Vinod Mubayi

The sensitive border state of Manipur in India’s North-East region that borders Myanmar (formerly Burma) has been engulphed in violence since May 4, 2023 that has killed hundreds, injured thousands and shows little signs of abating. In the almost two months since the violence began, Prime Minister Modi has not deigned to visit Manipur and neither has he said a word in public about the situation or the plight of the people in this state that is ruled by his party, the BJP.

So, when Modi arrived in the US, instead of hearing from him what plans his government had to end the violence in Manipur, we were instead treated to a somewhat bizarre sight from the grass lawns adjoining the UN building in New York City of a bunch of older folks doing yogic asanas. In an article in the Wire of June 25, columnist Mrinal Pande wrote: “It was difficult to know whether to laugh or cry at the celebration of International Yoga Day amid such misery [i.e., the situation in Manipur]. A photo gallery of fat, out of shape ministers, soldiers and diplomats celebrating India’s Vishwa Yoga Gurudom.”

The Indian godi-(lapdog) media trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear suddenly discovered that this yoga event set a new record in the Guinness Book of World Records: the largest number of people of different nationalities participating in one yoga session. A more appropriate record, perhaps, would have been: the highest number of obese politicians and bureaucrats taking part in one yoga session. Be that as it may, from New York Modi proceeded to Washington, DC where he was met with a rapturous and unprecedented embrace by much of the Washington establishment, including most of Congress with a few notable exceptions, as well as the leading lights of the US corporate sector.

The Biden Administration had signaled its intention earlier to shower Modi, a notorious autocrat whose regime has a documented record of violating the rights of India’s minorities, muzzling journalists and jailing dissenters to such an extent that it has earned India the title of an “electoral autocracy”, with all kinds of hosanas and gifts during this “state” visit. There is nothing surprising in this. Although the US likes to tout itself as the world’s oldest democracy, ever since it started to flex its imperial muscles in the last decade of the 19th century with the military takeover of Spain’s colonies (Cuba, Philippines) it has shown a decided fondness for strongmen who decided to join the US bandwagon. As even the saintly Franklin D. Roosevelt, talking about the nasty Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, is reputed to have remarked: “He may be a son-of-a-bitch but he’s our son-of-a-bitch!” Thus, as the US acceded to a global imperial role in the post-World War II period, it promoted, coddled, or embraced such notables as the Shah of Iran, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, the Duvaliers, Papa Doc and Baby Doc, in Haiti, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Zia ul-Haq in Pakistan and others of that ilk who were all able to provide valuable service to the US government or to US multinational corporations and were, in turn, welcomed and praised by various US administrations that chose to turn a blind eye to their failings.

So it was that Modi, who for nine long years from 2005-2014 when he was Gujarat Chief Minister was even denied a visa to the US due to his role in the 2002 pogrom of Muslims in his state, was now welcomed to Washington with a 21-gun salute, feted with a lavish state dinner in the White House by the President and First Lady, and even got to address a joint session of the US Congress. All this while the Modi regime’s severe democratic deficits were being highlighted in much of the mainstream media in the US. 75 Congresspersons, Senators and members of the House, signed a letter to Biden asking him to raise Modi’s extensive record of minority and human rights violations in their conversations. The most principled American political opposition to Modi was voiced by the group of progressive Democrats in the House known as the Squad who, while few in number, boycotted his speech to Congress as they argued that the US Congress had no business inviting someone like Modi who in the opinion of Representative Cori Bush “has a shameful history of committing human rights abuses, undermining democracy, and targeting journalists.”

None of these views or reservations mattered in the least to the Biden administration that had clearly decided earlier to draw India into its political embrace as virtually the equivalent of an ally. The Joint Statement of the US and India issued by the White House “affirmed a vision of the United States and India as among the closest partners in the world”. The Statement pointed to the real objective of the visit when it stated: “Our cooperation will serve the global good as we work through a range of multilateral and regional groupings – particularly the Quad– to contribute toward a free, open, inclusive, and resilient Indo-Pacific.” The Quad, consisting of Japan, Australia, India and the US has been commonly understood to be an anti-China front that has both a political and a military dimension.

The US overture to India revealed by the Joint Statement is comprehensive and wide ranging and goes across many fields of science and technology although the main focus is on collaboration in defense technology as well as potential joint military operations. The timing of the Modi visit points to the US objective of the creation of an axis against China as the driving force of the enhanced relationship. Thus, while the Statement mentions the Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET), collaboration of the space agencies NASA and ISRO to develop a strategic framework for human spaceflight cooperation by the end of 2023, a Semiconductor Supply Chain and Innovation Partnership, development of a Quantum Information Science and Technology agreement, and other science programs and projects, the Statement highlights the U.S.-India Major Defense Partnership in no uncertain terms:

“Through joint exercises, strengthening of defense industrial cooperation, the annual “2+2” Ministerial Dialogue, and other consultative mechanisms, we have made substantial progress in building an advanced and comprehensive defense partnership in which our militaries coordinate closely across all domains.”

While emphasis is also given to the MoU between General Electric and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited for the manufacture of GE F-414 jet engines in India that will be used in Indian designed jet aircraft, and the acquisition of advanced drones from General Atomics, the emergence of India “as a hub for maintenance and repair for forward deployed U.S. Navy assets and the conclusion of Master Ship Repair Agreements with Indian shipyards” hints at India virtually offering naval base facilities to the US Navy. This gives a new meaning to the possible future plans of the “four maritime democracies”, i.e., the Quad, in the Indo-Pacific region. A senior official of the US State Department reportedly told the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington that the “US expects a greater role for India in the South China Sea, where China uses “coercion” in disputed waters. He added that there would be greater cooperation in the Quad. China claims almost the entire sea as its territory and says disputes should be left to countries in the region to settle without outside interference. Significantly, like the US, India has no historical stake in the South China Sea.”

However, the commentator Pravin Sawhney writing in The Wire of June 26 has argued that the tight strategic embrace exemplified by the Modi-Biden agreements has increased India’s vulnerability. In his view “As strategic autonomy makes way for a tighter military embrace with Washington, India will find that its room for maneuver in the face of emerging challenges has narrowed.” Four decades ago, the US embraced then Pakistani strong man, Zia ul-Haq and induced him to sign on to a joint military project to defeat and oust the Soviet troops from Afghanistan. That effort brought the Taliban to power. What might come from Biden’s embrace of Modi remains to be seen.

The furor in India over the question posed to Modi by the Wall Street Journal reporter at his press conference along with Biden showed Modi’s Hindutva ecosystem’s uglier side as did the response to ex-President Barack Obama’s critical remarks in a TV interview with CNN that Hindu majoritarianism could pull the country apart. While the response to the former was left to the BJP troll army that focused predictably on the reporter’s Muslim identity rather than on the content of her question, BJP heavyweights including India’s Defense Minister, Finance Minister and the Assam Chief Minister were marshalled to throw tasteless barbs at Obama based on his middle name Husein or other irrelevancies. The fact that the White House had to formally step in a couple of days later to defend the WSJ reporter shows the tensions that can and likely will erupt in the Indo-US relationship in future. In this context, Sidharth Bhatia in The Long Cable remarked that “Americans got to see another side of him and his party — a side that we Indians see every day.”

Some commentators asserted that rather than the official India-US meetings, Modi’s parleys with Elon Musk, head of Twitter and Tesla, and Sunder Pichai, CEO of Google that owns YouTube, who both promised large investments in India, may turn out to be more consequential as far as India’s domestic politics are concerned. With national elections looming in less than a year, both Twitter and YouTube can be weaponized to spread falsehoods and promote division and polarization for political gain as indeed they were in the 2019 elections according to Jack Dorsey former head of Twitter.

Meanwhile, Manipur still continues to burn and the Prime Minister on his return has not bothered to visit or comment on the turmoil there. A protestor in New Delhi held up a placard that it was “extraordinary that the Prime Minister of a country would maintain a conspicuous and studied silence on the violent deaths of a 100-plus of his compatriots and absurd that a Chief Minister under whose watch a state self-destructs can continue in office for so long.” The BJP boast of the advantages of a “double engine government” (State and Centre ruled by the same party) sound quite hollow now. The ethnic and religious diversity in Manipur, the Meiteis who are about 53% of the population are mainly Hindu, although they also have small numbers of Christians and Muslims in their midst, while the Kuki-Zo tribals are largely Christian. Always ready to stir the communal caldron that has brought the BJP success in north and central India, the mouthpiece of the RSS, The Organizer, editorialized last month that the violence and bloodshed in Manipur was carried with the support of the churches. Archbishop Dominic Lumon, head of the Catholic Church in Manipur dismissed this wild allegation was dismissed as ‘baseless by saying that the “Church does not support or organize violence.”. Columnist and activist Ram Puniyani asserted that “This outlandish claim can be seen as a typical communal forces strategy of cover-up – to divert attention from the fact that over 300 churches had been torched, desecrated or destroyed across Manipur.” Commentator Mrinal Pande in her article in The Wire quoted earlier, expresses her foreboding of the trend in Manipur when she writes: “The violence in the valley seems to follow the same divisive trajectory set into motion in the 1940s, which ultimately resulted in India being partitioned along religio-ethnic lines.” Her comment echoes Obama’s warning in his interview with CNN about the potential of India pulling apart, a warning that now sounds prescient, which occasioned such hateful scorn from high level BJP politicians, clearly on Modi’s orders.

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