Anti-Muslim Riots: Modi’s huge strategic mistake

Copy of 2020-02-24T134456Z_1426990583_RC217F9V30JU_RTRMADP_3_INDIA-CITIZENSHIP-PROTESTS-1582613077204

[Anti-Muslim riots, Delhi]

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had hoped to bask in the Trumpian glow during and after the US President’s short visit that was never geared from the start to be more than a publicity stunt at best. Instead he found the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protesters raining on his parade.

The occasion for serious Modi-Trump jaw-jaw disappeared once Delhi held fast to a few sticking points, particularly ‘no US dairy exports’ to India. But having announced a trade deal as precondition for his trip, Trump had the option to call-off the trip and miss out an opportunity to super-hyperbolically boast about “millions” of Indians gathered to greet him. This last was intolerable even if in Trump’s arithmetic the 95,000 collected at the Motera stadium in Ahmedabad equals millions. The visit itself sort of unfolded herky-jerkily — with no one taking any of it seriously except the excitable Indian print and electronic/ television media who are ever the willing handmaidens to whosoever is in power at the moment, and who dutifully and full-throatedly sang hosannas to Modi and Trump, trying desperately to make the whole event appear to be more than a gigantic photo-op that it was.

A development, potentially damaging of Modi’s reputation and India’s image as an easy going tolerant country, was taking shape. An entirely peaceful sit-down campaign was gathering momentum a dozen kilometers from South Block in the lead-up to Trump’s visit. Considering that their demand was for a withdrawal of CAA, which the Modi government had peremptorily rejected, any realistic assessment by the Home Ministry with numerous intel and police agencies under command, would have reasonably concluded that, if the priority was to at all cost prevent the communal situation from blowing up just when the Western media was in the country in strength and Modi and Trump were sitting down for a bit of mutual backslapping, that a few things needed to be ensured. Namely, that (1) the protest be allowed to continue undisturbed to buff up the country’s democratic credentials and, in line with this intent (2) absolutely no one and nothing be permitted to disturb an inherently tense situation from getting out of hand, and (3) armed Delhi Police, with para-military forces as backup, be instructed, to take into custody known murderous thugs and mischief-mongers, and maintain peace and order with increased armed police presence and deterrent patrols.

What was allowed to happen by the Modi government was exactly the opposite. The deep-down resolve to “teach” Muslims a lesson apparently overtook good strategic sense and young BJP leaders on the make — Anurag Thakur, Kapil Mishra, et al felt encouraged to mouth off incendiary nonsense which was matched by hotheads on the other side, in particular Waris Pathan, Maharashtra MLA of the All India Majis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM), the Hyderabad city party, who in a fit of unvarnished idiocy on Feb 20 mouthed inflammatory stuff like “Time has now come for us to unite and achieve freedom. Remember we are 15 crore but can dominate over 100 crores”, which was promptly dubbed a Jinnah-type war cry, and the fat was on the fire. How Asaduddin Owaisi, the immaculate barrister heading AIMIM, whom I hold in the highest regard for his emphasis on Constitutional rectitude, could allow his lieutenants to make such utterances in combustible circumstances is beyond understanding.

Whether such statements offer a clear chronology of events that led to the carnage is not the point. What is is that such fiery speeches offered apriori and/or ex-post facto sanction to both sides to go beserk, putting lone Muslims (like the one in the pic above) and Hindus caught in the wrong locality in serious jeopardy, facing death by bludgeoning.

Modi’s off-handish advice to keep peace did nothing to stay the rioters from their job. It reminded many of Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots where too he periodically issued statements urging peace but apparently did not simply order the police to stop the mayhem, or else. So the violence continued for a couple of days until the powers that be decided the Muslims were sufficiently chastised. But then the Delhi riots were a repeat of the 1984 holocaust against the Sikhs when the then Congress party govt under Rajiv Gandhi saw the terrible mob actions as just retribution for Indira Gandhi’s assassination. What’s the difference? None. But it does emphatically suggest that Delhi Police being a creature of the central govt of the day, will do nothing the home minister doesn’t want done.

This circles back to Modi’s ability to think strategically. Didn’t he know that with Trump coming, there was every likelihood of the CAA protest cascading into a public relations disaster for himself personally and for the nation he leads if the situation was permitted by acts of omission or commission to go astray? Even if he considered this a remote possibility, should he not have warned his party colleagues to do nothing untoward and his sword-arm, Amit Shah, to see to it that nothing bad transpired, at least not during Trump’s short trip? So the question arises: if the Prime Minister is unable to gauge his own personal future interests correctly and take appropriate prophylactic and preemptive measures, can he think strategically to shore up and advance the national strategic interests?

As mentioned in the previous post, the anti-democratic behaviour of his govt has now become grist for the Western press, and hence for the American government and politicians. If Modi had hoped to gain further traction in Washington, he can safely lay those hopes to rest. The US Commission on International Religious Freedoms has already slammed Delhi, Bernie Sanders too has jumped in, questioning the $3 billion deal for military hardware, and UN has decried the human rights excesses. Ere long there will be US Congressional hearings where those representing the anti-CAA faction will be invited to depose, which activity Modi’s chum, Trump, can’t terminate at will. This is only the beginning and should the Democrats displace Trump, Modi will be in bad odour once again in Washington, and India in the doghouse.

One of the themes I analyzed at length in my last book — ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’ was precisely this, that Modi will not be able to realize his strategic objective of getting India to emerge as a principal rival to China on the Asian, leave alone the world, stage if he also creates an illiberal state and society at home. It is a lesson the Prime Minister, unless he is entirely disconnected from reality, will learn because History is a hard teacher.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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19 Responses to Anti-Muslim Riots: Modi’s huge strategic mistake

  1. vivek says:

    its difficult to understand why indian govt is so worried about other countries/UNHRC opinion? Why can’t india behave like china or US, who dont care what other think and do what is right for country.

  2. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Hi Bharat Sir…I always wait for your articles…thanks for writing them frequently…

    Sir do you think India could have taken/or can take some advantage of COVID-19 outbreak in China, though now cases are reducing there??? Further, according to a report by Chinese global times, Indian cyber experts attacked Chinese medical facilities treating coronavirus and made many organisations and individuals its victim (if this report is true then it’s good for Indian cyber warfare).

    If yes, then how India can take advantage of Chinese sufferings from virus???

    • The Indian govt has not for the last 6-10 years reformed its labour and investment laws — removed the regulations and the license control Raj infrastructure, to exploit the opportunity to attract to India Western and Asian (non-Chinese) companies getting out of China and make it a global manufacturing hub. While Modi has only talked about it, countries like Vietnam have gone out of the way to be welcoming, and are reaping dividends.

    • Mr.Mister says:

      “how India can take advantage of Chinese sufferings from virus???”

      Take advantage?!

      You must be a hindu nationalist. What demented lowlifes these hindu nationalists are… Do you have any idea what could happen in India if, God forbid, that virus should take firm root here? It would be a carnage because of the sheer incompetence in the nation. Everybody is looking up to China for its handling.

      And you say nothing to shut this scum down?!

      May the Almighty protect all conscientious people. Hint: not you, Pratik Kumar.

    • Rahul says:

      Why not? The Americans already made a move into Africa sensing this. Its fair game.

  3. Shaurya says:

    “How Asaduddin Owaisi, the immaculate barrister heading AIMIM, whom I hold in the highest regard for his emphasis on Constitutional rectitude, could allow his lieutenants to make such utterances in combustible circumstances is beyond understanding.”

    Jinnah too was an immaculate barrister, hailed as a symbol of Muslim-Hindu unity and he turned. The understanding would be clear if one studies Islam and its history, especially in the sub-continent.

    Of course, share the goal of a liberal polity, which I do not think is under any threat, regardless of political machinations. The issue to ponder over is between the deracinated and the reactionaries, where do traditionalists go?

    • The “traditionalists” category presumably includes evolutionaries.

      • Shaurya says:

        Certainly, but with a difference. The traditionalists seek to evolve in light of our traditions, our history – embracing them, reforming them as needed for our times. The deracinated have largely sought to shun this history (on lines of the German Republic) and still wield colonized minds. The reactionaries in power today are clueless and hence they simply react negatively, not knowing how to evolve, regardless of good intent.

  4. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Hi Bharat sir….you have talked about nuclear arming nations like Vietnam, Phillipines etc. against China. But I think apart from these nations, we should also play the Mongolian card against China. Chinese still fear what Chengiz Khan did to them and the present connection b/w Mongolian Buddhists and their connection to India (and so chinese are trying to fund Mongolian Buddhists monastries to seek their goodwill). Further Mongolia is located strategically near Xinjiang..

    So, don’t you think that we should also aggresively enhance our defence ties with Mongolia and provide it with sophisticated weapons and even nukes?? Mongolia has shown great interest in enhancing its ties with India..

    What’s your views sir??

    • Mongolia, of course, yes. But with Delhi unable to strategically manage proximal states, countries at greater distance would appear to be impossible. Though India does have an embedded interest and leverage because of Buddhism and, at one time, an inspired appointment of a genuine lama as Indian ambassador virtually made the Indian embassy in Ulan Bator the Vatican for Mongolia’s Buddhist masses! But, lacking strategic vision, never utilized that advantage!

      • PRATIK KUMAR says:

        Yup…lacking strategic vision by Indian leaders is our biggest disadvantage.. Anyway, thanks for answering sir..

  5. Roger says:

    Dr.Karnad your articles are interesting and thought provoking. But current article is not balanced, logical and reeks of anti Modi and anti BJP rhetoric associated with Congress,Communists & Islamists. Very disappointed with your pessimistic outlook.
    Alliance with USA is a necessity in short to medium term, or Dragon and Bear will look to exploit the situation.

    • My writing is solely oriented to protecting and advancing the nation’s strategic interest, which isn’t furthered by closing in with any great power for any reason. The US, Russia and China will all alike exploit India’s indecisiveness and complacency to their advantage.

    • Rahul says:

      I was wondering if anyone would point this oout. True,the first part minus him being pessimistic. IM observation of reading his words-articles and books,it’s emotionalism and frustration clouding his mind than anything else,happens more often now.Also he is quite susceptible to western constructs so to say or that’s how a good part of how his mind rocks.And I don’t think he’s aware of it.

      You missed out the subtle acknowledgement of Modi for what he himself stands for!!! He can’t and won’t miss there!!!

      Also, he seems oblivious of our baggage of culture and heritage(I frame it thus as my mind also rocks a bit like that) .

      Can anyone question his integrity? No!!!! He is spot on US,Russia,China.

      Facts first, narrative later.

  6. PRATIK KUMAR says:

    Hi Bharat sir, as you have always talked about (in your videos and books) that ‘map reading’ is very crucial in laying out geo-strategic plans. So in this regard I think , Mackinder’s heartland theory can be applied in todays Indian ocean region by India (the only thing is that land will be replaced by water).

    In heartland theory, Mackinder talked about controlling the central landmass, i.e, the world Island, where he said whoever controls World Island will control the world. So, given the centrality of Indian ocean region and its geo-strategic significance, if India controls it (from shores of Africa to SE Asia), India can also control a large part of Pacific region (by nuclear armimg Chinese neighbours).

    Further , you have also talked about Indian Monroe doctrine. So using this doctrine and followed by Spykman’s rimland theory also, India can definitely control a huge portion of the world waters and can have its own heartland theory (maybe one can call it heartwater theory (laughs)).

    I know i am talking something very big and strategic, which our govt completely lacks, but this is what my views about future plans for India..

    Anyway what do you make of my views sir???


    Dear Mr Karnad, another very timely and informative article from your side.
    My view is that Vietnam, Taiwan etc may be not having the best of relations with China at present but they maintain huge and ever growing economic engagements with China. Their antagonistic relationship with China at best can be described as economically competitive but not outright enmity.
    Most importantly unlike India-Pakistan relationship, any religious identity driven elements are not present between China and other Asean states.Therefore they may not be willing to bandwagon themselves with us against China even if we offer them nukes since they prioritize economic development than anything else. I would love to know your view on this perspective of mine.

    • Taiwan, Vietnam, and other states on China’s periphery are, as I have argued, being gradually absorbed into Beijing’s economic co-prosperity sphere. But they are also extremely hard-headed countries who would like an insurance against Beijing’s expansive policies.

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