‘Om-washing’: Why Modi’s yoga day pose is deceptive

It’s time to reclaim yoga from the Indian PM, who is using it to mask an agenda of ethno-nationalist state violence.

Participants take part in the 9th International Day of Yoga event with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi at United Nations headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., June 21, 2023. India's Press Information Bureau/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
Participants take part in the 9th International Day of Yoga event with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the United Nations headquarters in New York City on June 21, 2023 [India's Press Information Bureau/Handout via Reuters]

In 2014, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi first addressed the United Nations General Assembly, he arrived with a mission: to propose a resolution that recognises June 21 as the International Day of Yoga and India as the spiritual birthplace of yoga.

To a gathering of nearly 200 political leaders, Modi enthusiastically framed yoga as “an invaluable gift of [India’s] ancient tradition”. He suggested that honouring yoga could help foster world peace, mitigate the consequences of climate change and combat armed violence. The following year, the world celebrated its first yoga day.

And on Wednesday, the UN welcomed Modi back to its headquarters to lead this year’s event. But what version of India did Modi showcase to the world?

It was the one that builds on the mainstream portrayal of India as the world’s largest secular democracy and home to a growing economy. Not the version that acknowledges a wrecked democracy – signalled by the rise of an authoritarian, Hindu nationalist and caste supremacist agenda – in Modi’s India.

Since becoming the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Modi and his spiritual allies have appropriated yoga as propaganda for Hindu nationalism and right-wing policies; to rewrite India’s history; and divert public attention away from their Hindu supremacist political agenda.

Simply put, Modi has weaponised yoga to conceal the political and systemic violence he has advanced against oppressed minorities in India.

That’s what he did before world leaders and yoga followers on UN Yoga Day – it was a spectacle of what I call om-washing, used to mask a radical agenda of ethno-nationalist state violence.

None of this must be confused with any genuine conviction to use yoga to build a more just, unified and liberated world.

World peace?

In insisting that ancient Indian culture “sees the world as one family”, Modi often suggests that yogic philosophy guides his efforts to promote democracy and peace within India’s borders and with global partners. However, democracy is in steep decline in Modi’s India.

The nation has seen a surge in state-sponsored and vigilante attacks on Muslims, Christians, Dalits and other oppressed minorities since Modi has taken office. Not only has Modi legitimised Hindu nationalists to be more emboldened in attacking marginalised populations, but his administration has also weakened independent institutions of Indian democracy, including the judiciary.

Globally, he has strengthened military partnerships with states like Israel, France and the United States – nations that are invested in the politics of Islamophobia and war-making. Modi’s touting of yoga as lending itself toward peaceful and democratic principles masks his dedicated investment in militarism and war.

Climate change?

Modi has also suggested that a yogic lifestyle can reverse the devastating impact of global warming and promote environmental sustainability. Calling for a mass movement against climate change, Modi has pledged India’s commitment to net zero emissions by 2070 while urging everyday climate yogis to do their part by changing their behaviours.

While yoga can certainly be used to combat climate change, Modi’s continued investment in the fossil-fuel industry and military spending indicates his pledge to curb emissions is an empty promise – especially when military emissions are consistently excluded from climate change agreements.

Climate scientists and environmental activists have argued that responding to the ever-threatening climate catastrophe will require radical divestment from a consumer-driven capitalist economy. But Modi remains committed to individualised solutions that make no radical changes in the structure of the economy and serve his ultimate agenda of feigning support for “green” policies while advancing programmes that actively destroy our planet.

Combating ‘terrorism’?

In his 2014 speech to the UN, Modi also spoke of the need for world leaders to jointly combat “terrorism and extremism”. However, Modi uses the Islamophobic discourse of the “War on Terror” to invisibilise state-sanctioned militarism.

In August 2019, Modi’s government revoked the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, which India’s only Muslim-majority state had enjoyed since it acceded to a newly independent India in 1947. That was followed by a crackdown – political activity was banned, politicians were placed under house arrest and the internet was choked, as India deployed additional troops to one of the most militarised zones in the world.

Meanwhile, the Indian army posts photos of its soldiers in yoga poses. Contrast that with the human rights abuses the Indian military is accused of in Kashmir, and it becomes apparent how Modi and his allies also use om-washing to sanitise India’s brutal track record in Kashmir.

With Modi’s yoga day performance live-streamed at Times Square and on social media platforms, I imagine thousands of politically neutral attendees might have joined in too. After all, what’s the harm in doing yoga with Modi, right? It’s not like doing yoga with him and thousands of others is in itself any endorsement of a political agenda.

But I encourage those on the fence to recognise how participating in such events legitimises Modi’s attempts at om-washing – this agenda of using yoga to conceal his Hindu supremacist ideology. It’s time to reclaim yoga by rejecting Modi’s appropriation of this ancient practice.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.