India’s social media was abuzz with excitement last week when the general officer commanding-in-chief (GOC) of the Indian Army’s Northern Command Lt. Gen Upendra Dwivedi announced that the armed forces are ready to take what India calls Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir if ordered to do so. This statement has excited many supporters of India’s Hindu nationalist movement. But it appears that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not on the same page as his followers on the issue.
When Modi met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Samarkand during the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in September 2022, he told Putin that the era of war is over. This singular act of international diplomacy was seen in Western capitals as an admonition of Putin and a rejection of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It was also seen as India moving away from its previous position of not condemning Russia. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, India has continued to support its war effort by buying oil and not participating in the Western imposed sanctions on Russia. Modi’s speech was seen as a sign that Russia, through its egregious actions, was losing friends and may have lost India too.
Days later, India’s Minister of External Affairs Dr. S. Jaishankar not only repeated this stance of India but went a step further in his address to the U.N. General Assembly. “We must continue to believe in the power of diplomacy,” he said, stressing that India was not only on the side of peace but on the side of the U.N. Charter and its founding principles. This is a strong and suggestive statement since the U.N. Charter does not allow for territorial expansion through war. This was just short of directly rebuking Russia on a global platform.
Modi’s statement to Putin that now is “not the era of war” has been celebrated both at home and abroad and was also included in the recently issued statement by leaders of the G-20 in their joint declaration after the Bali summit in November 2022.
For the Indian media this was proof of Modi’s stature as a world leader and as a “Vishwa Guru” (a world mentor) to the world, teaching it Indian values of Vasudhaiva Kutambakam — the world is one family. This is also the theme that India chose for its presidency of the G-20. India is rising in the eyes of the world, and Indian media often attributes this solely to Modi’s leadership and vision.
But it appears that those associated with his ideological origins, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist movement that seeks to make India a Hindu state, and its affiliates, have not received the memo that their leader has declared the era of war over.
In the past few months, three very prominent voices have declared the intention to take by force the region that India calls Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) and Pakistan calls Azad Kashmir (free Kashmir).
In April, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat predicted that the goal of “Akhand Bharat” would be realized in 10-15 years and anyone who stands in the way, will be destroyed. Akhand Bharat, or unified India, is the dream of Hindu nationalists who claim that India must include within its borders Afghanistan, Pakistan (along with POK), Tibet, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. His statement that “our vehicle has started moving, it has no brakes, only an accelerator, and will soon make Akhand Bharat a reality,” is essentially a declaration of intent to wage wars of annexation on all neighboring countries.
Responding to criticism, RSS leaders said that Bhagwat was not talking in geopolitical terms but rather in geo-cultural terms and what he really meant was that all Afghans, Pakistanis, Tibetans, Bangladeshis, and Burmese people would willingly join Indians in one geo-cultural union.
This attempt to disavow Bhagwat’s war-mongering perspective was belied when on October 27, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, who like Modi is a member of the RSS, promised that POK would be united with the rest of Kashmir and will become a part of India. Singh added that the Indian Army was the “greatest army in the world.” A statement like this coming from the defense minister while touting the greatness of the army he leads is a clear hint that POK will be taken by force. The statement was carefully crafted to signal a military intent to followers while maintaining deniability for the critics.
However, Lt. Gen. Dwivedi’s comment that the army is ready to take POK and is only waiting for the order from the leadership leaves no one in doubt that the war chatter has begun.
Besides the territorial expansionist rhetoric, Hindu nationalists have been calling for violence at home. Calls for a boycott of Muslims and their genocide have received media attention globally and earned criticism from India’s Supreme Court and from U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
But Narendra Modi has not felt the need to give them a lesson in the ethics of Vasudhaiva Kutambakam. Perhaps an easy-to-read picture book for Hindutva politicians needs to be published for easy access to Indian values.
So, what should one make of this two-faced discourse – talk of peace, diplomacy, and the world as a family overseas, and call for war and expansion at home?
Modi’s silence on hate speech and calls for the genocide of Muslims indicates that he is okay with it. If he was not, why would he not say so? Don’t these hateful calls violate the values he preaches? Are they not anti-Indian and anti-national?
I think that Modi’s success at having good relations with Muslim nations, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while at the same time allowing a very hostile domestic environment for Muslim minorities to thrive has convinced him that there is a firewall between the domestic and the international political sphere. No matter what happens at home the world will look the other way. Since the United States now considers India an important strategic partner, its criticism will be mild and inconsequential. And Muslim countries eager to build partnerships with India will also look the other way. There is no international cost for allowing bad actors free rein at home.
Countries that systematically violate Muslim minority rights have had no reckoning. China’s treatment of Uyghurs or Israel’s treatment of Palestinians has not undermined the relations these nations enjoy with the West or with Muslim nations. Indeed, the Abraham Accords have normalized relations between Israel and several Arab nations without any change in the reality of Palestinian lives.
I suspect that the Hindutva elite has concluded that because of the strong association of Muslims with extremism, thanks to the Islamic State, al-Qaida, Hamas, the Taliban, and a plethora of violent religious extremist organizations that have come out of the Muslim world, neither the West nor the East would care much if India suppressed minority rights at home and launched a limited war against Pakistan abroad on the grounds of fighting extremism.
But there are other dangers in permitting this loose talk.
If the frequency and intensity of war talks get out of hand, and Modi remains silent as he has been on calls for violence against Muslims, he may become hostage to his party and movement’s rhetoric. If his party supporters start believing that war and glory are imminent, then will he be able to stick to his stated belief that the era of war is over? The demands for glory may leave him no choice but to either initiate a conflict or pay the price at the polls.
My advice to Narendra Modi is simple: practice at home what you preach abroad. If you really believe that the era of war is over, then speak up again and again, firmly and clearly, against calls for violence and war, especially when the voices are from his own people.