PRIME Minister Modi’s supporters have some hateful names for Indian Muslims. ‘Mian Musharraf’ (after the former Pakistan dictator) and ‘termites’, conjured by his home minister, found short-lived traction. That the now destroyed Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was linked with India’s first Mughal emperor Babar fetches more brownie points — never mind that neither Babar nor revered poet Tulsidas from Emperor Akbar’s era mentioned such a mosque in Ayodhya. Even so, the non-link provides a durable slur: Babar ki aulad, literally, offspring of the Mughal ruler. When Indian Muslims are targeted by Hindu mobs, they are usually cursed as Babar’s progeny, which in the tormentors’ mind probably also translates as ‘easy game’.
It is cold comfort, of course, that the vast majority of South Asian Muslims have little or no link with Mughal lineage. “As an ethnic Pathan I’m not required to have any love lost for Babar,” a senior BJP politician once said. He was playing on an old rivalry that flared up famously in the First Battle of Panipat in 1526 between Turko-Mongol Babar and Ibrahim Lodhi, the Pakhtun ruler of Delhi. Now, however, even the usually phlegmatic yoga guru Jaggi Vasudev teaches his audiences to choose between Lord Ram and Babar. The original Ram-and-Ravan metaphor for good and evil has been buried for a politically expedient Babar-hate.
A huge embarrassment for the current crop of nationalist politicians who were raised on hating Muslims generally and India’s Mughal rulers in particular, is that they need to court Muslim countries for a variety of unavoidable reasons, not least over geostrategic and economic compulsions. A dual, inevitably hypocritical, approach is evident here. “Glad to have visited the Istiqlal Mosque, one of the largest mosques in the world,” Modi tweeted from Indonesia, a gesture he shuns at home. His spokesperson added a Ramazan greeting to boot. The ruler of Abu Dhabi offers him land for the construction of a Hindu temple to celebrate their friendship, and the crown prince of religiously puritan Saudi Arabia delights in his ever-ready hugs. There’s something Orwellian about Hindutva: all Muslims may be fine except Indian Muslims. Pray, cite a sound reason.
Mr Modi now wants leaders of five Central Asian countries to be chief guests at India’s Jan 26 Republic Day pageant. It matters little, which is as should be, that some of these men could truly be Babar’s heirs or at least his ardent fans, possibly even linked genetically to the reviled Mughals.
An embarrassment for the nationalist politicians who were raised on hating Muslims generally is that they need to court Muslim countries.
Babar is deified as a national icon and the Mughals are highly esteemed in swathes of these countries. Babar’s forebears like Chenghis Khan and Amir Taimur are celebrated as heroes across the expansive terrain, the latter being a historical superstar in Samarkand and Bukhara, now part of Uzbekistan. Intriguing then that as we proceed to India’s bitterly ranged state elections, chiefly the crucial polls in populous Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP is finding the ground shifting from under its feet, we may see the spectacle of Babar lovers as esteemed guests of a Muslim-baiting regime in India.
Circumstances seem to have contrived to put a spoke in Modi’s wheel though. The ruling establishment in Kazakhstan has had a close call with a violent upsurge that neighbours like China suspect to have been part of US-backed efforts at colour revolution. If India’s plans were to continue with the Central Asian choreography at the annual pageantry later this month, it would be a determined Kazakh ruler to show up. The march itself would happen on a controversially refurbished boulevard, said to be part of Modi’s quixotic fixation to establish himself as a rival to Mughal emperor Shahjehan, the builder of the Taj Mahal among other fabled monuments.
With little political or communal mileage accruing, why the jamboree? Moreover, Central Asia is a strategic part of the Russia, China-led Shanghai club. Is it Afghanistan India is scouting for access to, in which case the Shanghai club holds the entry code.
There is always a possibility of stepping up business links, of course. Two of Modi’s favoured tycoons may have legitimate interests in Central Asia. One deals with hydrocarbons, the other coal. Should the choreographed list of chief guests signal closer business ties, the two men close to Modi would have watched last year’s disruption in energy production across Central Asia due to drought. It not only crippled hydroelectric output but forced Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to return to coal at least as an interim arrangement to ride out the winter. It was possibly this energy crisis, with its roots in climate change, that may have been the trigger for the recent violence in Kazakhstan with the doubling of the price of liquefied natural gas.
It’s an area businesses love. There was a time when India was exporting tea and leather garments to the Soviet Union in return for defence equipment albeit on generous credit from Moscow. The fall of the Soviet Union witnessed another phenomenon. Carpetbaggers rushed to exploit the enormous fallout from the new national arrangements. People, including Indians, became rich overnight by stripping Soviet-built factories for scrap. Energy trade could be a totally different ballgame.
The flaw with the plan is geography. Had relations with Pakistan not been torpedoed for domestic political calculations there would be a cleaner shot for the guests to offer upgraded business ties. The alternative route via Iran comes with its own challenges stymied by India’s proximity to the US.
And yet Delhi’s strategic think tanks could scarcely have missed a possible opening: Pakistan’s newly spelled out national security policy. Friendly ties with India continue to be Islamabad’s quest. Former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran too encouraged the possibility of talks resuming on Siachen Glacier. If everything begins to look tempting, Hindu nationalists would need to explain to their followers the arriving new bonhomie with Babar’s people and other assorted Muslims in the neighbourhood.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, January 18th, 2022