It is well-known that powerful Western governments use human rights as a tool to embarrass challengers like Russia and China, or bring developing countries like India and Sri Lanka to their heels. Countries at the receiving end see human rights issues raised by the powerful West as wilful attacks on their sovereignty, even though some of the criticisms may be justified and well meant.

In the process, the cause of human rights suffers, at a time when democracy is in decline and authoritarianism is gaining ground the world over.

The most recent example of an issue which was viewed differently is the arrest of Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. Commenting on it, the German government’s spokesman Sebastian Fischer said, “We assume and expect that the standards relating to independence of judiciary and basic democratic principles will also be applied in this case," adding that “like anyone else facing accusations, Kejriwal is entitled to a fair and impartial trial.”

But the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) took offence and summoned the German embassy's deputy chief of mission, Georg Enzweiler, "and conveyed its strong protest.”

"We see such remarks as interfering in our judicial process and undermining the independence of our judiciary. Biassed assumptions made on this account are most unwarranted. The law will take its course in the matter, as in all legal cases in the country, and elsewhere in the democratic world,” the MEA said.

This is not the first time a Western country had commented adversely on India’s rights situation and got an angry retort from India.

After the blockage of internet access in parts of Delhi and the Delhi police’s registering a case about a “foreign conspiracy” behind the farmers’ agitation in February 2021, a United States State Department spokesperson had said, "We recognise that peaceful protests are a hallmark of any thriving democracy, and note that the Indian Supreme Court has stated the same. We encourage that any differences between the parties be resolved through dialogue".

Some American celebrities like Rihanna had also castigated India for its actions against the farmers.

But the Indian External Affairs Ministry had chastised the critics. It had said, “Before rushing to comment on such matters, we would urge that the facts be ascertained, and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken. The temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible.”

During the Joe Biden’s first Presidential campaign, Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, strongly condemned New Delhi’s crackdown in Kashmir, the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam and the passage of an “anti-Muslim” Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), actions which triggered nationwide protests and riots in Delhi.

In December 2019, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar cancelled a meeting with the US House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) because it refused to exclude an Indian-origin Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, a vocal critic of India's policy on Kashmir.

The Indian government’s argument was that Jayapal was not a member of the Congressional panel, and that it was the HFAC which insisted on unilaterally bringing in a non-member for the meeting.

Leading Democratic Presidential aspirants Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and two other US lawmakers came out in support of Jayapal following Jaishankar's refusal to meet her. In his reaction, Jaishankar had said that he had "no interest" in meeting her.

India’s ire was due to the fact that Jayapal had introduced a Congressional resolution on Kashmir urging India to lift all the restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir imposed after the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5, 2019.

Doutje Lettinga and Lars van Troost have examined India’s stand vis-à-vis human rights in the world in their work entitled “Shifting Power and Human Rights Diplomacy, India.” It is a collection of papers brought out by Amnesty International Netherlands and edited by Lettinga and Troost.

According to the editors, India’s sensitivity stems from its eagerness to be seen as an emerging power with a legitimate claim to have a greater say in the existing institutions of global governance. India’s lobbying for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is an aspect of this ambition.

India’s claim to a permanent place in the UNSC is based on the fact that it ranks fourth in military power, third in terms of Gross Domestic Product, and second in population size.

Speculating on the consequences of India’s demand for a permanent place in the UNSC not being met, Lettinga and Troost say: “Many expect that the longer India is denied a permanent seat at the table, the less willing it will be to seek compromises in negotiations over international norms, rules and procedures and the more it will engage in forum shopping and bilateral agreements to advance its interests.”

“This may lead to increasing paralysis of international institutions and an inability to solve crises. But even when India’s quest to join the UN Security Council is successful, the work of today’s institutions of global governance will be transformed, perhaps beyond recognition,” the editors said.

They are not sanguine about India’s playing a role in the promotion of human rights because, in their view, India’s domestic human rights record is far from perfect.

Would India be in a position to lecture or assist other countries on human rights, when it is flouting its own human rights obligations at home, they ask.

In his paper in the volume, human rights researcher and activist Vijay Nagaraj warns that there would be serious social and human costs when India’s major power position is attained through a neoliberal policy agenda and an ethno-nationalist ideology that disadvantages the rights of the poor and minorities.

The interaction between government’s internal and external policy is of crucial importance for the promotion of human rights, the editors say.

No country, European Union or any other power, including India, can press another country to observe human rights if it does not protect human rights at home. Its prescriptions on human rights will not be accepted by others.

This will be seen when human rights issues are used as a disguise for other political objectives (as the US and the West do routinely), the editors of the volume say.

India is formally committed to human rights, as C. Raja Mohan said in his contribution. It is a signatory to various important international human rights treaties and has institutions meant to protect human rights.

But still, it struggles to implement this human rights framework and continues to be reluctant to protect human rights in the rest of the world, the editors point out.

India’s overriding commitment is to the protection of State sovereignty, the editors say. That commitment militates against supporting any form of external intervention by any country in another country.

This is clear from India’s reaction to calls for international intervention in the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka. Its plea has always been that domestic institutions should be enabled and encouraged to do the job.

As illustrated in the essays of Matthew Stephen and Rohan Mukherjee, India often abstains or opposes the UN’s denunciatory resolutions or independent international investigations into the violations of governments.

In terms of voting behaviour on United Nations’ resolutions, India often resembles the approach of China and Russia, the writers point out.

The sum and substance of the argument of Doutje Lettinga and Lars van Troost is that India’s overriding commitment is to the protection of its national sovereignty, and by extension, to the national sovereignties of other nations, especially of those of the Global South which are coming out of the shackles of Western dominance.

From the standpoint of the emerging nations, any outside intervention, even for the sake of human rights, is unwarranted. This is based on the theory that nations should be allowed to fashion their destinies in tune with their objective conditions, culture and traditions, rather than on non-indigenous values.