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India: A Study in Political Misdirection

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The Pulse

India: A Study in Political Misdirection

Modi hopes to use his business-friendly image abroad to distract from rising Hindu nationalism at home.

India: A Study in Political Misdirection
Credit: Flickr/ MEAphotogallery

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto for the 2014 General Elections was constructed around dealing with internal issues, such as corruption and better governance, that would appeal to poverty stricken rural voters. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power promising India two things for the more well-informed voter: first, greater business opportunity and economic clout and second, a more dominant position on the global stage.

Modi has been known to be a dreamer and also someone who can set the crowd on fire with his fiery speeches, grand vision, and inspirational rags to riches story set in a small hamlet of the state of Gujrat. He also boasted the credentials to convince the voters that Modi could project India more powerfully to the world.

However, there was always a tacit understanding that Modi’s accession to power will also entail a third, more disguised policy agenda, which is the reassertion of India’s essentially “Hindu” identity.

As an antithesis to the long-ruling Congress Party, the BJP has often tried to reassert the nation’s “Hindu” character over the “secular” trajectory that is a source of great pride for many Indians and is also one of the nation’s most important foreign policy tools. Modi himself has been an open proponent of this policy and has openly declared that he is a “Hindu Nationalist.”

His membership and long lasting association with Hindu extremist outfits like the Rashtriya Sevak Sangh (RSS), which has been credited with inciting religious violence through its legions of fundamentalist followers, as well as his role in the communal violence that struck the state of Gujrat during his tenure as the chief minister in 2002 have remained a touchy subject. Modi himself has been keen to avoid these topics, even going as far as walking out of an interview when being repeatedly quizzed about why he has failed to publicly apologize for the riots.

Thus from the onset, it was apparent that Modi’s ascension to power would allow Hindu extremist parties to operate more freely in the country and that a rise in Hindu fundamentalist sentiment and some degree of marginalization of India’s minority groups were in the cards.

On a sociopolitical front, minority groups in India are seen by many in the Hindu majority to enjoy a “privileged” status within the Indian Federation under the guise of secularism. The reserved seats and quotas for minority groups (which are also extended to “Other Backward Classes,” including Modi’s Modh-Ghanchi-Teli Community) have invited the ire of Hindu fundamentalist groups, parties, and leaders under the pretext that they are against democratic norms and deny the right of fair competition to competent Hindu youths who have to forego their right to seats based on quotas in order to accommodate members from minority groups. These safeguards are seen by minorities as critical for maintaining some degree of competitive parity in education and government departments with members belonging to the Hindu community.

India’s history with minority groups has often remained tense, with violence breaking out along many of India’s social, ethnic and religious fractures. The violence against Christians in Odisha, attacks on Sikhs (allegedly orchestrated by India’s Congress Party) in the immediate aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination and during the Operation Blue Star saga, as well as the historic violence against Muslims in Kashmir in response to demands for the right of self-determination have long been glaring questions to India’s commitment with regards to protecting its minority’s rights. These stains refused to go away despite India’s best efforts to work out a three pronged strategy to suppress India’s internal violence problems through a combination of political coercion, cooperation, and military force. The results of this strategy have remained debatable but the late 2000s did see a decline in communal violence even as ethnic and political violence continued to wreak havoc on Indian society.

With Modi’s election, several far-right Hindu fundamentalist and militant bodies such as the RSS, the Shiv Sena, and Bajrang Dal, have become increasingly active in their agenda to assert Hindu dominance and supremacy over Indian affairs.

Violence in Kashmir has reignited as India has continued to adopt heavy-handed tactics. An 800-page report on the violations of human rights in Kashmir notes the prominent use of fake encounters, forced disappearances, illegal detention, and the use of torture. Despite these measures, Kashmir has traditionally remained a hotbed of insurgency and thus India finds a convenient patsy in the form of Pakistan (plagued by its own domestic insurgency problems) to blame for its actions in Kashmir.

Sporadic violence against Muslims has also been reported deep in the Indian heartland. There have been attacks against Muslims on fabricated charges of eating beef (or conspiring to do so) after courts approved a blanket ban on the consumption of cattle, seen as sacred in Hinduism. Members of India’s ruling elite, particularly members of Modi’s cabinet, have failed to condemn these instances of lynching and have instead moved to defend the actions of the attackers. The role of the police has also been questionable in these instances as in the case of Muhammad Ikhlaq from Dadri, Uttar Pradesh who was killed and his son injured by an enraged crowd who alleged that the family had consumed beef. The rumor that Muhammad Ikhlaq and his family were storing beef was initiated by a constable of the police. Furthermore, when the issue ignited, the police were missing in action, arriving well after the lynching had taken place. Upon arrival, rather than arresting the members of the mob involved in this grave injustice, the police stood by before proceeding to collect the family’s leftover food to ascertain whether the deceased actually had consumed beef (forensic tests later revealed that the meat was mutton).

In parts of Punjab and Kashmir as well, members of the Sikh community have been enraged after repeated instances of desecration of the Guru Granth Sahab, the Holy Book of the Sikhs. Lack of government sympathy and interest in Sikh demands has led to violent demonstrations across the state of Punjab, which are now spilling over into neighbouring states as well.

The recent visibility of communal violence in India is not a fluke. It is driven by a 25 percent increase in such cases, belying government claims that the trend of communal violence has seen a decline under the Modi administration.

The question remains then, how is this information being withheld from the global audience? How is the world’s largest self-proclaimed democracy escaping international oversight as it adopts increasingly myopic and theocratic policies? The answer is misdirection.

Misdirection, in the Indian context, is the act of pursuing two divergent policies at the same time and working to ensure that global attention remains fixated on the more appealing of the two policy directions. To be more specific, as India declares itself to be open for business to the world and highlights its economic potential and political stability, it also directs attention away from internal issues such as economic disparity, the repression of minority groups, and rising extremism.

To further elaborate, Modi’s overcompensation in the field of foreign policy has not gone unnoticed. He has often been the subject of question and occasionally ridicule for his breach of diplomatic protocol and selfie diplomacy but the prime minister of India comes across as a man on a mission. His dynamic and ever assertive foreign policy takes him from one state to the next, meeting world leaders and representatives from the world’s most profitable and influential companies. Modi wants to leave behind a legacy; his relentless pursuit for India’s inclusion in the UN Security Council, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Australia Group, and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) are driven by his agenda to cement India’s position as a recognized regional power with stakes in global security.

However, Modi’s maverick foreign policy approach and newsworthy conduct also serve to misdirect media attention from his government’s less than enviable domestic record, allowing him to create a new “Hindu” India at home while he markets a collectivist secular, democratic regime to his foreign partners. While he meets the CEOs of some of the world’s most profitable companies to encourage them to invest in his country, his efforts, whether they bear fruit or not, keep the camera away from India’s problems at home. Another key part in the pursuit of this policy of misdirection is giving the population a common menace that they can unite against.

India’s aspirations for regional hegemony rest heavily on controlling its internal discord, a largely failed exercise until now. India has been known to exercise Machiavellian tactics and adopt misdirection even for its domestic population. In order to limit communal hostilities, India needs to give her citizens a greater threat to their well-being, something to force them into deferring their own quarrels as they deal with the more pressing threat right before them –and that threat almost exclusively comes from Pakistan.

It is no surprise therefore, that since Modi came to power, cross-border violations have become more frequent than at any time in the past decade, after a ceasefire agreement was renewed in 2003. By the end of 2015, there had been 247 border violations recorded since Modi assumed command of the country in May 2014. Indian and Pakistani forces have exchanged fire not only across the disputed Line of Control but also across the Working Boundary, which forms the international border between the two states.

These skirmishes have given India a golden opportunity to try and turn the situation in their favor. By issuing harsh statements and engaging in war rhetoric, the Modi administration aims to kill three birds with one stone. First, it pacifies its population’s communal tendencies by giving them a common enemy to unite against. Second, Delhi boosts its regional hegemonic designs and, third, it attempts to paint Pakistan, a smaller country with its own chronic internal security issues, as the regional aggressor that is responsible for stoking unrest in India.

The violence following the killing of Burhan Wani, a charismatic, young militant commander in the Kashmir Valley, has also demonstrated how successfully India can keep its internal issues under wraps. The region was under a curfew for 53 consecutive days until being lifted for 24 hours on August 31; the curfew was reinstated the next day. Telecommunication services have remained suspended and the heavy handed tactics of law enforcement agencies have resulted in the deaths of over 70 civilians with another 7,000 injured. A number of these injuries include protesters suffering from varying degrees of eye damage owing to the use of shotguns by Indian police and paramilitary forces as a means for crowd control.

Despite this dismal situation, international reporting on the Kashmir issue has remained almost nonexistent and it continues to rage as a silent conflict, which is slowly being choked by Indian forces. Despite calls by local political leaders to exercise restraint and diffuse the matter through addressing the genuine grievances of the Kashmiri populace, the Indian government under Modi has remained defiant as ever. Instead of recognizing that a problem exists, they have placed the blame squarely on Pakistan for sparking the latest wave of uprisings across the state. Modi has tried to once again draw international coverage away from his own mess by pointing the finger instead at Pakistan and the purported grievances of people from the province of Balochistan and the special administrative region of Gilgit as well as the autonomous region of Azad Kashmir.

In a sense, one is forced to commend India for becoming a media success. The country has been able to pull a number of right moves in marketing itself as an up and coming economy and regional military power while effectively misdirecting attention away from its mounting internal strife.

However, as mentioned previously, the policy of misdirection involves disguising India’s growing internal strife under a mask of often exaggerated economic, political and military bravado to keep its internal populace pacified and further entrench its position in the hearts of the jingoistic Hindu nationalist camp. However, misdirecting attention away from problems does not make them go away, a fact that is becoming increasingly evident as noted scholars, scientists, filmmakers and other notable Indian thinkers are returning their state awards in protest against rising intolerance in India.

Several prominent Indian Muslim actors have also received threats, taunts, and the age old label of being “Pakistani” for expressing their views on how it is becoming increasingly difficult to live as a member of a minority group in Modi’s India. Thus it can be conjectured that the policy of misdirection, although initially successful, is now increasingly waning in the face of rising intolerance at home. Sooner or later, the instances of internal violence will begin to eclipse Modi’s overseas adventures.

This observation should underscore the fact that the policy of misdirection might be able to produce short term results but will inevitably fail to deliver any suitable dividends as the problem worsens due to the lack of interest from the government, be it tacit or implicit. As the second most populous country in the region, with a diverse ethnic profile, India has long thought of itself as the flag bearer of stability in the region. Any communal violence in India has the potential of spilling over into neighboring countries as well, which is why India needs to take charge and own up to the communal tensions brewing inside its own borders. The genuine grievances of minority groups have to be addressed and militant Hindu groups need to be reined in by the state, something that might require Narendra Modi to make tough calls to ensure as he relies on the fundamentalist Hindu vote bank for his popularity.

Muhammad Zarrar Saeed is a student of International Relations at the Bahria University Islamabad. He has served as a Research Intern at the Strategic Studies Institute Islamabad and the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He writes regularly on geo-politics and conflict.