The unprecedented diplomatic backlash against India just a few days ago over the derogatory remarks made by the now-suspended spokespersons of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against Islam highlights the tenuous limits of a carefully calibrated and politically useful binary that the BJP-led government in New Delhi has been pursuing in conducting its relationship with the West Asian states: dismiss the growing anti-Muslim sentiments in the country as either a fringe or a ‘domestic matter’ while proactively improving India’s relations with the Muslim-majority states. The backlash has clearly put the Government on the back foot, which is now struggling to contain the diplomatic fallout.
While none of the Muslim-majority states in West Asia can claim to teach India the virtues of religious tolerance or pluralism — going by the despicable standards they adopt in their own counties — for India, this is not just a lesson in religious tolerance and pluralism but one that should drive home the stark lesson that vicious domestic politics has foreign policy implications. More so, when bilateral relationships carefully built over decades by professional diplomats start getting undermined by communal politics and electoral calculations, hate speech can no longer be dismissed as “our internal matter”; it becomes a matter of national interest.
In fact, there is a larger binary that has been at the heart of the conduct of India’s foreign policy in the recent past. So far, India has been able to fend off external criticism about shrinking democratic space and rising religious intolerance in the country while at the same time being a champion of those very global platforms rooted in democratic values – Quad (India, the United States, Japan and Australia) is an example; Summit of democracies is another. New Delhi has consistently dismissed, rather contemptuously, criticism from the U.S. and the West about India’s internal issues using a politically smart blend of ripostes rooted in its post-colonial identity, and its right to stand up to western hypocrisy and their imperial urges. However, India’s ability to manage its international normative identity while at the same time dismissing criticism against its own domestic failings will shrink, and the carefully calibrated binary will find fewer takers going forward, thanks to the current crisis.
After all, India has been called out not by the ‘colonial’, ‘hypocritical’ and ‘imperial’ West/U.S., but by the smaller regional states which do not come with any of these labels. New Delhi, in other words, has a ready set of templates to push back the U.S./the West, but none of those templates can help it fend off the criticism from the smaller but influential regional powers in West Asia.
When extremism boils over
An even larger question is whether domestic extremism can be fanned but kept contained without external consequences. Historically, India has had its run-ins and experiences with extremism, and sometimes has even fanned it. Dealing with Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, which has been one of the major preoccupations of the Indian state, and the deadly fallout of initially supporting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have taught India an important lesson: hobnobbing with extremism is counterproductive.
Despite this valuable lesson, there is an increasing number of ‘fringe’ but extremist groups in India today that are determined to make life difficult for Indian Muslims, and who are hardly taken to task by the BJP-led government. The reason why the international community has been more or less tolerant of such home-grown extremist elements in India is because they are, for all practical purposes, domestically focused and contained therein.
That is also in some ways an important difference between, say, the extremist organisations in Pakistan and those in India: while Pakistan’s home-grown extremism spilled over into other countries as terrorist violence with active state sponsorship, in India, home-grown extremism and intolerance has neither manifested itself as terrorism nor spilled over national borders.
More so, most manifestations of extremism in India have never received any state patronage (despite the occasional tolerance by the ruling party), and the various domestic checks and balances have been able to blunt its sharpness. But when extremism or communalism is increasingly viewed as being tolerated by the ruling party, and it boils over into spaces outside the borders, even if without any material manifestations, it is bound to have foreign policy consequences.
Take the example of global reactions to India’s policies in Kashmir, especially in 2019, or how certain right-wing Hindutva organisations have been going after Indian Muslims. While there were some criticisms of India’s Kashmir policy especially from the Islamic countries, even they had ignored these issues for most practical purposes. If anything, India’s relationships with the Islamic countries have only improved since the arrival of the Narendra Modi government in 2014.
What this means is rather straightforward. Outsiders more or less ignore what happens in the domestic space in India provided what happens there is kept below boiling point and contained there. While the external reactions to how Indian Muslims are treated by Hindutva extremist organisations in India may be muted, derogatory remarks about Islam in general are unlikely to be tolerated. So, the question before us is a two-fold one: one, is it possible to keep the temperature on anti-Muslim tirade in India below boiling point, and two, once a politically convenient anti-Muslim narrative is created in the country, would it be possible to ensure that there is no spillover, materially or rhetorically?
West Asia is not the West
There is also a noticeable difference between how India has reacted to the criticism from the U.S./West on the treatment of Muslims in India or other issues pertaining to democracy and human rights, and how it has chosen to react to the criticism and summoning of its diplomats by the Muslim-majority states in West Asia. If anything, the Indian charge of hypocrisy against the U.S./West applies more to the Muslim-majority states in West Asia. And yet, India’s response has been very different. Why so?
For one, the material consequences of defying the western/U.S. indignation are far less than those of aggressively or defiantly pushing back the criticism from the Islamic countries. India needs the region for remittances, energy, and more importantly, for the well-being of its millions of migrant labourers there. For sure, India also needs the U.S./West for similar and other reasons. However, given that the U.S. and the West are more advanced democracies, they are highly unlikely to impose any arbitrary material costs on India or Indian citizens living in those countries.
That might not be the case with the West Asian countries if the Prophet is denigrated. Put differently, if India defiantly pushes back using the same language it uses against the West/U.S., it could prompt them to impose material costs on New Delhi. Second, while India and the West/U.S. need each other for a variety of reasons, including the China challenge, such inter-dependence does not really exist when it comes to India-West Asia relations: India needs the West Asian states more than they need India.
India’s foreign policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term has been on a high, with a number of achievements to its credit. Indeed, just a month ago, the world was queuing up for New Delhi’s attention. Today, India’s diplomats are getting summoned for an apology. There is little doubt that New Delhi’s diplomats will be able to tide over the current crisis and repair the country’s relations with West Asia. But the recent incident has highlighted the undeniable danger of unconstrained domestic extremism harming India’s foreign policy objectives.
Happymon Jacob teaches India’s Foreign Policy at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi