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Realpolitik trumps religious freedom in Modi's India

Western allegations of religious violence in India, rather paradoxically, end up helping those who should be held accountable

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Nirendra Dev, New Delhi

Published: June 17, 2020 10:34 AM GMT
Realpolitik trumps religious freedom in Modi's India

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a joint press conference at Hyderabad House in New Delhi on Feb. 25. (Photo: Prakash Singh/AFP)

The United States, seen as the global defender of democracy and religious freedom, has been vocal about the shrinking democratic space and religious freedom across the world, particularly in Asia.

Its influential agency, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), has this year, for the first time in history, downgraded India to a group of "countries of particular concern” accused of the worst violations of religious freedom. 

The report seemingly had no impact on Indians or governments anywhere in the world. It is business as usual. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump continue their warm friendship without making any policy changes.

The US agency had sought sanctions against India's powerful Home Minister Amit Shah for pushing the Citizenship Amendment Act, which is accused of discriminating against Muslims.

When the report was questioned, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar responded: "We do not take cognizance of these pronouncements and have repudiated such attempts to misrepresent information related to India."

He added: "We have also denied visas to USCIRF teams that have sought to visit India in connection with issues related to religious freedom, as we do not see the locus standi [right to bring an action] of a foreign entity like USCIRF."

No one in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is embarrassed or saddened by the criticism of international agencies and media. Such indifference has been the hallmark of the BJP and its leader, PM Modi, after coming to power in 2014.

Religion-based violence in India, particularly against Christians, has increased since 2014, and it has been growing each year. In 2016, Persecution Relief documented 330 cases, rising to 440 in 2017, 477 in 2018 and 527 in 2019. The first four months of 2020 recorded 213 cases. Muslims were also selectively targeted. Incidents of violence have increased but the government ignores the issue.

"The problem is that the real noise is not made by people in the West who could make the difference," Sanjay Das of the opposition Congress party from northeastern India told UCA News.

Politics of duplicity

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The diplomatic policies of both the US and India prioritize economic and geopolitical interests rather than the rights of any particular community or religion. The talk of religion and religious freedom becomes a mere arm-twisting tool for ulterior diplomatic bargaining.

While the US agency repeatedly accuses India of intolerance towards religious minorities, we see no such concern from President Trump. On the contrary, we see Trump appreciating Modi.

In February, Trump was in Indian capital Delhi for a visit. The city was then witnessing an unprecedented anti-Muslim riot linked with the discriminatory citizenship law pushed by Modi’s administration. But Trump lauded Modi's "religious tolerance."

India's sociopolitical reality contributes immensely to the government ignoring Western calls for religious freedom and secularism. The overwhelming majority of India's 1.3 billion people look at such calls as an attack on India's independence.

Western allegations of religious violence in India, rather paradoxically, end up helping those who should be otherwise held accountable. It results in emboldened and increased attacks on religious and ethnic minorities.

The spins in the process take another cut against the religious minorities, secularists and rights activists who clamor for religious freedom and human rights: they are all depicted as anti-nationals who work against India's integrity and interests. Only a few would have the guts to face that challenge.

The concept of patriotism, which is increasingly defined as a commitment to Hindu nationhood, continues to question the loyalty of Indian Christians and Muslims. Catholics are viewed as Western-oriented and loyal to the Vatican, while Muslims are perceived as supportive of Islamic nations, particularly India's arch-rival Pakistan.

A bold statement from a group supporting the US call for religious freedom would be an opportunity to project it as an enemy of India. Even the top leaders of Christians or Muslims make no public comments on US statements about religious freedom. Silence is ensured.

The global factor

"Hindu hardline politics can easily grow in the lap of radical Islamist politics. In many Western countries and in Europe particularly, Islamophobia has come to stay," said Naga Christian leader Thomas Ngullie, a former state minister.

Western governments’ comments on religious intolerance in India are dismissed as unwarranted "interference" in what is romantically described as "an internal matter of India."

Violent incidents — from the Hindu demolition of the disputed Babri mosque in 1992 to anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002 and cow vigilante murders — had no adverse impact on the political prospects of the BJP, which is publicly wedded to the ideologies of a Hindu nation. On the contrary, the violence has contributed to the political growth of the party, adding to its clamor for greater Hindu influence.

In 2005, the Bush administration denied a US visa to Modi, who was then Gujarat state's chief minister. The US held Modi responsible for state police allegedly aiding the 2002 anti-Muslim riots, which killed some 2,000 people, mostly Muslims. But the Indian government, then led by the current opposition Congress party, was upset about it.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who headed the secular government supported by the communists, said on the floor of parliament that the US "has been clearly informed that while we respect their sovereign right to grant or refuse visas to any person, we do not believe that it is appropriate to use allegations or anything less than due process to make a subjective judgment to question a constitutional authority in India." Singh was defending a constitutional authority of India, the chief minister of Gujarat.

Red carpet for Modi

Such is the irony of fate and the unpredictability of politics that in 2014 Modi won national elections. The same US administration under Barack Obama organized a red-carpet welcome for him. Obama himself received the Indian prime minister with the Gujarati salutation "Kem Chho” (How are you).

Modi has displayed political maturity and smart diplomatic conduct by never trying to embarrass the US government by raising the visa incident since 2014. Modi knew the US could not stop doing business with the new administration in India.

This dichotomy has applied not only to the United States. In 2012-13, when the political climate was turning in favor of Modi, several Western countries started sounding soft towards the then Gujarat chief minister. In the wake of the 2002 anti-Muslim riots, the 27-member European Union had announced travel restrictions on Modi. But by the end of 2013, almost all restrictions against Modi were lifted.

In December 2012, Gustavo de Aristegui, the Spanish ambassador to India, said: "We can well understand the grief of the people affected by the communal riots. But after 10 years [since the Gujarat mayhem of 2002] no clear link has been established between Narendra Modi and the riots."

"The economy, stupid" is what US political strategist James Carville said in 1992. No matter what criticism appears in Western media and even from US state agency USCIRF, the politics of the Hindu nation are linked with its US$2.94 trillion economy, the fifth largest in the world.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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