India’s choice between nationalism and influence

India’s choice between nationalism and influence

The government of India’s attempt to rewrite history to promote Hindu nationalism is only the latest in a series of domestic  actions which could have major international consequences and undermine India’s ability to balance China’s growing power.

According to a recent report by Reuters, the government of India created a committee with the aim of re-writing Indian history to fit a Hindu nationalist narrative through the selective use of science six months ago. India is a pluralistic state (its Constitution enshrines the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, tribal groups, and establishes more than 20 official languages). This pluralism makes governing the world’s largest democracy an enormous challenge, as political parties often appeal to identity politics to win votes.

The committee seeks to establish that Hinduism’s sacred texts represent literal truth, and that the ancestors of modern Hindus were India’s original inhabitants. To do this, the committee has been granted $400 million to conduct archaeological, genetic, linguistic, and historical research which supports the Hindu nationalist view. This contradicts the current consensus that the events described in sacred Hindu texts are not literal truth, and that Hinduism is a synthesis of the beliefs of indigenous peoples and Indo-European invaders who arrived in the subcontinent 3,000-4,000 years ago.

The committee is the brainchild of Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma, who, like Modi, has close ties to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist group closely affiliated in organizational and ideological terms with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The RSS draws inspiration from 1930’s European right-wing paramilitary groups and emphasizes moral discipline in creating a cohesive Hindu national identity.

The committee represents one of the first formal steps the Indian government has taken towards imposing an anti-Muslim agenda. Modi has a long history of problematic relations with the Muslim community, having presided over his home state of Gujarat during a bloody riot in 2002 which killed over 1,000 Muslims. Though ultimately acquitted of any involvement in the bloodshed, Modi was nonetheless tainted by the scandal for over a decade, and his election as Prime Minister was of great concern to many of India’s 176 million Muslims (11% of all Muslims in the world live in India). Since the BJP took power in 2014, India has seen a nationwide uptick in violence against Muslims. This domestic surge in anti-Muslim violence and Hindu nationalism has potential repercussions for regional international politics.

Hindu nationalism risks regional influence

As India rises on the world stage, it seeks to position itself in Asian geopolitics as a counterbalance to China. India seeks to compete as an economic, military, and diplomatic powerhouse, although it still lags behind its northeastern neighbor. Where India manages to differentiate itself as a political and economic partner for smaller states is its less menacing attitude towards diplomacy, and its embrace of multilateral diplomacy. China, on the other hand, routinely resists multilateral mechanisms and prefers dealing through bilateral relations, where it usually has the upper hand.  India’s status as the world’s largest democracy and as a diverse and pluralistic state also gives it a firm base to demonstrate normative leadership.

However, India risks ceding its position as a normative leader in Asia and the Indian Ocean region by continuing to promote a Hindu nationalist agenda.  The repudiation of scientific consensus calls into question India’s commitment to other consensuses as well—be they economic, diplomatic, or legal. India can also ill-afford to alienate Muslim nations, many of which are critical trading partners or occupy key geographic positions along the major trade routes in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.

Indonesia and Malaysia, both of which are Muslim nations, straddle either side of the vital Strait of Malacca, and are key players within ASEAN, one of the most promising regional blocs for India to expand its influence in at the expense of China. Through its “Look East” policy, India has invested nearly three decades in better relations with Southeast Asia. Additionally, India’s vital oil supplies both come from and transit through Muslim countries (India is the world’s third-largest oil importer).

Though India has seen strong economic growth under BJP rule, it’s still playing catch-up to China, which experienced much faster growth throughout the 20th and early 21st century. With China’s slowdown in economic growth, India is poised to narrow the gap between the two economies, so long as it does not jeopardize its recent prosperity by antagonizing key economic partners.

Royhinga at an IDP camp in Rakhine State.

Royhinga at an IDP camp in Rakhine State.

Building ties with Myanmar

The latest revelations of the government’s efforts to rewrite history come at a particularly bad moment, as international concern deepens about the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya minority (who they claim are both terrorists and illegal immigrants from Bangladesh) has sent shockwaves through the international community. Aung San Suu Kyi, formerly one of the most morally respected world leaders, has seen her international popularity plummet amidst calls for the Nobel Committee to revoke her Nobel Peace Prize.

Myanmar and India have shared interests in curbing separatist groups opposed to both governments, who freely move across the isolated and mountainous jungles which cover the two countries’ shared border. While carving out a shared anti-Muslim position in the Indian Ocean region might serve to bring the two countries closer together, the strategic value closer relations with Myanmar would be far outweighed by the damage both to India’s relationships with Muslim nations in Asia, and to its broader standing in the international community.

India’s dilemma broadly mirrors events in the United States. The promotion of nationalist values in the American public, even when the politicians who stoked such fears in their voters limited them to domestic affairs and maintained an active foreign policy, has spilled over in those same voters’ minds into the realm of foreign affairs. The current administration, which was elected on a platform of nationalist rhetoric, has subsequently demonstrated a retreat from global leadership. Similarly, the BJP’s cultivation of Hindu nationalism while maintaining India’s regional engagements from the past three decades may ultimately prove futile if the paranoia the BJP cultivates in its voters leads to the emergence of more isolationist governments in the future. India’s role as an emerging regional and global leader will be in jeopardy if the government continues to officially promote Hindu nationalism.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Jesse Bruner

Jesse Bruner is a professional in the field of geopolitics, specializing in East and South Asian security. He currently works as a global mobility professional, assisting businesses in relocating international workers to the United States. He earned his M.A. in Geopolitics, Territory, and Security from King’s College London, and a B.A. in International Studies from American University. He has previously worked at Doctors without Borders, the U.S. Peace Corps, the Belgian Royal Military Academy, and the Center for Global Peace.