In an interview where he focuses on three aspects of foreign minister S. Jaishankar’s recent speech at the UN General Assembly, Vivek Katju, a former secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs has said the speech “raises several deeply troubling questions”. Katju says Jaishankar has broken with India’s well-established diplomatic tradition by raising at the UN domestic differences and divisions over interpretations of history as well as over the way governments and prime ministers before Narendra Modi are viewed by the present regime. However, Katju repeatedly refused to say whether this was done deliberately or by accident or perhaps as a result of carelessness. Instead, he said, “I leave it to him” to explain, adding “I cannot read his mind”.
Katju also expressed great concern about a third point made by Jaishankar in his UNGA speech when the foreign minister said, referring to the prime minister’s five pledges, “We will liberate ourselves from a colonial mindset.” This, Katju pointed out, not only is tantamount to telling the UN that even after 75 years of independence India remains colonial and needs to be liberated but, perhaps more importantly, dismisses and throws in the dustbin India’s proud record of leading de-colonisation in the 1950s and 1960s. This is a record that won India high praise from leaders like Nelson Mandela, Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah as well as others like Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sukarno and even Josip Broz Tito.
Katju said: “India’s role in the entire de-colonisation process after the Second World War is one which this country can be justifiably proud of.” Now, after Jaishankar’s speech, people will wonder how a country which is still in a colonial mindset, as Jaishankar claims, could have led the de-colonisation process of the 1950s and 1960s. Rather than be proud of India’s role, Jaishankar has dismissed it and effectively thrown it in the dustbin.
The interview began with a discussion of Jaishankar’s statement that India is “rejuvenating a society pillaged by centuries of foreign attacks and colonialism”. The phrase “pillaged by centuries of foreign attacks” refers to the period starting with Muhammad of Ghor in the late 12th century and ending with the end of the Mughal Empire. It is, as Katju says, “a disparaging reference” to Muslim rule in India. But it’s also how the Modi government refers to this period at home. Why was it wrong to use this terminology at the UN? Katju explains this in detail in the interview.
Thereafter, the interview discusses Jaishankar’s claim that “India’s rejuvenation is … ‘reflected in more authentic voices and grounded leadership’”. The phrase “authentic voices and grounded leadership” is a disparaging reference to governments and prime ministers who ruled India before Modi. It suggests they were inauthentic and ungrounded. Again, this is how this government speaks of previous governments and of Nehru, in particular. Katju explains in detail why it is wrong to do so at the UN.
In this context, Katju argues that by calling earlier leaders inauthentic and ungrounded, Jaishankar is questioning the choices made by the Indian people in free and fair elections held on the basis of adult franchise. He, therefore, adds that what Jaishankar has done is present “an interpretation of democracy that troubles me”. He pointedly said: “No one should question the integrity of our election process.”
Katju said that he believes the foreign minister should clarify what he said and, in particular, his claim that India has a colonial mindset from which it needs to be liberated. However, in answer to a specific question, Katju said neither the foreign minister nor anyone from the ministry has got back to him with a defence of the foreign minister’s speech. Katju first wrote about this in The Hindu on October 7.