The Governor General's Files: US has no right to lecture India

The US advice to India to be tolerant is uncalled for.

During his visit to India as chief guest on Republic Day, US President Barack Obama, speaking at New Delhi’s Siri Fort, advised India to be tolerant of minorities. Some fringe elements in India have been intolerant and there have been some unfortunate incidents, as indeed have been happening in America’s more advanced society. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has been critical of India. If Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, enters the White House, the US too will become a most intolerant society, a sort of “Trumpistan”.

President Obama, on taking office in January 2009, had announced the winding up of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, which is an embodiment of intolerance and human rights violation, and rubbishes the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. The Indian Army has an excellent record of looking after PoWs, which I will illustrate by going down memory lane. In 1945, I was with my battalion at Pegu, Burma, when the Second World War ended. We had to put up a camp to receive the surrendering Japanese soldiers. I was appointed adjutant of the camp. We had 8,000 Japanese prisoners. I had heard that the Japanese were very cruel to Allied PoWs, particularly Europeans.

Our orders were to treat the Japanese prisoners harshly. There were two scales of rations for them — subsistence scale, that was a virtual starvation scale, and normal scale, for those doing physical work. I employed the whole lot on labour duty like clearing jungles, constructing roads, and gave them the normal scale rations. All Japanese prisoners, irrespective of rank, had to salute Allied officers and come to attention while talking even to an Allied soldier. We had a couple of Japanese generals in our camp. As a young captain I used to feel embarrassed when they saluted me.

On my posting to Indonesia, they presented me an address saying they were very grateful for the consideration I had shown. They added that one day they hoped to repay their gratitude when I went to Japan, and till then Mount Fujiyama and the Sea of Japan would await my arrival. I have not yet visited Japan and the two must be tired of waiting. In 1972, I was in overall charge of looking after 92,000 Pakistani PoWs, who were put up in various camps, mostly barracks in cantonments vacated by troops who were deployed on the border.

The government decided not only to scrupulously follow the Geneva Conventions but go much beyond them. We were told we should look after these prisoners so well that they returned to Pakistan as ambassadors of peace and goodwill. We followed this in both letter and spirit. A few brigadiers and generals held prisoner were known to me as we had served together in the pre-Independence Indian Army. Lt. Gen. A.A.K. Niazi, commander of the Pakistan Army in Bangladesh, was kept at a camp at Jabalpur. He and I had served together at Batavia (now Jakarta) in 1945-46.

We were both captains at that time, and had been quite friendly. We now met in different circumstances. We immediately recognised each other. In the evening, I invited him for a drink and we talked of our old days in Indonesia. He gave me a friendly warning: “We were stabbed in the back by these Bangladeshis. One day they will do the same to you.” After the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the unfriendly governments that followed in Dhaka were hostile to India and I recalled Niazi’s remark. Of course, now, with Sheikh Hasina at the helm in Bangladesh, things are very different.

We scrupulously followed the Geneva Conventions and went much beyond them in looking after PoWs. We organised moshairas in camps and showed the prisoners Bollywood films like Pakeezah (1972) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). These were very popular. Muslim clerics with liberal views were invited to give talks and interact with them. I attended iftar parties in camps and we had “bara khana” for prisoners during Idul Adha, in which the Indian officers guarding them participated.

The prisoners and our soldiers even played games together. A team of American journalists came to India and we arranged their visit to the PoW. They saw Indian and Pakistani officers playing cricket. A UN-sponsored conference on human rights in warfare was held at San Remo, Italy. India was the only country that held so many prisoners of war at that time. I was sent as leader of the Indian delegation to this conference. The leader of the US delegation was very critical of India and almost acted like a spokesman for Pakistan. He criticised India for starting a war surreptitiously, without any formal declaration, and said Pakistan prisoners weren’t given adequate food and were being tortured.

In my address, I rebutted each of the allegations effectively, showing pictures on the routine life of prisoners and welfare activities conducted for them. We kept a monthly record of the weight of prisoners and almost each had put on weight, proving they were being fed well. The Los Angeles Times report was also shown on the screen. Until Pakistan formally recognised Bangladesh, the prisoners couldn’t be sent back.

Regarding the absence of a formal declaration of war, I noted that the practice had been given up after World War II. I then detailed violations of human rights in Vietnam. At the end of the day, there was much appreciation of the way India was looking after the PoWs, and the US delegation leader admitted he was wrongly informed. President Obama’s term will soon be over. Despite his declaration on closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, that blot on US democracy continues to flourish in blatant violation of the Geneva Convention.

The activities at the US military prison at Abu Ghraib, Iraq, and the public hanging of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein shocked the conscience of the entire world. India’s record of handling prisoners of war is far superior. The US advice to India to be tolerant is uncalled for. The tolerance we have shown towards prisoners of war is unequalled.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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