Happymon Jacob


The Sangh Parivar’s saffron agenda must not dictate the country’s foreign policy


By deciding not to gift copies of the Bhagavad Gita to Donald Trump or Benjamin Netanyahu during his recent visits abroad, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears to have ignored the self-congratulatory statement of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, that foreign dignitaries were now being given copies of Gita and Ramayana instead of Taj Mahal replicas (because they, according to Mr. Adityanath, do not reflect Indian culture). As a matter of fact, Mr. Modi’s gifts over the past three years have included an impressive selection, even as Hindu religious texts have become more prominent than ever in the Prime Minister’s gift bag.


Even though Mr. Modi’s gifts to foreign dignitaries have comprised more than Hindu religious books, the BJP-led government in New Delhi has exhibited strong tendencies of saffronising India’s foreign policy, one step at a time, and without much resistance. Remember the strong pitch made by none other than External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in 2014 to declare Bhagavad Gita as India’s ‘Rashtriya Granth’ (national book)? During Mr. Modi’s recent visit to Israel, some BJP leaders even referred to the underlying belief within the Sangh Parivar of the desirability of forging strong bonds between Hindutva and Zionism. The issue of ‘saffronising’ foreign policy is serious, and deserves to be examined in greater depth.


Religious symbolism


Mr. Modi’s official visits abroad have often been steeped in Hindu religious symbolism. Recall his first visit to Nepal in 2014 when he visited the Hindu temple, Pashupatinath. Clad in saffron attire, wearing a rudraksh garland and sandal paste smeared on his forehead, the religious symbolism of Mr. Modi’s visit to the temple was spectacular, if not prime ministerial. It is a different matter that the development of a potential Hindu religious plank in Indo-Nepal relations, a key piece in the Sangh Parivar’s long-cherished dream, was sabotaged by events thereafter, including India’s ‘unofficial’ economic blockade of Nepal in 2015.


When Mr. Modi visited Abu Dhabi in 2015, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government announced the allocation of land for the UAE capital’s first Hindu temple. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) tweeted on the occasion, “A long wait for the Indian community ends. On the occasion of PM’s visit, UAE Govt decides to allot land for building a temple in Abu Dhabi,” with Mr. Modi following up with another tweet: “I am very thankful to the UAE Govt for their decision to allot land in order to build a Temple in Abu Dhabi. This is a great step.” How so?


While providing land to construct a temple for the Hindu community in the UAE (for Hindu migrant workers from countries such as India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, etc.) is in itself a laudable act, what does the official visit of a secular republic’s Prime Minister have to do with the allocation of land for a Hindu temple in an Islamic country? These tweets, by the MEA and the Prime Minister, were not in keeping with the secular traditions of India’s foreign policy engagements. Wasn’t ensuring that the Indian migrant workers in UAE are not mistreated, as they regularly are, more important than portraying the “land for temple” as a major foreign policy achievement? Let’s not get carried away: it was neither foreign policy, nor an achievement. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s fixation with ‘Mandir’ cannot be projected as the Indian state’s legitimate foreign policy interest.

Refugee policy


The BJP’s proposed refugee policy also tells the story of a deep-seated saffron agenda. Its 2014 election manifesto was unequivocal in stating that “India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here”. Note that the statement is not one that promises to protect all persecuted minorities in the neighbourhood, as the country has done in the past, but a pointedly Hindutva sentiment. The party followed up on its promise when it came to power by proposing a controversial Bill to amend the country’s citizenship laws. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, proposes that Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Christians entering India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan not be considered as “illegal immigrants” — no word on Muslims here! By not providing any justification whatsoever for discriminating against Muslims (if there can, in fact, be any), given that Hindus and Muslims comprise most refugees turning up at India’s borders, the motivation is clear. While on the one hand this appeases the communal vote banks in mainland India, the move also could potentially enhance BJP’s electoral fortunes in the north-eastern borderlands since the proposed law could alter the voter demographics in the region to BJP’s advantage. To get a more complete picture, read this together with the recently passed ‘Enemy Property (Amendment and Validation) Bill, 2016’ which could potentially dispossess many Muslim families of their inherited property.


India abroad


New Delhi has traditionally viewed the Indian diaspora to be a powerful force multiplier and has both used their services and catered to their needs. The Modi government has gone way beyond the legitimate exercise of engaging the diaspora to enthusiastically promoting overseas Hindutva/Sangh outfits for ideological ends, couched in sophisticated foreign policy showbiz, of course.


Clearly, the outright enlisting of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated organisations such as the Overseas Friends of BJP (OFBJP) and the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) for the government’s foreign policy pursuits and other official purposes can only be termed as attempts at saffronising our secular foreign policy. Recall how the HSS and the OFBJP-USA, along with the MEA and the Indian embassy in Washington, played a crucial role in organising Mr. Modi’s official visit to the U.S. in September 2014.


Several events in the Prime Minister’s official visits abroad today are organised by HSS/RSS/OFBJP activists in collaboration with the MEA and the Indian embassy. While these activists are indeed members of the Indian diaspora, they only represent one fragment of it, and a communal one. What is even more worrying is that many of these Hindutva organisations are increasingly partnering with Indian missions abroad to organise official functions of the Indian state. Consider this: during this year’s International Day of Yoga, the official partners of the Indian Embassy in Washington included the Association of United Hindu and Jain Temples, Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Yogpeeth, Hindu American Foundation, HSS, and several other Hindu organisations (


This brings back memories of the appointment of Bhishma Agnihotri, an office-bearer of the HSS, as India’s Ambassador-at-Large in the U.S. by the Vajpayee government. Mr. Agnihotri’s ad hoc appointment had led to run-ins between him and India’s official representation in Washington.


The proclivity of the Hindutva organisations, many of whose members are not Indian citizens, to grab the limelight of New Delhi’s official engagements abroad is resented by career diplomats who have often cautioned the MEA that such organisations should be kept away from official functions. Moreover, the BJP’s tendency to promote overseas Hindu organisations through the foreign policy engagements of the country will not only undermine the official and formal nature of the practice of diplomacy but will also divide the Indian diaspora along communal lines.


These organisations are also compensated by the government particularly during the ‘Pravasi Bharatiya Divas’ celebrations. The outsourcing of India’s foreign policy activities to overseas Hindu organisations should therefore be put an end to.


India’s foreign policy engagement, the BJP leadership needs to remember, is the sovereign function of the Indian state, not an instrument of the Sangh Parivar’s ideological agenda. Let us hope that Mr. Adityanath’s communal rhetoric about avoiding ‘unIndian’ gifts for foreign dignitaries does not alter the standard practice.


Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor, Disarmament Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University


(The Hindu – July 12, 2017)

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