Ethical Compromises in India’s Burma Policy

The release of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s non-violent supporter of democracy and human rights and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has brought India’s policy on Burma under the scanner once again. India, which was once a vocal supporter of The Lady, did a volte-face in pledging support for Gen. Than Shwe, Burma’s military leader. This policy greatly diminishes our image as an ethical nation. We must immediately reform the policy and the unethical mindset which drives it, since it has not just external but internal implications as well.

With the whole world waiting for India’s reaction, external affairs minister S.M. Krishna sent out a message which necessarily implied that it’s a non-event for India. Former ambassador to Burma, G. Parthasarathy, argued that it is in India’s national interest to maintain trade relations with Burma irrespective of the type of government there.

The basic claim to sanctity of a free-market transaction is the supposed absence of coercion; that is, the claim that that the two parties exchange their wares voluntarily, leading to a win-win result. Since the military government of Burma does not truly represent the Burmese people, the people of Burma cannot be said to be voluntarily engaging in business with the Indian nation. Therefore, the acclaimed sanctity of the voluntary free-market transaction simply doesn’t apply here.

As a matter of fact, the degree of voluntariness with which Indian people take part in such a transaction is itself limited to the degree to which the government of India truly represents them. However, it's at least theoretically better than the case of the Burmese people, because India is a democracy at least theoretically.

In doing business with totalitarian Burma, India is necessarily taking undue advantage of the lack of freedom of the Burmese people. We are basically using the sorry condition of the Burmese people to unfairly relieve them of their natural resources without their explicit and voluntary consent. What India gives in the market exchange is guaranteed to be not what the Burmese people would voluntarily settle for.

Would anybody voluntarily settle for weapons that kill them? India has actually sold weapons to the Burmese military Junta, knowing fully well that they are intended for use on native Burmese people. India has transferred BN-2 defender islander maritime surveillance aircraft, 105-mm light artillery guns and T-55 tanks to Burma, as part of the sacraments of business with that country. It should be amply clear to even the most casual observer that India is party to the murder of innocent Burmese people. The more Burmese get killed, the less the demand for Burma’s natural resources inside Burma, and the more we can get of it per rupee.

Those who quote India's 'national interest' as a two-word justification for India’s Burma policy, believe that simply taking the name of that abstract entity—the nation—can compensate for all the sins its citizens, and more so its governments, commit. Some believe we’re doing the right thing because India needs to achieve "double-digit growth". Some think it is a sacred duty of the Indian government to relieve Burma of its natural resources (basically oil and gas) irrespective of the ethical footprint on the people of Burma, especially since China is also in the resource-race.

Unfortunately, all the above arguments are ethically hollow, and unnecessary for India’s progress. What is stated as 'national interest' is basically glorified greed and lack of respect for others’ life and liberty. This is exactly what Albert Einstein called as an “infantile disease”, a “measles of mankind”. This is exactly what Rabindranath Tagore described as the “organized greed of material wealth of a whole people”.

India's target of economic growth cannot, must not, and need not be met by way of exploiting the life, liberty and happiness of the Burmese people. To maintain that we will do business with the Burmese government irrespective of whether it's democratic or totalitarian, is to simply say that we don’t care whether the Burmese go to hell as long as we can reap material benefits from them. Is this the creed of India? Is this the example that India, that great beacon of spiritual knowledge for the world, ought to set for other nations?

There is another grave and internal danger of encouraging the Indian State to engage in such unethical behaviour. It is, in short, that once it becomes intoxicated with the material gains from such behaviour, the Indian State will find it absolutely justified to prey on its own people. It will continue to justify compromising the life and liberty of those Indians who are in similar sorry states as the Burmese people today. This, of course, is a basic problem ailing India already, whether it’s the case of disadvantaged indigenous tribes or of subordinated linguistic peoples, where the presence of a so-called democracy makes it all the more difficult to recognize the State’s ethical compromises.

Why pretend to serve those you cannot relate to?

M. K. Gandhi writes in the Hind Swaraj:
"I am so constructed that I can only serve my immediate neighbours, but in my conceit I pretend to have discovered that I must with my body serve every individual in the Universe. In thus attempting the impossible, man comes in contact with different natures, different religions, and is utterly confounded."
Keeping the spirit of Gandhi's discourse, the same is true of different languages (which are probably covered under "different natures"). The upwardly mobile Indian today comes in contact with Indians of different languages, and is utterly confounded. Yet, having left his own homeland, he seems not to drop his pretension that he must serve with his body Indians whose tongue he knows not.

I pity the plight of those who run the many charities in Bengaluru's corporate houses, so full of well-meaning people who wish to serve that abstract entity called India, but have no way of truly connecting with flesh-and-blood embodiments of India around them -- Kanandigas -- simply because they cannot speak Kannada or connect with their hearts.

In reality, those non-Kannadigas who throng these charity houses have come too far, too far for it to be any more practical for them to serve anybody other than their own selves. But they realize it not. Some argue that the tax they pay, or other NGOs they work with, do the job. But can all these constructs do the job ever better than a priest who is asked to pray in proxy?

'The value systems of those with access to power...'

Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo:

Let these words of freed Burmese leader and upholder of democracy and human rights, Aung San Suu Kyi, ring in our minds, the minds of Kannadigas privileged with English education and English employment in a sea of underprivileged people with Kannada as the only tool for upliftment, and in the minds of Hindi speaking Indians who are constitutionally privileged over most of India:
The value systems of those with access to power and of those far removed from such access cannot be the same. The viewpoint of the privileged is unlike that of the underprivileged.
And let these words of The Lady ring in our minds, the minds of those who consider politics as an unnecessary evil:
You can never separate the political system of a country from the way you conduct your daily life.
And let these words ring in our minds, as well as the minds of Karnataka's politicians doing nothing more than handing out gifts to the underprivileged:
The provision of basic material needs is not sufficient to make minority groups and indigenous peoples feel they are truly part of the greater national entity. For that they have to be confident that they too have an active role to play in shaping the destiny of the state that demands their allegiance.
And let these words of the leader ring in the minds of those who wish to bring about a change here in Karnataka:
The democracy process provides for political and social change without violence.
Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed, apparently unconditionally, within a week of Barack Obama speaking about the situation in Burma standing in the Indian parliament, and softly accusing India of doing nothing about it.

A confession

I have a confession to make today--a confession about the manner in which I have conducted myself in my writings till now, here on Karnatique, as well as elsewhere in Kannada as well as English.

Unknowingly, I have been harsh to people with opposing viewpoints, whether they're living or dead. In my writings till now, I have not even come close to what I've learnt is the ideal way of contradicting opposing viewpoints. You will notice an improvement moving from my earlier articles to newer ones, but that does not remove the necessity for this confession.

Fact is, I have learnt some of the greatest lessons in my life from the people whom I have opposed philosophically (over one subject or another). In my mind, I have always held them in high esteem for what they've taught me through their lives and works. But what pains me today, as I review my own writings, is that my language has not necessarily shown that gratitude, except, perhaps, in the recent case of Rabindranath Tagore.

I've tired to find the origin of this harshness in me, but I don't completely understand it yet. It could be my childhood, it could be my surroundings. It could be that my busy life makes me so impatient that I don't see any option but to make the most fierceful statements against philosophical opponents in the shortest period of time. That could have easily drifted to harsh language. Behaviors of peer bloggers and colleagues could have catalyzed my fall. It could also be that plain ignorance speaks in such language. My mind could have settled on harsh language as a means of support for my arguments! Whatever the reason, the fact remains that I have erred.

But this is where the role of the teacher comes in. Over the years, I have learnt extensively from great people, living and dead, and from all over the world. And this list includes each and every person I've had to oppose in my writings. I have been humbled by the unmistakable grace with which all of them have opposed contradicting viewpoints in their writings and speeches. Honest people about to be hanged by colonial governments have displayed better grace than I have. They have all collectively taught me how to reform myself. It is a difficult transformation that I'm going through, but I will not rest until that transformation happens.

If you happen to read my earlier writings where I'm opposed to someone's views on a particular topic, please keep in mind that I might have been unknowingly too harsh to that person, and also that I'm not 100% opposed to everything they have ever said. Let not that harshness influence your judgment about the topic at hand, or enter you.

And yes, none of this means that I am withdrawing any of my philosophical positions about topics where I have opposed one or the other person. Nor do I mean to say that I will not withdraw them if need be.

Let's put technology where it belongs

Photo courtesy:
If you watched Barack Obama's so-called e-date with villagers in Ajmer on TV, you probably have the feeling that it was a lacklustre event, and a rather funnily mismanaged one at that. But if you dig a bit, it becomes clear that the show exposes how little India understands democracy and how to implement it. Also, the messages given out by the show have the danger of further retarding the process of true democratization of India.

Why help the unhealthy bulge further bulge?

Barack Obama talking to students in Mumbai. Photo:
Barack Obama in reply to a question in the townhall meeting at St. Xavier's college, Mumbai, on 7th November (italics mine):
"...I don't want any person here to be dismissive of a healthy materialism because in a country like India, there's still a lot of people trapped in poverty. And you should be working to try to lift folks out of poverty, and companies and businesses have a huge role in making that happen."
Absolutely correct. There couldn't have been a more correct message about how India should view materialism. But let's examine American materialism for a change: is it healthy? Is America setting the right example for the world to follow?

Yes, there is!

US president Barack Obama. Photo courtesy:
Speaking to top Indian businessmen in Mumbai yesterday, visiting US president Barack Obama commented on the potential for increased trade with India, using these words:
"Our trade with India is still less than our trade with the Netherlands. I have no doubt we can do much better -- there is no reason why this nation can't be one of our top trading partners."
It all looks sufficiently motivating in a boardroom, but fact is, there is a reason why this nation can't be one of the top trading partners of the US. Read on to know what that reason is.

First of all, over and above a comparison of numbers, there is a qualitative difference between US trade with the Netherlands, and US trade with India: the Netherlands sells mind and India sells matter. And that is so, because the Netherlands has no matter to sell and India has no mind to sell.

Just to clarify, by mind I mean knowledge, and by matter I mean natural resources. By knowledge, I don't mean the knowledge of the Infinite Being, which is what India has indulged itself in from time immemorial. I simply mean that knowledge which helps one lead a better material life, a hedonistic life, if you will.

So, when Barack Obama gives a call for increasing trade with India, that can only be fulfilled today by selling more and more of our natural resources to the US. Why? Simply because India is shamefully short of any knowledge capital. We don't have a working education system, simply because we ignore the languages which Indians speak. There is not a single university in India today, which offers any materially significant university education in any Indian language.

Whenever a relatively knowledgeable nation trades with a relatively ignorant nation, the latter ends up buying trinkets which amuse the senses for a relatively short period of time, and pays the former with precious natural resources. Thus, it is inevitable in such a trade for hard material - such as minerals, metals, oil, etc to be moved away from the ignorant nation to the knowledgeable nation.

When such trade progresses, the ignorant nation increasingly depletes itself of precious natural resources, and those ignorant people who depend solely on such resources are choked to death. Some are displaced by dams, some sell their lands to malls, some sell their lands to airports, and some take to guns and get beautiful and charismatic women to advocate their cause in front of absent juries.

There is one argument against all this, which never stops boring me. And that is, that I'm ignoring the great tide of the Rising and Shining India with its burgeoning cash-rich English-educated middle-class. I don't deny that such a class exists, or that that class can actually trade enough mind to surpass the Netherlands in its exports to the US.

But, is that class all of India? What about the other billion Indians who don't speak English? Should India increase its trade with the US when the only thing those Indians can sell is natural resources, which can be equated to their lives themselves? The answer is clearly a no. No, we must wait until those other billion Indians also obtain some knowledge which they can sell.

And that can never happen as long as we neglect the languages of India in our education system. It is high time we take our languages seriously and reform the education system of each linguistic State.

Thus, there is most certainly a reason why India cannot be one of the top trading nations for the US right away: the reason that we need to uphold ethics. The reason that we need to safeguard the lives of a billion people and not sell their sole means of life - i.e., natural resources. It makes no difference that it can be made to seem as if those billion people are ready to sell their lives voluntarily. Voluntariness in a market transaction, after all, does not guarantee that ethics is upheld.

And, as far as I know, I think we should uphold ethics.