Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina after a meeting in New Delhi on October 5, 2019. Photo: AFP / Prakash Singh

In February, New Delhi is hoping to host US president Donald Trump on his first visit to India after assuming office four years ago. His visit will come at a time when India finds itself isolated globally like never before, as protests over its controversial religion-based citizenship law continue to grow.

For years US President Donald Trump has turned down invitations from India, always seen as a major hallmark of the bilateral relationship. While former president Barack Obama came to India in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first term, his comments on religious intolerance in India cooled the relationship. Modi had been put on a visa ban for nearly 15 years by the US, for his alleged role in the communal riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002. However, after the ban was lifted when Modi won the general elections in 2014, he has made several trips to the US to forge closer ties, first with Obama and then his successor Trump.

But while the US president’s trip is still being planned, Indian diplomats are fighting a rearguard action in South Asia as two close allies, Bangladesh and Afghanistan have expressed their displeasure at India’s new citizenship law.

Just a few months ago India was reveling in its comprehensive diplomatic victory after abrogating Article 370 in August 2019, a special constitutional provision that gave the lone Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir a special status. While Pakistan, China, Turkey and Malaysia emerged as trenchant critics of the move, India remained unscathed, with most of the other permanent members of the UN Security Council siding with New Delhi.

Angry neighbors

But the move to amend its citizenship law in December and fast-track applications for naturalization by non-Muslim citizens from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan has now created an unprecedented wave against India. A few weeks ago a former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan received a message from a top Afghan minister seeking his opinion about the law. “Why does it discriminate against Muslims? This will not go down well with the Afghan people,” the person said. “I did not know how to react. There is tremendous affection among the Afghans for India. This move has pushed India into a corner and isolated those in Afghanistan who support us,” the former Indian envoy told Asia Times.

Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai categorically stated that the classification was wrong, in an interview to the newspaper The Hindu. “We don’t have persecuted minorities in Afghanistan… the whole country is persecuted. We have been in war and conflict for a long time. All religions in Afghanistan – Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs – which are our three main religions, have suffered,” he said.

Ever since US forces landed in Afghanistan after the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, India had renewed its diplomatic and security relationship with the Afghans. A long-term supporter of slain Afghan leader Ahmad Shah Masoud, New Delhi began a close relationship based on intelligence and economic cooperation.

“We carried out a number of operations with the Afghans through the decade to counter Pakistan’s support of terrorism. This was cemented during the years that Amrullah Saleh headed Afghan intelligence,” a senior Indian security official said. “That relationship has been the bedrock of many of our counter-terrorism policies. Those are now under stress since the Afghans are worried how this citizenship law will pan out,” the official said.

To its east, Bangladesh has proved to be one of India’s staunchest allies in South Asia. Much of that has stemmed from India’s unstinting support for its current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina. Through the years the Hasina government eliminated all the bases inside Bangladesh that were being used by Indian insurgents. She also started a rendition program where all those suspected of carrying or supporting terror strikes in India were quietly sent back across the border. Indian intelligence worked closely with their Bangladeshi counterparts to not only secure Hasina’s regime against any possible coup but also to identify people who worked with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to target Indian interests.

“Two ministers from her cabinet canceled their trips and she is under tremendous pressure to explain India’s stance. There is also a worry in Dhaka that if thousands of Muslims are disenfranchised, they might end up being pushed into Bangladesh,” a diplomat who served in Bangladesh told Asia Times.

A personal embarrassment for Modi

Perhaps the biggest diplomatic embarrassment for the Modi government came when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe canceled a trip to the state of Assam in India. He was planning to announce a number of Japanese investments in the state along with Modi. However, Abe who is considered a personal friend by Modi, canceled as the protests in Assam over the citizenship law began to grow and turn violent. With the state up in arms, the setback for India’s diplomatic efforts was far too obvious, observers said.

“This was quite a disappointment for the Indian prime minister, a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party told Asia Times. “There is some worry in the party that the government may have taken on more than what it could handle. The cancellation by prime minister Abe was seen as a personal setback for Modi, even within the party,” the party functionary told Asia Times.

Diplomats are also worried that the twin decisions, the abrogation of Article 370 and the amended citizenship law, came too quickly and did not give them time to prepare. “Diplomacy works on IOUs that countries give to each other when the going gets rough. Lately, India has had to give out a number of IOUs to prevent Pakistan and China from pushing the UN Security Council to pass any adverse comments against India. They have held two closed-door meetings at the UN in New York and we managed to avert a major diplomatic embarrassment. But these will come at a cost later,” another senior Indian diplomat told Asia Times.

With close allies and neighbors miffed and the big powers growing cold, ASEAN upset that India walked out of the RCEP, and big power allied like the US sending mixed signals, India’s foreign policy and strategic objectives are facing a cold and bleak winter.

Also read: Citizenship law poses threat to Northeast India

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