Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States to host yoga in UN has sparked an international controversy. Critics wasted no time in condemning the spectacle, held on the front lawn of the United Nations in New York City on Wednesday, arguing that it diverted attention from the ethnic violence happening in Manipur, the northeastern state bordering Myanmar.
The recent outbreak of ethnic violence in Manipur has shocked the entire world. The clashes between the Meitei, Naga and Kuki communities have left hundreds of people dead, thousands displaced and many buildings and vehicles burned.
Modi’s government has criticized for being slow and ineffective in responding to the crisis. Moreover, the PM is also accused of having a biased attitude towards the Meitei community. Several critics have calling out Modi for embracing Hindu nationalism in a way that leads to the targeting of minorities, erosion of democracy, and disregard for human rights.
Similar criticism has been directed at US President Joe Biden’s administration for extending the privilege of hosting Modi for an official state dinner. Such an honor, accorded to visiting officials, has raised concerns among those who believe it validates Modi’s controversial policies.
Yoga in UN Diverts Attention from Hindutva Extremism
During his first address to the UN General Assembly in 2014, Narendra Modi proposed a resolution recognizing June 21 as the International Day of Yoga, proclaiming India as the spiritual birthplace of yoga. Modi passionately portrayed yoga as “an invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition”.
On Wednesday, Modi returned to the UN headquarters to lead this year’s yoga event despite the volatile situation in Manipur. It failed to acknowledge the reality of a fractured democracy, symbolized by the rise of an authoritarian, Hindu nationalist, and caste supremacist agenda under his leadership.
Since assuming power as the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Modi and his ideological allies have co-opted yoga as a tool for Hindu nationalist propaganda, historical revisionism, and diversionary tactics. They have used it to deflect attention from their political agenda of Hindu supremacy and to mask the political and systemic violence imposed on marginalized communities in India.
The UN Yoga Day was a spectacle of what some critics call “om-washing” – a deliberate attempt to cloak a radical agenda of state violence in the guise of yoga.
It is important to differentiate these actions from any genuine commitment to using yoga as a means to create a just, unified, and liberated world. Modi often cites the ancient Indian philosophy of viewing the world as one family to justify his efforts to promote democracy and peace within India’s borders and with global partners. However, the reality is that democracy in Modi’s India is experiencing a steep decline.
The Manipur Conflict and Government’s Response
The root cause of the unrest is the demand by the majority Meitei community, who are mostly Hindus, to be included in the Scheduled Tribe category, which would grant them special benefits and reservations in education and employment. This has been opposed by the minority Naga and Kuki tribes, who are mostly Christians, and who fear losing their land and resources to the Meiteis.
The Meiteis have accused the Nagas and Kukis of being outsiders and encroachers, while the Nagas and Kukis have accused the Meiteis of being oppressors and colonizers. The state has also witnessed violent clashes between the Nagas and Kukis in the past over territorial disputes.
The recent uptick in clashes occurred on 3 May, when a rally by the Naga and Kuki groups turned violent and attacked Meitei homes and businesses in Imphal, the state capital. The violence soon spread to other districts, where mobs looted and burned down police stations, churches, temples, schools and government offices. The BJP-led government failed to contain the situation and had to seek help from the central government and the army. The internet was shut down and a curfew was imposed in most parts of the state.
The conflict reflects poorly on India’s image as a secular democracy that respects diversity and pluralism. The PM faces scathing backlash for being silent on the Manipur issue and focusing more on his yoga diplomacy. The state’s residents and leaders have long-demanded Modi to visit them and share concerns. Unfortunately, the PM’s priorities do not include Manipur at the moment. In turn, Manipur also boycotted Modi’s so-called “international yoga day” and opted to hold sit-in protests.
Behind the Scenes
On face, Modi has advocated for a yogic lifestyle as a means to mitigate the devastating effects of climate change, promote environmental sustainability, and address armed conflict. However, in reality, all three of these principles have been routinely violated under Modi’s government.
India has witnessed a historic surge in state-sponsored and vigilante attacks on Muslims, Christians, Dalits, and other oppressed minorities during Modi’s tenure. By legitimizing and emboldening Hindu nationalists, his administration has contributed to the marginalization and persecution of vulnerable populations.
He has called for a mass movement against climate change and committed India to achieving net-zero emissions by 2070. However, critics argue that Modi’s continued support for the fossil fuel industry and military spending renders his emission reduction pledges hollow. Notably, military emissions are consistently excluded from climate change agreements, casting doubt on Modi’s sincerity in addressing the climate crisis.
On the global stage, Modi has bolstered military partnerships with countries such as Israel, France, and the US – nations with vested interests in Islamophobia and militarism. While Modi presents yoga as aligning with principles of peace and democracy, his investments in militarism and war indicate a contradictory stance.
Furthermore, independent democratic institutions, including the judiciary, have been weakened under his leadership. For example, the case of Rahul Gandhi, India’s best-known opposition leader. He was sentenced to two years in prison for criminal defamation by a local court in the prime minister’s home state. This was the exact length of time needed to trigger his ouster from Parliament and potentially prevent him from contesting elections for years to come. Another example is the transfer of Justice Jayant M Patel, who would have retired as Chief Justice of Karnataka if not for a transfer, which would have ensured that he would never become a Chief Justice of a High Court. Patel resigned admitted he wanted to be “relieved from the institution”.
How Serious is Manipur Issue for India?
Downplaying Manipur conflict and focusing on yoga may not be in India’s best interest. It is not only a humanitarian tragedy, but also a geopolitical challenge for India. The state has a history of insurgency and separatism, fueled by ethnic grievances and marginalization. It also shares a porous border with Myanmar, where a military coup in February 2021 triggered a civil war and a refugee crisis.
India has been trying to balance its support for democracy in Myanmar with its security interests in the region. The Manipur violence could further complicate India’s relations with its eastern neighbor, as well as with other countries that have a stake in the stability of Southeast Asia.
The Manipur conflict also exposes the limitations of India’s federal system and its affirmative action policies. The Scheduled Tribe status is meant to uplift historically disadvantaged communities, but it also creates competition and resentment among different groups. The central government has often been accused of interfering or neglecting the affairs of the northeastern states, which have distinct cultural and political identities.
India certainly has to do something more than yoga to find more inclusive and sustainable ways of addressing its ethnic diversity and regional aspirations.