Rising Spectre of ‘Hindutva’ contradicts ‘Neighborhood First’ Policy of Indian Government



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by Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra  1 November 2021

The Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership was quick to underline the importance of the South Asian neighborhood since it came to power for the first time in 2014. This is also clearly evident in the Indian government’s approach to foreign policy since Prime Minister Modi started leading the nation for the second term in 2019.  During Prime Minister Modi’s first term and quite in line with the ‘neighborhood first’ policy framework, New Delhi not only invited the leaders of the South Asian countries to Prime Minister Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, but premier Modi also started his foreign visits with state visits in the neighborhood – Bhutan on 15-16 June 2014 followed by Nepal on 3-4 August in the same year.

While it is germane that India must have a robust neighborhood policy as neighbors are given instead of chosen, its policy is being dented by a rising face of ‘Hindutva’ which implies regular efforts at redefining Indian identity by certain groups with ideological patronage from and political affiliations with ruling elites and who claim to represent and uphold authentic values of Indian civilization. The elites of the developing and underdeveloped parts of the world consider themselves better placed to define the contours of national ethos as less educated masses within developing countries appear to be more prone to the nationalist designs of elites compared to citizens of developed and powerful countries. [1] Moved by this logic, the very act of the Indian government inviting the South Asian leaders was portrayed in identity terms by some elite hardliners.  For instance, a former Indian diplomat O. P. Gupta not only mentioned in the RSS mouthpiece ‘Organiser’ that the “SAARC countries are located” in “Akhand Bharat” but praised Modi as well for bringing the “countries of Akhand Bharat together” at his inauguration. [2]

Redefining the Self and the Other

The dominant ethnic/religious group may not necessarily be numerically superior to other ethnic groups but its control over the political and socio-economic sinews of power along with the indigenous and emotive appeal allows such groups arguably a more central role in explaining as well as shaping the cultural and political developments of a country than subaltern minorities. However, where the dominant ethnic/religious group constituted the majority of the population such as the case with all the South Asian countries including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, it becomes relatively easier for the dominant ethnic/religious group in garnering the support of the masses and in seeking assimilation of other groups into its ethos and lifestyles. While the ruling elites in India are in a process of redefining the Indian identity by reconstructing the Self and the Other, this has seriously affected India’s relations with its neighbors where the ruling elites hailed from other dominant religious groups such as Pakistan and Bangladesh and at the same time jeopardized the status of Hindu minorities in the neighboring countries. In a similar vein, such nationalist purges by the dominant religious groups in the neighborhood have their reverberations within India. For instance, apart from episodes of terror attacks on security-sensitive areas within the Indian mainland and frequent violations of the ceasefire agreement, Pakistan’s unfair treatment of its Hindu minorities provided strength to nationalist policies of the BJP-led Indian government whereas integration of Kashmir as a union territory spurred nationalist passions within Pakistan. The factor that is complicating the bilateral relations is not simply India’s annoyance over Pakistan’s surreptitious role in promoting cross-border terrorism rather it is the upsurge in nationalist sentiments that began to take shape in response to Pakistan’s successive efforts to sabotage India’s territorial integrity gradually assumed solidity and robustness that drove a wedge between the two countries for a much longer duration.

The introduction of a subsidy program by Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, for the Hindu pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar in 2017;  the BJP’s alleged systematic exclusion of Muslim candidates from contesting elections (the party fielded only seven Muslims out of 482 candidates in the 2014 general elections, reducing the Muslim representation in Parliament to 4% and did not field any Muslim candidates in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections);
the party’s refusal to condemn the growing problem of cow vigilantism in unambiguous terms; and many leaders’ indulgence in Ram Mandir (temple) rhetoric even before the verdict of the Supreme Court of India was delivered on the issue, have been viewed as systematic attempts at appeasing as well as promoting the sway of the Hindu religious community to the exclusion of the minority religious communities specifically Muslims.

The government led by Prime Minister Modi has been accused of forming a 14-member committee of scholars to rewrite history suitable to the dominant religious group – the Hindus – after coming to power. Many experts preferred to argue that the BJP’s leanings as a right-wing Hindu party became apparent in domestic politics as it pursued “an agenda that encompassed efforts to ban beef consumption, reshape education in line with its ideational preferences, and clamp down on anti-national political dissidence”. Although some dust was settled with Modi receiving clean chit from Nanavati Commission over the charges of indulgence in communal violence, suspicions of minorities over the BJP’s nationalist agenda persisted and they continued to view certain policies of the government from this perspective as the widespread protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act indicated.

Whither ‘Neighborhood First’ Policy?

Despite instances of ceasefire violations from the Pakistani side, Prime Minister Modi arrived in Lahore in late 2015 for a meeting with his counterpart Nawaz Sharif in a surprise visit and this was the first visit to Pakistan by an Indian Prime Minister in more than a decade. However, high-profile terror attacks such as Pathankot, Uri, and later Pulwama and New Delhi’s reference to evidence of involvement of groups and individuals operating from Pakistani territory took away the gusto from Modi’s diplomacy in heralding a new era in bilateral relations. The cross-border terror attacks prompted the Indian government led by Prime Minister Modi to launch “surgical strikes” against terrorist bases in Pakistan in September 2016. Buoyed by a sense of victory after launching surgical strikes across the India-Pakistan border, right-wing identity groups put up posters across India that portrayed Modi as the Hindu God Ram, aiming his weapon at Pakistan’s leader Nawaz Sharif portrayed as Ravana (the primary antagonist in the ancient Hindu scripture Ramayana). [3] However, such strikes neither reduced the incidents of cross-border terrorism nor have been effective in sending a strong message to its opponent by imposing prohibitive costs unless it changed its behavior.

After the Pulwama terror attack on February 14, 2019, in which 40 jawans of the Central Reserve Police Force lost their lives, a rise in Indian nationalistic feelings was discernible. The Balakot airstrike conducted by the Indian Air Force across the Line of Control after 12 days of the terror attack on February 26 was seen by many in India as a befitting response to the attack. Meanwhile, the scrapping of article 370 in August 2019 which ended Kashmir’s special state status and its inclusion as a union territory of India spurred speculations about the intentions of the BJP-led government in the light of its Akhand Bharat mission. Even while the Citizenship Amendment Act of the Indian government was projected to be non-exclusionary in nature intending to accomplish a specific objective of allowing citizenship to Hindus forced out of neighboring Islamic countries, it was viewed by Muslim minorities within India and dominant religious groups in the neighborhood as an exercise to generate a Pan-Hindu identity by undertaking religious purging and by redefining the Self versus the Other.

There was a surge in reactions to India’s such moves from within Pakistan, for instance, following the release of the final list of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan accused the Indian government of attempting to change the demography of the region through the “ethnic cleansing of Muslims”. Responding to Citizenship Amendment Act, Pakistan’s parliament passed a resolution demanding India to revoke the act. Notwithstanding such reactions, the act led to a sudden rise in reporting of cases of persecution of Hindu minority community in Pakistan. Reports pertaining to the sufferings of Hindu migrants within India not only kept swelling, but cases of religious persecution within Pakistan as well as documents over the status of a minority there also made their way into media reporting and analysis. According to one of the reports, more than 15,000 people belonging to minority communities in Pakistan have been charged under blasphemy law in the past 30 years. One of the commentaries puts the statistics of protection of minority rights in a comparative perspective citing the rankings by Minority Rights Group International which ranked Pakistan as the 9th worst performer in terms of protecting minority rights whereas India was placed at 54th in 2019. Reports of religious persecution, laws with nationalist undertones, and indulgence of leaders in rhetoric with a nationalist bias only helped in hardening each country’s position against the other making diplomatic engagement more difficult than ever before.

Appreciation of greatness of Indian civilization and esteem for Indian philosophy, science, wisdom, and religious tolerance if one takes a cursory look at the BJP’s election manifesto for 2014 general elections generates a belief that the nationalist ethos that BJP espouses is inclusive and tolerant of diversities. Prime Minister Modi also made his firm faith in and commitment to the idea of Vasudeva Kutumbakam (the world is one family) public. His party’s focus on development and economic growth also helped considerably in changing a communal image that was bequeathed to him as the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Modi’s penchant for diversification of India’s foreign relations with a thrust on multi-alignment policy course and commitment to addressing global issues such as climate change, terrorism, search for alternative energy resources, trade and investment and tourism with a focus on the immediate region through a ‘Neighborhood First Policy’ also helped transpose Modi’s image and personality as a leader.

However, the undercurrent of Hindu nationalism never died down. It raised its ugly head as and when it found encouraging external pressures. A United Nations report in September 2018 accused India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of using coercion, discrimination and inflammatory language against religious minorities, referring to its emphasis on Hindutva ideology. UN Special Rapporteur Tendayi Achiume, an independent human rights expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, submitted a report on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. As per the reports, the BJP “has been linked to incidents of violence against members of Dalit, Muslim, tribal and Christian communities.”[4]

However, rise of nationalist passion in India is also related to rising cases of cross-border terror attacks, the way the dominant religious group in Pakistan has not only been involved in persecuting minority religious groups specifically the Hindus but undertook sustained efforts at assimilating them. There are credible reports which point to the persecution of religious minority groups by the dominant religious group in Pakistan. According to some credible reports, at least 1,000 girls are forcibly converted to Islam in Pakistan every year. The conversions take place predominantly in the Thar region, particularly in the districts of Umerkot, Tharparkar, Mirpur Khas, Sanghar, Ghotki, and Jacobabad. The numerical strength of Hindus in Pakistan has dwindled over a period of time. While the Human Rights Commission in Pakistan reports that 20-25 young Hindu girls are apparently abducted and converted every month, an estimate of the Pakistan Hindu Council suggests that about 5,000 Hindus being deprived of a dignified existence leave for India every year. Frequent terror attacks on sites significant to India’s vital security interests and subsequent actions, policies, and rhetoric from each side aimed at evoking nationalist passion are gradually pushing India and Pakistan into irreconcilable positions making the diplomatic ice between them harder to break.

Under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Dhaka remained sensitive to India’s concerns about the northeast militancy fostered by ISI-backed Islamists operating from Bangladesh during the opposition BNP-Jamaat regime. The militancy in the region including Tripura and Meghalaya declined considerably ever since a crackdown by Hasina. The Awami League government arrested the leaders of the factions of the ULFA and the NDFB and handed them over to India. Hasina’s tough stance against Islamist terrorism remained vital to India’s security interests in the northeast. However, the Citizenship Amendment Act of the Indian government invited criticisms of many from the Bangladeshi government including Prime Minister Hasina. Communal violence targeting its Hindu minority surged in Bangladesh on the occasion of the festival of Durga Puja this year. Prior to this, protests against Modi’s visit to the country in March turned violent, with 13 people killed and, in some cases, Hindu institutions attacked. Implicating India in the rising tide of communalism in Bangladesh, Prime Minister Hasina said: “Our neighboring country must also cooperate [in fighting communalism]…They must make sure that nothing is done there [in India] which affects our country and hurts our Hindu community.”[5]

In Nepal, there is a growing feeling that the youth of the country did not get adequate livelihood opportunities under the absolute monarchy even while the latter was a defender of the Hindu identity. The BJP-led government and its allied organizations’ frequent indulgences with the Hindutva rhetoric are seen promoting conservative forces within Nepal and not as a symbol of social change. The evolution of the Nepali constitution, its secular identity, and the success of left parties in Nepal are indicators of social change and changing expectations of people from government. [6] The Indian government can strengthen its neighborhood policy only by contextualizing the changing social dynamics. When the new Constitution of Nepal was allegedly framed in a way to discriminate against the Madheshi population who shared ethnic identity with similar groups in India, New Delhi responded by imposing an economic blockade on Nepal in September 2015 which choked supplies of essential commodities including fuel putting its neighborhood first policy in jeopardy and pushing the Himalayan state further into China’s ambit.


[1] For details see M. K. Mishra, “Interrogating Naturalness of National Identity”, Fudan Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol. 13, No.3, 2020, pp. 315-335.

[2] T. Wojczewski, “Populism, Hindu Nationalism, and Foreign Policy in India: The Politics of Representing “the People”, International Studies Review, 2020, Vol. 22, p. 412.

[3] Ibid, p. 409.

[4] “BJP has links to incidents of violence against SCs, Muslims, tribals, says UNHRC special rapporteur’s report”, Firstpost, September 12, 2018, Available at https://www.firstpost.com/india/bjp-has-links-to-incidents-of-violence-against-scs-muslims-tribals-says-unhrc-special-rapporteurs-report-5172661.html

[5] S. Daniyal, “Why Bangladesh warned India over anti-Hindu riots, even as Modi government praised Dhaka’s response”, October 19, 2021, Available at https://scroll.in/article/1007964/why-bangladesh-warned-india-over-anti-hindu-riots-even-though-modi-government-praised-it

[6] M.K. Mishra, “India in the Himalayan Landscape: Security Concerns and Approaches”, World Affairs: The Journal of International Issues, Vol. 24, Issue 3, 2020, pp. 20-41.