When the US state department recently told a court that the Saudi Arabian crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, should have immunity in a lawsuit over the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it portrayed its argument as a legal and not moral position. By way of evidence, it pointed to a rogues’ gallery of foreign leaders previously afforded similar protection. Nestling between Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who, it was claimed, assassinated political rivals, and Congo’s Joseph Kabila, whose security detail was accused of assaulting protesters in Washington, was India’s Narendra Modi.
Dropping Mr Modi into such a list was no accident. It is a reminder that while New Delhi basks in its diplomatic success at recent G20 and Cop27 summits, it might find the international environment less accommodating if Mr Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) continue to stir up hatred to win elections. Washington’s gesture suggests that its strategic partnership with India cannot be completely insulated from domestic political issues. Mr Modi’s failure, as chief minister of Gujarat, to prevent anti-Muslim riots in 2002 that left hundreds dead saw him denied a US visa, until he became Indian prime minister. The message from Foggy Bottom was that the ban had not been withdrawn, but suspended, because Mr Modi ran a country that Washington wanted to do business with.
India is considered a geopolitical counterweight to China and, in many ways, an indispensable actor on the world stage. But Mr Biden’s team appears to see the position as more contingent, and will be less tolerant than the Trump administration of Mr Modi’s attempts to remould Indian democracy so that Hindus become constitutionally pre-eminent, with minorities reduced to second-class citizens. Last week, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom accused New Delhi of a “crackdown on civil society and dissent”, and “religious freedom violations”. The Indian foreign ministry hit back at “biased and inaccurate observations”. Officials would do better to reflect on where their country is going.
While a rising power, India’s ascent depends on building bridges with others. The Middle East is a key energy supplier and regional trade partner that supports 9 million Indian workers. India’s security depends on Arab states sustaining a hostile environment for terrorism. So when BJP functionaries made derogatory remarks about the prophet Muhammad this summer, Gulf states lodged formal protests with New Delhi. Chastened, the Modi government was spurred into action – suspending one party official and expelling another, as well as saying it accords “the highest respect to all religions”.
Bland assurances may not be enough. The intimidation of India’s 200 million Muslims is hiding in plain sight. State elections in Gujarat begin on Thursday, weeks after BJP ministers approved the premature release of 11 men convicted of rape and murder of Muslim women and children during the riots. On the campaign trail last Friday, India’s home minister claimed troublemakers had been “taught a lesson” in 2002. This sounded like a signal to Hindu mobs that they could do as they pleased.
Worryingly, there are signs that the communal clashes seen in India are being copied elsewhere. In Leicester, many south Asian Muslims – like the city’s Hindus – have Indian roots. Yet when violence erupted between these communities this September, escalating into attacks on mosques and temples, the Indian high commission in London condemned the “violence perpetrated against the Indian community in Leicester and vandalisation of premises and symbols of [the] Hindu religion”. Pointedly, there was no condemnation of Hindus’ violence against Muslims. Once careful to proclaim its secularism, India’s government appears content to export its Hindu chauvinism. That should trouble everyone.