The Platform

Congress party supporters protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in 2019 in Guwahati, India.

India does really well at shielding itself from international criticisms over its human rights record.

Despite being celebrated as the world’s largest democracy, at least on paper, and one of the most rapidly expanding economies, India is mired in deep-seated issues. These issues include systemic human rights abuses, social unrest, and trade protectionism. In recent years, the European Union and others have criticized India’s domestic and foreign policies. How does India answer these condemnations, and what implications might they hold for its future on the global stage?

The EU, one of India’s largest trading partners, has voiced concerns over the decline in the rule of law, democracy, and human rights within India. Concerns have especially escalated in the backdrop of the pandemic, the contentious Citizenship (Amendment) Act, increasing suppression of dissent and free speech, and a surge in communal violence and discrimination against minorities.

Human Rights Watch argues that Brussels should prioritize human rights issues within India over economic matters. “Despite the considerable deterioration in the country’s human rights record under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Indian government has effectively shielded itself from the international scrutiny and reactions that the seriousness of the situation should have warranted. Focusing on strengthening trade and economic ties with India, the European Union and its member states have been reluctant to formulate public expressions of concern on human rights in India, with the exception of occasional statements focused solely on the death penalty.”

Putting aside the issue of human rights abuses within India, Brussels has called out India’s protectionist steps like high tariffs, non-tariff barriers, subsidies, and local content prerequisites, which have impacted EU exports and investments. The EU contends that India’s trade policies clash with its commitments under the World Trade Organization, threatening the sustainability of a rule-based multilateral trading system.

Despite their differences over India’s human rights records, both the EU and India have expressed eagerness to ink a free trade agreement, particularly in the face of an evolving global economic landscape and challenges resulting from China’s ascendancy. The EU regards India as a significant ally in championing a green and digital shift, enhancing multilateralism, and fortifying regional stability. India, on the other hand, sees the EU as a fountainhead of technology, investment, and innovation, and as a counterbalance to China’s clout. Yet, unless both parties manage to bridge their differences on human rights and trade matters, this potential alliance could remain unfulfilled.

The EU’s critical observations concerning India’s human rights abuses and protectionist policies signal escalating international scrutiny of India’s domestic and international conduct. This scrutiny challenges India’s aspiration to emerge as a global force that can mold the international order to its interests and values. Balancing its economic development objectives with its democratic principles, and its national sovereignty with global duties, will be critical for India. For its part, the EU will need to devise strategies to interact with India constructively and respectfully, while remaining steadfast in upholding its own standards and values. The fate of India’s global future hinges on how it navigates these challenges.

India is indeed a paradox. A nation that exudes pride in its democratic principles and economic success yet grapples with human rights and trade issues. A nation aspiring to a commanding role on the global stage, yet alienating partners and allies. A nation replete with potential yet encumbered with immense challenges. India and the EU stand to gain significantly from a deeper, value-based partnership. Yet, the path to this partnership is strewn with obstacles rooted in human rights and trade disputes, and nothing can be taken for granted.

Umar Moiz Sheikh is a peace activist with a Master's degree in security studies from the University of London, currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Peace and Conflict Studies.