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There are very clear rules of hospitality. Hosts are supposed to do the best they can to make their guests feel welcome: good food, excellent company, engaging conversation, a display of the very best they have on offer. And guests are expected to respond with care: they are gracious, bring nice presents and praise all that is done for them. Unsavoury subjects are to be avoided, and in fact, pushed under the proverbial red carpet.

Certainly, this seems to be the order of the day when it comes to India, whether as host or guest.

US President George Bush recently completed his tour of South Asia. India is where he chose to stay; Afghanistan and Pakistan, his most crucial allies in his war on terror, he visited. That is not the only reason that nationalistic observers in India are satisfied with the visit. Apart from suitable presents, such as a promise of greater trade and access to nuclear energy for civilian use, President Bush was the perfect guest who failed to remark on the grime.

When the two heads of state discussed India’s eight per cent growth and vast consumer potential, did they talk about the millions of Indians who do not have food? Or the thousands that have killed themselves because they could not pay their farming debts? Or the scores that die every day because they cannot afford doctors and medicines? Or the children that are still not in school and are instead at work? That would have been unpleasant. Certainly, India’s far from satisfactory human rights record was not discussed. Among friends who are jointly fighting those whom Bush has described as people that "have no conscience," the continuing illegal practice of torture, extrajudicial execution, "disappearances," or arbitrary detention could, apparently, easily be ignored.

Perhaps the problem is that it would also have been, to return to proverbs, a severe case of pots and kettles. The US, in its war on terror, has done little to maintain internationally acceptable human rights standards. In fact, police in India can say with misplaced pride that the ghastly practices of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo are not common in Indian police stations. Here, the authorities only use electric shocks, severe beatings, blatant murder cloaked in a culture of faked armed encounters, and most commonly, cruel interrogation and intimidation of relatives to force suspects into surrender. These are all violations of international human rights law.

The failure of nations to maintain even the basic standards of human rights no longer appears to be a subject of conversation between world leaders. It is true that terrorism has placed civilians at tremendous risk, thousands are dying in indiscriminate bomb blasts around the globe, and that there is no accountability for such killings in the pursuit of political or religious or other claims. Yet, isn’t it important at least for the world’s two largest democracies to at least discuss the reasons why this is happening and come up with a plan to address the grievances underlying them? After all, India has the second largest Muslim population in the world and US policies are affecting a large swathe of the Muslim world. Muslims, including Indian Muslims, believe they are being punished for the acts of some extremists. And yet the constant persecution that many insist they are facing in the world today is undoubtedly pushing others into extremism. Shouldn’t the two leaders have talked about all of this?

President Bush, did, however, say in an interview before arriving in India, that the way to defeat terrorism "is to defeat their ideology of hate with an ideology of hope and that’s democracy." In this case, the US needs to pay some careful attention to its allies, whether Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.

And India, the great example of a successful democracy in the region, also needs to pay some attention to its friends. A week after President Bush’s visit, the Indian President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, ignoring the pleas of human rights organisations, went as an honoured guest to Burma, a country with a horrific human rights record. Once again, as is the rule in modern day hospitality, unsavoury subjects were not raised. While President Kalam waved to an enthusiastic, flag waving contingent of Burmese children that formed the welcome party, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi remained under house arrest, forced labour continued, and the Burmese Army kept up its brutal war against opposition ethnic groups. Instead of raising these issues, Indian diplomats focused carefully, instead, on the economic advantages of building relations with Burma, more interested in regional balance of power politics with China than the fate of millions of oppressed Burmese.

While US, Indian and Burmese leaders focused on macro-economics, what did these visits offer political detainees in Burma, the desperate in New Orleans or the "half widow" in Kashmir who is begging to be told what happened when her husband vanished one night in the custody of troops? Or, indeed, to the woman whose husband was shot dead by militants as they walked out after Friday prayers at a mosque? These people want justice. They want accountability. They need political leadership.

It would be proper and right for governments to recall one of the primary promises that was made way back in 1948, one that supersedes the decorum of hospitality, when members of the United Nations agreed on a Universal Declaration of Human Rights which acknowledged that the "disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind," and agreed that "it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law."

It is time that governments ceased to ignore these principles. Human rights can no longer be a subject of mutual discomfort. The failure to protect the most basic rights has to be acknowledged and addressed. Only then can there be a safer, and a more just world, that can in good conscience get on with the business of making itself richer.

Meenakshi Ganguly is South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch.

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