How Modi uses yoga to whitewash India’s crimes

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India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets people on the International Day of Yoga in Mysore on 21 June 2022 (AFP)

India’s prime minister will lead a yoga session at the UN as part of a carefully curated PR campaign to project himself as a wise elder, rather than a supremacist authoritarianOn Wednesday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is due to arrive in New York City for a historic state visit to the United States

His visit will commence with the most unusual PR spectacle.

Even before he meets US President Joe Biden, or addresses a joint sitting of Congress, or is serenaded by an adoring Indian American diaspora – all of which are listed in a power-packed itinerary – Modi will take to the northern lawns of the United Nations and lead an estimated 2,000 people in a session of yoga. 

He will curl into a lotus, stretch like a hare or close his eyes and portend as a thunderbolt in an hour-long session organised by India’s Permanent Mission to the UN. It is expected to be attended by diplomats, policymakers and members of the Indian American community and televised to millions of people around the world.

More importantly, it will kick start his maiden state visit to the US, the first since former PM Manmohan Singh’s visit to Washington in 2009.

Not only will Modi be cementing ties with the US, with several military and tech deals likely to be signed as the US looks to Delhi to inflict economic damage upon China, the visit will also be used by Delhi to harness the support of the influential and affluent Indian-American diaspora as the country inches towards yet another important general election next year.

But first, let’s go back to the yoga.

Appropriating yoga

Since becoming PM in 2014, Modi has tried to characterise yoga as “an ancient Indian” practice and as “India’s gift to the world for health, wellness and peace”.

In the same year, the Indian government introduced a resolution at the UN that proposed an International Yoga Day. The draft resolution drew a record 175 signatories

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Since June 2015, International Yoga Day has been celebrated at the UN and worldwide, with India claiming ownership of both the philosophy and the practice.

As the Times of India described it, the session this year will see New Delhi assert its “cultural proprietorship of the practice”.

But as several scholars have argued, the appropriation of yoga as both exclusively Hindu and Indian erases the contributions made by a number of indigenous and religious groups on the Asian subcontinent. 

“This claim is problematic because it traps India in an essentialised place of the past and assumes yoga to be simultaneously ancient and born to a static, monolithic national identity,” Sheena Sood, an academic and yoga instructor, told MEE.

“Claims like this erase the diversity of tribal and indigenous cultures and spiritual and religious practices within and outside the Indian subcontinent (or South Asia) that have contributed to the development of yoga on a broader scale,” Sood added. 

Delhi’s insistence on owning yoga serves as a means to present India as exceptional and enlightened and provides a cover for its egregious domestic policies.

Yoga establishes Modi as a wise elder, rather than a supremacist authoritarian, and exceptionalises India in the eyes of the world.

Put another way, yoga has allowed Modi “to choreograph an image of himself, and by extension the Hindu state, as flexible (read accommodating) yet strong, peaceful yet powerful. Meanwhile, he continues to sanction genocidal violence against Muslims in India with impunity,” wrote Anusha Kedhar, an assistant professor at the University of California.

Islamophobic tropes

Yoga, then, has become the perfect vehicle to mask violence in India, and, more insidiously, lean into orientalist and Islamophobic tropes about Muslims.

Yoga has become the perfect vehicle to mask violence in India and, more insidiously, lean into orientalist and Islamophobic tropes about Muslims

“Constructing Muslims as barbaric, violent, and dangerous allows Hindu nationalists to justify aggressively protecting the Hindu faith and culture by any means necessary, including violent and extrajudicial ones. At the same time, it allows Hindus to imagine themselves as tolerant in comparison to the ‘rigid’, and the ‘fanatic Muslim’,” added Kedhar.

Modi is a lifelong member of the RSS, a Hindu paramilitary group in India, that has, since 1925, aimed to turn India into a Hindu Rashtra or a Hindu State. For his complicity in the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002, in which up to 2,000 people, mostly Muslim, were killed, the State Department banned him from entering the US between 2005-2014.

The ban was lifted under Barack Obama’s administration once Modi became prime minister in 2014.

Under Modi, anti-Muslim rhetoric and conspiracy theories have deepened, lynchings of Muslims have occurred with the tacit support of the state. Meanwhile, anti-conversion laws have been passed on the state level, while Delhi introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act  (CAA) in 2019, which, in conjunction with the National Register of Citizens, had cataclysmic consequences for the rights of Muslims in the country.

As documented by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), religious rights have been severely impaired in India, with the commission recommending that India be categorised as a “country of particular concern” for the fourth year running.

Other countries on the list include Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan.

The decline of religious freedoms and attacks on minorities have also coupled with an attack on the media and civil society. Under Modi, Amnesty International was forced out of India, several human rights activists and journalists are behind bars on spurious claims, and several foreign journalists have been blocked from travelling to the country.

Modi may portray himself as a thoughtful leader who drops self-help gems like “yoga makes us conscious of everything within us and builds a sense of awareness” or “this whole universe starts from our own body and soul. The universe starts from us”, but his administration is the most skittish on the planet.

A curated PR campaign

As Modi continues to promote “peace and understanding” through yoga”, his government has only found longer, more thoughtful and deliberate ways to inflict harm. 

Since 2014, state-sanctioned vigilantism has become a means to control minorities with institutions from the media, judiciary and police services bending to the diktats of the ruling party.

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This is an administration so obsessed with its image, it is willing to block the airing of critical documentaries, and so assured it is of managing dissent that it cuts the internet more than any other country on earth and is not averse to arresting Kashmiris for supporting the “wrong” cricket team. 

Last week, Jack Dorsey, the former CEO of Twitter, said that the Delhi government threatened to shut the company down if it didn’t comply with its demands to remove tweets about the farmers’ protests in 2020. Dorsey said that his company was also asked to censor journalists critical of the Modi government. 

Meanwhile, India has emerged over the past decade as one of Israel’s closest allies, and the biggest patron of its military-industrial complex.

Scholars, like Sood, have referred to the use of yoga to conceal ethnonationalist violence and Hindu supremacist ideology as “omwashing”. She told MEE the event on Wednesday fits neatly into Modi’s track record of deploying yoga “to conceal the political and systemic violence he has endorsed against Muslims, Dalits, Sikhs, adivasis, Kashmiris and other minorities in India”.

On other occasions, Modi has invoked yoga in the face of brutal policies. For instance, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Modi instrumentalised yoga to promote good health even as he imposed a disastrous lockdown that resulted in the loss of lives and livelihoods.

“Just picture what an event like this can mean for his reputation: most people associate yoga and meditation in a positive light; yoga day is set to take place on the front lawn of the United Nations, an institution that theoretically signifies world peace,” said Sood.

In other words, on Wednesday, Modi’s performance on the yoga mat will be portrayed as an inflection point in the history of Indian foreign policy and in Delhi’s desire to transform into a developed country over the next two decades.

In Washington’s desperation to have India as a trade partner, an alternative source of labour over China, and a market it may exploit, it will lean into Modi’s carefully curated PR campaign to project India as an ancient, wise, peaceful, and compassionate teacher on the world stage.

Indeed, it is a scam.

And everyone involved, including and especially the UN, which signed off on this astonishing event, will not be able to write themselves out of it.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

| Senior Reporter
Azad Essa is a senior reporter for Middle East Eye based in New York City. He worked for Al Jazeera English between 2010-2018 covering southern and central Africa for the network. He is the author of ‘Hostile Homelands: The New Alliance Between India and Israel’ (Pluto Press, Feb 2023)
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Disclaimer: How Modi uses yoga to whitewash India’s crimes - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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