A different outreach: on Modi government and religion

A view of the shrine of Sikh leader Guru Nanak Dev in Kartarpur, Pakistan.   | Photo Credit: PTI

Chief of the Army Staff General Bipin Rawat’s argument that Pakistan must “develop as a secular state” to have any dialogue with India can be interpreted to convey two contradictory messages. The first is that India has no intention of engaging with Pakistan since there is no possibility of Pakistan being converted into a secular country in the foreseeable future. The second is that the Modi government’s ‘faith diplomacy’ has obvious limitations, and may prove costly for India’s national interests in the longer run. That diplomacy rooted in religion can be a double-edged sword became evident when the narrative of Pakistan’s “googly” forcing the Modi government’s presence at the groundbreaking ceremony of the Kartarpur corridor gained widespread currency.

Marketing brand India

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has enthusiastically used the religious dimension of India’s soft power in order to market brand India. Yoga and Ayurveda cannot be strongly associated with religion; however, Hinduism and Buddhism are being used to promote India’s interests in the neighbourhood as well as to reconstitute the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific region. Mr. Modi has often made visits to Hindu and Buddhist shrines in the neighbourhood, apparently to counter China’s promotion of Buddhism. India hosted Sri Lankan military personnel and their families in Bodh Gaya last year. This was projected as an innovative way of wooing Sri Lanka back into India’s geopolitical orbit. Serious attempts are also being made to encourage Nepal to reciprocate India’s attempts to forge Hindu-based civilisational bonds with the country. U.P. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath visited Janakpur in Nepal in December on the occasion of Vivah Panchami. Being an advocate of restoration of Nepal’s monarchy and Hindu status, Mr. Adityanath’s visit put a question mark on the usefulness of such gestures in creating an atmosphere of goodwill between the two countries.

Pakistan has been a master manipulator of religion to achieve its goals. If the Modi government believed that the success of the Kartarpur corridor project would allow it the elbow room to expand Sikh diplomacy to other holy sites, it was mistaken. The Pakistani establishment took advantage of cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu’s visit to Pakistan in August for Imran Khan’s swearing-in. Pakistan’s Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa suggested to Mr. Sidhu that the Kartarpur corridor should be opened to mark Guru Nanak’s 550th birth anniversary. Since no diplomatic communication took place between the two countries regarding the project, the Modi government announced plans to develop the corridor till the border, and asked the Imran Khan government to follow suit. Pakistan was waiting for this moment. Soon, Islamabad declared that Mr. Khan would have a groundbreaking ceremony for this purpose on November 28. Hastily, India laid the foundation stone on the Indian side on November 26, which ironically marked the 10th anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks carried out by Pakistan-based terrorists.

The proponents of Hindutva ideology believe that India’s identity is made up of Hinduism and other religious faiths which originated from Indian soil, such as Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. Since the Modi government has given primacy to Hinduism and Buddhism for diplomatic outreach, quietly ignoring the rich Indian legacy of Sufi Islam, it could not afford to be seen denying India’s Sikh community an opportunity to visit the Kartarpur shrine when Pakistan seemed willing to roll out a red carpet for them.

The impression Pakistan created

Given India’s continued refusal to engage with Pakistan, it would have been a huge loss of face had External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj attended the groundbreaking ceremony in Pakistan. However, since it was not possible for India to be unrepresented in an event with so much symbolic value, two Union Ministers were sent to attend the ceremony. Is it not laughable that Mr. Sidhu was termed an anti-national when two Union Ministers represented the Modi government?

India made it clear that the opening of the Kartarpur corridor can’t be the basis of a thaw between the two countries. However, Pakistan seems to have created an impression of generosity towards all Sikhs living in India, as well as projected itself as a champion of reconciliation. The Modi government seems to have become a victim of its own over-reliance on religion for diplomatic engagements.

There have been concerns that the government has been undermining India’s secular foundations. It is time to ask whether the government’s eagerness in tapping India’s ‘original’ religions as diplomatic resource has promoted India’s interests or restrained its actions.

Vinay Kaura is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice, Jaipur

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 4:51:49 AM |

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