India will defend itself against enemies, says Modi in Independence Day speech

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers his address during the country's 71st Independence Day celebrations, which marks the 70th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule, at the historic Red Fort in New Delhi, on Aug 15, 2017.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers his address during the country's 71st Independence Day celebrations, which marks the 70th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule, at the historic Red Fort in New Delhi, on Aug 15, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (AFP, REUTERS) - India will defend itself against anyone who seeks "to act against our country", Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in an Independence Day speech on Tuesday (Aug 15) amid a tense stand-off with Beijing over a Himalayan plateau.

"Security is our top priority," Mr Modi said in a speech before thousands at the landmark Red Fort in New Delhi. The country is marking the 70th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule.

"Be it the sea or the borders, cyber or space - in all spheres, India is capable and we are strong enough to overcome those who try to act against our country," the Hindu nationalist leader declared.

His remarks came as New Delhi's dispute with Beijing over a strategically key Himalayan plateau enters its third month, with hundreds of soldiers reported to be facing off against each other.

The Asian giants, who share a border, share a long history of mistrust and went to war in 1962 over the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, and are still embroiled in a dispute over the territory.

India is also mired in a border row with Pakistan over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir since 1947. India accuses Pakistan of sending "terrorists" across the border to fight security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir, which is divided between the rival neighbours.

Mr Modi was conciliatory towards the Muslim-majority Himalayan region of Kashmir, saying neither “name-calling nor bullets” would be enough to pacify the region. What was needed, he said, were “hugs” for Kashmiris.

On the domestic front, Mr Modi urged his country to reject eligious violence, after a series of attacks against minorities sparked debate about whether a surge of Hindu nationalism is undermining the country’s secular ideals.

Mr Modi has spoken out against attacks by right-wing Hindus, many of whom back his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), against minority Muslims and lower-caste Hindus accused of killing cows, considered holy by the majority Hindus.

But the setting of his denunciation of violence on Tuesday was significant. “We will not tolerate violence in the name of faith,” Mr Modi said before a teeming crowd at the fort and a huge television audience.

Since coming to power in 2014, Mr Modi has found it difficult to balance the competing demands of groups from his nationalist Hindu power base and those Indians striving to build a modern, secular country befitting its growing economic influence.

Mr Manoj Joshi, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank said Mr Modi was playing “good cop, bad cop” by condemning communal violence but doing little to rein in elements of his ruling party. “There is an obvious gap between slogan and implementation. It’s a deliberate gap and it’s just for the record,” he said.

Mr Modi also spoke at length about delivering a “new India” by 2022, underlining his confidence of winning the next general election, due by 2019.

Strong growth and economic reforms have bolstered his popularity and helped his party sweep state elections in recent years, leaving the opposition severely weakened.

Still, to keep up with the demands of India’s 1.3 billion people, the government needs to create millions more jobs a year, which it is struggling to do.

“A certain level of triumphalism ... brought Modi to power,” analyst Ajai Shukla told NDTV. “Now he realises people are expecting answers. He felt the need to convey an aura of progress.”