Narendra Modi India election religious persecution election
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (AP/Sipa USA)

The landslide reelection of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is dreadful news for religious minorities in the India.

This is particularly true of the country’s 200 million Muslims (the most of any non-Muslim majority country) and 28 million Christians, especially those in ethnic minority areas. But you would not know that from Scott Morrison’s reaction.

“Congratulations @narendramodi on your historic re-election as Prime Minister of India. Australia and India enjoy a strong, vibrant and strategic partnership, and our India Economic Strategy will take our ties to a new level. I look forward to meeting again soon,” Morrison gushed on Twitter.

Turning a blind eye 

What Morrison ignores is that the Modi administration is one of a string of religious-nationalist governments across the region — from Pakistan to Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines — that persecutes religious minorities. This is also true of China where religion is now a clear target of the officially atheist Communist Party which has locked up at least 1 million ethnic Uyghur Muslims (and perhaps even double that number) in gulags in their home state of Xinjiang that Beijing calls “re-education camps”.

Yet the Australian government remains mum on this extremely troubling regional trend, where people are being arrested and murdered, and places of worship are being desecrated and destroyed.

Indeed, no Australian government has spoken out about it. There has been no inclination to publicly recognise and discuss the trend, much less make any real efforts to deal with it. The only discernible strategy from Canberra, based on the evidence, is to ignore increasingly regular state-sponsored or sanctioned violence, violations of religious freedom and other human rights abuses.

Ironically, the Morrison government has vowed to put a religious freedom bill before the parliament. It is worth questioning just why this is needed when freedom of religion is enshrined in the constitution. Federal anti-discrimination laws and various human rights acts exist across all Australia’s states and territories. But apparently Australia is not interested in speaking up for the hundreds of millions of people in our neighbouring countries under very real threat of physical religious persecution — far too often ending in death or serious injury.

Trade considerations

The conversation about human rights is barely given lip service in the apparently mighty free trade agreements that have been the singular focus of the department of trade and its ministers Andrew Robb, Steve Ciobo and the recently reappointed Simon Birmingham.

The reality is most of these deals have been marginal and are misnamed as “free”. To get them signed Australia must hand concessions to protectionist countries in return for lesser benefits. Increasingly these deals are being broadened to include strategic goals, such as more recent ones with Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia.

The term economic diplomacy, which has no room for human rights, has driven Australia’ foreign policy since 2013. Yet it is arguably oxymoronic as economic and diplomatic goals often diverge; look no further than Australia’s increasingly tortured relationship with China. It is a term pinched by Julie Bishop and Tony Abbott from Hillary Clinton. Heaven forfend that Canberra could be found guilty of original thought.

Australia has a fast growing trade relationship with India in terms of trade (number seven for two-way trade, number four for exports), immigration (India pushed China from the top spot some years back), students (number two behind China) and an ever-growing numbers of tourists.

Counting the cost

Australia is working towards a long desired trade and security deal with India. Unsurprisingly, it is proving extremely difficult to finalise, given India’s protectionist economy.

When DFAT’s India Economic Strategy to 2035 landed with a thump on former foreign minister Julie Bishop’s desk in April 2018, there was barely a mention of the serious risks of trading with and investing in India. The report is pretty much upside, with a half-arsed warning here or there. There is one page devoted to India’s notorious, systemic corruption, but no mention of religious persecution. Of course, such things don’t affect business, do they? As far as they’re concerned, worries that India’s liberal democratic and secular character are “under strain” are “exaggerated … at this time.”

The report concedes that “anything which materially weakens India’s democratic credentials or its commitment to a secular liberal society would not only be a tragedy for India but also call into question the very basis of our strategic partnership”.

A year later, can DFAT still say that fears are exaggerated? Modi’s victory and escalating nationalism is, as it was then, the “anything” weakening India’s democratic credentials. 

The question should now be: is it worth it? At what point do we stand up, show some leadership to our developing world neighbours and explain that becoming a wealthy and successful nation is as much about freedom from persecution as it is about the bottom line?

But one still gets the feeling that the answer from the Morrison cabinet room will be a resounding “how good is India!”