On 10 Mar, 2023, when Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, took a lap around the Ahmedabad cricket stadium on a make-shift chariot with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi before the start of a test match between the two nations, it drew criticism. Inadvertently, the [Australian] PM involved himself in one of the many tactics typically employed by authoritarian regimes to keep ‘the leader’ in the public eye. Over 80,000 tickets purchased by Modi’s political party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), tells the story.
One hoped the criticism would caution PM Albanese, but on 23rd May, 2023, he not only partook in a Modi rally on Australian soil, but additionally donned a saffron colored tie – a color synonymous with all violent Hindu supremacist groups that have been empowered after Modi came to power.
This injudicious bonhomie affronted opposition parties in India, as it would a majority of Indians living anywhere (Modi got only 37% of the national vote). The optics was of Albanese taking sides with a known authoritarian regime and its supporters, particularly because the Sydney rally was not an ‘Indian Diaspora’ or ‘Indian Community’ reception event.
Rather, it was organized entirely by local Hindu supremacist groups aligned with the Hindu supremacist hindutva ideology, the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – a thrice banned paramilitary organization sworn to make India a Hindu majoritarian theocratic state and end democracy in the nation.
The constituents of the organizers – Friends of India Australia and Indian Australian Diaspora Foundation – included the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS), Overseas Friends of BJP, Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Sewa International and Hindu Council, among others, ideologically and otherwise connected to BJP and RSS.
The HSS [the name for RSS abroad], was earlier censured by the UK Charity Commissioner for subversive activities, VHP is categorised as a religious militant group by the CIA and Sewa International has been under a cloud since 2002, recently even accused of diverting Covid-19 relief funds to fund Hindu nationalism in India.
At the same time, the ideological and political divide among Indians world-wide over Modi and hindutva is extremely sharp. Going by vote shares in India, those who don’t support Modi and hindutva vastly outnumber those who do (63:37 percent). Hence, the Sydney rally organizers can predominantly mobilize only their own ilk for such events, or else Sydney Cricket ground too would be insufficient for it. For all practical purposes, it was essentially a BJP-RSS political rally, not a neutral ‘Indian Diaspora’ or ‘Indian Community’ reception event.
The rally was organized with three goals. One was to gain international legitimacy for Modi’s authoritarian regime. Albanese provided that legitimacy by indiscreetly rejecting charges that he appeared on stage with a “tyrant.” Constant and widespread Hindu supremacist and state and legislative violence towards minorities, human rights activists, journalists and opposition political leaders, among others, are the norm under Modi as reported by Indian and International media and various human right NGOs.
The second is to divert Australian scrutiny of the Modi regime. Already, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USIRCF) has regularly castigated India and has recently recommended designating it as a ‘Country of Special Concern’.
Many other nations, during the last Universal Periodic Review of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Nov, 2022, too called out India over issues pertaining to human rights and democracy. In Australia too, MPs have begun voicing the same concerns.
Third, due to misgovernance, cronyism and authoritarianism, Modi’s domestic popularity was already downsized. In the recent crucial Karnataka state assembly elections where he campaigned 20 times, his party got a drubbing, evicting it from power in South India, further lowering his political stock. With national elections due in 11 months, he badly needs an image lift.
That’s why, despite QUAD meetings in Australia being cancelled and Modi having no other prior-planned official meetings, he went to Australia to attend the rally. The optics of the rally is now widely used for propaganda in India by colluding sections of the media.
For PM Albanese, his bonhomie with Modi may be motivated by Australian interests and India may hold future economic prospects for Australia, but for it to actualize an internal environment that is conducive to it is needed in India. Besides incompetence, a strife ridden and undemocratic India that drove its thriving economy into the doldrums after Modi took over, does not benefit either Australia or India. A return to democracy, rule of law and restoration of damaged social fabric will. They are two sides of the same coin. Recognizing these intricacies and addressing them is the prudent way ahead for both Australia and India for mutual benefit.
Moreover, while Indians fight their battle for a return to democracy and rule of law, it also requires Australian intervention under the International Human Rights charter to which both nations are signatories. Funding for outfits indulging in violent Hindu supremacy and in divisive hindutva politics in India primarily comes from their counterparts in US, UK and Australia which have large Indian populations. Registered as charities, these groups also threaten the welfare of local communities, including Indians, by importing Modi’s hate politics.
Whether Australia will intervene is a moot question after Albanese enmeshing with Modi’s politics and giving his regime a character certificate. Unless, of course, the BBC documentary on Modi banned in India but screened at Canberra’s Parliament House by law-makers triggers wider scrutiny of hindutva politics that have infiltrated Australian society.
About author: Oliver D’Souza is a senior journalist/editor and award-winning author of ‘Truth About Dalits’.