India’s self-defeating communal and neighbourhood policies
Alienation of Muslims at home and of neighbouring countries around it is self-defeating for India
India's Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi, rode to power on the back of Hindu nationalism, religious bigotry and communal extremism. The BJP, and its allies in the NDA expected that Modi, as prime minister, would pursue Hindutva (an ideology seeking to establish Hindu hegemony and the Hindu way of life) so as to transform India into a Hindu state by abandoning secularism that is enshrined in the country's constitution. However, Mr. Modi seemed to have arrived in power with another dream in his eyes -the dream of making India economically as good as, if not better than, its regional rival China, with which India has fought a war in 1962 and border skirmishes at different times, including the first deadly clash in 45 years at Galwan Valley, Ladakh on the 15th of last month, over territorial disputes. China's phenomenal economic achievements and its ever-increasing military might and geopolitical clout captured his imagination.
In the initial months of his premiership, Mr Modi seemed to resist silently the pressure from the activists of his party and its allies to start implementing their Hindutva policies, for he intended to concentrate on the materialisation of his socioeconomic dream, without being seen backing off from his party's Hindu communalism-centric anti-Muslim policies. Pursuance of such policies, he seemed to realise, was in the ultimate analysis self-defeating for an India that is aspiring to the global recognition and role as a major power of today's world. While Mr. Modi was proceeding with his socioeconomic plan, other leaders of his party and its allies zealously persecuted Muslims in different ways, including lynching a number of them for as absurd a reason as possessing or eating beef. In the face of scathing criticism from some quarters at home and abroad for his inaction on the communal situation, Mr. Modi eventually emerged from his silence on February 27, 2015 and denounced communalism in strong terms. He sent a stern warning to the radical elements in the Sangh Parivar not to violate the religious freedom of citizens, declaring that he had the skills and means to stop them. Mr. Modi said Hindus and Muslims must battle against poverty instead of fighting each other.
Mr. Modi introduced the 'Make in India' initiative in September 2014, to persuade foreign companies to manufacture products in India, with the objective of transforming the country into a global manufacturing hub. During the first four years of his premiership, India's GDP grew at an average rate of 7.23%, higher than 6.39% under the previous government.
To many political observers, Mr. Modi, as prime minister, looked positively transformed from what he was as the Chief Minister of Gujarat. He looked forward-looking, proactive, progressive and above communalism. He looked poised to provide the kind of leadership that the biggest democracy of the world needed in the 21st century. In May 2014, as the prime minister designate, Mr. Modi invited his counterparts from all other SAARC countries to attend his inauguration ceremony. That unique diplomatic gesture on his part raised hope in India's South Asian neighbours of opening up a new vista of enhanced cooperation with it. The gesture was also commensurate with his government's "neighbourhood first" policy of improving relations with India's neighbours. India seemed to be earnestly reaching out to all its neighbours, including Bangladesh. Prime Minister Modi visited all other SAARC countries. Thanks to Prime Minister Modi's extraordinary efforts, the Indian parliament ratified in May 2015 the long pending Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) signed between Bangladesh and India in 1974.
Then came a time, when analysts felt that Modi's government distracted the people's attention from an aggravating economic malaise (caused by some wrong economic measures, like the demonetisation of certain banknotes in 2016 and the imposition of the Goods and Services Tax from July 2017) and from the BJP's successive loss of power (since December 2018 the party lost power in five states: Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Jharkhand) by spawning issues like the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and Permanent Residency Certificate (PRC) and by revoking the special status granted under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution to Jammu and Kashmir. Those issues have alienated the Muslims from their Hindu compatriots and weakened India internally. Those have also alienated India's neighbouring Muslim-majority countries from it by accusing them of minority persecution and creating a fear of possible adverse implications of these issues on them. India has also soured its bilateral relations with Nepal and Sri Lanka by some actions that lacked diplomatic tact and strategic farsightedness.
Prof Sumit Ganguly, a distinguished professor of political science at a US university, wrote in a recent article that "Modi's initial move to try to boost relations with India's neighbours was both commendable and timely," but "a failure to follow through with a sustained strategy" had left India worse off. In fact, the "neighbourhood first" policy was neither pursued for long nor consistently. This engendered a lack of trust in India and impelled a couple of the neighbours to China for support.
Bangladesh has always remained a grateful friend of India for the latter's role and sacrifices during her War of Liberation in 1971. The ratification of the LBA in 2015 provided a fresh and huge impetus to their bilateral relations. However, the CAA, NRC, and the PRC issues of 2019, and the repeated threat of deportation of the so-called illegal Bangladeshi immigrants by an influential Indian minister -in contradiction to the assurances from Prime Minister Modi and External Affairs Minister Jaishankar that Bangladesh had nothing to worry about those -have become matters of concern for Bangladesh.
The persistent killing of unarmed Bangladeshis by the BSF of India along the common border of the two countries is another serious and alienating feature in the two countries' relations. The killings have continued for years against a backdrop of Bangladesh's unstinting positive response to almost all requests for cooperation from India and removing all causes of concern for India in Bangladesh; and despite promises from India that those killings would stop. A large number of Bangladeshis have been killed since 2001.
Mr Modi seems to have yielded to the communal parochialism of his Hindu-nationalist party and its allies. The Delhi riots of February (2020) were a vivid reminder of the horrific communal scenario that prevailed in the sub-continent following the partition of India in 1947. India is now moving backward in respect of religious tolerance, communal harmony, economic growth and prosperity. However, under the shadow of Covid-19 pandemic, Mr. Modi's proposal of March 13 to chalk out a strong joint strategy involving all SAARC countries to fight the deadly virus looked so desirable. The commendable proposal sent an impulse of solidarity between India and all other SAARC countries. The SAARC platform that brings all the South Asian countries together on a single platform and keeps a door open for talks even during times of strained relations is extremely essential. India, as the largest country in the region, should take the initiative to activate SAARC and consistently pursue its "neighbourhood first" policy. Durable good relations with its neighbours would certainly add to India's strength and influence. It should also take bold, proactive and courageous steps in quest of enduring peace also with China -which is the largest source of import for India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka; and a leading development partner of all of them.
The pursuance of Hindu nationalism, majoritarianism, communalism, and religious extremism in India should give way to endeavours to improve the standard of living of its entire population through continued and uninterrupted socioeconomic development. The founding fathers of the Indian republic aspired to build India as the great country that poet Rabindranath Tagore had dreamt of long ago -a land, where the mind would be without fear and the head would be held high; and where the world would not be "broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls". Prime Minister Modi evidently possesses the requisite courage, energy, wisdom, skills as well as political acumen and power to pull down all the "narrow domestic walls", which have been raised to divide the people of India. He is able to do that and go down in history as a great leader, not only of India, but also of the world.
The writer is a Former Ambassador & Secretary