Indian Diaspora and the Subtle Saffron Shades of  Foreign Policy

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Diasporas have existed since time immemorial. However they have never been so influential, as they are in contemporary times. Their political weight has increased importantly throughout the twentieth century. Historically, there have been numerous examples of American Jewish groups encouraging rightwing extremism in Israel, Tamil tigers in London and Malaysia supporting the Tamil liberation movement, Kurd in Netherlands or the case of Khalistan support movement from Sikh diaspora in Canada and United Kingdom. These movements illustrate the political mobilization of the diaspora community across the globe, and how they have been involved in the intra-state conflicts in their homeland.

Indian diaspora’s political involvement increased after 1990, an offshoot of Hindutva movement, which gained momentum with the Ram Janmbhoomi movement. With the emergence of Hindutva politics in India, the Sangh Parivar made significant efforts to increase its presence abroad. Since then Hindutva has been used as a card to mobilize the diverse Hindu community, comprising of different caste, language, culture and faith. The ethnic characteristic of the Hindu religion makes it an easy pick to strum the spiritual and symbolic strings of the diaspora community to romanticize their relationship to homeland. Lal Krishna Advani identified this opportunity and his role was pivotal in establishing OFBJP (Overseas Friends of BJP) for garnering the support of diaspora community. Over the years, its chapters have spread across and now it has presence in close to 40 countries.  Hindu Swayamsewak Sangh (HSS), a subsidiary of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh is directly involved in mobilizing Indian diaspora in different parts of the world, through various cultural and religious initiatives. With the establishment of these organisations, the diaspora took an active role in supporting the BJP in national and state elections. The participation which started during the 1990s took a drastic form during the parliamentary elections of 2014, which brought the BJP to power.

The diaspora Hindutva movement is paradoxical in nature, as it is simultaneously concerned with minority Hindu rights in the foreign land and majority Hindu rights in India. Indian diaspora has been involved in a long-distance nationalism. They have involved in fundraising and charity, with an objective of nation building, however they have a narrowed vision of nation building, wherein the Hindutva model dominates. They consider the minority groups as a threat to the nation building process. They have reportedly launched attack on the previous congress government for the appeasement of religious minorities, especially the Muslim community. There is a feeling of victimization for many Hindus in the west, who believe that the Indian culture is under threat because of minorities and hence is eager to help, to preserve India as the bastion of Hinduism.

If we look at the political developments since 2014, there is no doubt that diaspora engagement has been one of the core areas of the Modi led government. The BJP is aware of this largest diaspora population of the world and their rising presence in the economic and political spheres of major economies of the world. As a result, the current regime has shown no hesitance in saffronising the diaspora policy.  Almost all of the Prime Minister’s official visits to foreign countries had the elements of religious symbolism, which clearly violates the secular traditions of the country on various fronts. Several events in prime minister’s official visits abroad today are organized in collaboration with the diaspora community, especially the likes of OFBJP/ HSS/VHP. Indian embassies are encouraged to organize events with organizations with Hindutva inclinations. Through these methods, the BJP government has been promoting the active engagement of overseas Hindu organisations in foreign policy.

In continuance with their engagement with the diaspora community, Prime Minister Modi officially inaugurated the foundation stone-laying ceremony for the first ever Hindu temple in the capital of UAE in February 2018. He said the temple would become a “Medium of India’s identity”. The Prime Minister’s visit in 2015 had also given a lot of coverage on the decision of the UAE government to allot land for building a temple. The gesture by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government is laudable, but the official visit of the prime minister endorsing the event on both the occasions, is not keeping in with the secular traditions. BJP’s political obsession with building temples needs no explanation. It has always been their core political strategy, but it has now indirectly entered the foreign policy realms of the government. Temple constructions have been going vehemently in different countries with the support of organisations like BAPS Swaminarayan Santha, Sanatan Mandir Cultural Society (SMC), etc. The argument that it helps to depict our culture to the world does not hold much constitutional water, as our culture in not just about building temples. There is no doubt that India is a deeply religious society, however the Indian notion of secularism has limited its role in politics and state building. India is known for its multicultural and secular values. India’s multicultural values have its deep roots in its constitution. By engaging in such partisan practices, the government is demeaning the dignity of the constitutional office of Prime Minister.

It is not that the diaspora has not been engaged by the previous regimes; however the way it has been harnessed by the current government raises a lot of concerns. Foreign policy is a sovereign function of any state. It should not be reduced to an ideological agenda for political mileage, as it leaves out a message to the world that, the Prime minister’s office is engaged in Hindu chauvinism. The extra layer of diplomacy via Hindu based organisations will have negative ripple effects in the long run as it gives out a wrong impression about India’s propensity for non-alignment. The previous governments have always kept economic growth and national security as the axis of the foreign policy. In good spirt and for the betterment of the country, it shouldn’t be allowed to swing the opposite extreme.

Rakesh S is a PhD scholar at Department of Social Work, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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