It would seem both counterintuitive and ironic for India to turn down Edward Snowden’s request for political asylum. After all, the country’s independence from the colonial British rule was in no small measure a consequence of a massive civil disobedience movement led by a certain Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
The bare facts are that India was one of the several countries Snowden had reached out for asylum.
"I can confirm that earlier today our embassy in Moscow did receive a communication dated June 30 from Mr. Edward Snowden. That communication did contain a request for asylum," India’s foreign ministry spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said.
"We have carefully examined the request. Following that examination, we have concluded that we see no reason to accede to the request," he said.
My first reaction to India’s rejection of Snowden’s request is that it is a missed opportunity. Even if you do not invoke the lofty idea of civil disobedience, as part of sheer statecraft India should have said it has received the request and is seriously reviewing it. To reject it in less than two days is to demonstrate a strange haste to fall in line with the established U.S. wisdom. It is particularly galling in light of the revelations contained in Snowden’s continuing leaks of the National Security Agency’s (NSA) workings that India was among the 38 countries whose embassies in Washington D.C. had been bugged.
On reflection, my reaction remains the same but with some nuance added to it. In recent years India too has become a flagrantly intrusive state which monitors people’s phone calls and electronic communications at will. For a country that has been routinely targeted for violent terrorist attacks for the past two decades, if not longer, the Indian state has long weighed itself in favor of security against privacy and civil liberties. So it should hardly surprise anyone that India’s External Affairs (Foreign) Minister Salman Khurshid has come out explicitly in support of the United States.
He has been quoted by the AFP as defending the the vast US surveillance program saying, "it is not actually snooping".
"This is not scrutiny and access to actual messages. It is only computer analysis of patterns of calls and emails that are being sent. It is not actually snooping on specifically on content of anybody’s message or conversation", Khurshid, who is currently in Brunei to attend series of ASEAN meetings, told reporters.
"Some of the information they (the US) got out of their scrutiny, they were able to use it to prevent serious terrorist attacks in several countries," he said.
With this as the official thinking, not to mention the depth U.S.-India strategic convergence in recent years, there was no way Snowden would have been granted asylum in India. However, New Delhi could have at least played ball, even while pointing out the NSA monitoring of its mission in Washington, and said it is reviewing the request.
India should have learned a lesson from the way the U.S. has steadfastly refused to hand over David Coleman Headley, a key plotter behind the November 26, 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, despite its repeated requests. I do not for a moment suggest any parity between what Snowden has done and Headley confessed to doing. I am merely pointing out that when it comes to national interests the U.S. thinks of nothing else but itself. One can always argue that India must have weighed all the pros and cons and made the final determination that it is in the country’s national interests not to grant Snowden asylum. That is a fair point except that it does not appear as if the request was carefully analyzed from the standpoint of its strategic value. I would not go far as to suggest that New Delhi is sucking up to Washington because it has a strong record of not doing so. That said, it certainly appears that the Indian government is eager to demonstrate its commitment to a strong friendship with America.
On the question whether what Snowden has done rises up the level of civil disobedience in the league of what Gandhi did or Dr. Martin Luther king did, I think the scales and stakes are very different. Snowden’s impulse may not have been born in his mind fully formed as of civil disobedience but there are elements of it in his action.
It is justifiably argued by those who hesitate to characterize his action as civil disobedience that civil disobedience demands that you stand your ground and face the consequences. I am not sure if Snowden’s escape meets that standard even though there may have been extenuating circumstances for him to do so.
P.S.: Did you notice how cleverly I have embedded all the key search words in my headline to give this post more searchable potential?