INDIA: A time for reflection 

“The significance of the protest was no longer defined by the number of people who take part, but by the issues it reflects,” said Hong Kong Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-Leung in a radio interview on the July 1 protests in Hong Kong, a pro-democracy icon in the region. It has been an interesting time for Hong Kong the past month, what with the July 1 march for universal suffrage preceded by an unexpected guest – whistleblower Edward Snowden choosing Hong Kong as the location to disclose his identity as the source of the leak in US surveillance secrets. These events form the context of this article, to reflect on recent protests, reverberating from those in Hong Kong.

As top-secret documents from the National Security Agency in the US were disclosed by Edward Snowden, and truths about the extent of US intelligence operations came to light, it was easy for the media to sensationalise the event and centre the story on the man seeking refuge from the most powerful country in the world. Yet, the Support Snowden rally in Hong Kong and in other parts of the world was not just a protest about one man and his rights; it was a protest about democracy and so much more, evolving differently in various contexts.

France and Germany lashed out at the US for its snooping activities, and Bolivia and other Latin American countries have joined forces against what they call “American imperialism”. It is interesting to see who and how many countries are taking their stance against the US, but it is even more intriguing to see how the debate about US surveillance of its friends and enemies has developed in national conversations.

“It is not actually snooping,” said the External Affairs Minister of India Salman Khurshid, in his defence of US surveillance activities which India is apparently the fifth most tracked country despite their diplomatic relations with the US. Amidst the international protests against the US for its extensive illegal surveillance which violate international norms, a fresh wave of dissent has emerged in India after this remark was passed. The Ministry of External Affairs tried to control the damage by dismissing their minister’s remarks which contradicted the initial official response that labelled US surveillance activities as an “unacceptable” violation of privacy. Yet, there was irreparable damage because this incident put the incoherence and contradiction of the Indian government in full view.

At a time when the sovereign integrity of a nation and the reliability of its alliances are questioned, the lack of a uniform voice from the government is disappointing. Other domestic political groups expressed disapproval of the Indian government’s “subservience towards the US and its contempt and disregard for civil liberties and citizen’s rights to privacy”, citing issues of “privacy, sovereignty, human rights” and accusing the US of “double standards” (quoted from an article in The Hindu). This protest in India against its government is a ripple effect of the initial protest started by Snowden in Hong Kong against his home government, but the issues it reflects involve a whole set of other issues, particularly domestic Indian problems.

Critics from other domestic political parties criticise the Indian government for its “contempt and disregard for civil liberties”, yet the very same people stall efforts on extending the Right to Information Act 2005, which protect the integrity of the democracy by ensuring an informed citizenry. If these domestic political parties are ready to hold the government accountable for violation of India and its citizens’ rights to privacy, a reflection of their argument would also implicate themselves for evading public scrutiny and failing to respect the right to information. The principles of accountability and transparency should be uniformly applied to public institutions to reflect consistency of the values that guide the democracy that India is supposed to be.

Instead, the “double standards” that an Indian critic accuses the US of is similarly practised in India. It is true that the right to privacy is a human right which the US has violated against international law, rendering its attempts to extradite Snowden based on the same laws hypocritical and self-defeating. However, turning the mirror inwards would reflect a poor domestic human rights record in India as well, one that shows a perpetuation of gross human rights violations in the supposedly largest democracy of the world. Torture and enforced disappearances, denial of the right to justice, and extrajudicial executions are but some of the problems that plague India till today. How and why India expects to be protected under the international norms which it disregards is a question which one struggles to answer.

It is interesting to see how one man’s protest against his home government has erupted into so many other conversations and illuminated more issues than originally intended. At the same time, one should not lose sight of what all that reflection means; the light that it sheds should prompt a re-examination and encourage countries to improve the image that they see.

About the author: Ms. Vivian Ng is a student at the Singapore Management University, and currently interning at the AHRC. The author can be contacted at

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-074-2013
Countries : India,
Issues : Democracy, Human rights defenders, Judicial system, Rule of law, Torture,