Just how liberal are we?

By Manoj Mitta (Times of India)

The peaceful conduct of yet another election reinforces India’s claim to being the world’s largest democracy. Although the electorate clearly rejected divisive and extremist forces, it is moot whether India can profess to be a liberal democracy as well. For, when it comes to governance, India has a rather mixed record on upholding liberal values.

One example of India’s failure to uphold liberalism within the country is its reluctance to give up its blanket ban on homosexuality, which I dealt with in my last blog. This time I would like to draw attention to a recent example of India’s failure to stand for liberal values at a global forum.

Two months ago at UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, India abstained from voting on a Pakistan-proposed resolution seeking to curtail freedom of speech in the name of combating “defamation of religions”. Devised by the powerful bloc of Islamic countries in the wake of the 9/11 backlash, this newfangled notion of defamation of religions threatens to redefine the larger concept of human rights as it seeks to shift the focus from protecting individuals to insulating groups from critical inquiry.

Yet, rather than opposing the retrograde resolution, India chose to be among the 13 fence-sitters in the 47-member HRC. Not surprisingly, the 23 countries that voted in favour of the resolution were predominantly Islamic, including of course Pakistan, while the 11 countries that opposed it were mostly liberal democracies from Europe. (The absence of the US in HRC is a legacy of the Bush administration’s overall policy of reducing its engagement with the UN.)
India, on its part, made no pretence of having any reservations about extending the purview of defamation to faith communities. If it still did not vote in favour of the resolution, it was only to protest the fact that Islam was the only religion specifically named as deserving protection. India conceded in effect that if the resolution moved by Pakistan had not been so focused on “Islamophobia”, it would have had no qualms in supporting the idea of casting criticism of religion as a human rights violation.

This is even after 200 civil society groups from across the world, including some progressive Muslim groups, called upon HRC to reject the call from Islamic countries for a global fight against defamation of religions. A conglomeration of believers, agnostics and atheists, these groups forewarned that the resolution might not only restrict freedom of speech and “academic study in open societies” but also be used to “silence and intimidate” human rights activists, religious dissenters and other independent voices.
Times of India for more

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