Islam and foreign policy
New Indian Express (Chennai), 19 September 2008
Is there an Islamic dimension in India’s foreign policy, especially towards the Middle East region? The obvious answer would be elusive. For many, such a question is preposterous and an affront on India’s secular fabric. To suggest that religion played a role in shaping India’s policy towards the citadel of Islam is not merely unacceptable but is nothing short of a rightwing conspiracy.
The foreign policy could be indifferent to Islamic influences if India fulfils three basic conditions; one, Muslims living outside the Middle East are not stirred by political developments in the Islamic heartland; two, India does not have a sizeable Muslim population and that India is not wedded to democracy and pluralism.
None of these conditions are true. For a Muslim, whether religious or secular, the Middle East is not like any other piece of territory. The city of Jerusalem is not Berlin which could be divided along ideological lines and unified due to political expediency.
Even non-practising Muslims do not deny, let alone reject, the religious sanctity of Al- Aqsa situated in the old city of Jerusalem.
Like their counterparts in other parts of the world, Indian Muslims have strong emotional bonds with the region and its holy places. These feelings transform into political voices especially during violent upheavals in the region. Actions by non-regional or non-Islamic powers generate far wider interest and anger than Islamic players.
For long rightwing parties such as the erstwhile Jana Sangh and later the Bharatiya Janata Party, have been critical of the Congress policy towards the Middle East.
The pro-Arab bias did not go down well with a section of the population. Critics of the Nehruvian policy at times depicted India as the ‘chaprasi’ of the Arabs or the ‘14th Arab state.’ They felt that the Congress government was pro-Muslim domestically and pro-Arab externally.
At the same time, it is impossible to overlook the anti-minority attitudes of the Hindu right. Driven by their anti-Muslim mindset they looked to Israel as an ally. The pro- Israel bias of the Hindu right is often attributed to its anti-Muslim agenda. Many scholars and political pundits have argued that the rightwing parties are pro-Israel because they are anti-Muslim.
To suggest the converse, however, is not politically correct. Not many would accept that the Congress party was pro-Arab because it was pro-Muslim. Suggestions that the Congress party viewed the Middle East through an Islamic prism are vilified as conspiracy, blasphemous and of late, part of the neo-con agenda.
That India’s policy is devoid of any religious inputs have many takers. Driven by the need to ‘secularise’ the foreign policy some even ‘secularise’ the foreign policy of the BJP. They argue that while in power even the Hindutva forces did not ‘communalise’ foreign policy. Their desire for closer ties with Israel, the argument goes, was accompanied by a significant improvement in relations with principal Islamic countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. For them, not just Nehru but even the BJP is secular when it comes to foreign policy!
Such revisionist portrayal may be self-satisfying but a closer examination of India’s stand on a host of issues pertaining to the Middle East would reveal an indelible mark of Islam. During the nationalist phase this was marked by the political rivalry and competition between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League. It is often forgotten that the Congress party needed the substantial support of Indian Muslims. This was natural and inevitable. Otherwise, the Congress party could not call itself ‘Indian’ and ‘national,’ Hence since the days of the Khilafat struggle when Indian Muslims rallied around the Caliph then the Ottoman emperor, Indian foreign policy has had an Islamic flavour.
The opposition of the Indian nationalists towards the demand for a Jewish national home in Palestine was also partly, not wholly, influenced by the Islamic factor.
Though couched in nationalist terms and humanitarian considerations, religion did play a role in Indian leaders adopting a not so sympathetic view of Jewish political aspirations. On the eve of Partition, some like historian and future diplomat K M Panikkar felt that after Independence India would be less burdened by the Islamic factor and would be ‘free’ to adopt an explicitly pro-Israeli position.
This never materialised principally because the erstwhile Congress-Muslim League rivalry transformed into an Indo- Pakistani competition for the support of Arab and Islamic countries.With the Kashmir issue dominating its diplomatic battle, India feared that establishing normal ties with the Jewish state would be counterproductive.
The manner in which influential sections of the intelligentsia respond to admissions of Islamic inputs exposes their duality.In the summer of 2000 Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh told an audience in Jerusalem that the prolonged absence of diplomatic relations was due to domestic compulsions involving Muslims.
In September 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the media in New York that India’s Iran policy would also be guided by the Shia factor. This was parroted when National Security Adviser M K Narayanan justified the stopover visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in April this year. Of late even the communist leaders have joined the chorus. During the Lok Sabha vote in July over the nuclear deal, communist M K Pandhe warned Mulayam Singh Yadav that the Muslims would abandon the Samajvadi Party if he voted with the government.
However, the manner in which Indian intellectuals read and respond to these observations vastly differ. Both Jaswant Singh and Manmohan Singh discussed an explicitly domestic issue on foreign soil and unabashedly admitted Islamic inputs in key foreign policy issues.
The Indian intelligentsia vilified Jaswant Singh for communalising India’s Israel policy. Their response to a similar move by the Prime Minister was a deafening silence. If Jaswant Singh ‘communalised’ foreign policy, so did Manmohan Singh. If the Prime Minister merely highlighted an objective reality, so did the BJP leader.
This duality goes a step further. Having vehemently denied any Islamic influence in India’s foreign policy, the same section does not hesitate to recognise and condemn the ‘Jewish lobby’ upon the American policy.
They have openly and warmly embraced the arguments that the Jewish lobby has dominated American policy towards the Middle East and in the process undermined American interests. Similar suggestions of Islamic influence let alone domination upon India’s Middle East still remain taboo.
That three per cent Jews influence American foreign policy towards the Middle East, but 15 per cent Muslims of India do not. Therein lies their ‘progressive’ world view!