India Religious Violence Threatens Modi’s Image Before G-20

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares to welcome Group of 20 leaders next month, some of the worst religious violence in years threatens to taint his efforts to showcase India as a strategic counterweight and investment alternative to China.

(Bloomberg) — As Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares to welcome Group of 20 leaders next month, some of the worst religious violence in years threatens to taint his efforts to showcase India as a strategic counterweight and investment alternative to China.

Clashes between Hindus and Muslims this week left six people dead near New Delhi’s international airport, close to where world leaders including US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are set to arrive for the world’s most high-profile summit starting on Sept. 9. 

Modi has remained silent on the latest clashes near the capital, which come on the heels of worsening conditions in the northeastern state of Manipur some 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) away. A video that emerged from there last month of two women being paraded naked and allegedly raped sparked public anger, shining a spotlight on an ethnic conflict that has left more than 150 people dead since May.

The incidents add pressure on Biden and other democratic leaders to speak out about human-rights concerns in the world’s most-populous nation, which the US in particular has sought to avoid while courting India to distance itself from Russia and counter China’s growing assertiveness. In June, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US-India partnership “is closer, it’s broader, it is more dynamic than it has ever been.”

The religious and ethnic clashes have “the potential to adversely impact the image of India as a desirable and safe investment and manufacturing option,” said C. Uday Bhaskar, director of the Society for Policy Studies in New Delhi. 

More so “in relation to the ‘de-risking and minimize China policy’ being pursued by the US and its allies,” he added. 

The stakes are high for Modi, who faces an election next year in which he’s expected to extend his ten years in power. While many voters credit Modi as a strong leader who has accelerated India’s development and boosted its clout on the world stage, critics say his Hindu-dominant Bharatiya Janata Party has made the country less tolerant of minorities — a trend exemplified by the recent violence.

Since rising to power in 2014, Modi has come under fire by opposition groups for pushing a pro-Hindu agenda and silencing dissenting voices, including news organizations and research groups. The Washington-based group Freedom House has labeled India “partly free” and criticized the ruling party’s treatment of minority Muslims.

Still, Modi remains popular, with an approval rating consistently above 60%. He’s expected to easily win a no-confidence vote filed by the opposition over the violence in Manipur that’s scheduled for next week. 

“We would like to see a return to normalcy and peace,” said Arindam Bagchi, a spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, when asked whether the government was worried about the violence affecting the G-20 summit. “Our local authorities as well as other agencies are working on this.”

India’s Ministry of Home Affairs didn’t reply to a request for comment.

Around New Delhi, posters depicting Modi and the G-20 logo adorn the streets. Global industry leaders are also expected to visit a sideline meeting as India looks to attract companies seeking to shift some manufacturing away from China.

On Wednesday, representatives for G-20 nations attended a special briefing by India’s Ministry of External Affairs, even as security forces continued to patrol Gurugram, a city just outside New Delhi where global firms such as Microsoft Corp. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google have offices.

Tensions have simmered in Gurugram and nearby towns in the state of Haryana after Hindus and Muslims clashed during a religious procession by Hindu groups on Monday. Videos surfacing on social media and television news channels showed mobs pelting stones, vandalizing shops and setting cars on fire. The violence is the worst in India’s capital region since 2020, when 52 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in communal clashes.

Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has called for unity, saying the politics of “divide and rule” were the biggest hindrance to fixing the more pressing issues of employment and development.

India is grappling with similar, identity-driven conflicts in Manipur between minority tribal groups and majority Meitei Hindus over affirmative action policies. 

The video of the two naked women pushed Modi to make his first public comments on sexual assaults in Manipur, which borders Myanmar in northeastern India. A mass burial of more than 30 people killed in skirmishes was postponed on Thursday because of concerns about more violence, according to Golan Suanzamung Naulak of the Zomi Council Steering Committee in Manipur.

Fallout from the video also resulted in the no-confidence motion against Modi. Though the ruling party has enough seats in parliament to protect the prime minister, the violence is “definitely going to cast a shadow on the G-20 summit,” said Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank.

The situation “does not reflect well on Modi’s leadership and political abilities to deal with India’s numerous diversities,” he said.

(Updates with government statement)

More stories like this are available on

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.