Portuguese UN Chief Preaches to India: Is it White Savior Complex?

UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently visited India. In more ways than one, it was a significant visit. For a start, it underscores India’s rising geopolitical importance. After 75 years of independence, in the words of Guterres, India is finally a global “powerhouse.” 

The secretary-general lauded the country’s contribution to sustainable development goals. In his words, “India’s recent development journey is characterized by high impact programmes delivered at scale. This includes the world’s largest food-based social protection scheme and the massive expansion of access to clean water and sanitation services.”

Guterres also noted that India is the biggest provider of military and police personnel to UN missions. Importantly, India has provided the first all-women UN police contingent for a peacekeeping mission. More than 200,000 Indian men and women had served in 49 peacekeeping missions since1948.

One False Note

Yet Guterres was not all sweetness and light when it came to India. He gave a speech at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. During his oration, he gave India some unwanted advice. Guterres said, “As an elected member of the Human Rights Council, India has a responsibility to shape global human rights, and to protect and promote the rights of all individuals, including members of minority communities.” He went on to add, “India’s global role will benefit if concrete actions are taken in support of the rights and freedoms of journalists, human rights activists, students and academics.”

Guterres comes from Portugal. He could do well to remember that his forefathers brought the Inquisition to India. Vasco da Gama arrived in 1498 to kick off an era of rape, murder and theft by Europeans in Asia. Unlike the British, the Portuguese did not leave in good grace. The largely pacifist Jawaharlal Nehru whom Guterres quoted had to send troops to kick the Portuguese out of Goa in 1961.

Given the historical record, Indians do not take kindly to Europeans, and especially the Portuguese, preaching to them. The trope of India becoming less inclusive and pluralist has been bandied in Western newspapers. In New York, where Guterres resides, The New York Times has poured pure poison about India in its recent articles. The story is simple. It goes something like this. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a Hindu fascist party. It marginalizes minorities, tramples freedoms and weakens the rule of law. Ipso facto, white knights in shining armor have to ride to India’s rescue.

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By preaching to India about human rights, Guterres displayed a breathtaking lack of sensitivity. Indians have noted that the likes of Guterres ignore their history of conquest, colonization and continued plunder while merrily preaching to India. India has played its part and is playing more than its part as a force for global good.

Some Key Facts

India conducts elections regularly. The BJP recently lost to the opposition Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the sensitive border state of Punjab, which was partitioned in 1947. West Bengal, another border state, is ruled by the Trinamool Congress (TMC). India has been a democracy for much longer than Guterres’s Portugal. Few remember that Portugal only became a democracy in 1975. In India, power changes hands from the BJP to the AAP or the Communists to the TMC peacefully. India is the world’s largest and most diverse democracy.


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India also has a vibrant legal tradition. Indian courts are slow but they are not dominated by the political elite. Unlike the US where judicial appointments are a game of political football, the Supreme Court Collegium has complete autonomy to appoint judges to India’s highest court. The prime minister or parliament has no say. This is unimaginable in most countries where the political elites appoint judges. Unlike American presidents, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not appointed a single judge. Judges have appointed their fellow judges. Most of them come from elite English-speaking families that historically owe their allegiance to the Congress Party still run by the Nehru dynasty.

India upholds human rights of its citizens resolutely. Are there abuses? Of course. No country with over 1.3 billion with so many religions, ethnicities, languages, castes and communities can avoid some incidents. Yet it is in the US where Guterres resides that one in three black men “today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino boys — compared with one of every 17 white boys.” The American Civil Liberties Union also observes that, since 1970, “the number of incarcerated people has increased sevenfold to 2.3 million in jail and prison today, far outpacing population growth and crime.” India does a lot better in protecting rights of Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and all other minorities than the US.


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Importantly, India has made great progress in improving the rights and plight of women. The government banned the practice of triple talaq. Muslim men cannot utter “talaq, talaq, talaq” and get rid of their wives. The human rights of over 80 million Muslim women have improved thanks to this measure. As per The Independent, “India is on the greatest toilet-building spree in human history.” In 2018, it reported that, since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took over in 2014, his government built an estimated 80 million toilets. By now, the number has crossed over 110 million. This means that women do not have to go out into the fields to defecate or urinate. Their health, welfare and dignity have dramatically improved.

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India also vaccinated hundreds of millions against COVID-19 for free. It distributed vaccines to citizens regardless of class, caste, religion, sexuality or any other discriminating factor. It fed the poorest sections of the population during the pandemic too. India even sent 50,000 tons of wheat to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan when millions faced hunger and starvation after the US abandoned this tragic country to its grim fate.

India’s humanitarian measure for Afghanistan gives the lie to Rana Ayyub of The Washington Post calling the BJP government anti-Muslim. If Ayyub’s claims are true, why would a Hindu fascist government feed millions of Muslims living under the Taliban? 

Americans forget that the Taliban gave refuge to hijackers of an Indian plane in 1999. This hijacking of a plane from Kathmandu in Nepal to Kandahar in Afghanistan is seared into India’s consciousness. The BJP was in power then and humiliatingly released three terrorists who have killed thousands since. One of the three released was responsible for abducting and killing the American journalist Daniel Pearl. Another founded Jaish-e-Muhammed that attacked the Indian parliament in 2001 and launched the devastating Mumbai attacks in 2008. The third continues to send jihadis to Kashmir. 

Despite this record, the allegedly Hindu fascist government negotiated with its Taliban counterpart and buried the hatchet. India not only fed millions in Afghanistan but also enabled their vaccinations. As per Voice of America, “India invested billions in development projects” in Afghanistan. The BJP government’s humanitarian assistance has saved the lives of millions of Muslims despite the fact that the Taliban government has supported jihad against India.

Less Preaching, More Respect

As a guest in India, Guterres demonstrated subcutaneous racism when preaching to his hosts. He forgot that the institution he represents is frozen in time. The winners of World War II sit in the Security Council, the masters’ table. Others sup at the servants’ table without any veto power. The masters still talk down to nations they perceive as servants.

Guterres is not from one of the five veto-wielding nations in the Security Council. Yet he comes from a country that inaugurated the European imperial age. Os Lusíadas is still the national epic of Portugal. It is a story of Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India. Unlike the BBC, this epic does not mention that “da Gama began a campaign of terror against Muslim shipping off the Malabar Coast.” In 1502, this greatest of Portuguese heroes captured Meri, a ship full of Muslims returning from their Hajj to Mecca. He burnt the 400 men, women and children on board. It took four days for all of them to die. Unlike da Gama, Guterres is not a bloodthirsty imperialist. However, like many Americans and Europeans, he suffers from the white savior complex. The likes of Guterres rarely give former colonies like India their due.

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But as Nobel laureate Bob Dylan sang, The Times They Are A-Changin’. Portugal no longer has an empire. Instead, it is drowning in debt. The Financial Times tells us that Portugal’s debt-to-GDP hit a record 135.2% in May. Other European countries are also facing a debt crisis. To make matters worse, Europe is suffering from double-digit inflation and rising interest rates that make both further borrowing and servicing more expensive. The Russia-Ukraine War has proven to be an unmitigated disaster for this war-scarred continent.

Other dominant powers are not doing too well either. The US stands weakened on the global stage after it abandoned Afghanistan so cavalierly. Saudi Arabia and OPEC+ have thumbed their nose at Uncle Sam and a petroyuan trade is emerging. China is suffering from Xi Jinping’s hubris and a catastrophic zero-COVID policy. The UK has yet another new government after a third world style economic crisis. To balance its books, this government is planning big tax rises and spending cuts.

Given such a grim global scenario, International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva has been very complimentary about India. In her words, “India deserves to be called a bright spot on this otherwise dark horizon because it has been a fast-growing economy, even during these difficult times, but most importantly, this growth is underpinned by structural reforms.” India has come a long way from 1991 when it went through a currency crisis thanks to decades of failed Nehruvian socialist economics.
Now, Guterres’s fellow European Georgieva is praising India for its sound economic management. A projected growth rate of 6.8%–7.1%, a robust democracy, magnanimous humanitarian aid even to hostile states, massive contributions to the UN and dynamic multiculturalism make India a force for global good. White saviors must realize that India needs less preaching, more respect. A seat at the UN Security Council would be a good start.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.