It is time to take back yoga from the Indian prime minister, who is exploiting it as a smokescreen for an agenda of ethno-nationalist state brutality.
When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi first addressed the United Nations General Assembly in 2014, he was there with a mission: to propose a resolution that recognizes June 21 as the International Day of Yoga and India as the spiritual birthplace of yoga. He was successful in accomplishing both of these goals.
Modi enthusiastically framed yoga as “an invaluable gift of [India’s] ancient tradition” while addressing a gathering of nearly 200 political leaders. He hypothesized that honouring yoga could assist in promoting world peace, attenuating the adverse effects of climate change, and eliminating armed conflict. The following year saw the first-ever International Yoga Day celebrations around the globe.
And on Wednesday, the United Nations welcomed Modi back to its headquarters so that he might preside over the event that will take place this year. But exactly which vision of India did Modi present to the rest of the world?
It was the one that expanded on the common conception of India as the most populous secular democracy in the world and the location of a rapidly growing economy. Not the one that admits that Modi’s India has a shattered democracy, which is indicated by the rise of an authoritarian, Hindu nationalist, and caste supremacist agenda.
Since Modi became the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), he and his spiritual allies have appropriated yoga as a form of propaganda for Hindu nationalism and right-wing policies, to rewrite India’s history, and to divert public attention away from their Hindu supremacist political agenda. All of these goals have been accomplished by appropriating yoga.
Simply put, Modi has weaponized yoga to mask the political and institutional violence he has pushed against disadvantaged minorities in India. Yoga has been used as a tool in this process.
It was a spectacle of what I call om-washing, which is used to mask a radical agenda of ethno-nationalist state violence. He did that in front of world leaders and yoga followers on UN Yoga Day.
None of this should be confused with a genuine conviction to employ yoga as a means of constructing a world that is more just, unified, and liberated.
What about peace on earth?
Insisting that ancient Indian culture “sees the world as one family,” Modi frequently alludes to the influence of yogic philosophy in his work to advance democracy and peace both within India’s borders and in collaboration with allies around the world. Democracy, on the other hand, is experiencing a precipitous collapse in Modi’s India.
Since Modi took power, there has been an increase in the number of attacks on Muslims, Christians, Dalits, and other oppressed minorities that are state-sponsored or carried out by vigilantes nationwide. Not only has Modi’s administration degraded the independent institutions of Indian democracy, notably the judiciary, but it has also legitimized Hindu nationalists, which has given them more confidence to attack marginalized groups.
On a global scale, he has increased military relationships with states such as Israel, France, and the United States of America, which are nations that are invested in the politics of Islamophobia and war-making. The fact that Modi promotes yoga as being conducive to democratic and peaceful ideas is a distraction from the fact that he is deeply invested in militarism and conflict.
What about climate change?
Moreover, Modi has put out the idea that adopting a yogic way of life is capable of reversing the debilitating effects of global warming and fostering environmental sustainability. Modi has announced India’s commitment to net zero emissions by the year 2070 while also urging everyday climate yogis to do their part by changing the behaviours that contribute to climate change. He has called for a broad campaign against climate change.
While it is true that yoga can be used to fight climate change, Prime Minister Modi’s continued investments in the fossil fuel industry and spending on the military indicate that his pledge to reduce emissions is an empty promise. This is especially true considering military emissions are routinely excluded from climate change agreements.
Climate scientists and environmental activists have claimed that to respond to the ever-threatening climate catastrophe effectively, a dramatic disengagement from a consumer-driven capitalist economy will be required. But Modi remains devoted to individualized solutions that make no significant changes in the economy’s structure and suit his ultimate purpose of pretending to support “green” policies while pursuing programmes that actively damage our planet. In other words, he hasn’t changed his position at all.
Fighting so-called “terrorism.”
During his address to the United Nations in 2014, Modi spoke about the necessity for world leaders to work together to confront “terrorism and extremism.” Yet, Modi hides state-sanctioned militarism behind the Islamophobic narrative of the ‘War on Terror’ to avoid public scrutiny of his policies.
The semi-autonomous status that Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only state with a Muslim majority, had enjoyed ever since it became a part of a newly formed India in 1947 was taken away by the administration led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in August of 2019. After that, a crackdown took place in which political activity was made illegal, lawmakers were placed under house arrest, and internet access was severely restricted, all while India deployed extra troops to one of the most militarized zones in the world.
Throughout this time, the Indian military has been sharing images on its website of its service members performing yoga positions. When this is compared to the violations of human rights that the Indian army is said to have committed in Kashmir, it becomes clear that Modi and his allies engage in om-washing to whitewash India’s bloody track record in Kashmir.
Considering that Modi’s yoga day performance was broadcast live in Times Square and on various social media platforms, thousands of people who do not hold any political beliefs also participated. After all, what could be the downside to doing yoga with Modi? No way doing yoga with him and thousands of other people constitute a vote of confidence in any political cause or candidate.
But I encourage those on the fence to recognize how participating in such events legitimizes Modi’s attempts at om-washing, which is this agenda of using yoga to conceal his Hindu supremacist ideology. In other words, I encourage those on the fence to recognize how participating in such events legitimizes Modi. It is time to reclaim yoga by challenging Modi’s appropriation of this ancient discipline. Reclaiming yoga begins with saying no to Modi.