Friday, October 16, 2020

India’s neighbours drifting towards China: Has PM Modi’s “Neighbourhood First” policy failed?

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Syed Ahmed Uzair

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India’s neighbours drifting towards China: Has PM Modi’s “Neighbourhood First” policy failed?

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Global Views 360

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October 16, 2020

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a 2014 SAARC Meeting | Source: Wikimedia

Back in 2014, when BJP came to power in India under the leadership of Narendra Modi, he invited the heads of government from Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Maldives, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka to his swearing-in ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhavan.­ The move set the tone nicely for Modi’s “Neighbourhood First” foreign policy and was hailed by experts and critics alike as a positive step towards bolstering regional connectivity and improving cross border relations. Cut to 2020, and the ongoing China-India conflict has exposed plenty of problems for New Delhi regarding its relations with its neighbouring countries, particularly, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.

In recent days China has increased its investments in Asia and beyond even as India and the West have watched from close quarters. Most of the investments have revolved around Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road (BRI) Initiative , which aims to create a Sino-centric global trading network and sphere of influence. The BRI initiative is a matter of concern particularly for India because of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that is perhaps the most important project under the BRI initiative.

India has, traditionally, played a dominant role in economic and political matters concerning most of its smaller neighbours. However, with the BRI initiative, China gradually built up its political ties with countries such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan, while India’s relations with these countries have become less cordial in recent years. Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, who were once considered allies to India appear to have tilted in favour of China.

The changing nature of India’s and China's relation with India’s neighbouring countries was evident in the silence of these countries when there was a serious flare-up on the India-China border. It is important to note that every South-Asian nation except Bhutan has signed on to China’s BRI. Bhutan is still following India’s lead in not joining BRI due to its own border dispute with China, for which India’s support is essential.

Nepalese Prime Minister KP Oli with PM Modi | Source: Wikimedia

Nepalese PM KP Oli had called Indian PM Narendra Modi, on 15th August, India’s seventy-third Independence anniversary. A statement by India’s Ministry of External Affairs stated, “‘The leaders expressed mutual solidarity in the context of the efforts being made to minimise the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in both countries.” However, in June 2020, the Nepalese Armed Police Force fired upon a group of Indian citizens at the India-Nepal border, killing one person and injuring two others. A third Indian who had been detained was released later. The move came in the aftermath of the Nepalese Parliament declaring the Indian territories of Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani as a part of Nepal.

Historically, India and Bangladesh have maintained close ties with each other. Modi’s rise to power in 2014 had no effect as Bangladesh’s PM Sheikh Hasina continued to maintain relations with India. In June 2015, when Modi visited Bangladesh 22 bilateral agreements were signed, including the resolution to a border issue that had existed since 1947 through a successful land boundary agreement (LBA). India also pledged $5 billion worth of investments in Bangladesh. When Sheikh Hasina visited New Delhi in April 2017, a civil nuclear tripartite pact was signed between India, Russia, and Bangladesh. Under the pact India will play an important role in establishing a nuclear power plant in Bangladesh. Even as late as March 2019, Narendra Modi had launched four projects in Bangladesh.

PM Modi, during a meeting with Bangladeshi PM Sheikh Hasina donates the steering wheel of INS Vikrant (R11) to the Bangladesh War Museum | Source: Wikimedia

However, India’s relationship with Bangladesh turned sour post August 2019, when the BJP government implemented the NRC in Assam, a north-eastern Indian state. The process of NRC was meant to identify illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The 1.9 million people left out in the Assam NRC were a cause of concern for Bangladesh owing to the fear of a sudden influx of people forced out of the Indian state. Bangladesh thus turned to China under its “look East” policy in a bid to reduce its dependence on India. China replaced India to become the top trade partner of Bangladesh in 2015 and has provided assistance to Bangladesh through the BRI via 27 agreements signed on Xi Jinping’s visit to the nation in 2016.

“China is behaving how emerging superpowers generally tend to behave—they try to flex muscles and project power—all of which China is trying to do at the moment," says Happymon Jacob, associate professor of disarmament studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). “When that happens, states around that emerging power will either stand up against it (like India) or jump on the bandwagon (like other smaller south Asian countries)."

While China continues to make rapid strides, India is left to wonder as to how to deal with this apparent crisis surrounding its neighbouring countries. Modi’s neighbourhood first policy has certainly failed to deliver the promises it made and relations with most neighbouring countries have worsened over the past six years. New Delhi has missed out on several economic gains that would have strengthened ties with neighbouring countries and thereby would have helped to counter the growing Chinese influence in the region. It remains to be seen as to how India decides to get over this tricky situation and improves its ties with its neighbouring countries.

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January 25, 2021 6:59 PM

Looking back at Babri Masjid Demolition through “Ram Ke Naam”

India has been a secular state ever since Independence (1947). But as religious fundamentalist influence grows over the masses of India, the nation's secular fabric gets threatened. One of the most crucial case in point is the demolition of the 16th century mosque in Ayodhya, known as the "Babri Masjid"—which is celebrated by the Hindu Nationalists of India.

Babri Masjid is believed to be constructed by Mughal Emperor, Babur. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) claims that the mosque was built at the birth-site of the Lord Ram on the orders of Babur—after razing a pre-existing Ram temple. They are determined to build a new Ram temple on the same site.

This controversial issue, which recently, in 2019, came to yet a controversial conclusion after several successive governments failed to resolve it—has led to many religious riots, costing thousands of lives, culminating in the mosque's destruction by militant Hindu 'Karsevaks', allegedly under VHP leadership, in December of 1992. The religious violence that followed, spread throughout India, leaving more than 5,000 dead, and causing thousands of Muslims to flee their homes.

In this essay, I look at what happened in Ayodhya through analyzing Anand Patwardhan's "Ram Ke Naam"—also known as—"In the Name of God"—a documentary that covers the campaign waged by the quasi-militant Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)—to destroy Babri Masjid.

Filmed prior to the mosque's demolition, Ram Ke Naam examines the motivations which would ultimately lead to the drastic actions of Hindu nationalists, as well as the efforts of secular Indians—many of whom are Hindus as well—to combat the religious intolerance and hatred that has seized India in the name of God.

Ram Ke Naam is an investigative documentary which studies—through multiple interviews—the happenings at Ayodhya around the Babri Masjid, how this controversy surrounding it began. It attempts to understand the collective mindset of Hindu nationalists—why they wish that a Ram temple should be built at the site of the Babri masjid and what they feel about the communal riots that have been caused due to the controversy.

Concurrently, the documentary also attempts to understand the opinions of people who oppose the VHP’s Ram temple campaign. It contains anecdotes about how this campaign affected the poor, the lower castes, and the untouchables as well—thus making a clear contrast between the opinions and experiences of people from privileged upper castes (particularly those who support the campaign) and the the people from underprivileged groups viz. lower castes, untouchables, and Muslims. The film mainly highlights 4 aspects of this controversy—politicisation of religion, communalism, religious fundamentalism, and classism/casteism. I intend to analyse this film on these lines.

Ram Ke Naam featuring with an image of the Babri Mosque

The Babri masjid was built in 1528, in Ayodhya. Circa 1580, Tulsidas wrote Ramcharitmanas, making the legend of Lord Ram available to a larger audience—while incorporating vernacular language. By the 19th century, the city of Ayodhya, due to it being the birthplace of Lord Ram—as stated in the Ramcharitamanas—was filled with Ram temples. Interestingly, a huge chunk of the Ram temples claimed itself to be the very site of Lord Ram’s birth. This period was contemporaries with the Indian Subcontinent under British colonial rule. The Britshers, as they implemented their “divide and rule” strategy, are often quoted spreading the rumour that the Babri masjid was the very site of Lord Ram’s birth, and that the mosque was built by Babur after razing an existing Ram temple that existed there.

This led to communal tensions among Indians, but it was short-lived, and through mutual compromise, people maintained communal harmony by agreeing to worship their gods side-by-side, in the same site itself. It was not until December 1949, when the next controversy surrounding the mosque arose. Some militant Hindu nationalists from the Akhil Bhartiya Ramayana Mahasabha, secretly placed idols of the Hindu deity inside the mosque, making it look like God Ram had made a divine appearance, to agitate Hindu possession of the site—leading to communal tensions. The state government ordered the removal of the idols, which the local police refused to do citing that it could lead to riots. KK Nayar, who was the district magistrate then, decided that until a decision from the courts comes, the mosque shall be locked and no one can access it. Yet, Hindu nationalists still demanded that a grand Ram temple should be built at the site of the Babri masjid (after razing the Masjid), regardless of whatever the courts decide.

Ram Ke Naam featuring a propaganda poster with the image of BJP leader L.K. Advani

The film begins with a shot of a political campaign poster [of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)] featuring the Hindu warrior-king deity, Lord Ram, in large size, standing over/behind the imagined-by-all Ram Temple. The poster also features Lal Krishna Advani—the president of BJP. We hear Advani giving his speech in the background, “I appeal to you, Ram Jyoti (the divine light of Ram) will give you all the inspiration needed for the betterment of the life; all what is needed for the betterment of life is only Ram; if there is no Ram, there is no survival”. Advani, as a politician, or BJP, as a political party, appealing to the public with religious promises is a classic example of politicisation of religion. Politics—in purely electoral context—is a competition where parties race for the support of the people (which gives them access to power) by attending to their various demands and interests.

There are various subjects of interest, as far as people are concerned, over which politics can be played—like employment and food security. While these are valid subjects of interest, emanating from the masses themselves, it is also possible to create interests. Both valid and/or vested, by political parties. In the case of politicisation of religion, Hindu religion being given a political identity (instead of leaving it for what it is, i.e., religion of faith), to serve a political agenda of Hindu Rashtra—the raison d’etre of BJP—is a classic example of creation of vested, (but not valid), interests.

The film shows why the VHP’s campaign is backed by the BJP. In the film, while interviewing some youth from the Bajarangdal—yet, another militant Hindu nationalist organisation—a youth revealed that the VHP, Bajarangdal and the BJP are all family organisations of one organisation—the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and that Bajarangdal was the youth-wing of the VHP. The RSS—founded in 1925—is a Hindu nationalist organisation, and is the ideological wing of the BJP. The RSS has many “family organisations” since the 1930s, and today, the Family of the RSS, also known as the “Sangh Pariwar” the VHP, the BJP, and the Bajarangdal are some of the most prominent members of the family.

While the BJP (1980) is the electoral/political wing of the RSS, the VHP (1964) serves as a church-like establishment to represent the Hindu religion. As far as BJP is concerned, it served as the Hindu nationalist alternative to the rather popular, secular party, the Congress party. BJP was created by the RSS as a way of recruiting people into the Hindu nationalist fold, after it was banned as an organisation during Indira Gandhi’s National Emergency. Through BJP, RSS as well was able to upgrade its activities. RSS did (does) so by choosing senior former pracharaks (full time workers in the RSS) who are highly trained by the RSS, and placing them at the highest positions of decision making in the BJP. LK Advani, the then president of the BJP, was himself a pracharak in the RSS, before joining BJP, and the former BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as well was a pracharak. While the BJP did political campaigns; VHP did its own religious campaigns where it used different forms of imagery to influence people.

Coming back to the film, one instance shows some men crowding around a television to watch the telecast of a film produced by the VHP that depicts the supposed divine appearance of God Ram inside the Babri Masjid, on the night of December 23rd, 1949. It does so—so dramatically—that it perhaps, hypnotises those watching it. Not only this instance, in 1987, the broadcast of the Ramayana television series (based on Tulsidas’s Ramcharitamanas) as well did contribute to VHP’s Hindu nationalist cause. It further popularized the deity, reinforcing that God Ram was born in Ayodhya, (the place where Babri Masjid is located), and presenting Ram with the Hindu nationalist interpretation—as a warrior-God. Around 300 versions of Ramayana exist, yet, the one broadcasted on TV presented a very conservative and a masculinist interpretation.

As recorded in the film, LK Advani’s Rath Yatra to Ayodhya, starts from Somnath, Gujarat. I understand this is because in around 1950 the Government of India—notwithstanding claims to secularism and pluralism—assisted the renovation of a Hindu temple at Somnath. This temple was said to have been destroyed by Muslims during their rule. In 1951, at the inauguration of the temple, President Rajendra Prasad stated in his speech that this was a historic day, for India had “washed away the stigma of one thousand years of slavery”, this statement of his has been widely interpreted to mean that India was now finally free from a period of a thousand years of slavery, period of Muslim and British rule combined. Thus, this official act, by the President of India himself, of equating mosque with Muslim rule, thus slavery of Hindus, made it symbolic enough to start the Rath Yatra from Somnath itself.

Pujari Laldas in Ram Ke Naam

The court appointed priest for the Ram (Janmabhoomi) temple, Pujari Laldas seems to be the very voice of this documentary. His character seems to be the very message that this documentary is trying to construct and put across to its viewers. Laldas counters and criticizes the kind of religious fundamentalism that has swallowed the masses into itself, and dismisses the whole relevance of the controversy. He comments on the VHP’s real intentions in this controversy, and exposes it for not really genuinely believing in the cause they are so committed to. He says that this whole issue that the VHP has is making a "hype" out of is just a political “game” for achieving economic and political power, and this issue never really was about a temple. He reveals that the VHP has not once made a single offering or prayed at the Janmabhoomi shrine, yet the fight for a Ram temple. He says that there is no need for another temple, because in the Hindu (religion as a faith) culture, wherever there is a God present is considered a temple; even if there was a need for another temple, demolishing a place of worship to build another is unnecessary and wrong. He says that those who want to demolish the mosque just want to create communal tensions and collect Hindu votes—they don’t care if a genocide happens in the process. He explains that religious fundamentalists have very conveniently forgotten that there has always been unity among Hindus and Muslims, no trouble has been caused by anyone since 1949, people have been living in harmony, worshiping their respective gods side-by-side, and also that many temples with Ayodhya itself are built by Muslims, some of whom are a gesture of apology from their ancestors for the tyranny caused by their ancestors. He questions the purpose of the very proposed temple itself – at what cost should a temple be built? Why can’t the temple funds be used to aid the poor, like Mother Teressa does (did), is that not the legacy of God Ram, rather than the Hindu nationalist connotation he has been given? It’s a shame that such a bright ray of light in such darkness, saint-like Pujari Laldas, was murdered. While his murder was termed as a case of a simple land dispute, its rather obvious that it really was something else, that it was a case of revenge by Hindu fundamentalists, sanctioned by the state.

Another moving aspect of the film was the interview of the income tax officer, Vishwa Bandhu Gupta, who was victimised for doing his job too honestly and religiously. Vishwa Bandhu Gupta was investigating the VHP for tax scams, and he was suspended for sticking his neck down too deep. He was looking at where the VHP was getting its funding from even after being denied permission from the Reserve Bank of India to receive funds from foreign investors. He was stopped in the middle of his operation, transferred to Madras (Chennai), and the entire investigation was quashed in no time. He was even threatened with his life by 2 Hindu nationalists he refused to name. The disappointed and tearful look on his face as the camera zoomed into it was painful to see, it was as though the proverbial lump in his throat (the existence of which seemed rather obvious in the film, given the unstable emotional look on his face), was getting transferred into my own, as the viewer of this documentary.

At last, the class/caste aspects that this film covers in this controversy. In the entire film, we see that every Hindu nationalist the filmmakers come across/meet is a privileged upper caste Hindu, not one of them is a lower caste person or an untouchable. Whereas those on the side of the streets, on the farms, all of them happen to be poor and/or lower caste or untouchables. On interviewing them, many of them either have no clue as to what is going on, what this controversy is, or just don’t care about the controversy, because it in no way benefits them, and they feel it is only a waste of time because they have immediate responsibilities like feeding their families, and surviving. There was no show of any communal hatred. Yet, all of them expressed that they still faced caste-oppression. One Dalit woman, named Bhavandevi, who was interviewed in the film, said that her people aren’t even allowed anywhere near temples. With that said, why would she support the Ram temple cause? It shows that among these very Hindu nationalists who talk about Hindu unity, there exists a great deal of classism and casteism, and hypocrisy.

As the film comes to end, we see Pujari Laldas reciting a doha from Ramayana itself, “when the rains are heavy, and the grass grows so tall that its difficult to see the right path the same way when charlatans speak so much and so loudly that the truth gets hidden, you experience chaos, disorder, frenzy, madness. But these rains are short-lived, so, when the rains stop and the right path becomes visible and clear, you proceed in the right direction, the direction of reason”. This doha signifies that while the country is in turmoil today, we must not lose hope, for these heavy rains will soon end, and peace will be restored in the country again. The film then concludes with Bhavandevi saying that the temple is of no use to her and her people, when they aren’t even allowed anywhere near it in the first place – if an idol of a deity breaks, it may be replaced with another one; but when a living body gets torn apart during violence, with what will it replaced? Bhavandevi says that she is human, too, yet she is treated differently by people of her own race; her village is a birthplace to many of her kind, Untouchables, and they are being wrongly evicted—then there is a Ram whose birthplace everyone is after—why should she run after it, too?

Ram Ke Naam by the end of the film, asks the following important, yet difficult questions: why is it that people blind in their love for god forget what their god really preaches and become so vulnerable to leaders who preach hate and mislead, all in the name of God? Why is it that people confuse reason with blasphemy?

Edited by Global Views 360 team

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