uring the past decade, international audiences have come to associate the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led Indian Government with a muscular form on Hindu nationalism that has made the country a metaphorical living hell for religious minorities. Many experts claim Muslims and Christians have been pushed to the brink of genocide by a regime and ideology – Hindutva – that makes no secret of its intent to transform India into a Hindu-only nation.
International headlines convey this reality: “In India, calls for Muslim genocide, grow louder,” observes the Washington Post. “India’s Muslims fear for their future under Narendra Modi,” says BBC. “India’s Christians attacked under anti-conversion laws” remarks the New York Times. “Dreams of a Hindu nation leave minorities worried,” declares the Japan Times.
But when it comes to the Indian Government’s relationship with non-Hindu religions, these headlines tell only a small part of a very large story, because as anyone with an intimate knowledge of India knows – this is a country of profound paradoxes and contradictions. India is what former UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill would describe as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” a statement he used to define the Soviet Union.
Buddhism as a foreign policy tool
Because at the same time, India is persecuting religious minorities at home, it’s using Buddhism advance its foreign policy objectives abroad, particularly in Asia, despite Buddhists accounting for less than one percent of India’s total population. India has adopted the religion as a soft power tool to enhance bilateral relations in the region.
Indian headlines convey this reality: “PM Modi projects Buddhism as unique part of India’s foreign policy,” says ANI News. “Indian PM Narendra Modi promotes Buddhism worldwide,” observes Associates Times. “Modi has been working to turn India’s Buddhist heritage into strategic asset,” remarks The Week.
Buddhists may represent a tiny percentage of India’s population, but the Indian Government can plausibly sell “India’s Buddhist heritage” to a global audience, given the country is not only the birthplace of the religious faith, but also home to numerous sacred sites, including Bodh Gaya, Nalanda, and Sarnath. Some analysts contend Buddhism has been India’s most successful export, having opened the South Asian country to the world in the 6th century, when the religion was introduced to Japan.
Modi’s ‘Act East’ and Buddhism
Moreover, Buddhism diplomacy has become an organizing principle of Modi’s ‘Act East’ policy, which aims to counter China’s growing influence in the region by cultivating bilateral economic and strategic relations with Indo Pacific nations, which is why Modi has made Buddhism a prominent feature of his international visits.
International headlines again convey this reality: “In a bid to woo Thailand, PM Narendra Modi invokes Lord Buddha,” observes the Economic Times. “PM Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal’s Lumbini Showcases Indian Buddhist diplomacy,” writes Outlook. “PM Modi visits Buddhist temple in Japan,” remarked The Hindu. “India to spend $15 million to boost Buddhist ties in the region,” reported Associated Press.
Last year on the holiday to commemorate Buddha’s birthday – Vesak Day – Modi said, “Lord Buddha has become even more relevant…Countries are joining hands with each other and becoming each other’s strength, taking the values of Buddha.”
In his rhetoric and policies, Modi has made clear he views Buddhism to be the perfect instrument to build and enhance bilateral relations in the region because of the religion’s pan-Asian presence and reputation for promoting equality and encouraging peaceful coexistence.
Buddhist ties with Sri Lanka and Japan
By touting India’s Buddhist heritage, Modi has bolstered his government’s economic, cultural, and academic initiatives. Last year, the Indian Government announced a $15 million grant for the promotion of Buddhist ties with its neighbor Sri Lanka, where the religion is practiced by more than 70 percent of the population.
This money will be spent on the construction and renovation of Buddhist monasteries, cultural exchanges, archaeological cooperation, and reciprocal exposition of Buddha’s relics, according to India’s External Affairs Ministry.
But it’s the India-Japan relationship that best illustrates how Buddhism has operated as a binding agent between New Delhi and a fellow regional economic power, with Buddhists accounting for nearly 70 percent of the total Japanese population, a reality Modi turned into opportunity during his first visit to the North Asian country in 2014, when he chose Kyoto, instead of Tokyo, as his first destination.
He chose Kyoto because it’s home to To-ji Temple, a 9th century Buddhist complex. There he met with then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. When India’s Minister for External Affairs tweeted a photo of the two leaders walking together through the temple grounds, he included the words, “Moving in unison. PM Modi and PM Abe at To-ji temple, symbolic of India-Japan civilizational commonalities.”
The Japanese leader echoed this sentiment, telling local reporters at the time how Buddhism spread from India to Japan, creating what he called a “sutra” [thread] between the two countries.
A special and strategic partnership
This ‘thread’ became the basis for an upgrading in the India-Japan relationship to a “special and strategic partnership” later that same year, which effectively strengthened the relationship in areas such as trade, security, energy, and environment. Eight years later, Japan has become India’s 12th largest trading partner, and eighth largest foreign investor. It has also ended its opposition to India’s nuclear weapons program in 2016.
The Indian media, which has been credibly accused of moving in lockstep with the Indian Government in recent years, has crowed Modi’s Buddhist diplomacy, with the Hindustan Times declaring the Prime Minister has “cemented India’s Buddhist legacy and ties with democratic Asia,” while other outlets credited him for “revitalizing” Buddhism, globally.
So, at the same time India’s allies, including the United States, are condemning the Modi-led government for ignoring or supporting attacks on religious minorities, it’s been praised at home for instrumentalizing the beliefs of a minority religion to advance its strategic objectives abroad. The Indian paradox could not be more confounding.