A new mural on display in India’s new $110 million Parliament has become an unlikely target of ire among its South Asian neighbors, with Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh seeking an explanation from New Delhi.
The mural depicts a map of an ancient Indian civilization encompassing what is today Pakistan in the north and Bangladesh and Nepal in the east.
Speaking to reporters earlier this month, the spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs, Arindam Bagchi, said it portrays the ancient Ashoka Empire and symbolizes “the idea of responsible and people-oriented governance that (King Ashoka) adopted and propagated.”
But to some politicians from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it appears to represent a vision of the future – of “Akhand Bharat,” an “Undivided India” that would merge the modern-day country with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
“The resolve is clear. Akhand Bharat,” tweeted Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Pralhad Joshi alongside a photograph of the map. “Akhand Bharat in (the) New Parliament. It represents our powerful and self reliant India,” tweeted BJP lawmaker Manoj Kotak.
To India’s neighbors, “Akhand Bharat” is an incendiary, neo-imperialist concept – one that has long been associated with the right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an ideological organization that heavily influences the BJP, and which believes in “Hindutva,” the idea that India should become the “Home of the Hindus.”
Earlier this month, Pakistan said it was “appalled by the statements” made about the mural.
“The gratuitous assertion of ‘Akhand Bharat’ is a manifestation of a revisionist and expansionist mindset that seeks to subjugate the identity and culture of not only India’s neighboring countries but also its own religious minorities,” said foreign office spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch.
Nepali politicians also chimed in.
“If a country like India – that sees itself as an ancient and strong country, and as a model of democracy – puts Nepali territories in its map and hangs the map in parliament, it cannot be called fair,” opposition leader KP Sharma Oli said, according to The Kathmandu Post.
Nepal’s former prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai, warned the map may stoke an “unnecessary and harmful diplomatic row.”
And last week, Bangladesh asked New Delhi to clarify the situation. “Anger is being expressed from various quarters over the map,” said Shahriar Alam, its junior minister for foreign affairs.
Answering a question about the backlash last week, India’s foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said the issue had already been clarified by India, and it was “not political.”
While India has dismissed their concerns, analysts say calls by BJP politicians to embrace “Akhand Bharat” are dangerous.
They say such appeals embolden extremist groups and are bad news for a constitutionally secular democracy, where about 80% of the 1.4 billion population is Hindu and 14% Muslim.
“Many BJP leaders are increasingly making statements to placate the most hardcore elements of their party, without realizing how that might play out overseas,” said Salil Tripathi, a writer based in New York.
“These politicians and leaders act as if the world isn’t listening. It keeps the cauldron hot, but it is a dangerous game.”
The mural was not the only thing turning heads when Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the parliament on May 28.
Similarly controversial was the ceremony itself, steeped in Hindu religious symbolism, which critics felt jarred with the supposedly secular nature of Indian government affairs. It also took place on the birthday of the late Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the man widely considered to have developed the Hindutva ideology and one of the first proponents of Akhand Bharat.
A leader of the right-wing Hindu Mahasabha group, Savarkar is revered by Modi and the BJP, who credit him with leading India to its freedom from British colonial rule.
But critics say it is wrong to honor his birthday, given his stance toward Muslims.
The Hindu Mahasabha’s website says if it takes power, it will not hesitate to “force” the migration of India’s Muslims to Pakistan.
While the group’s ideas are decades old, it appears more bold about them now.
In December 2021, some extremists from the group called for a genocide against Muslims to “protect” India.
Sushant Singh, a senior fellow with the Centre for Policy Research think tank, said groups felt emboldened to make such brazen calls for violence because they “believe that they have the backing of the state.”
“That is because the state clearly believes in their ideology and articulates that ideology,” he added.
While the BJP does not openly describe itself as Hindu nationalist, critics say such leanings are given away by legislation that favors Hindus and the rhetoric of some of its leading figures.
One of the BJP’s most controversial moves came in 2019 when it revoked the semi-autonomous status of the Muslim-majority region of Indian-administered Kashmir, bringing it under the direct control of New Delhi.
India said the move was aimed at ending separatism and terrorism it alleged was aided by Pakistan. Critics said the move was aimed at encouraging Hindus to settle there.
Skepticism over New Delhi’s motives was fueled by India’s Home Minister Amit Shah when he said the revocation had partially achieved the dream of Akhand Bharat – a sentiment echoed by other right-wing politicians.
“We have to see the dream of Akhand Bharat in this lifetime and it has started with (this),” said deputy chief minister of the state of Maharashtra, Devendra Fadnavis.
Experts say such rhetoric has made India’s neighbors nervous.
“The tragedy is that with this kind of narrative coming from India, it only enforces the Pakistan army’s view that there is a threat,” said Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal.
Fahd Humayun, an assistant professor of political science at Tufts University, warned statements like these can “impact the national security calculus” of neighboring states.
He added: “In practical terms, the worry is (these comments) build on a brand of Hindu nationalism which has clear expansionist tendencies.”