‘Asian Values’ and ‘Human Rights’ – Can they be reconciled?


‘Church-State’ relations are inherently complex; perhaps especially so in a world now sensitized, in deep, divisive, and dangerous ways, to a nation’s distinctive cultural and spiritual identity and the rights of a person to believe, or not believe, in a certain way. The separation of ‘church’ (qua religion and/or spirituality) and ‘state’ in the Indian subcontinent is particularly complex.[1] This complexity arises in no small measure from the country’s colonial history and cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity, and, more recently, from its recovery of ancient Hindu narratives, as instruments of nationalist, political self-identification. Unlike the secular atheistic ‘rest’ in the West, India does not struggle to be spiritual: its struggles are how to be a coherent nation with a contentious and contested spiritual history and newly conscientized politico-religious elite.

My aim in this Briefing is to consider the dynamics of ‘church-state’ relations in India today and to ask how they can, or cannot, map on to modern ‘Human Rights’ discourse. To many in India, this is an issue of acute national concern, because, as elsewhere, lives are at risk when freedom is denied and faith in all its myriad forms is frustrated.

Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) (AFP)

History sheds a penetrating light on the discussion of religious identity and personal freedom in 21st century India. Mindful of the interpenetration of Indian culture and Hindu spirituality, the pioneer Indian nationalist, and first Prime Minister of the newly independent republic, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964; PM 1947-1964), sought to frame a constitution that gave expression to India’s ancient character, as a land rich in religious, cultural, and linguistic diversity, and to its aspirant identity as a modern, democratic, ‘secular’ state. The Nehruvian dream was rooted in India’s capacity for inclusivity and fairness, civility and community. To Nehru, ‘secularity’ enabled Indian democracy. Over the last decade or so, this generous, democratic vision has been shattered by a new kind of Indian nationalism in which Hinduism has been transmuted from a spiritual culture to a political mantra. This has left many (inside and outside) India fearing an inclusive Nehruvian ‘secularism’ (as originally conceived) has been displaced by an exclusive Hindutva fundamentalism. As the UK based, Muslim columnist (and expert on South Asian religions) Hasan Saroor wrote recently in The Times of India,‘[T]he idea that Hindus have a first claim over India has become deeply ingrained, even among many liberals’ (29 May 2022); adding, this ‘dramatic “majoritarian-isation” of Hindu public opinion’ signals the ‘failure’ of Nehruvian secularism and the dawn of a new, religiously conscious, Asian Hindu nation, modern India. Perhaps, like the conquering Barbarians who wistfully reflected on Rome’s former glory, the reality of India’s secular demise will only emerge ex post factum. Time will tell. For now, post-secular India reimagines itself.

One area in which India’s historic secular constitution and modern political religiosity clash is in relation to individual rights and religious freedom.[2] To Western outsiders, a person’s right to believe or not to believe is a principle enshrined in international law. Not so, for many in a South Asian context, where talk of religious freedom as a ‘human right’ is apt to raise eyebrows or invite state sanctions. Why? Because Western notions of subjective individuality sit ill with Asian communitarianism and because all Western categories are suspect to post-colonial sensibilities. So, defenders of religious freedom in India today are as likely to be dubbed unpatriotic as cronies of Western imperialism. Hence, even the UN Declaration of Human Rights suffers with other ‘Western’ principles as justifying colonial abuse and hegemonic power. In its place, as the Japanese historian Tatsuo Inoue (1928-2015) maintained, ‘Asian Values’ discourse ‘denies [the] universal validity of Western concepts of human rights and democracy in order to undermine the normative foundations of Western pressure’.[3] To non-Asians, this radical principle may come as quite a shock. A respected UN principle without modern, global endorsement? ‘Human Rights’ a Western construct and, worse, a cynical tool of Western oppression? Reframing cultural and socio-political narratives is an essential feature of post-colonial criticism in modern India. UNHDR is one of its more notable casualties.

Drilling down into the everyday implications of this is revealing. Gaps between theory and practice (viz. legislation and application) abound. It is not uncommon to find local governments in India publicly defending the ‘rights’ of a citizen while ignoring – if not inflaming – violations of them. But – and this is important – we should not overlook the reality of ‘gray areas’ in Asian culture that are absent in the West. As Canadian political scientist Daniel A. Bell (b. 1964) states:

The gray area of debate includes criminal law, family law, women’s rights, social and economic rights, the rights of indigenous peoples, and the attempt to universalize Western-style democratic practices. Some of these issues are contested on cultural grounds, others are a matter of how rights are prioritized in developing nations, and sometimes the question is whether or not to employ the language of rights in the first place.[4]


Blatant attempts to ‘universalize Western-style democratic practices’ and values pour salt on open wounds in cultural memories. Here’s former US President Bill Clinton (b. 1946; Pres. 1993-2001), for example: ‘America’s interests require the United States to lead an effort to build a world order shaped by U.S. values.’[5] Cultural superiority finds little ‘to learn from the non-Western world’.[6] Little wonder nationalist sentiments are stirred and cultural distinctives defended. Add to the mix issues of competing economic interest, domestic political pressure, and the quest for strategic diplomatic advantage, and it is not hard to see why Western interventions have been selective and resented. As astute local commentators recognize, government appeals to ‘Asian Values’ resonate with the populace, while the communitarian structure of Asian societies is often seen as preferable to the crumbling sense of community and family in the fraught, fragmented, individualist West. Hence, the tiny kingdom of Bhutan, with its tough regime, weak GDP, and ailing economy, praises its place on the index of ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH)![7] Purportedly ‘international understandings of human rights’, find themselves increasingly at odds with robust articulations of Asian cultural values. To say this is not to parrot government propaganda, it is to underscore the importance of finding new ways to contextualize legitimate appeals to ‘individual rights’ in an Asian context. Failure to do this, as Indian Human Rights activists proclaim daily, leaves people unprotected, their lives and livelihoods at risk.


For the remainder of this Briefing, I want to look both critically and constructively at some of the ‘cross-pressures’ that impact ‘Values Discourse’ and ‘Human Rights’ in an Asian (specifically, an Indian) context. But, first, a general point. That ‘cross-pressures’ exist is per se neither unique nor entirely surprising. Globalization, however defined, has asked a range of new questions worldwide. The way national cultural distinctives and socio-political dynamics respond to global ideas and initiatives varies. To some, globalization offers a means of enriched engagement, to others a threat to independence and identity. India has its own set of questions and responses to globalism. As we have seen already, one key issue is whether the ‘rights’ of an individual should be seen as an expression of an international moral and legal standard (as in UNDHR) or subsumed in discussion of India’s past and present national identity. Though globalization may have inadvertently converged the ‘global’ and ‘local’ – so that some scholars now speak of an intentional or accidental process of ‘glocalization’ in which individuals and communities find themselves pressured, or inclined, to ‘think globally and act locally’[8] – the simple fact is neither ‘global’ nor ‘local’ constitute static realities. Indeed, the fluid nature of both can tend to heighten tension and/or suspicion between them.

(Business Research Methodology)

Now to five more specific points on the ‘cross-pressures’ that impact ‘Values Discourse’ and ‘Human Rights’ in an Asian (specifically, an Indian) context.

First, there is often a mismatch between the way national and international bodies see and speak of themselves. Why, for example, are Western categories universalized and non-Western (qua Asian) ones characteristically particularized? As eminent Japanese law professor Onuma Yasuaki asks, why is ‘what is universal … something Western’ whereas ‘particularity refers to something non-Western’?[9] And, he continues, why should human rights violations be referred to as ‘the “Asian way,” “Islam,” the “social customs of Hinduism,” the “ethics of Confucianism,” and the like …. But the “European way” and “Christianity” are seldom referred to as examples of such particularity?’[10] The disjunction in speech reflects a potential – understandably irritating – double standard in practice. Yes, tension between universal and particular values can stir bodies like the UN to notice contextual differences, but conformity to Western values is still expected. Conversely, cultural values local governments appeal to as guiding principles may have local traction but their commensurability to international standards is an increasingly important feature of their internal promotion and appeal. The pressing issue in India today is whether its historic ‘secular’ constitution and/or UNDHR will ultimately prevail in the face an ascendant Hindu nationalism and revisionist majoritarianism. To some a repristinated Hindu Rashtra offers less hope for India’s long-term flourishing than its inclusive, globally compelling, and essentially peaceable, ‘secular’ political ideology.

(Ramandeep Kaur, The Print)

Second, the relationship between ‘Values Discourse’ and discussion of ‘Human Rights’ is necessarily impacted by perception of the role religious practice plays in defining and refining national identity. Succinctly expressed, polity reflects theology. To Western secularists, this may appear presumptuous or erroneous. After all, hasn’t religion been proscribed from, or vilified in, the corridors of Western power? Yes, it has, which is why it is legitimate to claim ‘polity’ reflects ‘theology’ and the deliberate exclusion of it! After all, isn’t religion either decried or privatized in ‘secular’ circles worldwide? Once again, the converse is true in spiritual cultures and totalitarian theocracies where ‘theology’ both determines and legitimizes socio-political attitudes and actions. Indeed, there are numerous instances in South Asia, including in India, where religious belief and practice directly impact national policies and the economy of polity. International relations are caught in the cultural and religious crossfire of this theological (often ideological) given. So, too, internally, while (as in India) liberal voices advocate greater personal freedom and progressive ‘global values’, religious leaders and nationalists seek to reshape their nation in the image of historic Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic principles and practices. Of course, if a nation’s polity is determined by its constitution, its faith, morality and modus operandi are accountable to it and, in the face of cultural and religious authoritarianism and hierarchy, inadvertently nurture a spirit of egalitarianism and individual autonomy. No wonder, constitutional powers are closely monitored and curbed when, as in India, Hindu nationalists and liberal secularists are at odds over the direction of the country.

(The Guardian Design Team)

Third, cross-pressures exist where ‘Asian Values’ and appeals to ‘Human Rights’ engage with issues of human identity and the capacity of individuals for self-improvement and self-determination. That said, undergrowth must be cleared to avoid misunderstanding. It would be wrong, for example, to assume Hinduism and secularism are polar opposites when it comes to humanity’s capacity to change. For all its antiquity and, in the hands of radicals, seeming inflexibility, Hinduism is a lithe, supple phenomenon and projects on its adherents a comparable confidence to adapt and change. Reformation it may resist, daily re-formation it encourages.[11] It would be similarly wrong to represent the West as always and ever egalitarian and democratic. Far from it. To Canadian philosopher and social scientist Charles Taylor (b. 1931), 17th century Europe saw an intellectual and socio-political shift from ‘the cosmic religious conceptions of order’ to ‘a new “bottom-up” view of society, as existing for the protection and mutual benefit of its members’.[12] Others trace this perceptual and practical transformation to the 16th century Protestant Reformation, which encouraged biblical confidence in a person’s right to freely access God and willingly reorient their spiritual life. But neither of these reconfigurations of human identity and self-determination were uncontested. Continental feudalism and religious hierarchism fought back. Equality and democracy were hard won. The crucial point is that when, wherever and however change is projected or effected, the soul and psyche of a community and culture are shaken and stirred. Agents of control and change vie for ascendancy. Values and rights are contested. When Western values are adduced in Asian contexts and Asian values are interpreted by Western minds, the potential for tension, conflict and confusion is immense. Theologies and ideologies compete. Appeals to law, authority, a constitution or a UN Declaration, fuel cross-cultural conflagrations.

Fourth, appeals to ‘Asian Values’ and ‘Human Rights’ are caught in the ‘cross-pressures’ of international diplomacy and global finance. As we have seen above, post-colonialism is acutely sensitive to Western assumptions of primacy and superiority. Growth in talk of ‘Human Rights’ has fueled concerns about the West ‘setting the agenda’ for the world and expecting ‘the rest’ to embrace its view/s of human identity, society and individual rights.[13] Though discussion of ‘Asian Values’ is not averse to universalized standards – indeed, without some convergence integration in the global community is compromised – regional priorities and perspectives are inevitably important. So, for example, in the rebalancing of political and economic power to include Asia, recognition is rightly given both to the indebtedness of Asian economic systems to ‘Western ideas and institutions’, and to the contribution Asia’s ‘cultural heritage and social underpinnings’ have made to its economic development.[14] In this process of rebalancing, the push-back from Asia is a complex mix of economic self-interest, criticism of Western double standards and ‘spin’ around history, politics, law and society. As Yasuaki observes,

In the Asian region, ‘human rights diplomacy’ has often been ineffective or counterproductive. Partly, of course, this is caused by bad faith on the part of the region’s authoritarian governments. But conflicts over human rights are also caused by politically influential West-centric perspectives that tend to ignore or marginalize local perspectives.[15]


As a result, waning Western economic and diplomatic influence can be seen as both the cause and consequence of ‘Asian Values’ being celebrated and Western hegemony and ‘Human Rights’ discourse being condemned. Western dreams, laws, values, and ideals are all casualties of uncritical expectation of Western supremacy. It may be that the economic success of the West afforded fertile soil for broader consideration of human flourishing (including discussion of individual ‘rights’), but post-colonial sensitivity to economic exploitation and physical abuse, does not encourage connections between finance and freedom in an Asian context.[16] That said, when Asian societies are guilty of using economic clout to justify socio-political and diplomatic malpractice, they are as guilty as the West of wily hypocrisy.[17]

Fifth, there are significant ‘cross-pressures’ within and between Asia and the West over the extent to which ‘Human Rights’ are, or should be claimed to be, a Western construct. Opposition to ‘Human Rights’ discourse in India has followed a pattern seen in other non-Western nations; that is, criticism of ‘Western universalist discourse of human rights [because imperialistic], and yet claiming that human rights – something good – has existed in their own nations’ histories, cultures, and civilizations.[18] So, in a recent seminar at Delhi University, the Vice-Chancellor of JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) declared,

Many people believe that feminist or women’s rights movement began only with Marx and ended there. I’ll tell you the first feminist is Draupadi and Sita. Who could be greater feminists than what Draupadi asks her husbands in the Mahabharata? Or even Sita is the first single mother. These whole concepts are not an invention of the West.[19]

This is a striking – to outsiders, perhaps, counter-intuitive – claim. However, as Tatsuo Inoue explains, ‘Asian Values’ discourse, ‘denies the universal validity of Western concepts of human rights and democracy … to undermine the normative foundations of Western pressure’.[20] Radicals and nationalists eagerly claim, therefore, other sources for ‘goods’ otherwise rejected as ‘Western’. That said, confusion and cross-pressure increase when scholars ‘sensitive to the criticism of Eurocentrism’ tacitly concur. Why? Because, as Yasuaki argues, ‘nodding to the assertion that human rights existed in Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, and so on, is much easier than refuting it’.[21] Claims for a ‘universal origin’ of Human Rights are increasingly common, but critics of non-Western cultural practices remain skeptical and the evidence for comparables is, frankly, flimsy. However, as Yasuaki says, though the argument for a ‘universal origin of human rights’ is ‘difficult to support’,

(Asia Rising)

Non-European civilizations had their own mechanisms to pursue the spiritual and material well-being of humanity, but they were not characterized as human rights. These mechanisms protected the interests of people in various ways, and may be characterized as the ontological or functional equivalents of human rights, but not as human rights per se.[22]

In other words, exact equivalents may be hard to find, wholesome principles less so. Indeed, one of the most significant cross pressures is, as indicated above, the communitarianism that runs through Asian, and many other non-Western, cultures and societies. Even when it is reflected in (non-individualist) legal structures, legitimizes criticism of Western social norms, and is weaponized (as in India by Hindu) radicals, the corporatism of Nehruvian secularism is an indigenous ‘good’ for which Asian communities are justifiably proud.[23]

To return to question posed in this Briefing, are ‘Asian Values’ and ‘Human Rights’ really compatible? We have identified enculturated views and practices in Asia and the West that might suggest they are not. This much is, I suggest, clear (in what remains a difficult and potentially dangerous discussion): careless and ill-informed appeals to ‘Human Rights’ in non-Western contexts – however well-meaning their proponents – risk deepening cultural divides and endangering lives. Nuance is needed. Human dignity – which is, surely, at the heart of ‘Human Rights’ – may be best defended not by external powers but internal, national voices. Few outsiders have sufficient cultural literacy to be able to translate hard words into heard words, and to find social and moral equivalents across religious and linguistic borders. The Judeo-Christian West may have discovered an anthropology that justifies a universal appeal to ‘Human Rights’: it is for non-Western societies and cultures to own for themselves on their own terms. Force bruises. Globalizing forces can hurt. Humans matter whoever they are and wherever they live.

Dr Aruthuckal Varughese John, Associate

[1] NB. Though my primary focus here is India, my intention is to propose principles and insights that are applicable to Asia as a whole and to non-Western countries and cultures in general.

[2] For a fuller discussion, see my article, ‘Religious Freedom: Freedom of Conversion or Freedom from Conversion’, IBMR 45.4 (2021): 388–396.

[3] Cf. I. Tatsuo, ‘Liberal Democracy and Asian Orientalism’, in J. R. Bauer and D. A. Bell (eds), The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights (Cambridge, 1999), 38.

[4] D. A. Bell, East Meets West: Human Rights and Democracy in East Asia (Princeton, 2000), 3.

[5] Bell, East Meets West, 5. Cf. also, C. Layne and B. Schwarz, ‘American Hegemony without an Enemy’, 7.

[6] Idem.

[7] N.B. in 2011, the UN General Assembly also praised Bhutan’s GNH rating.

[8] R. W. Caves, ed., Encyclopedia of the City (London, 2013), 208.

[9] O. Yasuaki, ‘Toward an Intercivilizational Approach to Human Rights’, in J. R. Bauer and D. A. Bell (eds), The East Asian Challenge for Human Rights (Cambridge, 1999), 112.

[10] Yasuaki, 111–112.

[11] NB. The Indian subcontinent has witnessed significant reforming movements over the centuries; notably, the 12th century Basavanna movement in the South, the temple reforms instituted by the British General John Munro (1778-1858) in Kerala, and the ‘Bengali Renaissance’ from the late-18th to early 20th century.

[12] Cf. C. Taylor, ‘Why We Need a Radical Redefinition of Secularism’, in M. Eduardo and V. Jonathan (eds.), The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere (New York, 2011), 46.

[13] Yasuaki, 103.

[14] Yasuaki, 106-7.

[15] Yasuaki, 104.

[16] Yasuaki, 105.

[17] This is illustrated in the longstanding US relations with certain kingdoms of the Middle East where Human rights violations have been consistently ignored leading to the view that where it affects the economic interests of the West, they have tended to ignore violations; where as, they have insisted on such human rights in areas where their economic interests are not compromised.

[18] Yasuaki, 109.

[19] q. A. Shankar, ‘India Did Not Learn Democracy from the British’, The Indian Express (21 May 2022).

[20] Tatsuo, ‘Liberal Democracy and Asian Orientalism’, 38.

[21] Yasuaki, 109.

[22] Idem.

[23] An important caveat to this is the privileging in Indian law of religious communities over individuals. Application of the Common Civil Code and increase in majoritarian politics has rendered ‘community’ the enemy of personal ‘identity’.