The democratic coalition’s India problem

By Behrooz Ayaz and Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill

India’s sectarian convulsions, between revivalist Hindus and South Asian Muslims, are making India a polarizing ally of the coalition of democratic states in the international system. Approximately 10,000 Muslims have been killed in almost 7,000 instances of sectarian violence since after Partition in 1947, with over 1,000 killed as recently as 2002 in Gujarat(during which the State Governor, now Indian Prime Minister, was Nahendra Modi). India’s alienation of Muslim majority states makes these more likely to adopt a neutral or friendly disposition towards China. Already, Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, and multiple Persian Gulf states, have condemned anti-Muslim violence in India. Some non-democratic Muslim states, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have been able to mute their criticism for the benefit of building an anti-Iran coalition with New Delhi, but they may manifest their disapproval by leaning towards Beijing. With the outcome of an anticipated Cold War with China, or conflict over Taiwan, dependent on razor thin differences between coalition alliances, within the context of an international system that has a large uncommitted pool of neutral states, not aggravating potential allies is at premium. Given that India is insufficiently strong to confront both China and Pakistan, either economically or militarily, whether in a short or long war, New Delhi needs to realize that its domestic politics have foreign policy consequences.

Furthermore, India depends heavily on trade with the entirely Muslim Persian Gulf for remittances, investment and energy. India’s regional trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states was about US$ 87 billion in 2020-21, and US$ 155 billion in 2021-22. India depends on the Persian Gulf for 42 percent of its oil, including ten percent from Iran. There are also nearly 9 million Indian workers in the Persian Gulf countries. Although all of the policies of these states are generally predicted by their national economic interests, which determine their development projects, domestic political reactions matter across international borders. Like the widespread coordination of sanctions, across many different borders, by Chinese against the Japanese during the lead-up to the Second World War, and Arab oil embargoagainst the West for its support to Israel during and after the October War of 1973, these can have a crippling effect.

A minority revivalist Hindu identity is making a disproportionate impact on politics, imagining itself correcting the wrongs inflicted on the Indians by seven centuries of Muslim rule. Traditional societies undergoing rapid increases in literacy and transitioning to industrialization, also often experience a sharp intensification of nationalism. India’s literacy rate jumped from approximately fifty percent in 1990 to 75 percent in 2022, and with it, an assertive Hindutva nationalist minority, keen on reversing half a millennium of perceived Indian exposure to mistreatment by foreigners.

The aspiration of India’s mainstream parties at independence, was to focus on economic development by achieving peaceful coexistence of its religions within a secular democracy. India wanted this moral discourse to be the basis of an influential global foreign policy. Increasingly in the last decade, India politicians of the center-right parties have been expressing anti-Islamic positions with expectations of electoral and popularity benefits, and with rare instances of safeguards. The expression of anti-Islamic sentiments by the authorities and activist nativist Hindus has its roots in historical, political and religious developments.

An important component of the violence is its historical origin, which can appear to be a confrontation between Indian and Islamic civilization. Indian people have long considered themselves the inheritors of a great civilization that has been under constant exposure to attack by political Islam. The regular military campaigns from the 7th century to the 11th century AD, the capture of parts of India in the 11th century, and finally the dominance of Muslim rulers over India from the 13th to the 18th century have been part of this confrontation. Some Hindus consider the five-hundred-year rule of Muslims over their country as a “Dominion of Aliens,” conveniently forgetting that the vast majority of South Asian Muslims are indigenous, and that Muslim military groups largely followed Hindu traditions. Nevertheless, this interpretation sees Hindus as a subjugated nation, whose independence was violated by Muslims for more than a thousand years.

However, sectarian antagonisms became political after Pakistan independence from India. Pakistan became the self-declared safe haven for South Asian Muslims, and India the secular state, which rejected identity as a basis for statehood, and therefore repudiated the existence of Pakistan. Of three wars (1947-1948, 1965, 1971) and a conflict fought under a nuclear umbrella (2001), three were fought over Kashmir and one over Bengal, all related to issues of the right of Muslims to autonomy. History and these wars have deepened the sectarian antipathy within India, leading the 204 million Muslims of India, 14 percent of the population, to live politically under suspicion. This factor along with the historical factor caused Muslims to be defined as the “other” of India in Hindutva ideology. Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a radical Hindu for compromising too much with Muslims. The persistence of anti-Islamic sentiments led to the victory of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has anti-Islamic tendencies, in the 1998 elections. This party has been in power again since 2014, during which violent actions against Muslims have gradually intensified.

A widespread fear in the Muslim Indian community is that the elements of the BJP within the Indian government are seeking to make the country unsafe for Muslims in order to incentivize them to emigrate to other countries. Given differential birth rates, the poorer Muslim communities in India (generating a 2.3 percent population growth rate, versus a 1.9 percent growth rate among Hindus) are expected to surpass the population of Pakistan in 2060. India will then have the second largest Muslim population in the world, behind Indonesia.

Nationalist parties, including the BJP, have tied the basis of violence against Muslims to maintaining their political power. The role of the BJP party in the destruction of the Babri Mosque in 1992 became an important factor in its coming to power a few years after this event. Despite centuries of a shared presence, religious distinctions in ritual and places of worship have become bifurcated since Partition. The Babri Mosque has become a flashpoint of political differences for parties exercising religious power. Because Hindus believe that this mosque was built on a prior Ayodhya temple, this sentiment was harnessed by the BJP, and led to the destruction of this mosque by 75,000 Hindu demonstrators, and subsequent communal strife. Incidents, such as alleged slaughter of cows by Muslims in India, blasphemous to Hindus, has been a trigger for vigilantism and state punishment. As early as the 1960s, the Suvantra Party raised these issues as a point of contention against Muslim groups within India.

There are three important steps that need to be taken. First, India needs to empower the judicial branch of its federal government to enforce anti-religious hate laws that already exist. Two, India needs to educate enforcement at the community level, including the incentivizing the protection of religious minorities. Third, New Delhi needs to subsidize inter-faith efforts within India to enable Hindu and Muslim ecclesiastical reformers to reduce common doctrinal points of aversion, through dialogue. 

Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill is associate professor of international relations at Concordia University, and author of Militarization and War (2007) and of Strategic Nuclear Sharing (2014). He has published extensively on security issues and arms control, and completed research contracts at the Office of Treaty Verification at the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, and the then Ballistic Missile Defense Office (BMDO). 

Behrouz Ayaz is an Iranian political analyst who specializes in foreign policy of Iran, Afghanistan, South Asia and Terrorism. He graduated from Tarbiat Modares university with a Master of Art’s degree in International Relations. He is currently cooperating with SCFR (Strategic Council on Foreign Relations). Ayaz has written the book as a Collection of Papers with accomplished professors “The Nature, Dimensions, and Future of ISIS”, and has published scientific articles, essays and policy related to his expertise.

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