The Debate | Opinion

A Free and Open Indo-Pacific Needs a Free and Open India

India’s ability to contribute to a “free and open” Indo-Pacific will require a course correction at home first.

Aman Thakker
A Free and Open Indo-Pacific Needs a Free and Open India
Credit: PMO India via Wikimedia Commons

A central feature of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy has been to advance the need to create a “free, open, and inclusive” Indo-Pacific. In promoting these values, the prime minister has explicitly linked India’s freedom, openness, and inclusivity at home as the foundation upon which it promotes these values abroad.

However, recent policies enacted by Modi’s government, such as enacting a stringent security lockdown in Kashmir and the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA), have been inconsistent with such values. India’s embrace of these values in its foreign policy, while undermining the centrality of these values at home, calls for a reassessment of its domestic policy in favor of policies that advance a free and open India today, so that it can be a ballast for a free and open Indo-Pacific tomorrow.

The Indian Vision for the Indo-Pacific Region

Modi has placed the values of freedom, openness, and inclusivity at the heart of India’s engagement with the world affairs writ large, and especially when articulating an Indian vision for the Indo-Pacific region. In speaking about these values, the prime minister has consistently noted that there is direct claim between centrality of these values in India’s international engagements and India’s domestic politics and society.

Speaking at the United Nations in 2019, Prime Minister Modi stressed the importance of undertaking “collective efforts, for growth of all, with everyone’s trust” at home, as well as in initiatives “not confined within the borders of India.” He expressed a similar sentiment in his address to the World Economic Forum in Davos, stating that “the direct result of the cordial coexistence of diversity in the Indian terrain for thousands of years is that we believe in a multi-cultural world… India has proved that all disputes and cracks can be eradicated with democracy, respect of diversity, harmony and co-ordination and cooperation and dialogue.”

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This emphasis on values, both at home and abroad, was even more evident in his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018. He underscored how India’s approach to the region was rooted in the “foundation of our civilizational ethos – of pluralism, co-existence, openness and dialogue. The ideals of democracy that define us as a nation also shape the way we engage the world.” He went on to argue how “rules and norms should be based on the consent of all, not on the power of the few. This must be based on faith in dialogue, and not dependence on force.”

The Need for Freedom, Openness, and Inclusivity at Home

Despite promoting these values abroad, Modi’s government has supported policies that fly in the face of values such as freedom, openness, and inclusivity. Such policies include the government lockdown and detention of politicians in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, and the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA).

Since August 5, 2019, the BJP-led government has enforced a lockdown in the Kashmir Valley in the newly created union territory of Jammu and Kashmir. The government initially undertook a complete communications blackout, blocking phone lines and access to the internet. While some of these restrictions were gradually reduced, such as permitting landline usage and some mobile services, the government has continued unfettered internet access. Despite a Supreme Court order deeming access to internet as a fundamental right, the government has allowed access to only specific “white-listed” websites. Moreover, the government has placed nearly 200 state politicians, including two former chief ministers of the erstwhile state, under arrest since August 5.

Such an approach undermines Modi’s call for “collective efforts, for growth of all, with everyone’s trust” within India. Rather, the government’s approach to Kashmir is top-down, suffocating, and almost Orwellian in its mistrust for its own citizens. It flies in the face of the prime minister’s call for “the consent of all” and the need for “faith in dialogue, and not dependence on force.” Instead, the lockdown of Kashmir is rooted in the use of force, as evidenced by the government’s heavy deployment of the armed forces to the Kashmir valley. It has also prevented any good faith dialogue by arresting state leaders and choking off the ability of citizens in Kashmir to communicate.

Similarly, the government’s policies to create a preferential path to citizenship for non-Muslim refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan under the CAA undermines India’s commitment to the values of inclusivity and plurality. Supporters of the government have argued that the CAA does not prevent Muslim refugees from gaining citizenship through other means. However, specifically leaving out Muslim refugees of the CAA’s fast-track to citizenship undermines the foundation of India’s civilizational ethos as articulated by the prime minister: pluralism, co-existence, and openness towards all. Rather, the policies remain rooted in majoritarianism over pluralism, underscores a bias against a particular religion, and demonstrates India’s openness towards some rather than all.

Implications for India’s Free, Open, and Inclusive Indo-Pacific Vision

The disconnect between Modi’s promotion of these values abroad while overseeing their abandonment at home also risks alienating India’s partners and friends. Several of India’s partners, chief among the United States, have described the foundation of their relationship as being built on “common values” as well as “shared interests.” In this light, bipartisan support for two resolutions tabled before the United States Congress which evoke “shared values” in their criticisms of India’s domestic policies underscores how one of these pillars in increasingly under stress.

At the same time, India’s policies have also created space for detractors that oppose such values in the Indo-Pacific to criticize this values-centered vision for the region. Chinese mouthpieces have used India’s actions against Muslims to defend their own draconian policies in Xinjiang.  Chinese sites also pointed to India’s severe internet shutdown in Kashmir to justify its own internet shutdown in Xinjiang and national censorship of the internet, claiming India’s example demonstrated how internet shutdown were a “necessary regulation” and a “reasonable choice… when there is a significant threat to national security.” Therefore, by failing to uphold the values of freedom and openness at home, India is providing ammunition to opponents of its Indo-Pacific vision.

Modi has forcefully made the case for a “free, open, and inclusive” Indo-Pacific, pointing to how these values are a part of the Indian ethos both at home and abroad. However, in his second term, there is a growing gap between his rhetoric and his actions, particularly when it comes to upholding the values of freedom, openness, and inclusivity at home. Through their actions in Kashmir and the passage of CAA, Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party-led government not only undermine the centrality of these values in India’s domestic policy, but also threaten the values-based vision India has articulated for the Indo-Pacific. As Modi has made clear, India’s support for values in its foreign policy comes from its respect for those values at home. To realize India’s vision for a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific, therefore, India will need to correct course at home and build a free, open, and inclusive India.

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Aman Thakker is an Adjunct Fellow with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and the J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Scholar at the University of Oxford.