The Debate | Opinion

India’s Domestic Troubles Are the Greatest Problem for Its Foreign Policy

The Narendra Modi government’s brutal approach to India’s domestic affairs has cast a long shadow on Indian diplomatic achievements built over decades.  

By Manasi Pritam for
India’s Domestic Troubles Are the Greatest Problem for Its Foreign Policy
Credit: AP Photo/Ajit Solanki

On January 5, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), India’s leading university for social sciences, was attacked and vandalized by goons with the tacit assent of the Delhi Police. Thirty students and 12 faculty members are undergoing treatment for the grievous injuries that they sustained as the police blocked roads leading to the university, locked the university gates, and switched off the streetlights in surrounding areas after unleashing a 60-80 strong armed mob on the students. A few hours later, the vandals were escorted outside the university by the police.

This incident is one among the many violent attacks on liberals that has marred protests against the recently legislated Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), in which 25 people have been killed. The widespread agitations triggered by the act constitute the biggest resistance to a piece of Indian legislation in its independent history, the government’s brutal response to which is tarnishing India’s reputation globally.

Foreign policy is usually conducted in a separate space from the domestic arena to enable clear communication channels for diplomats. The CAA, however, will have consequences for millions of people in South Asia across countries. It is clear that the Hindu nationalist government in India has not thought through the implications that it will have for the region. This is evident from its unwillingness to hold a dialogue with serious critics and, at the same time, its willingness to deploy every method to divert attention away from the issue and resort to thuggish means to withhold the massive opposition to it. Such behavior is uncharacteristic of the largest democracy in the world.

A Divisive Agenda

The contentious amendment seeks to provide citizenship to religiously persecuted non-Muslim minorities who are already residing in India. It is applicable to refugee minorities from the Islamic republics of Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and is being called out for being unconstitutional in discriminating on religious grounds.

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The law is among a spate of controversial decisions taken last year that include revoking the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, the Ayodhya verdict, and implementing a National Register of Citizenship in the state of Assam. These are deliberate initiatives aimed at alienating the Muslim community in India and reducing them to second class citizens. This is a crucial step for fulfilling the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s myopic vision of making India a “Hindu nation” — a homeland for Hindus, in an attempt to replicate the Israeli model in the process without any regard for context.

Such a brazenly communal policy has come at the cost of ignoring urgent financial challenges that the country is facing such as its biggest economic slowdown since 1979, rising inflation and a job crisis. People have taken to the streets to show their anger.

The Narendra Modi government is sparing no efforts to undermine the massive protests that have shook the country since. Along with an aggressive door to door campaign to justify the law, thousands have been arrested and detained, some tortured; private properties have been confiscated and damaged, and bullets have been fired at protesting crowds. All of this is accompanied with a daily dose of highly charged propaganda of vicious allegations on the largely peaceful protesters by the ruling BJP.

Such a vile display of muscle that includes regular physical and verbal attacks on liberal Indian institutions of higher education (JNU, Jamia Millia Islamia, Aligarh Muslim University, Indian Institute of Management among others) does not bode well for India’s image of being a responsible regional hegemon, and a young and thriving secular democracy at that.

The BJP’s divisive agenda is further enabled by its jingoistic narrative, one that is obsessed with Pakistan and sending those Indians who disagree with its bigoted politics there. Doing so has led to the unintended consequence of constricting India’s primary foreign policy goals and actions to the India-Pakistan security hyphenation, a step backward from its earlier policy of maintaining “strategic autonomy.”

This is a pity considering the increasing relevance of the concept (originally inspired by Jawaharlal Nehru’s policy of nonalignment) in a changing world that is witnessing the rise of nationalism and rapid issue based realignments. Even if India’s right wing government is keen on practicing greater Realism in its foreign policy, it would do the establishment well to remember that there is a world beyond Pakistan and it begins with India’s allies in the region.

Diplomatic Challenges

The CAA seems to form a part of the string of major global phenomena with its protectionist and nativist government narrative. Indian Home Minister Amit Shah has promised to follow up the CAA with a National Register for Citizens (NRC) that is bound to leave millions stateless and has increased anxiety among the population even further. In an April 2019 rally, he explicitly referred to Bangladeshi illegal immigrants as “termites,” a remark earlier dismissed by its neighbors as India’s internal affairs. As his violent crackdowns on the anti-CAA protests gather more international coverage, India’s image of being a vibrant democracy within a tough neighborhood is at risk.

The amendment is conspicuous in being applicable to refugees of only three of its seven neighbors — of which Bangladesh and Afghanistan have been allies in the past in part because of India’s thoughtful approach to the region’s refugee problem. Although, both have been careful to not give knee-jerk reactions, the move has created serious diplomatic setbacks for India. Two Bangladeshi ministers have cancelled visits to India over the legislation that has left many in Bangladesh disapproving of the rhetoric surrounding CAA’s implementation, and Afghan officials have denied the claim that minorities face religious persecution in their country. The protests also led to the cancellation of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip for the annual India-Japan prime ministerial summit to Assam, ground zero of the protests and where an internet shutdown has been imposed.

This is not the first time that human rights concerns have raised eyebrows during Narendra Modi’s second term on the global stage. A proposed U.S. congressional resolution urging India to uplift all restrictions in Kashmir following the abrogation of Article 370 that revoked the erstwhile state’s special status, backed by Indian-American lawmakers across party lines, also created controversy recently. Traditionally, India has maintained that Kashmir is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan. In 2019, in addition to the U.S. Congress, New Delhi’s Kashmir moves were discussed in the European Parliament and UK Parliamentary elections. On the insistence of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, it is expected to be on the agenda of the upcoming Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summit for the first time.

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2019 was a year that saw India’s global image take a downward spiral with its anti-Muslim policies, leading to rising resentment among liberals — particularly among the left as protests across the country grew and the fascist government’s disproportionate response to them continued. India’s foreign policy has been preoccupied with covering up for problems created by decisions at the domestic level despite having projected a more proactive international role for itself by the Minister of External Affairs, S. Jaishankar — an ex-diplomat with a stellar reputation.

As the anti-CAA protests continue in 2020, India’s image of being a democratic regional power in contrast to China is at stake. With the U.S. gradually withdrawing its influence in the region, the emergence of an increasingly unstable neighborhood, and the continued presence of an aggressive China, India’s Hindu nationalist government needs to be more mindful of its allies, particularly in the Muslim world with which India traditionally shares deep historical and cultural ties. Much of the damage, however, has already been done. A herculean task lies ahead for India’s new foreign secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla in overcoming India’s new domestic induced foreign policy challenges.

Manasi Pritam is a PhD candidate at the Jawaharlal Nehru University working on Indian foreign policy.