'Modi Is Provoking Pakistan and China, and There's High Potential for Conflict'

India is undergoing tremendous upheaval today, says political scientist Ayelet Harel-Shalev. Along with the rising nationalism and intercommunal friction, the specter looms of a confrontation with Pakistan and its ally China

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Security forces on patrol in Srinagar, Kashmir, India, Aug. 10, 2019.
Security forces on patrol in Srinagar, Kashmir, India, Aug. 10, 2019.Credit: ATUL LOKE / NYT
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

One of your areas of expertise is “deeply divided societies.” Examples are India and also Israel. Can you please first explain the meaning of the term?

A deeply divided society is one composed of a number of different communities that all see themselves as belonging to the state, and the state as belonging to them – but significant disagreements exist between these communities about the nature of that state. For example, whether it should be a state of all its citizens, or be defined as the state of a particular nationality. The case of India is interesting, because it shifts between two narratives. According to the first, it’s a state of all its citizens, a democratic, egalitarian state whose constitution is based on the democratic ethos; while the second narrative, which is currently undergoing rejuvenation and is gaining strength, is that India should be a Hindu and democratic state.

>>> Read more: 'Kashmir is Palestine': Why both India and Pakistan want to push this ominous comparison >>>

Meaning, a right-wing agenda. What is the difference between “national” and “nationalist” sentiment?

It’s elusive. If we assume that a national approach entails the aspiration that your state will possess a particular national character, take pride in the country’s achievements and have an affinity for members of the group – then nationalism deals with specific preferences for a specific people, with discrimination and racism against, and the pushing aside of, the Other. There are national movements that can be democratic or liberal, grant rights to minorities and not be swept up into nationalism. A case in point is the constitution of India, which is not nationalistic by nature. On the contrary: It promotes equality and defines minority rights. After the partition [in 1947, when independent India and Pakistan were created], which was violent and grim, [founding premier Jawaharlal] Nehru told the minorities: You are flesh of our flesh. This is an example of a particular route to the national that does not include nationalism.

Arguably, there was no other choice: The only way to create a bridge between so many streams and minorities is with pluralistic democracy.

“Uniformity and diversity” – that was the central slogan for India during the first decades of its existence, and it effectively dictated the country’s character.

But that wasn’t really its character. History in that country is rife with bloody clashes between Hindus and Muslims. And that also constituted the background to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.

During the initial years [of statehood] there were many movements that believed that the Hindus, as the majority, should lead the country. Gandhi was assassinated by a member of a nationalist movement, the RSS, who thought that he was “selling out” the country to the minorities.

That’s the movement from which Prime Minister Narendra Modi sprang. Do you attribute Modi’s rise to the universal trend of the strengthening of the right, or is it a local phenomenon?

It’s not disconnected from the universal trend, of course, but there are other contributing factors to Modi’s success. To begin with, the alternative, the left-center Congress Party, which was the ruling party in India for many decades, became weakened. It was perceived as corrupt, elitist, disconnected. The vacuum that was left made possible the rise and strengthening of nationalist parties that talked about restoring self-respect to the Hindus. Second, Modi is a very charismatic leader. His messages don’t deal only with nationalism; he also talks about the rights of farmers and of women, about recycling, about hygiene and sanitation in India. The public can relate to those messages.

Third, the nationalist thrust also relates to foreign relations. A “strong India” also means being strong in the international arena. Modi is working to promote India’s standing in the world and he’s succeeding, in his way. He’s casting a wide net. He has very good relations with Bahrain and Iran, but also with the United States and Israel. In the morning he can meet with [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu, and the next day with [Palestine Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas. He just about had the red carpet laid out for him during the [G-7] meeting last month with the heads of the world’s leading countries.

>>> Read more: Israel would welcome ties with Pakistan. Should India worry? >>>

The question is whether Modi will seek to maintain India’s character or will be swept up into an even more extreme course of incitement and nationalism. When he was running for reelection, people were very apprehensive that if he were to win by a large majority, as he in fact did, he might implement some controversial elements of his party’s platform.

I don’t think that Modi’s rise to power in India necessarily portends the abolition of democracy there. But we are witnessing extremely disturbing legislation and actions that have an impact on different aspects of civil life in India.

Ayelet Harel-Shalev.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Kashmir crisis

It seems to me that we are looking at a slippery slope, which starts with Modi’s move in Kashmir. What is the significance of that move for the state’s Muslim residents?

After the state of Jammu and Kashmir [in the northwest] joined India, Article 370 was appended to the constitution, stipulating that it would be granted broader autonomy than the other states of the federation. That article was intended to ensure the preservation of the demographic balance in Jammu and Kashmir.

Meaning, to preserve the Muslim majority.

At present anyone who is not a permanent resident of Jammu and Kashmir is not permitted to acquire land there or to serve in a public position. In this way, the population distribution has been maintained until today: approximately 68 percent Muslims, 28 percent Hindus, 2 percent Sikhs and 1 percent each Christians and Buddhists. Modi’s government has decided to split the state into two separate and different political units. If that happens, the demographic balance will shift and autonomy will be annulled – and all this is happening in an entity that is special, that has a distinctly Muslim majority, that is at the center of a significant international dispute with its rival, Pakistan, and where an emergency government has been in power for years. Modi is “sticking a finger in the eye” of Pakistan and China, and the decision holds out high potential for deterioration into a confrontation with both of them.

How do you see Modi’s move?

It’s a display of power and self-confidence, both of him and his party, aimed at three target audiences: domestically, at Indian voters; regionally, at Pakistan and China, which have never recognized Jammu and Kashmir as a legitimate part of India; and further afield, it’s also aimed at the international community, which views the region as disputed territory. On all three of these fronts Modi is effectively saying: Look, I am India, a strong and significant country in the global arena, which seeks to exert its sovereignty and realize its rights.

From the perspective of the Indian government, this is not an aggressive act; it’s an action taken to “realize their rights.” While it was understood that steps of this kind would be made only with agreement or after a dialogue – there was no dialogue, either with the residents of the district or with the Pakistanis.

At first these moves were thought to be declarative in nature, but reports indicate that Modi is moving from declarations to deeds.

The testimonies from Kashmir are painful – gross violations of local residents’ rights. Beyond the curfew imposed on the Kashmir Valley, we’ve been hearing about arrests of opponents to the action, forceful suppression of demonstrations by Kashmiris who are Indian citizens, and acts of intimidation. It’s all being done under cover of darkness: The internet and cell-phone networks have been severed. That isolation has been partially alleviated, but the local population has been in severe distress for over a month.

The state of Assam [in northeastern India] is also taking measures against its Muslim population, from detention camps to stripping them of citizenship.

Steps are being taken in Assam to limit the number of Muslims in the region through draconian legislation. If in the past two decades fences were built along the border with Bangladesh so as to limit the number of Muslim migrants arriving from there, in recent years, and more especially since 2015, the state has acted to deport Muslims back to Bangladesh. In the past two years, action has also been taken against Muslim citizens who were naturalized in India several decades ago. Citizens who are unable to show certain documents confirming their ownership of land and the like, are under threat of losing their Indian citizenship.

A few weeks ago, the authorities in Assam published an additional list of 1.9 million people who lost their citizenship. They have the right to appeal within 120 days, but even so, it is a harsh, callous move aimed at the state’s Muslim minority. Modi promised that Indian citizens would not be affected – only illegal migrants – but we’ll have to wait and see how the process ends. These developments are problematic, to put it mildly.

Look, it’s impossible to say that everything was rosy until Modi rose to power, and now everything is black. There were massive, flagrant violations of human rights even when the Congress Party ruled – detention camps are not a new invention of BJP [Modi’s party] – but if this way of doing things continues and additional, dramatic new moves are taken, it will pose a danger to India’s minorities, as a result, to Indian democracy.

Hindu agenda

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, earlier this month. Credit: Alexander Nemenov/AFP

Let’s talk a bit about Hindutva, the Hindu-national agenda.

A broad spectrum of social, political and extra-establishment movements are promoting the Hindutva idea. They range from movements that want to advance Hindu culture, to more extremist groups that maintain that promoting Hinduism must come at the expense of other groups – at the expense of other minorities in general, not only Muslims.

Some call it Indian fascism.

For the extreme nationalist movements in India, such as VHP and RSS, advancing Hinduism is not enough. They say it’s necessary to suppress the minorities and also to force them to declare their support for the idea that Hinduism is the supreme religion in India. As far as they are concerned, anyone who refuses needs to leave.

Us or them – it’s a fascist narrative. Modi used that rhetoric in his last election campaign.

He is very careful, but the few times he used it are enough to show where his sentiments lie.

On your many trips to India, and in your ties with local scholars, have you yourself felt any sort of change?

I can tell you that when I speak to others who study India, they are all careful about what they say, how they express themselves, because they want to be able to obtain a visa for their next research trip.

Modi could use the power he wields to do good things. The question is where he will take the country, and its laws, in practice. It’s a question that is troubling many Indians, and the world should also be troubled by it. Again – the prevailing notion that India was a tolerant, pluralistic society until Modi arrived and ruined everything, is erroneous. India is a vast country with many groups and minorities, and from the outset it displayed strong conservative tendencies. However, in recent decades, it was ruled by people who believed in and promoted liberal values: They set the tone and also they instituted a constitution.

Some believe that Modi is actually resorting to this rhetoric, is playing the nationalist tune, in order to divert the dialogue from his failures, such as in the economic realm.

Modi sent others to do the nationalistic work for him. His main message was different: Make India great – like [Trump’s] United States. He did not focus on Hindu nationalist messages. He did not necessarily speak out specifically against India’s Muslim citizens. He spoke in favor of Hinduism.

But in fact the nationalist narrative is: “This is the real India. This is how it should have been from the start.”

It resembles [the Jewish idea of] “restoring the former glory.” The right wing in India wants to restore to Hinduism the ability of setting the tone in the country where its followers are the majority. For example, they want to introduce more Hindu elements into the school curricula.

But that is only a small part of the story. This ideology also serves particular social structures. Hindu society consists of castes, and the nationalist right is preserving the hegemony of the supreme caste, of the elites. This [status] is translated into money, power, control, real estate.

There’s no doubt that the rise of the Hindu right has been connected in a dramatic way to the struggle of the lower castes to improve their status. Even back in the 1980s, in the process of constructing the Hindu nationalist right, the idea was to appeal to all the classes, all the castes, and to claim that there was no reason for hostility or internecine wars among the believers – because all the problems were actually being caused by the [non-Hindu] minorities. The nationalists effectively diverted the discourse from the inter-class conflict. The members of the highest castes, who constitute the majority in the Hindu nationalist movements, enlisted the lower and middle castes, convincing them to abandon the internal conflict, because the real threat was seen as external. They simply threw dust in their eyes.

Sounds familiar.


People stand in line to check their names on the National Register of Citizens in the village of Pavakati, in India's northeastern state of Assam, August 31, 2019. Credit: AFP

Assertions like “Hinduism is in danger” also sound familiar. I’d be glad to understand in what way Hinduism is in danger – as the religion of more than 80 percent of India’s citizens, namely, of about 1 billion people.

Even though the Hindus were 85 percent of the population when the state was established, they did not receive special constitutional privileges. The point of departure of the nationalist right is that this was a mistake – that from the outset, this majority status should have been reflected in the school system, in culture, even in street sculptures. In practice, these people reject the conception of the founding fathers that India is a secular state and the state of all its citizens. They want to move to a model in which they set the tone.

They seem to prefer the Israeli model.

I’ve done a lot of research on the similarity between Israel and India. Of course, there are many significant differences, but there are also a great many points of similarity. Both countries were established in the same period, following colonial rule, with a majority and a minority of roughly the same proportions; both became democracies. But whereas India chose to define itself as the state of all its citizens, which is essentially the meaning embedded in its constitution, Israel chose to define itself as “Jewish and democratic.” In many senses, India underwent a process of Hinduization over the years, whereas Israel actually underwent a process of democratization, particularly during the period of the Yitzhak Rabin government. It only started to drift rightward in the mid-1990s. In both Israel and India, the right became mainstream.

And the left became the enemy.

All the concepts about what “left” is, what it means to be left, have been controversial. This is a process in which the duality is built-in: On the one hand, the government plays the democratic card – we want democracy, we are democrats – and on the other, nondemocratic organizations are created and very undemocratic declarations voiced.

Worst and best scenarios

One must recall again that Indian history is rife with violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims.

The struggle for Indian independence was at first shared by Hindus and Muslims alike. The disputes began over what form the regime should take in a country like this. Should it be a regime based on a binational state, in which Muslims represent Muslims and Hindus represent Hindus – or should the big parties represent everyone? From there, with the mediation of the British, who were adept at divide-and-rule, the friction began to mount.

Being a minority in a country is complicated, and I think that to be a minority in a country where the nationalist right rises to power is doubly complicated. One of India’s Muslim presidents, Zakir Husain Khan, once said that it is easier for a Muslim to be elected president – meaning, to be a fig leaf – than it is to get a government job.

One commentary I read noted that India is at a crossroads, facing two possibilities: being like either Israel or Turkey. Either it will become the homeland of the Hindus, like the Jewish state, or it will be a secular republic where religion receives ever greater emphasis and expression, like Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The best scenario would be if India were to remain India, abides by the principles of its constitution and does not adopt either the Israeli or the Turkish model. All in all, if one takes the long and comprehensive view of the seven decades that have passed since its establishment, India has succeeded in inventing for itself a singular model in which intercommunal relations are indeed tense – at times, very tense – but all told, there is still a balance between individual rights, community rights, and recognition of the culture of the Other, of the minorities. Any other scenario – of moving toward an ethnocratic model or toward coercive religion – will lead to violent struggles.

The Indian constitution is one of the most magnificent that have been written and enacted. Unraveling it would, in my opinion, be nothing less than a disaster for Indian democracy. Moreover, we have seen many places where leaders moved on the political axis from hawkishness to dovishness, and the reverse. That’s also happened in Israel. From a liberal point of view, it’s to be hoped that Modi will reconsider and will take a statesmanlike approach that is consistent with the values of his country’s constitution and not continue to be swept up by violent nationalist movements. In the end, he is no more of a nationalist than the leaders of the BJP party, Advani and Vajpayee, who ruled in India in the 1990s and frequently assailed minorities as such. I personally hope that the conduct of the recent past will be curbed and that the government will reconsider its ways.

Good luck with that.

Kashmir will be a test case for Modi’s second term. We will see in the future how he deals with opposition forces – whether the detentions and arrests will continue. Emergency regimes always pose a true danger to democracy. Not only in India.

Another test case will how Modi behaves in the face of acts of violence against the Muslim minority throughout all of India. If Modi chooses to turn his head again, as he did during the riots and massacre in Gujarat, then the future of democracy in India looks gloomy. [More than 1,000 people, most of them Muslims, were murdered in rioting in 2002 when Modi was governor of the state; the government did nothing to curb the violence, and some testimonies claim that the authorities aided the Hindus.]

Despite everything, and despite Modi’s background, I still believe that all is not lost and that the Modi government bears a certain potential when it comes to bringing about quiet in India itself. There is no doubt that the coming weeks and months will be critical for examining the condition of democracy in India.

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