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Push for Hindu Rashtra over national interest

India's foreign policy, and its relationship with the US, might take a beating due to the internal communal cauldron
Last Updated : 02 January 2022, 02:45 IST
Last Updated : 02 January 2022, 02:45 IST

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On the last day of 2021, when they should have been looking forward to and celebrating the arrival of the New Year, several former chiefs of our Army, Navy and Air Force, and many more senior veterans, were busy drafting and sending a letter to the President and Prime Minister of India. They were anxious about the danger to national security from a bunch of religious fanatics who have been going around the Hindi heartland making open calls to genocide of Muslims and Christians to make India a ‘Hindu Rashtra’, with impunity.

“We are seriously perturbed by the content of speeches made during a 3-day religious conclave…held at Haridwar…There were repeated calls for establishing a Hindu Rashtra…picking up weapons and killing of India’s Muslims in the name of protecting Hinduism…and more such seditious meetings are being organised in other places,” they wrote in anguish.

And a reminder that no elected government should need: “India’s Armed Forces, the Army, Navy & Air Force, together with CAPFs and Police, are responsible for National Security — external and internal, respectively. All of the above have sworn to uphold India’s Constitution and our secular values…One speaker made a call to the army and police to pick up weapons and participate in the ‘cleanliness drive’ (safai abhiyan). This amounts to asking the army to participate in genocide of our own citizens, and is condemnable and unacceptable.”

The former chiefs went on to urge the Prime Minister and President to “take immediate steps to curb such attempts, and urge you to condemn such incitement to violence in no uncertain terms.”

That they felt that the Prime Minister needed urging to condemn calls for genocide under his watch speaks volumes in itself.

The former chiefs have expressed their anxiety over the impact of all this on immediate and obvious national security issues.

But there are also larger foreign policy and reputational issues for the nation to worry about. For one, can India claim to be ‘Vishwaguru’ if it becomes a Hindu Rashtra, especially if the route to that is widespread hatred and genocide? India’s citizens must ponder over this.

On a more practical level, what impact is the Modi dispensation’s all-but-declared domestic agenda — Hindutva, Hindu Rashtra — having on what has for over 30 years been arguably India’s most important foreign, economic and strategic policy: to build an ever-closer relationship with the US?

In April 2021, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a Congressionally-mandated independent agency, made a recommendation — for the second consecutive year — to the US State Department to include India in a ‘red list’ of “countries of particular concern” (CPC) on religious freedoms — along with Russia, Syria and Vietnam (to join the likes of Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, Pakistan).

In November, Secretary of State Antony Blinken refused to do so because, at least for now, America still considers India an essential bulwark against China. But we are edging ever closer to the ‘red list’, especially with the new-found missionary (irony intended) zeal of Hindutva groups and BJP governments at the Centre and the states to add Christian institutions and individuals to their list of targets. That this should happen just in the wake of Prime Minister Modi’s recent visits to the White House and to the Pope raises questions whether there is an intended change in direction in India’s foreign policy and, if so, for what reasons.

Degradation of religious freedom

The USCIRF has been noting the degradation of religious freedoms in India over several years. In 2020, there were three dissent notes to the recommendation to put India in the CPC category and to impose sanctions on “Indian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom…” In 2021, there was only one dissent note.

After Haridwar and Delhi and Raipur — and perhaps the worst is yet to come as we approach the UP elections — in 2022, there is unlikely to be even that one dissent note, that hope that India’s democracy and institutions are robust enough to turn around the situation.

The rupture in India-US relations may be coming sooner than later, especially as Modi leans increasingly toward Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The fact and timing of Putin’s five-hour visit to Delhi on December 6, and the subsequent call between the two, in the midst of US-Russia tensions over Ukraine, were extraordinary. A simultaneous ratcheting up of religious nationalism in India and a tightening embrace of Putin, himself a master manipulator of nationalism, cannot but be seen by the Biden administration as a red rag deliberately held up before it.

When Blinken refused to put India on the ‘red list’ in November, according to online news provider Axios, “the Biden administration may have made the judgement that it would be more productive to address India’s worsening human rights conditions in private, unless a more dramatic threshold is crossed.”

That “more dramatic threshold” may well have been crossed in Haridwar. Richard Rossow, the Wadhwani Chair in US India Policy Studies at the influential think-tank CSIS, had in November told Axios that “With China’s belligerent rise — and India’s willingness to work with the US and other partners — the Biden administration will not want to put the relationship at risk over the current level of concern in these areas.”

Just over a month later, on Friday, Rossow was not so sanguine. He told Deccan Herald, “This is a sensitive time for additional scrutiny of India’s recent record on religious tolerance. This issue greatly concerns (the US) Congress.” For good measure, he added, “…and we are nearing a potential decision on applying sanctions against India for purchases of Russian military equipment. Security cooperation has had sufficient momentum to offset other areas of bilateral friction — trade, and also religious tolerance. Any slowdown in other areas of cooperation may change this dynamic.”

America’s interests

To be sure, America’s own geopolitical interests are mixed up in the question of how it regards India’s record of religious freedoms, and that therefore detracts from its credibility. US foreign policy hypocrisy is not a new thing. On the Modi government’s decision to go ahead with the S-400 purchase, for instance, there is a clear case for India to act according to its own national interest and it need not be held back by the threat of US sanctions.

Indeed, in the past, India has lived through an intense US sanctions regime and Russia has been by Delhi’s side for the most part. But India’s motivation then was to become a nuclear weapons and missile power and stand up for itself. Is the goal of converting a secular ‘Vishwaguru’ into a Hindu Rashtra and an internal communal cauldron, over which our own former military chiefs are expressing grave concern, worth changing the direction of India’s foreign policy over?

Governments may come and go, but India’s national interest remains to build an ever-closer economic, technological and security relationship with the US, to prevent the prospect of a US-China G2 from becoming reality. To lose sight of it will be disastrous for India’s rise.

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Published 01 January 2022, 17:46 IST

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