If India is to be a net regional security provider, it has to take a stake in the stability of Afghanistan.
Here are the costs India will have to bear for a seat at the high table.
Recent reports that India’s ambassador to Qatar will be attending the America-Taliban peace pact in Doha on Saturday place ongoing domestic disturbances in India in a startling new light. But it might not seem that way, prima facie, since linking dots is a thankless job at the best of times.
Throw in Donald Trump, rioting in Muslim-dominated sectors of north east Delhi, a frenzied Left-liberal narrative, and a curious reference to Afghanistan in this week’s India-US joint statement, and the task becomes nigh Pyrrhic.
But it has to be done, if we are to understand why rioting in Delhi began shortly before Trump arrived in Ahmedabad, and ended not long after he departed for America.
Commentators have gone blue in the face, arguing that the ongoing ‘anti-CAA’ riots have nothing whatsoever to do with the citizenship of Indians.
As evidence, they point to the inadvertent candidness of multiple speakers during the Shaheen Bagh vaudeville, who, swayed by an open microphone, an appreciative audience, and the widespread attention their ravings received, repeatedly declared that the time had come for freedom from a whole host of ills.
Some point to the ascendant, torrid efflorescence of insulting gaumutra barbs online; others, to beef-bravery, where a public declaration of love for cow meat, or a recipe for beef curry, is valiantly posted as a mark of hostile resistance, with the vigour of a gallantry award citation.
They are right. None of this has anything to do with one’s citizenship. So what’s going on?
Why is this happening? Why would Indian citizens, whose citizenship is not imperiled by amendments to the Citizenship Act, choose to indulge in rampant acts of violence, arson and open hatred in Delhi of all places?
If searching for reasons, it is advisable to not succumb to convenient, intellectually-lazy, superficial tropes of ‘Hindu majoritarianism versus vote-bank politics’, or, ‘Hindutva versus Nehruvian secularism’.
It would be just as naive to believe that the riots were orchestrated merely to besmirch India’s good name.
Lazier still, is to derive hazy demographic conclusions: that the riots in north east Delhi happened where the Muslim community is dominant, like in Seelampur, Jaffrabad, Maujpur; or, that the riots were centred around those parts of Delhi, where Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won seven of its eight seats in the recently concluded assembly elections.
Laziest would be to infer that the riots died down only because tough-nut National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, boldly walked the burning streets to douse passions and fears.
As to ‘why Delhi?’, the answer is simple: the physical, political space for organising such violence, without facing backlashes, is shrinking.
Uttar Pradesh is under new management, and the old antics won’t work there anymore. If things get out of hand, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath takes less than 24 hours to come down hard on rioters – even on a bad day.
Bihar is a no-go area because of the return of Nitish Kumar to the BJP’s fold, and the decline of Lalu Yadav.
Maharashtra is out, because the political alliance there is with the Shiv Sena; the Sena would flee back to the BJP at the first thought of even a lite-version of 1993.
Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are hanging by a thread. West Bengal might have been an option, but Mamata Banerjee’s stoic silence since the first round of anti-CAA protests is telling.
The rest of the states don’t count, as they lack the socio-political dynamics for engineering communal disturbances, which might impact productively on national policies.
Kerala’s Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) might raise the occasional flutter now and then, by bleating about secularism, but they don’t have the numbers, and run the risk of then handing the state to the BJP on a platter.
So, only in Delhi might one expect to get away with rioting and arson, since law and order is under the Union government in the national capital region, and, because a modicum of protection is offered by the PIL-brigade, and the media glare of narrative-builders.
That brings us to the ‘why?’ In the end, everything points to a deep fear that India is set to take a broader role in ensuring regional security. For that, the starting point is in Kabul: the Americans want to get out, and would prefer it if the Indians took over.
That’s not so outlandish a thought, because even the Mughals knew it, and a reason why the true decline of the Mughal Empire can be traced to the gradual loss of Kandahar in the Safavid wars.
It has been so since the Guptas, Harsha, the Chahamanas, and even the British. Don’t forget that Babur himself entered the Punjab after seizing Kabul.
If India is to be a net regional security provider, and ensure the security of her citizenry, she has to take a stake in the stability of Afghanistan. The only way India can do that is by tempering Pakistan. And the only way India can rein in Islamabad is by making communal divides irrelevant – essentially, by discarding the two-nation theory. Narendra Modi intends to do precisely that.
This is bad news for some. The standard response to such Indian strategic thinking in the past has been to attack India’s soft underbelly – communal disharmony.
The best example is at Godhra in 2002, while two armies mobilised for possible war, following the Parliament attacks of December 2001. It worked. The massacre of innocents at Godhra led to the Ahmedabad riots, India was discredited in the public eye by a powerful media narrative, and with that, Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost the moral high ground.
Delhi 2020 is similar, and sadly, the ugly template which we will have to endure in the coming year, even if India is different now. There is more awareness of false narratives, more cussed cynicism, and an ability born of impatience to deflect the hypnotic charms of intellectualism.
And yet, with all that, Modi is still faced with the toughest task of his tenure: managing mutually-exclusive domestic constituencies, the demands of economic revival, a bruising anti-narrative, and an aggressively-hostile, antagonistic Pakistan backed by China – all to undo the two-nation theory which fractured this land, so as to become a net regional security provider.
It is also the only way India will ever get a permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council.
So, while the flames of Maujpur and Jaffrabad dim, and our envoy to Doha prepares for a radical tipping point with the Taliban, we may unfortunately expect the Godhra template to be employed again – in Delhi, and elsewhere.
This is the cost the government will have to necessarily bear, for a seat at the high table, so that the interests and security of this nation may be secured.