When Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, he laid the foundation for a critical mass of world leaders who, like him, think in civilizational rather than national terms.
In the minds of these leaders, the stakes in Ukraine go far beyond the future of a former Soviet republic or the overhaul of the European security architecture.
Much like Mr. Putin’s ambition to establish a Russian world defined by the geography of Russian speakers and adherents of Russian culture rather than internationally recognized borders, men like Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi envision a 21st century world order. where civilizational aspirations trump national sovereignty, freedoms and minority rights
For them, the creation of a 21st century world order involves coercion and potentially, if need be, the use of military force to redraw the maps according to their sometimes downplayed aspirations.
This comes at the expense of the independence of countries like Ukraine, the rights of states bordering the South China Sea, and ethnic and religious minorities like Indian and Chinese Turkic Muslims, and potentially much of the world. non-Indian South Asia.
There is no doubt that Messrs. Xi and Modi are watching Ukraine closely for lessons. Mr. Putin crossed a Rubicon at enormous human, political and economic costs with no immediate potential reversal.
Mr. Xi has other fish to fry in the immediate future. It is unlikely to cross a similar Rubicon anytime soon to realize its ambitions in the South China Sea and Beijing’s One China policy which sees Taiwan as an integral part of the mainland.
Neither does Mr. Modi, whose ideological focus embraces the concept of Akhand Bharat or an India that stretches from Afghanistan to Myanmar and encompasses nuclear-armed Pakistan as well as Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
US and European diplomats are gloating that since becoming prime minister in 2014, Mr Modi has refrained from publicly referring to Hindu nationalist geopolitical ambitions. He apparently last spoke publicly about these ambitions in a 2012 interview when, as Gujarat’s chief minister, he suggested that “Hindustan, Pakistan and Bangladesh should join”.
Nonetheless, one lesson the war in Ukraine offers is that the United States, Europe, and their Asian allies, at their peril, take civilizational aspirations lightly.
Despite warnings from US intelligence and statements from civilizationalist, nationalist and far-right voices in Mr. Putin’s immediate inner circle, many mistakenly believed that the Russian leader was playing bluff poker as he approached invasion, but that he would not send troops to Ukraine.
“Although the notion of a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation) may seem far-fetched today, the same was said of Putin’s expansionist ambitions until recently,” said political scientist and journalist Sushant Singh.
Six weeks into the invasion of Ukraine, a prominent Hindu nationalist activist with close ties to Mr Modi predicted, in the first indication of a timetable, that the aspirations of the Hindu nation could be realized in the next 15 years.
“You talked about 20-25 years, but if we increase our speed, I say 10-15 years… I don’t have the power at all… it’s with people. They have control. When they are ready, everyone’s behavior changes. We prepare them… We will walk together as an example, without fear. We will talk about non-violence, but we will walk with a stick. And this stick will be heavy,” said Mohan Bhagwat, the head of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
The RSS, with some six million members, is Mr Modi’s political cradle which gave birth to his ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Founded nearly a century ago, the RSS is a right-wing militant Hindu nationalist paramilitary volunteer organization.
Mr. Singh noted that RSS schools across India are teaching the concept of Akhand Bharat. Additionally, an RSS editor produces a map of India’s “holy land” which includes Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Tibet.
Mr Modi’s policies, including his amended citizenship law of 2019 which provides a pathway to citizenship for Hindus in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, but not Muslims, as well as the removal this year This is the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, the only Muslim majority in India. state, seemed to be nodding towards Akhand Bharat.
Indian Muslims are the third largest Muslim community in the world and make up 14% of India’s 1.4 billion people.
It may be long, but Mr Modi might be the one great civilizationalist leader with whom engagement has a chance of containing, if not taming, any irredentist instincts he may have. These instincts are likely one of the reasons why India has sought to take a middle course in the Ukraine crisis.
Unlike Russia and China, with whom battle lines have been or are being drawn, the engagement with India by the United States, Europe, Japan, South Korea South and other Asian states is largely based on a perceived shared geopolitical interest in countering China’s rise in the Indo-Pacific.
In a broadening of engagement that goes beyond existing close economic and political ties, including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has invited Modi to attend a Group summit in June. of 7 (G-7) in the Bavarian Alps.
The Quad is a strategic security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan and the United States, while the G-7 brings together Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Great Britain and the United States.
In another positive sign of engagement, Hindu and Muslim religious leaders and religious nationalists are quietly exploring whether they can find common ground in shared humanitarian values.
RSS Executive Committee member and former BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav said in an interview last week with this writer that “Eastern civilizations (and) Eastern religions all share the same civilizational value system.” Mr Madhav referred to Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism and “an Islam with an Eastern value system like Indonesian Islam”.
Mr Madhav, widely seen as a moderate among Hindu nationalists, was referring to a concept of humanitarian Islam promoted by Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim civil society movement in the world and in Indonesia.
Nahdlatul Ulama advocates the reform of what he calls “obsolete” and “problematic” elements of Islamic law, including those that promote segregation, discrimination and/or violence against anyone perceived to be non-Muslim. It further accepts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights without reservation and envisages interfaith relations based on shared common values.
Mr Madhav spoke on the eve of his second visit to Indonesia in two years for talks with Nahdlatul Ulama.
“Maybe we can all stand up and talk about these values…commit to these values, including respect for pluralism, inclusiveness and commitment to the idea of the nation state, (and ) patriotism… If something can be worked out jointly, we would certainly be happy to do so,” Madhav said.
In Mr. Madhav’s mind, the RSS’s vision of Hindu nationalism or Hindutava already incorporates the principles of humanitarianism as articulated by Nahdlatul Ulama.
Critics of the movement reject this claim. Moreover, the alleged association of the RSS with widespread inter-communal violence and perceived discrimination of Indian Muslims calls it into question.