The colours of timidity
India's silence on the American race riots
- Published 6.05.15
The race riots in Baltimore took me back to Carmel-by-the-Sea, a stunningly beautiful California town of less than 4,000 people. The majority of this town's population was associated with the arts a century ago. Nowadays, during most of the year, especially in summer, tourists hugely outnumber local residents. An enterprising search in the style of similar American small cities can still locate watering holes patronized by locals in Carmel-by-the-Sea to the exclusion of shorts-and-T-shirts-clad, flip-flop-wearing seekers of sun and sand from far.
It is among elbow-lifters in such quaint establishments that I picked up stories about the town's one-time non-partisan mayor, Clint Eastwood, the actor and the rationale for Carmel's curious law banishing high-heeled shoes from footpaths. In the 1920s, the people of Carmel opted to preserve their town's uneven pavements rather than give in to ladies who wished to wear high heels to match their elegant dresses as they walked to its annual three-day celebration of Bach, the Carmel Shakespeare Festival or to the town's gourmet restaurants.
Not only this town, but all of the neighbouring Big Sur and the Monterey Peninsula - where Carmel nestles along with the impressionable Henry Miller Library in Nepenthe - is liberal. In 2003, as George W. Bush prepared to "shock and awe" Baghdad, I was greeted by a large banner as I drove up to the picture-postcard location of the Camaldoli Hermitage, a Benedictine monastery in Santa Lucia. The banner read: "Who Will Jesus Bomb?"
Even registered Republicans in Big Sur and the Monterey Peninsula endorsed gun control and same-sex marriage in large numbers during the years when George W. Bush campaigned and was re-elected to the White House by energizing the party's conservative base elsewhere. In 2008, as Barack Obama's first presidential campaign was heating up, I found that Carmel's residents who had gathered in the watering holes that they patronized were keen to discuss the potentially historic campaign by a black Democrat with a foreign correspondent who was visiting them from Washington.
It was disconcerting that their views on black Americans were worse than stereotypical. Without exception, locals at one bar had concluded that if Obama won the 2008 election, Americans of African descent would use the White House as an anchor to launch a race war. That did not happen, of course. If Obama lost, these locals then insisted, blacks would not accept the result. There would be challenges to the poll outcome as it happened in 2000 when Democrat Al Gore won America's popular vote and "hanging chads" held up Florida's election process to utter ridicule. But eight years later, Carmel residents feared, the fight would not be in the courts: blacks would resort to violence and seize power in Washington through a colour revolution similar to Ukraine, Lebanon, Georgia or Kyrgyzstan.
If this was the overwhelming view in a liberal, educated, coastal California community with a long history of involvement with theatre, literature, the visual arts and music, was it any surprise that there has been a spate of incidents across the United States of America of unarmed blacks being murdered by the very forces of State that stand for upholding the law and maintaining order? Baltimore was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. It was waiting to happen. The international community must actually share some blame for the present plight of African Americans. In retrospect, leaders of the 1950s and '60s like Jawaharlal Nehru, and in equal measure, African political and diplomatic stalwarts such as Sékou Touré, Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah and Kenneth Kaunda could have done their share to minimize the suffering that America's black community is going through at present.
During these decades, the work of the United Nations used to be summed up as the "3 Ds": decolonization, disarmament and development, in that order. In 1960, the UN general Assembly adopted resolution 1514 (XV) regarding the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which led to the creation of an influential panel for its implementation. This panel came to be known as the "Committee of 24" because it had 24 members.
Nehru had enough clout on the international stage in 1960 to have included America's black question in this committee on the ground that black people in the US were the African diaspora by extension and that they were not free. With the growing profile of men like Martin Luther King, such an argument in the UN general assembly would have been credible. Indeed, India had a moral commitment to have done this because the first chairman of the Committee of 24 was an Indian official, C.S. Jha. But Nehru and similarly conditioned African leaders abdicated this responsibility perhaps because their Western education and training did not condition them to look at diversity in American society as a vestige of colonialism in another form.
The UN is a rules-based organization. The negative side of this is that its day-to-day work is so dependent on technicalities that the fine print in its rules and conventions could block almost anything even if it is for the infinite good of mankind. So, among the practitioners of diplomacy who advised this country's first prime minister, there would have been enough objectors who would have blocked such a policy, standing up even to Nehru if at all he had thought on these lines.
But there is a precedent for similar action at the UN. Two decades after Nehru's death, the Committee of 24 had nearly achieved all its objectives: only a clutch of small items remained on its agenda. Namibia, East Timor, Western Sahara and other similar outstanding items may have been small in geographical terms, but they continued to rouse passions.
South Africa, of course, was the biggest issue of oppression and discrimination in global diplomacy until the early 1990s. Apartheid was a blot on human conscience and Nelson Mandela's continued incarceration by the white regime in Pretoria was a negation of the very principles on which the world body was founded. At the UN, the apartheid question in South Africa and issues associated with it were being handled by the UN's Special Political Committee even as South Africa has been a UN member since 1945. If there was will in South Block, the issue of African American oppression could have been similarly dealt with by this Special Political Committee.
Some noises were made from time to time, especially when the general assembly plenary was in session, but even when actions went beyond references to racism in the US, they lacked credibility that would have been associated with such actions had the non-aligned movement, for instance, lined up behind them. Even the Soviet Union, which made much of America's gun culture, did not seriously bother to pillory the US on the issue of violence against blacks except in the context of the civil rights movement. The only explanation is that Caucasian dominance in the Soviet State structure actually made this issue one solely of diplomatic expediency.
It is now largely forgotten that when the apartheid regime's oppressive Asiatic Land Tenure Act and the Indian Representation Act - which imposed severe new race restrictions on Indians in South Africa - came into force in 1946, India immediately banned import of goods from that country and vice versa. In the very first session of the general assembly, a resolution endorsing New Delhi's complaint of racial discrimination by South Africa against Indians was passed by a two-thirds majority.
India was on the threshold of Independence and the government of British India had sent a delegation to that general assembly led by Vijayalakshmi Pandit. Her phenomenally successful campaign for adopting that resolution was a factor that led to her election as president of the general assembly in 1953. It is a reminder to those who run the Narendra Modi government's foreign policy that fearlessness and a willingness to speak the truth brings diplomatic dividends. Timidity only produces the opposite results.
After several recent incidents in the US in which blacks have been victims of police brutality that culminated in violence in Baltimore, America's closest ally, Britain, felt necessary to speak out. "We call on the American regime to rein in the state security agents who have been brutalizing members of America's ethnic minority groups. The equal application of the rule of law, as well as the respect for human rights of all citizens, black or white, is essential for a healthy democracy," said a statement from the British Foreign Office.
Several other countries have done the same. But India has been silent - even after a report last week damning the Modi government by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom gave South Block an appropriate chance to speak its mind.