Contemporary India is entering the uncharted territory of grave danger, of which the hijab issue is only the most outwardly inconsiderable recent instance. I had predicted that the hijab controversy would go viral globally as a violation of human rights the moment it occurred. There is studious avoidance of acknowledgement that it has been deliberately orchestrated to influence the Uttar Pradesh elections because it is feared Muslim women, who were the disproportionate beneficiaries of improved public services, like toilets and piped water in the home, brick houses, health insurance and subsidised gas cylinders, etc., might be inclined to vote for the BJP.
The controversy has since been aired exultantly in the Western media, which completely ignored the recent murder of six brothers in Bangladesh, who were going to build a temple. It ought to be acknowledged in passing, although such malicious disinformation is deliberate and usually encouraged by state policy, there is a mundane reason as well. Hostile reporting of Islamic atrocities in the subcontinent prompts threats to media outlets like the BBC, which is numbed by fear for the security of its staff.
The second outcome I have anticipated is that the authorities in India, though not directly involved in a local school dispute, will be forced to intervene to make concessions and compromise over the issue of the hijab. But it should be noted that bowing on this issue will constitute a serious national setback with much larger associated consequences because it will confirm the political muscle of militant groups using it to demonstrate their decisive ability to hold the entire Indian Union to ransom. This is already the case with loudspeakers broadcasting the azan and namaz blocking major thoroughfares, including the national highway connecting West Bengal to the rest of India. Unfortunately, concessions are the pragmatic option in the current circumstances of a snowballing global campaign to destabilise the Narendra Modi government. Two steps forward and one step back, in effect.
Such retreats have occurred twice earlier, over the CAA and the farm laws. Both created opportunities for India’s foreign adversaries to insert themselves into simmering unrelated local fissures and help turn the CAA and anti-farm law protest into national crises. It led to the besieging of the capital and riots that turned the government into a mute spectator. One must sympathise with its predicament and the rationale for stepping back when there was every justification for firm action.
The one government failure has been the puzzling reluctance to impose swinging financial penalties on egregious violators of the law and Supreme Court injunctions. Regrettably, the latter also seemed too petrified to act with courage and solemnity despite the extraordinary threats to the integrity of India’s democracy and sovereignty. By contrast, the Yogi Adityanath government has set an example of the feasibility of imposing financial penalties and I myself outlined the necessary contours in some detail in a published article.
In this context, the vital but unrecognised issue is that these episodes were outrageous examples of the subversion of Indian democracy by the violent street protest that forced an elected government to annul policies on which it had been elected. But the Western media is exclusively fixated on the alleged threat of Modi majoritarianism to Indian democracy and its intimidation of the Indian media though quite unable to highlight specific examples and only engaging in shameless ad hominem libel. Virtually the entire Indian social science and humanities cohort abroad have responded on cue to denounce India’s civilisational claims and effectively urge the overthrow of the Modi government through popular revolt.
Let there be no doubt that a globally orchestrated campaign to destabilise the Modi government has gathered momentum. Its protagonists are obviously the Sino-Pakistani governments that possess myriad assets inside India, through religious affiliation that India is at pains to ignore and deny, and outright purchase of major Indian political parties, journalists and social activists. The other adversaries are frenemies that hope to acquire compelling influence over India and dislike the unduly independent-minded and assertive Modi government determined to carve out India’s place in the sun, its public bonhomie, of late, with all and sundry notwithstanding.
These frenemies include evangelists, the political arm of the Anglosphere and the Scandinavians, ever-faithful to US interests and deployed in many places because of their outward innocuousness. Obsessively focused on the compelling and urgent politics of domestic power struggles Indians are unable to pay attention to the wider global context of their national destiny but are, in any case, apt by tradition to be culturally introverted inward-looking. One can really only guess at the cause of frenemy animus towards the Modi government, but two can nevertheless be nominated as immediate potential causes.
The first are policies implemented by the Modi government since 2020 that have made evangelism and religious conversion more difficult. These measures came into being at a virtual tipping point of large-scale religious conversions. Conversions to Christianity, which had been taking place with a great pace with the collusion of the Congress Party after 2004, were poised to permanently inhibit majority governments emerging in Delhi. The Modi government’s attempt to curb the spate of religiously motivated subversion would have been extremely abhorrent.
It is necessary to recall that the cancellation of Modi’s visa to the US in 2003 was the result of a campaign launched against him by US evangelist groups, which usually work in concert with officialdom, as the USCIRF underscores. Evangelists have long forged an alliance with Islam and Islamists in India because only by coordinating action together can decisive influence be exercised over the country through the legitimacy of the ballot box.
Indians seem to have poor historical memory and fail to recall that the British attempt to continue the imperialist subjugation of India prompted an alliance with Islam in the late nineteenth century, catalysing in the sponsorship of the Muslim League in 1906. It was followed by the ruthless use of Mohammed Ali Jinnah in the late 1930s to secure imperial interests. The second possible action of the Modi government that would constitute overwhelming provocation is any indication that it had engaged with China for a wider resolution of their rivalry beyond the specifics of border de-escalation.
One can only speculate, but although such an Indo-Chinese dialogue would be entirely rational from an Indian perspective it would prompt decisive Anglo-American action to remove Modi from office. It ought to also be understood that nothing, virtually nothing that happens or is uttered in India, however discreetly, will be unknown to US intelligence and in this instance, mere rumour, even without concrete evidence, would suffice to ring alarm bells in Washington.
Destabilising governments is a standard operating procedure in the cut and thrust of international relations and has been practised constantly by the US since the SWW, as its unceasing interference in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa has shown. The US has also emplaced military governance in Pakistan and engineered regime change in Bangladesh too, with the murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which the distinguished FEER journalist Lawrence Lifschultz has exposed. In order to grasp how a policy of regime change attempts operationalisation against India, a small conceptual digression is necessary.
There are three modes of regime change that can occur, the first of which is an outright invasion with appropriate and blatant subterfuges, like the existence of weapons of mass destruction, as in the case of Iraq, and the alleged urgency for regime change it enjoins. The second is much more common, which is to engineer a political or military coup d’état with the usual handwringing and distancing from the event by its actual foreign sponsors. The third is especially relevant to India, where an invasion is an improbable option though pressure on the border can be deployed to elicit more agreeable policy and conduct.
A military or political coup d’état is problematic in the context of India’s politics and constitutional fabric and the traditions of its armed forces. Thus, the third option is to affect electoral outcomes by orchestrating propaganda, organising civil unrest and funding preferred political parties. This is the strategy that is unfolding without respite against the Modi government and is in motion right now in UP, with the RLD, an improbable gainer from any likely electoral outcome but mobilised by insidious means for splitting the BJP vote. The ultimate goal of interference in India is to help empower a weak and pliable government at the Centre.
The key to electoral outcomes in India is Islam, caste and regionalism. The Muslim vote has been the absolutely critical anchor for foreign intervention that no hostile foreign power will ignore. It is disciplined and will cooperate with any call pronouncing ‘Islam is in danger’. It is also correctly surmised abroad that in another decade or so, the Muslim vote, as a result of demographic transformation, will become the single most important determinant of Indian electoral outcomes and end the BJP’s pretensions (as West Bengal recently highlighted). But the impact of Islam will need to be conjoined with regional disenchantment with the Indian Union that is already deeply ingrained south of the Vindhyas, articulating, in reality, a covert Christian dimension.
It is anticipated that the two political forces of Islam and regionalism in concert will create lasting electoral primacy, as in contemporary Andhra Pradesh. This leaves the issue of caste the eschewal of which, as the defining identity at elections, would thwart the effective political disintegration of India. The enveloping Islamic demographic and regional nightmares already favour India’s foreign adversaries, which DMK’s dalliance with China has recently underlined, but caste remains the conundrum that also has to be kept active. This is the reason there is disproportionate research and academic funding abroad of the issue and constant fabrication of caste conflicts everywhere Indians live.
One critical reason for the targeting of Modi and his politics is a product of his unprecedented historic achievement in overcoming caste divisions electorally, especially in Uttar Pradesh. In addition, the phenomenon of extant caste politics is not a one-way street favouring foreign intervention alone against India. The dynamics of the country’s accelerating urbanisation mitigates caste consciousness and enhances instead concerns with governance and as well as promoting a sense of national identity.
Foreign intervention in Indian politics has occurred innumerable times in the past, with the USSR helping consolidate Indira Gandhi’s political sway through various forms of intercession, including ensuring a quid pro quo with Indian communists. However, one of the most damaging was the Sino-American collaboration to use the Naxalite revolt, which occurred due to mostly obscure local reasons, as a violent distraction designed to repay Indira Gandhi’s repudiation of US wishes over the East Pakistan genocide.
Few in India seem to understand the degree of Sino-American collusion against India in the early 1970s since they had reached a historic understanding against the USSR that bound them together incredibly intimately. In addition, there was successful American intervention to entrap Mrs Indira Gandhi in the run-up to the declaration of the Emergency. The threatened Indian national railway industrial action was a remarkable echo of Chile’s truckers strike, strangling the Chilean economy, and leading to the overthrow and murder of Salvador Allende sponsored by the US CIA.
The attempt of the Modi government to escape India’s encirclement that had intensified after 2004 has prompted the determined ongoing efforts to destabilise it. India was infiltrated and subverted systematically during the UPA government which was, in essential respects, in the thrall of foreign powers, not least India’s frenemies. The UPA government had embarked on a perilous journey by proposing the effective surrender of Siachen even though the earlier Musharraf Plan for Kashmir, compromising Indian sovereignty thoroughly, was not revived. The loss of Siachen would have undermined the defence of Kashmir and the Musharraf Plan would have resulted in effectively handing over the entire region to Pakistan. The first was blocked by the Indian Army while the second had proved a hard sell even if its catastrophic implications were never quite understood by Indian interlocutors.
A self-governing Jammu and Kashmir under joint India-Pakistan supervision would have been a mere fig leaf for total surrender. It would have precipitated demographic transformation since marriages between Pakistani nationals and Kashmiri Muslims would have accelerated, as it has already done in PoK. This altered demographic dynamic on the ground would have meant an effective loss of control of Kashmir on the ground and initiated irresistible pressures for Anschluss with Pakistan. This situation would have also accentuated the secessionist movement in Punjab that has more support within the state than anyone dares to admit, with portraits of the terrorist Bhindranwale adorning private homes widely.
The Modi government, besieged on many fronts, has been forced to retreat repeatedly, but it had few options, given the domestic regionalist hostility to it and the Supreme Court’s reflexive colonial and Americanised mindset. The hijab controversy has become another stick to beat it with and the likelihood of Uttarakhand promulgating the UCC after the Assembly elections will be most inopportune. It will open a new front when so many others are forcing a retreat already. The national unrest over the inauguration of the UCC will dwarf anything seen since India’s Partition and wise counsel ought to prevail.
The key to India’s sovereign autonomy is to reach a $7 trillion+ GDP in the shortest possible time, which the Modi government is attempting to do. Other issues, like steps to change the national narrative and free mandirs, do deserve urgent attention. But India’s national interest dictates unequivocal support to the current political dispensation whose historic significance should not end up being recognised only in retrospect after an impossibly high price has been paid by the nation with it succumbing to hostile forces within and without.
The author taught international political economy for more than two decades at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Views expressed are personal.