TAKING the “History of Human Rights” course at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University has forced me to think about the freedoms we take for granted today. Being a member of the privileged elite in society, I didn’t stop to question the origins of these rights, what was sacrificed in order to obtain them, and how people lived before their rights were recognized.
AT the age of 25, Bibek Maitra became the youngest private secretary to the Indian Prime Minister in the country’s history. He has a degree in journalism and has written several articles on topics including environmental economics in India, relations between India and Pakistan and the current situation in Palestine. During his recent visit to New York as part of the Indian delegation to the United Nations, Communiqué asked him a few questions.
Q: For some time now, India’s chief demand to the United Nations has been an invitation to join the Security Council as a permanent member. Please comment.
A: Yes, India, with its huge population, should be a permanent member. India and China together make up half of mankind! The world’s power cannot be concentrated in the hands of five countries. Every member has a vote, but the importance of that country differs. India is a country of one billion. Every sixth man in the world is Indian. How can the U.N., which represents the people of the world, not recognize India? How can you compare it with Cote d’Ivoire, with a population of five million, or Holland, with a population of nine million?
Q: What do you think of the U.N. reforms?
A: U.N. reforms are a must. It has become an obsolete body, without teeth. It has to act sagaciously and judiciously, has to streamline itself. Its decisions must be honored, and if they are not, penalties should be instituted. Right now, the preponderance of the discussion is centered around pressure groups. So the Islamic lobby talks about Palestine, but when the genocide in Rwanda happened, the world looked the other way. There is wanton wastage of funds and inefficient decision-making. The U.N. has to be seen as giving justice to member nations, rather than just being a platform for conferences, without the determination to solve the pending problems of the world. If certain topics are too contentious, it should at least try to enact laws about non-controversial subjects, such as the protection of animals, an international protocol on communications and outer space, health. But there’s no alternative to the U.N. And the world needs a platform.
Q: Do you believe that India’s relations with America are improving, especially given the Bush administration’s recent recognition of India as a nuclear power?
A. As a nuclear power, it was a fait accompli, whether the United States. recognized it or not. But yes, relations are changing. America needs us, but we need America too. Where is our money coming from? The information technology (IT) industry. One industry has made India debt-free. We now have the fifth or sixth largest foreign [currency] reserves in the world. And we were given the initial boost by the American information technol- ogy companies [which] raised Indian IT companies at their knee. It all started with job orders from America. And America is India’s biggest trading partner, for imports and exports.
Q: How has India’s relationship with Iran changed due to India’s new friendship with America?
A: Iran is a very sensitive topic. Iran has never hurt us; even during the 1971 war we had no conflicts with Iran. Historically, we’ve had very good relations with the Shah of Iran. Now America has decided to do something with Iran—when and how is conjecture. But India is in a fix. Iran is preparing a nuclear weapon, whatever they might say to the contrary. Just because we’ve had warm relations with Iran doesn’t mean we would welcome the formation of an Islamic nuclear power. It’s still a danger, and the question is, who would have control of the nuclear weapon? There is a lot of pressure from America, who has been twisting our arm and we did vote against them. [In late September, India voted at the International Atomic Enegry Agency to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council.] But to gain something you have to give up something. To gain America’s friendship, we had to give up Iran’s friendship. Iran is now very aggravated with India. The proposed gas pipeline project [running from Iran through Pakistan to India] is now up in the air.
Q: What do you think about the recent calls for India and Pakistan to come together over the earthquake that affected both countries?
A: Indians didn’t die in the numbers that they did in Pakistan, largely because of good infrastructure. Most of the deaths have been health-related; they have occurred after the earthquake, due to gangrene, or the non-availability of medicine for victims, but not directly because of the earthquake. Pakistan didn’t accept India’s offer of helicopters because there are still remnants of terrorist camps, mujahedeen and Lashkar [Laskhar-e-Taiba, a banned terrorist organization] camps, in the Northwest Frontier Province. Pakistan was scared that India would see those camps and use them as evidence to embarrass Pakistan in the international community.
This article was printed in the fourth edition(PDF) of the student newspaper of the School of International and Public Affairs, Communiqué, in the fall of 2005.