of them caught off guard by the spontaneity of popular anger at violence against women, bicker over what to do next, the secretary-general has offered a modest agenda for action without being prescriptive.
“The secretary-general welcomes the efforts of the government of India to take urgent action and calls for further steps and reforms to deter such crimes and bring perpetrators to justice,” Ban’s spokesperson said on Saturday. “He also encourages the government of India to strengthen critical services for rape victims.” That made up the core of his approach.
But most important of all, Ban offered the services of UN bodies in this effort. “UN Women and other parts of the United Nations stand ready to support such reform efforts with technical expertise and other support as required.” UN Women is the world body’s designated Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women that was established in 2010 for accelerating progress on meeting the needs of women worldwide and for achieving equality between women and men as partners and beneficiaries of development and human rights. It has Indians in its senior leadership.
Ban’s offer of UN help is well-intentioned, but how did it come to this? Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi saw their beloved country as a leader at the UN, offering assistance to the world body to grow, providing vital support in areas ranging from peace-keeping to the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, but most of all, being unstinted in creating a moral aura in areas like decolonization and ending apartheid. While doing so, they also kept the UN out of their country’s own hair. It is a sad commentary on the state of the country that after decades of such leadership on the global stage, India is now being offered help to protect its women from the vilest of crimes.
Some years ago, a European diplomat married to a Bengali narrated a story about his first visit to Tennessee. He was sitting in a bar one evening and a white American was curious about the rare brown face seated next to him on a bar stool sipping Scotch instead of the more popular Straight Bourbon or Southern Comfort that are imbibed liberally in the South.
“Where are you from?” the white man asked the Bengali. “I am from India,” the latter replied. “India… India,” the American said to himself unable to figure out where the country was or what it represented. “Is India to the west of Tennessee or to the east?” He had finally formulated his key to the puzzle. “India is to the east of Tennessee,” the Bengali answered with a straight face. Having thus established India’s credentials, the American then proceeded to have a further conversation with his Bengali neighbour.
It is not unusual to find Americans who know absolutely nothing about India, especially those Americans who are far away from the enchantment of New York, Washington or San Francisco. Stories about sex and violence have a way of creating lasting impressions, and stories about the gang-rape in New Delhi have filled television screens and dominated radio news here for more than a week. It would not be surprising, but immensely sad, if the Bengali in question is asked the next time he is in some place like Tennessee: “India… India, isn’t that the country where women are regularly raped?”