Ultra-nationalism leads India’s relations with neighboring countries astray

By Xie Chao Source:Global Times Published: 2020/6/28 21:08:43

File photo: Xinhua

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi might never have expected that his statement "China did not enter our territory, no posts taken" could trigger a furious challenge to his leadership. Modi, as a staunch nationalist, was even accused of selling Indian land. The irony is: This is not the first time allegations like this have been made toward him.

Modi came to power with a lot of charm and confidence and his "Neighborhood First" initiative. With this, he actually aimed at cleaning up India's historical mess of soured relations with South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation states. But an overwhelming right-wing nationalist sentiment is literally hijacking his policies with neighboring countries to destroy Modi's efforts for good relations. 

When hard-line right-wing nationalists butt in, they conveniently blame all domestic crises on their neighbors — and all of India is victimized to pay the price. China is not the only example of a neighbor that is being blackmailed by such fanatic public sentiments in India. Nepal also found itself bullied this May when India inaugurated a new road to Lipulekh. Kathmandu claims 17 km of it lies on its land, but New Delhi's rejection to Nepal's protest has ignited public resentment in Nepal.  

Anti-Indian sentiment in Nepal is nothing new. Ironically, New Delhi never bothered to ask Kathmandu for permission to build the road and instead sought to teach any disobedient Nepali government a lesson. In 2015, Nepal was under pressure to change its constitution to accommodate India's concerns, but it refused to cooperate. As such, a blockade was enforced and an economic and humanitarian crisis ensued in the small Himalaya state. 

Further south, Modi might have rejoiced after he finalized the land boundary agreement with Bangladesh in 2015. At that time, he could still control prevailing domestic opinions that often criticized him for selling Indian soil. Since then, his handling of foreign relations has been severely handicapped. India's relations with Bangladesh are no exception.

Right-wing nationalists took advantages of the discriminatory nature of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC). This triggered violent domestic protests and international criticism. As India's immediate neighbor, Bangladesh holds a particular concern on the matter. That's why Modi's planned visit to Bangladesh this past March was boycotted with street protests in Dhaka.

In January, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina publicly expressed reservations about her Indian counterpart's adventure in playing the Muslim card to cater to domestic right-wing nationalism. Bangladesh was thus accused of daring to express dissenting opinions. Despite Beijing being a distant scapegoat, it is still blamed for closer ties with Dhaka — this fact may have alarmed and informed New Delhi's assertiveness toward Beijing.

Who should be responsible for instilling fear into the minorities in India? Does Bangladesh have a legitimate concern over India's anti-Muslim policies? After all, the two countries share a long border. Each has minorities from the other country living on their respective soils. There will be spill-over effects if domestic right-wing sentiments unavoidably increase — and hence damage India's relations with its neighbors. India's right-wing nationalists want to enforce higher moral standards on others, but not on themselves. This can't be more true with regards to the case of India's relations with Pakistan. Rushed moves to bifurcate India-controlled Kashmir on August 5, 2019 further demonstrated its disregard and ignorance of local sentiments. This severely damaged fragile India-Pakistan relations.

India's right-wing nationalists always complain about and blame others for India's poor relations with its neighbors, but ignoring others' legitimate and reasonable concerns, thus New Delhi seems to have aggravated its neighbors' distrust. 

In India, catering to ultra-nationalistic sentiments has become a handy tool for political actors to fish in troubled waters, however, it may bring severe consequences to regional orders. All of India's neighbors are watching and wondering now where the right-wing forces will lead the country. 

The author is Assistant Professor at the Institute for International and Area Studies, Tsinghua University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn 


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