Dhaka, Bangladesh
Modi's trip to Myanmar amid Muslim genocide and exodus

Modi's trip to Myanmar amid Muslim genocide and exodus

By Prof. Sarwar Md. Saifullah Khaled

Before going to the relevant discussion of the title of the paper, it is pertinent to have a glimpse of the mental make up of Narendra Damodardas Modi, 67, a self-made politician who sold tea at train stations as a young man, and has led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) into a mammoth victory in 2014. For the first time in three decades, a single party has potential to occupy a majority of seats in the Indian parliament. His victory came at the end of a high-voltage campaign that he used to slam the incumbent Indian National Congress (INC) party-led government and promise rapid economic growth, good governance, and a regime that is agnostic to religious identity. Modi's leadership has handed BJP, a conservative right-wing party, the best electoral showing in history. Modi is different from other Indian leaders. The man who has become Prime Minister of the world's biggest democracy after the election victory of his Hindu nationalist BJP is nothing like his suave, metropolitan, English-educated predecessors from the INC. Nor does the barrel-chested and combative Modi, from the relatively humble Ghanchi caste of vegetable-oil producers, resemble the gentlemanly Brahmin, Atal Behari Vajpayee, the only other BJP leader to have occupied the Prime Minister's residence at 7 Race Course Road in New Delhi. As a child, when Modi helped his father and uncle at their tea stalls in his home state of Gujarat in western India, became an activist for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) - a rightwing group that fathered the BJP - and rose through a combination of ambition and organisational skill to become Chief Minister of Gujarat. He has held the post through successive state elections since 2001 until he became the country's Prime Minister in 2014. Ever since India won its independence in 1947, most of its leaders have been proud nationalists. Until very recently, all had been Hindus. So why anyone should feel apprehensive about the fact that India's next Prime Minister, Modi, is a Hindu nationalist? Perhaps 80 percent or more of all Indians identify themselves as Hindus. Hindu nationalism is a political ideology that is expressed differently by a variety of groups which share little more than a family resemblance. Sometimes they band together as the Sangh Parivar, the "family of organisations". The Sangh has its roots in a 19th-century confrontation between colonial Europeans and Indians who yearned for a national identity of their own. They wanted something on the model of a Western blood-and-soil nationality, with especially Indian characteristics. They stood against their foreign rulers, both British and the Islamic dynasties that preceded them. This family's 20th-century godfather could be an atheist named Vinayak Savarkar, who wrote a pamphlet called "Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?" in 1928. Savarkar's Hindu is someone who regards India as both a fatherland and a holy land. Fellow travelers founded the RSS at the same time, devoting themselves to personal discipline and service to the Hindu nation. Their most influential leader, M. S. Golwalkar, was more religious than Savarkar, and was notably impressed by the German Nazis' fervour. He was not however an anti-Semite, and felt a deep affinity for Zionism. Under Golwalkar's leadership the RSS spawned most of the other groups that make up today's Sangh. Modi's BJP, which was formed in 1980, was a latecomer to the fold. By then Modi had joined the RSS, at the tender age of eight. To define Hindutva, or "Hindu-ness" as the suitable basis for nationalism, the first step was to redefine what counts as a religion. In a pre-election interview Modi took the RSS line: that "Hinduism is not a religion, but a way of life". This might come as a surprise to many of India's religious minorities - Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and many others. In the modern, economic-policy-oriented BJP, the equation of Hindus to Indians is supposed to sound welcoming. But there is a contradiction here. Muslims feel it most sharply. If your fatherland is India but your holy land is Mecca, then you are something less than wholly Hindu, and less than wholly Indian. The persistent shame of Hindu nationalism has been its ambition to define Indian-ness in contradistinction to being a Muslim. While most young voters who cast their ballots for Modi's party were enchanted only by his Gujarat model for growth, the RSS cadres who campaigned for him have kept other causes close to their hearts: the building of a temple to the Hindu god Ram, on the site of Babri mosque destroyed in 1992 by BJP; the end of separate legal codes for Muslims and for Muslim-majority Kashmir; and laws against converting Hindus to "non-Indian" religions. Because of its association with Hindu nationalism, the BJP has a hard time winning votes from Muslims, who make up 14 percent of India's population. There are centre-right parties in Europe that face similar difficulties, looking too Christian for the tastes of secular voters. But in India the minorities' fears are much keener and especially where Modi is concerned. Modi has been accused of allowing or abetting riots in Gujarat in 2002 that killed about 2,000 people, most of them Muslims murdered by Hindus. A majority of the state's Hindus seem not to have held the massacres against Modi. Later that year he marched to victory in a snap election. If an Indian politician on the national stage were able to rally the country's Hindus against any other group, the numbers suggest he would have a winning strategy on his hands. This is one reason that Modi campaign the most part steered clear of Hindutva and concentrated on matters where most Indians can see eye-to-eye. But Modi remains a devout Hindu. He has pledged to protect India's sacred cows and provide them with veterinary care - even eye surgery. He stood as the BJP candidate for Varanasi, the city holy to Hindus that lies on the north bank of the "holy" Ganges in the heart of the populous and politically important state of Uttar Pradesh. Apart from the need to overcome his role in the bloody events of 2002, Modi's biggest challenge was to fulfill the very high expectations that his campaign has generated in two constituencies that do not always overlap: (i) on the one hand, the young graduates, entrepreneurs and business leaders whose priority is economic reform and resurgence; (ii) on the other hand, the millions in the RSS and on the streets who yearn for a muscular reassertion of Hindu nationalism. Those who work with him or have met him say the energetic but methodical Modi will try to strike a balance but is likely to focus first on his economic agenda. While keeping a lid on the more extreme Hindutva ("Hindu-ness") demands of the RSS and BJP activists who helped his ascent to Premiership. But allegations are there that efforts are under way to convert the Muslims and Christians to Hindus under the banner of "Ghar Wapsi". The logic is: before the advent of the Muslim and Christian missionaries the people of India were all Hindus - so they should return to their own religion now. Islam's holy Scripture Al Qur'an also says: "The Jews, Christians (and Idolaters) will not approve of you, unless you follow their creed" (Surah 2 al-Baqarah, Ayah 120). This practice may tarnish - as was already seen in the Delhi election - the image of Modi as a Prime Minister of secular India and make the people of other religions turn their faces away from Modi and his BJP. Now we come to Modi's recent trip to Myanmar. Why Modi made a trip to Myanmar amid ethnic cleansing against the Muslim Rohingyas? Modi's first bilateral visit to Myanmar has reaffirmed relations with a "crucial" neighbouring country. New Delhi and Naypyidaw share a time-tested bond that even withstood international sanctions against Myanmar during the latter's military regime. Today Myanmar is "opening up to the world, and is in the process of democratisation". Some Indians hold the view that India's role now in building Myanmar's infrastructure and institutions assumes greater significance. Moreover, it is also viewed that New Delhi, given the history of insurgencies in India's northeast, would like more help from Naypyidaw in securing the common border and dismantling anti-India militant camps operating from Myanmar's soil. Groups like the dreaded NSCN (Khaplang) conduct guerrilla operations against Indian security forces and continue to find refuge in Myanmar. Besides, trade and connectivity between the northeast and Myanmar is vital for actualising India's Act East policy from which Naypyidaw too stands to benefit. However, that said, it can not be ignored that Modi's visit comes against the backdrop of the ethnic cleansing against the Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar's Rakhine state. After Myanmar's security forces initiated a crackdown in the wake of questionable attacks against police and army posts blamed on an armed Muslim group, an estimated 425,000 Muslims have so far fled to neighbouring Bangladesh - many are still coming. But the Muslims have been facing discrimination for decades in Myanmar where they are not recognised as citizens - despite living there for generations - and have been at the receiving end of violence perpetrated by Buddhist extremists. Myanmar's latest crackdown against the Muslims, in fact, is genocide with murder, rape, and torture of civilians. Particularly shocking has been the stubborn refusal of Myanmar's state Counsellor and de facto leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to recognise the plight of Muslims. Suu Kyi can not be selective about championing human rights. Some say that it is understandable that Modi does not want to rub Naypyidaw the wrong way and push it into Beijing's orbit. Nevertheless, he could have done something to impress upon Myanmar's leadership the need to provide Muslims with citizenship. But the Hindu nationalist leader did not do so. Why Modi is mum over Myanmar's Muslim genocide? In fact, to some, finding the balance between India's democratic ideals and security interests has always proven to be unusually hard when it comes to Myanmar. This was more than evident during Modi's state visit to India's easternmost neighbour Myanmar. New Delhi was able to persuade Naypyidaw to allow India to launch a large-scale aid programme in Rakhine province, the home of the fleeing Muslim Rohingyas and the epicentre of the present violence by skirting the issue of Myanmar's horrific treatment of its Muslim minority. There are many who feel India has said and done far too little on behalf of the Muslim Rohingyas. In any case, New Delhi is hardly in a position to give lectures on humanitarianism when it has rhetorically spoken of expelling of its 40,000 Muslim Rohingyan refugees and passed the matter to the Supreme Court. India's primary interests in Myanmar can roughly be summed up in the following order. First, to build an economic and security relationship that prevents Myanmar from inexorably slipping into the orbit of China. Part of this strategy requires Naypyidaw's cooperation in building road, port and other transport links between the two countries. Second, ensure the Myanmar military's continuing cooperation in preventing various northeastern militants, most notably Naga insurgents, from using Myanmar as a safe haven. But each of these is an ambitious policy goal. However, the Muslim Rohingya refugee crisis is a test for India. New Delhi's decision to airlift 50 tonnes of relief supplies to Muslim refugee camps in Bangladesh, coupled with the earlier announcement of a large aid project for the Muslims' home state Rakhine in Myanmar, is not a sufficient example of India's use of humanitarian assistance as an instrument of foreign policy. This will neither ameliorate the conditions of Muslim Rohingyas nor help reduce the extreme poverty of the Rakhine state left behind by the Muslims fleeing ethnic cleansing. It cannot address the fundamental cause of the crisis: Myanmar's deep-seated hatred for the Muslims, a hatred driven by a poisonous combination of racism and religious intolerance. Myanmar and the plight of the Muslim Rohingyas is a reminder the severe limitations India continues to have in terms of influencing the policies of even middle-sized countries. It is an important lesson as New Delhi must be wary of imperial overstretches even before it has developed the reach of a great power. New Delhi takes Bangladesh for granted and wants to benefit without showing any respect to the interest of Bangladesh that has given India a lot in the form of handing over Berubari, giving transit facilities for all purposes, opportunity to spread Indian sky-culture and others and what not. About 1.5 million Indians are working legally or illegally in Bangladesh since Bangladesh's 1971 independence. India has in return converted the northern region of down stream Bangladesh into almost desert in the dry season by dammed stopping all the 54 rivers flowing through upstream India and a severely flood-prone land in the out break of the monsoon. Moreover, now at a critical moment of history India is not by the side of Bangladesh. Yet, Bangladesh is supposed to regard India as a "close friend"! The writer is a retired Professor of Economics, BCS General Education Cadre.

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