Why Islam must be made part of India’s foreign policy

The forgotten trump card.
The forgotten trump card.
Image: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
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Countries have been deploying soft power in the conduct of their foreign policy and diplomacy well before the term was coined by Joseph S Nye. “Soft power” consists of a whole range of tools: the use of medical facilities, education and language learning, food festivals, cinema and other art forms, diaspora, support for electoral procedures—and religion, a key component. States with a religious identity invoke it where required in their external engagements. Some countries have even forged regional groupings on this basis, such as the Organisation of Islamic Countries.

Harnessing cultural linkages has been one of the most popular aspects of soft power. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who is credited with having laid the foundations of India’s foreign policy, was acutely conscious of this, especially in relation to Asia. It animated his leadership in decolonisation and the Asian resurgence. He, however, refrained from using religion upfront in foreign policy, in keeping with the secular character of the Indian state, though religious considerations might have crept in when shaping foreign policy.

Prime minister Narendra Modi has emphasised the cultural aspect of soft power in redefining India’s foreign policy. Yoga, ayurveda, the Indian diaspora, and religion have come to acquire an important place in this regard. The Modi government has used Hinduism and Buddhism effectively to promote national interest in the Indo-Pacific region and the immediate neighbourhood. New Delhi has been organising international Buddhist conferences since 2015, and proposed to build Hinduism- and Buddhism-related tourist circuits. Explaining India’s Act East Policy, in answer to a parliamentary question on Dec. 23, 2015, minister of state of external affairs, General VK Singh had said, “On the civilisational front, Buddhism and Hindu links could be encouraged to develop new contacts and connectivity between people.”

The prime minister’s foreign itinerary has regularly included visits to temples and Buddhist shrines. Also, there is a conscious effort, especially informally at the highest political levels, during official and unofficial exchanges, and during visits by officials of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its ally, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), to encourage Nepal—the only other Hindu-dominated country—to reacquire a Hindu identity for its state. Nepal has had laws against cow slaughter and religious conversion in operation for a very long time.

Prime minister Modi has been to mosques, too, during visits to Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia (between 2015-16), countries where these are regarded national monuments: these are acts of courtesy by a visiting head of state. He has also inaugurated the World Sufi Forum, held in New Delhi on March 17, 2016, where he made a very thoughtful speech. He had graciously acknowledged then that Islam and Sufism are a part of Indian heritage. “Just as India became a principal centre of Islamic civilisation, our nation also emerged as one of the most vibrant hubs of Sufism. Sufism became the face of Islam in India, even as it remained deeply rooted in the Holy Quran and Hadis. Sufism blossomed in India’s openness and pluralism. It engaged with her spiritual tradition and evolved its own Indian ethos. And, it helped shape a distinct Islamic heritage of India. We see this heritage in the fields of art, architecture and culture that is part of the fabric of our nation and our collective daily lives. We see it in the spiritual and intellectual tradition of India.”

To take these fine words further, Islam has to be made an integral part of the Modi government’s soft power policy package. This will benefit India in its engagement with the Islamic states in its immediate neighbourhood and the Indo-Pacific region: many of them get disturbed by the stridency of India’s domestic, anti-Muslim, socio-political rhetoric of ghar wapsi (literally, “come back home,” symbolic of a series of activities to do with religious conversion); love jihad, a reference to the alleged targeting of women belonging to non-Muslim communities for conversion to Islam through promises of love; beef bans and lynchings.

No Indian government has highlighted Islam adequately, especially in its interactions with southeast Asia, where the majority of people are Muslim. Why? The usual answer is: while Hinduism and Buddhism had India as their birthplace, Islam came from outside, a religion of the invaders. The unspoken, politically discomfiting answer may have to do with Hinduism and Buddhism offering access to electoral constituencies—of the Hindu majority and Dalit segment respectively of the Indian population—but Islam militates against the ideology and social flavour of the ruling party.

In Abu Dhabi, a predominantly Muslim country, the host government had not only promised a major investment of about Rs4.5 lakh crores, but also made land available for a Hindu temple. In Singapore, where the Indian prime minister visited the Goddess Mariamman temple and Buddha’s Tooth Relic temple, the Chulia Mosque was one of the first monuments, built in 1826 by the Indian diaspora, comprising Tamil Muslim merchants originating from the Coromandel coast.

Those on the quest for narrow political gains overlook the fact that India assimilated Islam and made it more positive compared to its Wahabi aspect. India’s Barelvi and Deobandi theological schools and the Sufi variant of Islam’s teachings gave it a new and broader interpretation. India also played a key role in taking Islam to southeast Asia where it stands as a moderate faith compared to its radicalised version wreaking havoc in West Asia.

India can take a lead in owning Islam and projecting its softer Sufi version in countering the radical Jihadi thrust that fuels terrorism ideologically. There is considerable potential for India to develop the Islamic tourism sector as well.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. We welcome your comments at