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Indian pundits rally in support of Europe's anti-migrant sentiment

James M. Dorsey

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Indian politicians and commentators have rallied in defense of anti-migrant sentiment in Europe to forge alliances and undercut criticism of Hindu nationalism that targets minorities, foremost Muslims.

In response to criticism, most recently by the European Parliament, of India’s handling of violent ethnic clashes in the northeastern city of Manipur in which some 130 people were killed, the pundits seek to bolster right-wing and autocratic resistance to meaningful discussions about migrant, minority, and human rights.

The European Union has already put those discussions on the back burner by focusing instead, for example, in Tunisia, on enlisting autocrats to deter illegal immigration.

This week, the EU signed an agreement with Tunisia that provides the North African country with US$118 million to stop smuggling, strengthen borders, and return migrants.

In addition, the EU has offered Tunisia a US$1 billion loan to help resolve its economic crisis, provided the country successfully concludes an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Tunisia and the EU have signed a deal to tackle "irregular" migration - meaning those moving in breach of rules. Photo: Getty Image

The loan would come out of US$16.39 billion budget announced in June by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to foster partnerships with third countries, provide help to refugees in the Middle East, and react to humanitarian crises.

The EU-Tunisia agreement stipulates that migrants should be treated with "full respect of human rights."

Yet, in recent weeks, Tunisia has forcibly taken hundreds of Black sub-Saharan Africans to the desert and hostile areas on the borders of Libya and Algeria after racial unrest in Sfax, Tunisia’s second-largest city.

The port of Sfax is a departure point for many refugees from impoverished and violence-torn countries seeking a better life in Europe. Photo: Mahmud Turika/AFP

Tunisian President Kais Saied has accused migrants of plotting to change the country's demographics in conjunction with "traitors who are working for foreign countries.”

In the same vein, men like Ram Madhav, a member of the executive of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist cradle of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and former secretary general of Mr. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and retired Major General Harsha Kakar, have sought to reduce Europe’s migrant problem to one of Muslim resistance to integration and/or assimilation.

“The question of integrating immigrant Muslims into mainstream societies as equal citizens is bothering many countries today. Rising lawlessness, street violence, gangsterism, mushrooming growth of madrasas and Arabic schools, increasing insistence on speaking in Arabic, wearing head-to-toe Burqa, and occupying large public spaces for daily prayers have been seen by many in the West as deliberate acts of defiance to nation-state ideology,” Mr. Madhav said in one of his weekly Indian Express columns.

In another column, Mr. Madhav noted, referring to those fleeing Nazi Germany, that “European immigrants had not had much problem integrating with the French mainstream.”

For his part, Mr. Kakar charged migrants in Europe constitute a “time bomb.”

Retired Major General Harsha Kakar. Photo:

In an implicit echo of Hindu nationalist tropes, Mr. Kakar asserted that “immigrants, especially in Europe, where they are considered cheap labour for the economy, do not have loyalty to their new country.”

Mr. Kakar quoted a French politics expert as saying that in France, most ghetto residents "disrespect France, they hate it, and they don't want to integrate."

Messrs. Madhav and Kakar's argument reinforces right-wing and autocratic reasoning that economic development and the fight against terrorism take precedence over human rights.

Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has stepped further by insisting that “lack of education, a roof above one’s head, inability to secure a job, (and) no hope for the future, constitute violations of one’s human rights.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Photo: KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Even so, the argument of Messrs. Madhav, Kakar, and Al-Sisi is self-incriminating given that poverty and lack of opportunity in developed and developing countries stem mainly from failed government social and economic policies and a lack of good governance on both sides of the divide.

Mr. Kakar acknowledged the social and economic disenfranchisement and perceived racism driving violent protests like those recently in France but attributed the cause to "the inability to integrate immigrants into society mainly because numbers are large and beyond the ability of the state to manage."

Beyond absolving the state of its responsibilities, putting the onus on migrants, and ignoring that Europe’s labour shortage makes addressing social and economic inequities a necessity, Messrs. Madhav and Kakars’ attempts to reinforce European anti-migrant and anti-Muslim sentiment seem to be designed to forge a common ground that would shield India from criticism of Mr. Modi’s questionable Hindu nationalist policies.

Lost in the pundits’ argument is that Europe's post-World War Two generations of migrants and their descendants were initially on the continent at European countries’ invitation.

In 1975, the Paramaribo Express, the air link between the Suriname capital and Amsterdam, was overbooked as the Netherlands offered citizenship, in advance of the Latin American country’s independence, to any Surinamer in the Dutch mainland on or before a specific date.

Northern European countries invited many North Africans, Turks, and South Europeans as guest workers in the 1960s and 1970s but failed to integrate them on the mistaken assumption that their stay would be temporary.

Additionally, Western aid, and economic, and foreign policies frequently disadvantaged developing economies and supported autocratic, often corrupt regimes in Africa and Asia that stymied equitable economic development at home.

The vast number of irregular migrants currently washing up on European shores and flooding the United States border with Mexico are partially due to those policies.

To be fair to Messrs. Madhav and Kakar, European anti-migrant sentiment is genuine and cannot be ignored.

“India can…serve European liberals not so much as a model but rather as a warning from which they can learn,” said politics scholar Joerg Friedrichs.

One lesson Europe can learn is that “when trying to accommodate minorities, ruling elites must not lose touch with prevailing perceptions of fairness among the majority,” Mr. Friedrichs said.

Another is “that majorities should resist the lure of narcissism” or self-righteousness to avoid being trapped in hypocrisy.

Mr. Friedrichs likened Europeans’ “narcissistic image of themselves as torchbearers of democracy and human rights” to Hindu nationalist assertions that Muslims should be taught a lesson if they exploit Hindu tolerance and generosity.

Noting that many followers of populist parties in Europe and Mr. Modi are “disenchanted liberals rather than rabid nationalists," Mr. Friedrichs suggested that “instead of alienating them further, liberals should try to gain them back by showing that they care about the majority at least as much as about minorities.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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