That U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris paid an official visit to Singapore and Vietnam in late August 2021 signifies clear intention of Joe Biden’s democratic administration to forge ahead with the course taken by his predecessor to build A Free and Open Indo-Pacific. According to the statement made by the second-highest political office-holder in the U.S., fostering partnership with the countries of the Indo-Pacific, including those in Southeast Asia, is Washington’s priority in foreign policy. Kamala Harris reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the international rules-based order, ensuring freedom on the seas, unimpeded commerce and advancing human rights. Although the U.S. Vice President noted that China continues to coerce and intimidate, Washington’s engagement in Southeast Asia, she argued, is not against any country, nor is it designed to make ASEAN member states choose between countries. At the same time, almost all Indo-Pacific states, either known as the so-called Quad—the United States, Japan, India and Australia—or those willing to join the initiative on a less binding basis, have already failed to escape the adverse effects of the rapidly deteriorating U.S.-China relations.
Top Secret (or maybe not)
Previously classified as secret and unintended to be publicly released before 2042, the U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific was made available in May 2021. Experts believe this to be a guarantor of continuity in the Asian dimension of Washington’s foreign policy, regardless of the party affiliation of the country’s leadership. The document provides for a tougher confrontation with China in the military and economic spheres, which may negatively be perceived by some Indo-Pacific states and complicate their relations with the United States.
The policy outlined in the document seems inconsistent, which may cause misunderstanding on the part of allies and partners, resulting in a discussion about the real priorities and intentions of the United States. For example, it is difficult to explain the differing interpretations of India’s role. In the declassified NSC document, the nation is equated with Washington’s leading partners in the region, which implies an allocation of significant assistance from the U.S. Department of State, the military and the secret services in order to enhance “India’s capacity to address continental challenges.” Meanwhile, the 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report of the U.S. Department of Defense ranked India among small and medium-sized states of Asia, which are not considered U.S. allies and are, therefore, not eligible for considerable assistance.
The ASEAN Way
Australian experts note that the deliberately declassified document reveals the need to consolidate the leading role of ASEAN in the security architecture of the region. At the same time, there is no consensus among the union’s member states regarding the essence and degree of priority of such important for the United States categories as freedom of navigation, trade and investment, respect for human rights and the rule of law. The so-called universal liberal values are of less importance to them as compared to the practical benefits coming from bilateral relations with China. According to Indonesian experts, such a divergence of views signifies apparently little sense of the specifics of Southeast Asia and regional processes on the part of analysts in Washington. They believe that the United States has not yet been able to convince the ASEAN nations of the need to create a counterbalance to Beijing as the U.S. cannot guarantee their security. As a result, the region has to face invidious choices since they find themselves at the intersection of the U.S.-China confrontation. Some countries seek to develop ties with Beijing within the Belt and Road Initiative (Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar), while others opt for equidistance (Vietnam, Singapore) or adopt a wait-and-see approach (Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia). At the same time, the latter increasingly tend to re-establish ties with the U.S. in order to benefit from American partners and put pressure on the Chinese leadership.
Among the measures on claiming superiority over China, the architects of the U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific envisage to deny the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) air and sea dominance within the first island chain in a conflict (Japan, Taiwan, northern Philippines). However, this merely is a further extension of the “rebalancing” policy carried out without much success by the Obama administration. A restoration of this course is predetermined by the fact that the plans of the former U.S. President Donald Trump for the massive rearmament and more American troops to be stationed in the Indo-Pacific never received proper financial support. The doldrums seem to be rooted in the Biden administration officials being skeptical about these grand in scale military goals in the Indo-Pacific, which they believe are neither affordable nor necessary to balance China and protect U.S. interests in Asia.
The underlying theme of the National Security Council report is “the U.S. remaining the region’s dominant actor.” However, analysts believe that Washington’s fundamental interest is effectively about ensuring access of national manufacturers to the markets and resources of the region rather than maintaining U.S. hegemony there. To this end, the American authorities are invited to clearly define how they could help the states of South and Southeast Asia in resisting pressure from China. At the same time, experts rely on the Cold War experience, when the U.S. could justify its military and economic presence by the menacing spread of communism. Consequently, the notion of an authoritarian the Chinese Communist Party and the need to sever ties with communist China are gaining popularity in the American establishment.
The Pacific Deterrence Initiative and the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance provide for a change in the U.S. military presence in the Indo-Pacific, taking into account its reorientation to ensure an effective response following the loss of unconditional dominance over the PLA.
The key pillars of the revised strategy to deter China were presented by Navy Adm. Philip S. Davidson in March 2021, at that time the commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). He believes that China’s military capabilities will enable it to upset the status quo in most of East Asia, especially in the Taiwan Strait, the East China and the South China Seas, over the next six years. In order to prevent a further erosion of the rules-based order, he suggested putting a premium on “exercises, experimentation, and innovation” within the U.S. military in the Indo-Pacific as “critical enablers to deter day-to-day, in crisis, and key to our ability to fight and win.”
The Pentagon plans to provide for the allocation of USD 4.68 billion for the force design and stronger military capabilities in 2022, with another USD 22.69 billion spanning from FY 2023 through FY 2027. One of the focus areas is the creation of forward-based joint rotational forces under the auspices of INDOPACOM that would be capable of responding to challenges that require immediate and joint solutions.
Earlier on, one of the authors of this initiative, former U.S. Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite, argued that the U.S. Navy should create a new First Fleet  that would take some load off the U.S. Third and Seventh Fleet (respectively based in San Diego and Yokosuka). According to American experts, the Seventh Fleet, overloaded with combat and training under the present conditions, is experiencing difficulties in supplies and staffing, since it is actually forced to operate in a vast area of the western Pacific and eastern Indian Oceans (from the dateline to India–Pakistan border). At the same time, the strength of the Third Fleet, whose AOR is the east and north of the Pacific, is excessive to fulfill the tasks facing it now.
Spare the Triarii
The U.S. military envisage the allies and partners of the United States to become the basis of the security system of “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” In the meantime, close attention will be paid to the compatibility of branches of the armed forces, interaction of units and formations, improving the exchange of information as well as leveling the technology of the region’s nations in the field of defense to be similar to the U.S.
The U.S. Department of Defense considers it justified to maintain an emphasis on forward deployment at foreign bases and the rotation of operational formations (mainly aircraft carrier and expeditionary strike groups), based on the specific situation. In this regard, Washington relies on India’s and Singapore’s assistance in the deployment of American units and formations as well as their logistic support. Promoting cooperation with the Maldives in this area is not ruled out either, with a defense agreement being signed in 2020. The prospects for a partial renewal of the substantive provisions of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of the Philippines, which provided for the deployment of the U.S. armed forces on its territory, look rather realistic. Earlier in February 2020, Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, announced the suspension of the Visiting Force Agreement, but his position towards the U.S. softened, given the complications in relations between the Philippines and China.
First Chain Bound
Based on the rhetoric of the U.S. military leadership representatives and the published reports, Washington must constantly demonstrate its ability to deter China, denying China actions in critical regions and deploying sufficient U.S. forces in these regions to defeat the PLA. In alignment with the situation, the Pentagon finds this possible through creating local superiority zones within the so-called first island chain, using Fleet Forces, Air Force, mobile air missile defense systems as well as high-precision short- and medium-range missiles. In addition, an integrated Indo-Pacific anti-missile and air missile defense system is designed to ensure stability for the second island chain (from the Bonin Islands through the Mariana Islands to New Guinea). The U.S. Department of Defense is planning to allocate funds to improve space detection and tracking systems for a timely response to the PLA’s unwanted activities. These actions are designed to fulfill the Pentagon’s mission to increase the lethality of the Integrated Joint Force to prevent any enemy from dominance in land, sea, air, space and cyberspace conflicts.
The plans presented by Washington are built around the futility of military operations against it within the Indo-Pacific and are coupled with high losses for any potential adversary. At the same time, the presented strategy does not provide for inevitable retaliatory measures from China. Relying on allies and partners seems controversial as well, including when it comes to the deployment of additional U.S. Armed Forces. Most Asian states would prefer to retain the benefit from furthering cooperation with Beijing and are afraid of being abandoned by Washington in the event of a serious threat to their security, with the situation in Afghanistan already serving as an illustration.
Apparently, the Biden administration, even in the face of the declared defense budget austerity, will still increase the costs to strengthen U.S. military presence in the Indo-Pacific. On the one hand, this approach reflects the intention to reach a compromise with the Republicans. On the other hand, it is aimed at putting pressure on China and persuading it to negotiate such important areas of bilateral cooperation as trade, arms control and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. This policy has already shown itself at the meeting of the U.S. and China representatives in Anchorage in March 2021 as well as at the meeting of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman with China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in July 2021.
Most likely, the United States will not give up on its attempts to establish a multilateral Quad-based security system in the Indo-Pacific in the foreseeable future. It is also planned to gradually involve other participants in this format, as evidenced by the increased contacts with Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. Taipei has a critical role to play in the U.S. strategic plans in the Indo-Pacific, while the development of military and technical, trade and economic cooperation, and the exchange of intelligence information with it deserves particular attention.
Today, Beijing is no longer going to hide its capabilities and bide its time, rather pursuing policies to advance its own security and development interests. China’s activities, not being directed against anyone, are perceived by the United States and its allies as an expansion and an attempt to crash the liberal world order, which is habitually defended by the liberal military force.
- An operational formation with AOR in the Northwest Pacific and the same name already existed from 1946 to 1973.
- The total number of warships (aircraft carrier, landing ship, cruiser, destroyer, frigate, multi-role nuclear submarine) is almost five times greater.
From our partner RIAC
Towards an Integrated Southeast Asia: Timor-Leste’s Challenges and Opportunities in Joining ASEAN
Authors: Jalaluddin Rizqi Mulia and Silvia Jultikasari Febrian*
Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN for short, is an organization originally formed to respond to the Cold War in the region by five founding member states: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, and Thailand. Timor-Leste itself had been attempting to join ASEAN since 2011, considering that Timor-Leste is geographically and culturally a country in Southeast Asia. Despite this condition, the country experienced difficulties in its efforts. These happened due to the unstable situation of the country, particularly in terms of political, economic, and security.
As a regional institution, ASEAN’s role is increasingly developing into a multidimensional organization. In order to strengthen its integration efforts, the ASEAN Community was formed to reinforce the centrality and role of ASEAN as a regional power which plays a major part in designing the territorial framework, accompanied by the signing of ASEAN Charter–marking the commitment of its member states in building the community through cooperation expansion and regional integration. The ASEAN Community itself consists of three main pillars: ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC), ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC).
Why did Timor-Leste join the regional organization?
Indonesia has been one of the parties which pushed the acceptance of Timor-Leste as a member state since long ago. Nevertheless, it should be noted that every policy issued by ASEAN requires unanimous votes from all member states. The new membership intention itself faced a number of challenges, such as Singapore’s refusal and questioning Timor-Leste’s steadiness and ability. Such a view is based on an assessment on Timor-Leste that it will only be a burden for ASEAN, which is currently on the way for economic integration.
The rationale underlying the appliance refusal is Timor-Leste’s condition to meet the eligibility prerequisites for membership. Timor-Leste itself is a small country with social conditions living in high poverty ($1.90/day in 2022); it is feared that it will only creating hardships on other member states as they are–ethically speaking, obliged to help, bearing in mind that full membership demand payment for around US$2.5 million per year. In fact, locally, President Ramos-Horta faced hesitation due to a lack of human and economic resources in light of ASEAN which conducts hundreds of various-level meetings each year. Other than that, the country’s reluctance to address the opposing stance towards Myanmar junta in the United Nations also caused delay in the joining process.
Even though historically, ASEAN has always welcomed new members regardless of rich-and-poor considerations on countries capabilities or resources. This is what made Laos and Myanmar join in 1997 and Cambodia in 1999. In short, as long as the precondition of geographic location is met, any country is eligible to apply, which is also stated in the ASEAN Charter. Other than that, the candidate must be recognized by all member states, abide the charter, and have the willingness and ability to carry out the membership obligations. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the current ASEAN system can not be completely generalized to that of the 1990s.
In the meantime, ASEAN agreed in principle to acknowledge Timor-Leste. Along with being sent a fact-finding mission from the three ASEAN communities, Timor-Leste was given the status of observer state which allows itself to participate in numerous ASEAN meetings, though could not contribute directly to the process of conveying views to making decisions. Hopefully in the near future, the mission will release a report outlining a roadmap for Timor-Leste’s full membership in ASEAN.
As it holds the ASEAN stewardship in 2023, Indonesia–a country that has been the traditional first visit for new leaders of Timor-Leste, is expected to accelerate the new member acceptance process. The outlook is that Timor-Leste can obtain full membership when Indonesia, as the chairman, hosts the ASEAN Summit in 2023.
The presence of new challenges
Economically-speaking, Timor-Leste’s economic growth is highly dependent on income from the oil business through the Petroleum Fund. Sooner or later, these funds will slowly run out and will only bring downturn effects on public finances, putting risk of economic instability, and eventually reduce the country’s capacity to fulfill the ASEAN membership necessity. At the moment, Timor-Leste is setting out to manipulate its overdependence on oil by shifting on other alternatives, such as industry of tourism and manufacturing. Another potential step is to galvanize the private sector which can attract foreign investments. Institutions, meaning government, become the initial determinant of effective and efficient development achievements. One which needs to be considered is that development mostly requires process to create better life for the society, including in Timor-Leste.
In the context of administrative aspects, Timor-Leste can adjust local policies–as alterable as possible–in line with ASEAN regulations, bearing in mind the characteristic of ASEAN treaties and conventions are legally-binding. These efforts must be directed towards the future of an independent Timor-Leste, as overdependence to foreign parties will only affect the decision-making process. Meanwhile, there are many sources of foreign aid to Timor-Leste, primarily from Australia, Japan, Portugal, European Union, United States (US), and China.
Aside from that, in a social-community context, the condition of Timor-Leste’s human resources is also a notable concern. In 2020-2021, the unemployment rate of citizens aged 25-31 is 43.3%. This situation can actually be minimized by encouraging community capacity education and training, which confidently will boost labor productivity. Given Timor-Leste’s target to avoid dependence on oil commodities, investment in human resources is a noteworthy matter to be acknowledged.
Timor-Leste’s reputation as a developing country experiencing instability, both politically and economically, makes other ASEAN member states in having moral obligations to assist the former. Pursuing economic targets unquestionably demands extra energy for Timor-Leste. Should the issue not be immediately corrected and changes are made, it will assuredly create a steep road when becoming a member of ASEAN later as it takes more time to reach other ASEAN member states’ economic abilities. Without question, this is a big stumbling block for Timor-Leste–the good intentions to admit it as a member might turn into problematic conditions for ASEAN in the future.
On one hand, all challenges have made several parties, particularly Singapore, hesitate to agree on Timor-Leste registration prior to its ratification as an official member. While on the other hand, Timor-Leste’s position in trading activity (exports-imports) is significant in the region, hence potentially becoming an important partner for Southeast Asia countries.
Emergence of potential opportunities
Presumably for the East Timorese, joining ASEAN means an open access for local residents, especially in the field of tourism and manufacturing, which is beneficial in expanding economic capacity. This includes the cross-border employment opportunities, particularly the ASEAN Economic Community which covers eight major industries for an ASEAN market of 683 million people. These opportunities will encourage the diversification of state revenues from oil and gas to other potential sectors, such as agriculture and tourism.
Furthermore in the economic sector, Timor-Leste will gain closer relations with neighboring ASEAN countries. Between 2016 and 2019, more than half of Timor-Leste’s imports originate from five ASEAN member states, amounting to US$2.05 trillion, whereas the figure for exports of goods and services was only US$95 million. Timor-Leste admittance to ASEAN can reduce this level of trade activity gap.
In a geopolitical context, Timor-Leste–as a part of ASEAN–can avoid the possibility of being exploited for the benefit of foreign influences. Timor-Leste’s government even confessed on a likelihood to totally ally with the US or China should ASEAN not agree to the membership application. Nevertheless, it should be noted that China’s role can not be underestimated given that the country has aid to fill Timor-Leste’s infrastructure gap. Its involvement in ASEAN, at least, offers a safety net that the Portuguese-speaking country will adjust its policies to the interests of ASEAN. Perceiving the regional dynamics, political and security reasonings must be made priorities instead of merely economic considerations.
The entrance of Timor-Leste is touted to be a model of democracy. Compared to many other states in ASEAN, including Myanmar and Thailand, which–at some point–are still authoritarian and supported by the military; let alone Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia which are communist countries, the presence of Timor-Leste might help the process of democratization in the region. Certainly, this will be challenging for a small democratic country which is presently struggling.
Moreover, in an institutional aspect, the recognition of Timor-Leste can make the organizational regulations gradually adapt to issues of contemporary dynamics. Moreover, the ASEAN Secretariat might be given authority to have a greater role in active and constructive use to ensure ASEAN’s long-term projects. This notion is not only to accommodate new members, but to model ASEAN as a more adaptive organization which is steady in facing future challenges.
Eventually, Timor-Leste’s membership in ASEAN hopefully can become a new opportunity for well-integrated cooperation. Opportunities for cooperation and markets of Timor-Leste will be wide open and beneficials for ASEAN member states and also its dialogue partners. The reciprocal relationship between the two parties is expected to go hand-in-hand. Thus, ASEAN member states must provide support through the provision of capacity related to building assistance and other forms of assistance relevant with Timor-Leste’s needs. Simultaneously, Timor-Leste is also supposed to exhibit contributions for the development and progress of ASEAN. This will be advantageous in the form of a more active and effective cooperative relation in the future of ASEAN.
*This article is co-authored with Silvia Jultikasari Febrian, an undergraduate student of International Relations, Universitas Islam Indonesia.
China’s assurance of Rohingya repatriation between Myanmar-Bangladesh
We now have new hope thanks to news reports that were published in the Bangladeshi dailies on Tuesday and contained the word of Yao Wen, the recently appointed Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, that the repatriation of Rohingyas to their native Myanmar would begin as soon as possible. We believe that the Chinese government is truly considering Bangladesh’s concern over the safe and immediate repatriation of more than a million displaced Rohingyas in light of the Chinese envoy’s pledge.
The envoy reportedly made this commendable remark to our foreign minister at a recent meeting at his office.
If his words are followed by action, we think China’s role in this case will serve as a model for future efforts to advance world peace, particularly in light of the repeated failures of attempts to repatriate Rohingya due to the government of Myanmar’s blatant indifference and partially due to the insincere efforts of the international community. And when it comes to finding a long-term solution to the biggest refugee crisis in history, we wholeheartedly believe in China’s potential. China is a dependable friend of Bangladesh and a major global force. There is no doubting the importance of the newly appointed Chinese Ambassador’s position in this situation.
The Rohingya situation needs to be resolved diplomatically and via political means, according to the international community. The US and other Western nations keep applying pressure to Myanmar even though they are unable to ensure the safe and willing return of the Rohingyas. As Bangladesh seeks the swift repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar, Li Zhiming, the former Chinese ambassador to Bangladesh, stated that China would serve as a “bridge of communication” and do its utmost to support a timely resolution. China supports Bangladesh’s desire to begin repatriation, and China will keep assisting the two friendly neighbors in finding a solution to this persistent problem. China will make an effort to address this issue effectively because it is one of humanity.
In truth, Bangladesh, a country with limited resources and territory, is no longer able to handle such a large number of displaced people as it deals with a wide range of domestic and international problems as a result of the recent worldwide pandemic and the war in Russia and Ukraine. Hosting the growing population of Rohingyas, including newborn children, is also not a long-term option for them. In previous editorials, we have emphasized numerous times the importance of finding a long-term solution to this situation.
To protect China’s interests in Myanmar, the Rakhine state must remain stable. The infrastructure that China built in the state of Rakhine will have a big impact on the region’s economic growth. Human resources are also necessary to run all of these facilities. These Rohingyas and Rakhines can be trained by China to work efficiently in a variety of facilities and sectors. A stable Rakhine will draw tourists, and the region’s tourism industry can grow. Rakhines and Rohingyas can work in that sector as well. That will deal with the state’s unemployment issue. The level of racial animosity will progressively decline as the economy improves, and harmony may be guaranteed. The Rakhine region is essential for China’s military plans in addition to ensuring presence in the Indian Ocean.
Given all, it can be concluded that the Rohingya situation will be resolved if China takes the proper action.
Bangladesh desires the safe and honorable return of the Rohingyas to Myanmar. Bangladesh and China have long-standing, close ties. During a visit to Bangladesh on August 6, 2022, China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that Bangladesh is making serious efforts to resolve the Rohingya crisis. During this tour, the Rohingya issue received important discussion. China’s help was requested during this visit in order to play a bigger role in the Rohingya situation and find a political solution that would guarantee return. China has contributed significantly to Bangladesh’s socioeconomic growth by funding numerous economic initiatives there.
We think the Rohingya situation would not have lasted as long if the big nations had shown the kindness and sincerity that we see now. An appropriate solution to the situation would have been achieved by now if the humanitarian component of it had been given precedence above its geopolitical ramifications.
According to our assessment, the main source of the crisis lost steam due to the competing interests of the major players, many of which Bangladesh and Myanmar have bilateral relations with for a variety of reasons.
The Rohingya situation is solely a matter of human rights. Democracy and human rights are related. From that vantage point, it is impossible to deny the significance of democracy for the sustainable return of displaced Rohingyas to their country of origin, Myanmar.
We believe that other global power players cannot avoid their collective responsibility to rise to the occasion above their political lines and assist China for a long-term solution to the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, despite the fact that China’s assurance to resolve the Rohingya crisis revives a ray of hope.
Bangladesh and China have close political and military relations in addition to the fact that China is Bangladesh’s top trading and development partner. The Rohingya issue must be addressed in Myanmar, a country that China has significant influence over. As a result, China can make a big contribution to the return of the Rohingya.
To resolve this problem, the regional powers need to step forward right away. Everyone expects that by resolving the Rohingya issue, China, a friendly nation of Bangladesh, will significantly contribute to the peace, security, and stability of the area.
To engage or not engage. Hindus and Muslims suss each other out
Moderate Muslims and militant Hindu nationalists are strange bedfellows at the best of times, particularly when they come together to reshape Hindu-Muslim relations in troubled India.
Yet, that is what Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama and India’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) seek to achieve.
Nahdlatul Ulama, arguably the world’s most moderate Muslim civil society group in the world’s largest Muslim-majority state and democracy, is everything the RSS, a notorious Hindu nationalist movement widely viewed as the catalyst of anti-Muslim violence and discrimination in India, is not.
What makes the endeavour even more remarkable is that the two groups have strikingly different visions of what Hindu-Muslim reconciliation should entail.
For Nahdlatul Ulama, engagement with the RSS is part of a bold and risky strategy to persuade faith groups, including Muslims, to confront their troubled, often violent, histories and problematic tenants of their religions that reject pluralism and advocate supremacy.
“Nahdlatul Ulama believes that the only way to overcome entrenched historical grievances and promote peaceful co-existence is to engage all parties and refuse to indulge in the sentiment of enmity and hatred based upon a claim of unique communal victimhood,” the group said in a statement in September explaining its engagement with RSS.
For the RSS, engagement is about redressing historical grievances dating to centuries of Muslim invasions and rule, defending Hindus against perceived contemporary Muslim threats, and ensuring that India is a Hindu rather than a non-discriminatory multi-religious state.
A 2019 amendment to India’s citizenship law suggested how the RSS defines a Hindu state. The amendment extends the right to apply for citizenship to members of religious minorities — Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, and Christians but not Muslims — fleeing persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, Khwaja Iftikhar Ahmed, an Indian Muslim author and intellectual who maintains close ties with the RSS, insisted in an interview with the author that RSS ideology views Indians, irrespective of their religion, culturally as Hindus.
“They say that Hindu doesn’t have a religious connotation, Hindu being all those people living in this part of the world, they are culturally…Hindus… The religion is Santana Dharma or Eternal Faith (the Hindu reference to Hinduism). Hindu is the cultural identity… That is the middle ground,” Mr. Iftikhar said.
In 2021, RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat launched a widely acclaimed book authored by Mr. Iftikhar that argued in favour of Hindu-Muslim togetherness and harmony.
Nahdlatul Ulama and the RSS’ different visions have consequences for strategy. Although the RSS’ Indonesian engagement is with a movement led by clerics, in India, it tends to interact with secular Muslims who have no authority to reform Islamic jurisprudence rather than religious scholars.
Even so, Mr. Iftikhar said numerous Indian Muslim religious leaders of all stripes were in touch with the RSS, although many of them did so privately.
These include leaders of Deobandism, a revivalist ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim movement, which counts some 20 per cent of the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims among its followers.
Deobandism emerged in the mid-19th century around Darul Uloom Madrassa, a religious seminary in Deoband in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, to preserve Islamic teachings under British colonial rule.
“The difficulty is that contrary to the RSS, Muslim authorities in India do not have a strategy. Theologically, they have not accepted India’s existence but, for political reasons, do not challenge it. It’s an attitude they have yet to abandon,” said an analyst of Indian Islam.
In a separate interview on an Indian Muslim television channel, Mr. Iftikhar argued that the Muslim community had failed to address its differences with the RSS.
“The community has avoided any discussion or debate on that. It has always taken refuge behind others, whereas the challenge was ours. The response should have been from us, and we should have tackled those issues. The issues are challenges that India as a country and we as Indians…as one single nation, are facing. It is not a Hindu challenge; it is not a Muslim challenge,” Mr. Iftikhar said.
In a chapter that he contributed to an edited volume on the politics of hate in South Asia, Indian Islam scholar A. Faizur Rehman seemed to spell out Mr. Iftikhar’s castigation of the Indian Muslim leadership and align himself with Nahdlatul Ulama’s call for reform of Islamic law.
Mr. Rehman took the Muslim community to task for not countering their own ultra-conservatives and militants on multiple issues, such as the defense of relations with non-Muslims, the rights of Muslim and non-Muslim minority communities in Muslim lands, and draconic blasphemy laws in countries like Pakistan.
“If the Muslim community fails to question and stop these fanatics, it would be unwittingly contributing to Islamophobia,” Mr. Rehman said.
Mr. Rehman argued that Muslims needed to clarify their beliefs by stating that India is not part of the Muslim notion of an abode of war and, like Nahdlatul Ulama, declare that the concept of the kafir or infidel does not apply to non-Muslims.
A gathering of 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama clerics ruled in 2019 that the concept of the kafir was no longer legally valid.
Mr. Rehman contended that Muslims should discard the concept of dawah or proselytisation “as a tool of supremacism” and abolish apostasy and blasphemy as capital crimes under Islamic law.
“In short, what is needed…is a radical rethink of Muslim theology,” the scholar said.
Three years into the dialogue, the jury is still out on Nahdaltul Ulama’s interaction with RSS, which started as a cautious dialogue and has expanded into a degree of cooperation.
So far, the endeavour, embraced by moderate Indian Muslims and reformers, appears to have worked more in the RSS’ favour than that of Nahdlatul Ulama.
Nahdlatul Ulama’s credentials offer the RSS Muslim legitimisation.
The RSS has used the Muslim group’s push for reform of religious jurisprudence, the concept of a pluralistic Humanitarian Islam, and unequivocal endorsement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to tell India’s 200 million Muslims, the world’s largest Muslim minority, what their faith should look like.
To be fair, there may be no Hindu-Muslim reconciliation without the RSS, a five million-member-strong movement whose disciples constitute the core of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and government. The RSS is the ideological cradle of Mr. Modi, who has been a member since childhood.
In a rare recent interview published in Hindi and English by two RSS sister publications, Mr. Bhagwat, the group’s leader, discussed the movement’s strategy and objectives that frame engagement with Nahdlatul Ulama although he did not refer to the Indonesian Muslims.
Mr. Bhagwat’s statements offer reasons for both optimism and pessimism.
From a tactical point of view, Nahdlatul Ulama is likely to have taken note of Mr. Bhagwat’s acknowledgement that the RSS can no longer refuse accountability for what its associates in office do.
“People forget that swayamsevaks (RSS associates) have reached certain political positions through a political party. Sangh (RSS) continues to organise society for organisation’s sake. However, whatever swayamsevaks do in politics, Sangh is held accountable for it,” Mr. Bhagwat said.
“Even if we are not implicated directly by others, there is certainly some accountability, as ultimately it is in the Sangh where swayamsevaks are trained. Therefore, we are forced to think – what should be our relationship, which things we should pursue with due diligence,” Mr. Bhagwat added.
To be sure, Mr. Bhagwat was talking about the RSS’s relationship with the BJP and its current accountability rather than the historical responsibilities of the group and Hindus at large. He stressed that the RSS was concerned about “national policies, national interest, and Hindu interest,” not electoral politics.
By drawing a line between the RSS and the BJP, accepting the principle of accountability, and framing the groups’ political involvement, Mr. Bhagwat appeared to hint at a potential divergence between the movement and the party.
“The RSS thinks about the endgame. Bhagwat thinks about the future. He is not elected and does not have to worry about re-election. The BJP does. That’s why the BJP is more prone to polarisation. The RSS does not need polarization for electoral purposes,” said an analyst who closely follows the RSS and BJP.
Even so, Mr. Bhagwat did not shy away from polarizing language when he asserted that Hindus were engaged in a “1,000-year war.” Moreover, Mr. Bhagwat magnified the notion of war by insisting on the RSS’ majoritarian vision of India, or Hindustan in his words. as a Hindu rather than a multi-cultural nation.
The RSS leader defined the war as a fight against “foreign aggressions, foreign influences and foreign conspiracies” that seek to force others “to accept their path as it’s the only true path. And if you refuse to do so, you will have to choose between our mercy and death.”
Mr. Bhagwat made clear that he was referring to Muslim rather than Christian proselytisers by insisting that “Muslims should give up the mindset of superiority…(and) ‘we can’t live with others.’”
Mr. Bhagwat asserted, “foreign invaders are no longer, but foreign influences and conspiracies have continued. So, there is a war to defend Hindu society, Hindu Dharma (cosmic law), and Hindu culture.”
Drawing a contrast with Hinduism, Mr. Bhagwat asked rhetorically: “What is the Hindu worldview? Does a Hindu ever say that everyone should endorse his faith? This is not how we think. We want to present an example for others to see. We want to have (a) dialogue with everyone. Those who wish to improve will follow our example. If they do not, we do not intend to harm them.”
Mr. Bhagwat’s polarizing rhetoric notwithstanding, Nahdlatul Ulama sees common ground in the RSS’ rejection of what the Indonesian group describes as “obsolete and problematic elements within Islamic orthodoxy that lend themselves to tyranny.”
Nahdlatul Ulama, a conservative, nationalist organisation in its own right, hopes that its willingness to confront head-on intolerant and supremacist tenants of Islamic law will convince the RSS to develop a Hindu equivalent of Humanitarian Islam and take a critical look at Hindu theology, history, and anti-Muslim attitudes.
In an article entitled “What the media has misunderstood about Mohan Bhagwat’s interview,” Ram Madhav, an RSS executive committee member and associate of Mr. Modi, sought to finetune Mr. Bhagwat’s reference to war.
“The UNESCO Constitution begins with the statement that ‘wars begin in the minds of men’. Bhagwat’s emphasis was actually on removing that mindset of war. It is a historical fact that India has been subjected to various political and religious aggressions over millennia. That history has left an imprint, leading to occasional aggressive outbursts in sections of the society. Bhagwat was categorical that such aggression was uncalled for,” Mr. Madhav said.
“If there is a Hindu who thinks like that, he should discard it. A communist should also shed it”, Mr. Madhav quoted the RSS leader as saying.
In his interview, Mr. Bhagwat downplayed aggression by RSS members. “Since there is a war, people are likely to get overzealous. Although this is undesirable, yet provocative statements will be uttered,” the RSS leader said.
The dialogue with Nahdlatul Ulama did not stop the Indian group from accusing in its March 2022 annual report “a particular community” of seeking to “enter the government machinery” to further its ”malicious” agenda” as part of “a deep conspiracy.”
The report repeated allegations of imaginary Muslim jihads, such as the alleged forced conversion of Hindus to Islam.
“This challenge has a long history, but, of late, different newer ways of converting new groups are being adopted,” the report said.
Mr. Rehman, the Islam scholar. discounts Hindu fears of a demographic threat to their majority status in India but acknowledges that deep-seated distrust dates to the 12th-century Muslim conquests.
“By the turn of the 20th century, a deep distrust developed between Muslims and Hindus. The Muslims came to be seen as outsiders who had come to conquer and convert the original inhabitants of the subcontinent to Islam, “Mr. Rehman said.
Noting that Hindu distrust is rooted in the insistence of Muslim conquerors that India was Islamic territory, Mr. Rehman conceded that Hindu fears are fueled by “clerics and televangelists in India (who) continue to display their supremacist arrogance.”
Mr. Rehman points to ultra-conservative and militant clerics who forbid Muslims to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious holidays and denounce the operation of non-Muslim houses of worship in Muslim lands.
Another Muslim reformer traces the roots of strained relations to Muslim invasions that started with the Umayyad conquest of Sindh in the 8th century.
“It all began with Muslims invading, slaughtering, enslaving Hindus, and burning their temples. Today, the demographic fear may be blown out of proportion. But how long would it take deer to overcome their fear of tigers if tigers became domesticated and tigers stopped killing deer? This is the way Hindus look at Muslims. The fear is still there that Muslims continue to believe that they should dominate and prey upon non-Muslims,” the reformer said.
For his part, Mr. Iftikhar, the Muslim intellectual, insisted in his interview with the author that Indian Muslims were as much victims of Muslim conquests as were Hindus.
“All the Muslims who ruled India in the last seven, eight centuries were either Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Uzbeks or Iraqis, not Indian Muslims… We have never ruled India… So why should I take it on myself when I was not part parcel of that history?… We belong to this land. We stayed here by choice. We are the citizens of this country. So why should we take the baggage of the foreign Muslim rulers?” Mr. Iftikhar asked.
The latent fear of Muslims, fuelled by perennial Indian-Pakistani tensions, enabled ideologues and politicians to weaponize demographic concerns in a population for which it is primarily a lingering prejudice rather than a living memory or a daily life challenge.
Moreover, the population figures speak for themselves. Muslims account for 200 million of India’s population of 1.4 billion. Demography, in the best of cases, is only a potential concern, if at all, if Indians look at South Asia as a whole. The subcontinent is home to three of the four largest Muslim populations that, alongside India, include Pakistan, with 231 million, and Bangladesh, with 169 million.
Even so, Mr. Bhagwat asserted in October that “population control and religion-based population balance is an important subject that can no longer be ignored” because “population imbalances lead to changes in geographical boundaries.”
Countering Mr. Bhagwat, Mr. Rehman, the Islam scholar, argues that “Hindu-Muslim mistrust in India today is based on imaginary fears. Both communities are not responsible for what their respective ancestors did. But they would be if they buy into the politically motivated propaganda that seeks to keep them divided.”
For his part, Mr. Iftikhar expressed support for Muslim dialogue with the RSS.
“If you keep a distance and detachment as your strategy, as your policy, then whatever opinions you form are stereotypes. Stereotypes are untested, untried so-called facts. If they become the source of opinion-making and opinion-building, then you can imagine that the argument will never have a logical base,” Mr. Iftikhar said.
The author went on to say that “the Muslim community should come forward and instead of putting conditions, raising doubts and making it an issue that do this and then it will happen, no, relations are not build up, understanding is never achieved as a goal when you put conditions. Engagement is the way forward, sit, talk, interact, exchange, put forward your viewpoint, listen to the other viewpoint.”
It’s an approach that Mr. Rehman and Nahdlatul Ulama embrace. For them, as well as for Mr. Iftekhar, the onus is on all parties. For Muslims, that means conceptual and judicial reform; for the RSS, it means defining accountability in word and deed.
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