By K.M. Seethi
Religion in many societies is a veritable powder keg, and any inept handling of issues related to faith has tricky implications for social and political life, as much as it is for international relations. India being a multi-religious and multi-cultural society has always encountered several critical issues in the past related to religions and their multifarious social engagements. Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation, once said that a “living faith in God means acceptance of the brotherhood of mankind.” But Gandhi himself encountered too many problems in the promotion of this goal, and his life itself was a sacrifice for the cause of brotherhood, as against narrow religiosity and communalism.
Today, as India is set to celebrate the 75th year of its independence, religious issues are perilously resurfacing, if not engulfing, the whole country. It has also assumed critical external dimensions. The latest in the series is the diplomatic row caused by the remarks about the Prophet Muhammad by two ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokespersons, Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal. Ms. Sharma, who was serving as the spokesperson of the BJP, made her remarks in a televised debate a few days ago, and Mr. Jindal, the media head of the party’s Delhi unit, had posted a tweet on the issue afterward. In the wake of the BJP leaders’ remarks, violence broke out in Kanpur, UP and there were nationwide protests and criticisms. Sensing the risky implications of the issue, the media in India and across the world are not iterating the remarks.
Meanwhile, several countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Organisation of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have come down against these remarks and demanded action from India. Responses from Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Iran, the UAE, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Malaysia, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Maldives, et al. are more or less the same, and the OIC statement came a bit more resentfully, warranting New Delhi’s immediate retort.
The Government of India would not have expected such external repercussions on the issue. Though there were similar instances of hate speeches from the BJP leaders in the past, they rarely triggered such international responses, even from friendly regimes. This time the remarks came from the ruling party’s responsible leaders, and hence BJP acted swiftly. Ms. Sharma and Mr. Jindal were compelled to issue public apologies and the party suspended Ms. Sharma and expelled Mr. Jindal. In fact, New Delhi was not expected to go beyond this insofar as these adverse remarks had not come from any official sources. Moreover, the party issued a statement saying that it “strongly denounces insults of any religious personalities of any religion.” It “is also against any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion.” The BJP categorically stated that it “does not promote such people or philosophy.” With widespread protests snowballing across, the police registered a case but the investigation has not been handled expeditiously. The case was apparently registered under IPC sections 153(A) (Promoting enmity between two groups), 504 (Intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace) 505(2) (Statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred, or ill will between classes) and 506 (criminal intimidation). Admittedly, these sections would have called for immediate action, but the agencies responsible for the investigation did not proceed in the desired direction. In the intervening period, there were communal tensions, polarisation, and mobilization that soon found their violent manifestation in Kanpur.
Countries in the GCC reacted differently. Demanding a public apology from India, Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that letting “such Islamophobic remarks continue without punishment, constitutes a grave danger to the protection of human rights and may lead to further prejudice and marginalization, which will create a cycle of violence and hate.” India’s Ambassador to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, said the remarks from some “fringe elements” did not represent the views of the Government of India. In fact, Qatar had summoned the Indian Ambassador at a crucial time—when the Indian Vice President Venkaiah Naidu was on an official visit to the country and talks with senior officials were underway. Later, Assistant Foreign Minister of Qatar, Lolwah Alkhater, tweeted that the “Islamophobic discourse has reached dangerous levels in a country long known for its diversity & coexistence. Unless officially & systemically confronted, the systemic hate speech targeting Islam in India will be considered a deliberate insult against the 2 billion Muslims.” Though Kuwait also welcomed the suspension of the BJP official it still demanded “public apology on part of the perpetrator for such extreme and vile statements, which opposed all elements of moderation.” The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs also expressed its condemnation and denunciation of the statements made by the spokeswoman of the BJP.” The Indian officials did not respond to all such comments and criticisms.
However, New Delhi reacted swiftly to the statements by Pakistan and the OIC. The OIC statement runs as follows:
“These abuses come in the context of the escalation of hatred and abuse of Islam in India and in the context of systematic practices against and harassment of Muslims, particularly in the light of a series of decisions to ban headscarves in educational institutions in a number of Indian states and demolitions of Muslim property, as well as increased violence against them,” said the statement.” OIC Secretariat also called “on the international community, particularly united nations mechanisms and special procedures of the Human Rights Council, to take the necessary measures to address practices targeting Muslims in India.”
India “categorically” rejected “OIC Secretariat’s unwarranted and narrow-minded comments.” It said that India “accords the highest respect to all religions. The offensive tweets and comments denigrating a religious personality were made by certain individuals. They do not, in any manner, reflect the views of the Government of India. Strong action has already been taken against these individuals by relevant bodies. It is regrettable that OIC Secretariat has yet again chosen to make motivated, misleading and mischievous comments. This only exposes its divisive agenda being pursued at the behest of vested interests.” India also urged the OIC Secretariat “to stop pursuing its communal approach and show due respect to all faiths and religions.”
New Delhi issued a similar reply to Pakistan when its foreign ministry issued a statement condemning the remarks and calling on the international community to take note of rising attacks against Muslims in India. According to a statement issued by India, the “absurdity of a serial violator of minority rights commenting on the treatment of minorities in another nation is not lost on anyone. The world has been witness to the systemic persecution of minorities including Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, and Ahmadiyyas by Pakistan. The Government of India accords the highest respect to all religions. This is quite unlike Pakistan where fanatics are eulogized and monuments built in their honour.” India also called on “Pakistan to focus on the safety, security and well-being of its minority communities instead of engaging in alarmist propaganda and attempting to foment communal disharmony in India.”
India’s Stakes Are High
Perceptibly, India cannot afford to alienate the countries in the Gulf, West Asia and North Africa. Historically, the region is better known as India’s extended neighbourhood for geopolitical and geocultural reasons. The trade with the countries in these regions has crossed $100 billion recently. More than 8 million Indians live in the GCC countries alone and the remittance from the Gulf expats is quite substantial. India’s energy dependence on the region is also significant. Nearly 40 % of India’s oil requirements and an equal share of gas imports are met from this region. It was only recently that India signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the UAE, which opened the next step in the direction of a wider FTA with the GCC. Prime Minister Modi has been taking great interest in the strengthening of relations with these countries and, in 2018, he welcomed the UAE government’s support in the construction of a major Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi, which was seen as a symbol of growing ties between India and the UAE. Hence the response from the UAE must be viewed seriously, according to senior party officials.
Evidently, the whole issue emerged in the background of tensions surrounding the claims on the decades-old Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi which reached the Supreme Court on May 13 after a local court directed that a videography survey at the religious complex be allowed to continue. Later, a local court in Varanasi directed the district administration to seal the spot in the Gyanvapi Masjid complex where a ‘shivling’ was reportedly found during a court-mandated videography survey. Television channels and social media were abuzz with provocative debates on the issue. In fact, Ms. Sharma’s comments came as part of this polemic which assumed bouts of communal frenzy.
While many consider the international repercussions on the issue as a wake-up call for India, others see many lapses and pitfalls in the whole process. This author talked to some eminent diplomats on this subject and their responses are quite revealing. Ambassador K. P. Fabian—who served in the Indian foreign service for quite a long time and served in many countries, such as Iran, Qatar, et al.—shared the following:
It is shocking but not surprising that Ms. Nupur Sharma, a product of London School of Economics, should have exhibited such deplorable insensitivity to the sentiments of Muslims in India and the rest of the world. She said what she said because she is part of the ongoing project to bring into being a Hindu Rashtra, a project close to Modi’s heart. Modi follows her tweets. What is surprising and shocking is that the GOI woke up only after the Ambassador in Qatar was summoned when the Vice President was there.
Did Qatar give a signal of its displeasure before the VP visit started?
Yes. The programme had included a luncheon with the Amir. It was deleted and the amended program was with Delhi even before the VP left India. Obviously, it was not necessary to wait to be summoned and the Ambassador could have gone to FO and presented India’s case.
What is or should be India’s case? India is a large democracy with freedom of speech. Often action can be taken only after the event. In the present case the party in question has removed her and FIRs have been filed against her. Obviously, such an incident should not affect bilateral relations. GOI regrets that it had occurred. As explained, there was no way to prevent it.
Moreover, the day it occurred, MEA could have called in ambassadors from Islamic countries and briefed them. That is proactive as opposed to reactive diplomacy. The OIC’s statement was harshly worded. India paid the compliment of issuing an even harsher statement without realizing that it was escalating the confrontation to the disadvantage of India and advantage of Pakistan.
Ambassador M. K. Bhadrakumar, who served in countries such as Pakistan, Iran Afghanistan, et al., writes:
“The government has been caught on the wrong foot by the strong backlash in the Muslim world. The present situation is different since it crossed all the parameters of permissiveness and touched the most sacred strings of the Muslim psyche, but this also leaves a slur on India’s heritage as a ‘civilisation state.’ Words are not sufficient to condemn the incident. The government should, without reservations, speak up.”
Ambassador Bhadrakumar said that “this moment must be taken seriously as a wake-up call as regards the dangers of the BJP nurturing bigotry for reasons of political expediency.” “India’s unique status as a country with one of the largest Muslim populations in the world (and yet its exclusion from the OIC) poses severe challenges to Indian diplomacy.” He pointed out: “Our approach is insufficient and archaic — and episodic. Such excessive attention to Europe and America in South Block’s diplomacy is not only unwarranted but also risks neglect of India’s “near abroad” where India has vital interests. Surely, there must be some way India can take advantage of the Saudi and Iranian goodwill. Third, in such situations, the government must continue to act with the same decisiveness against the rogue elephants in the BJP tent.”
In another conversation with this author, Ambassador Venu Rajamony, a former envoy to the Netherlands, Press Secretary to President of India & Consul General of India in Dubai said:
“It’s a sad and disturbing situation that the efforts made by this government to vastly improve the relations with the Gulf countries have now been turned back as a result of the foolish remarks by two spokespersons of the BJP. However, it is ironic that it is only the Gulf countries to complain this govt, reacted and took action but otherwise, there have been voices from this country and other Western countries which have been pointing out the very dangerous trends in the treatment of minorities, and the attacks on minorities within the country. However, there are people who question whether the countries in the Gulf which do not have freedom of expression can question and point fingers at India. But that is not the issue. The issue in India is that we must basically decide where we have to go and how we must go, in terms of addressing issues such as the attacks on minorities and the issue of Islamophobia…India being a plural secular country must look at such issues where comments hurtful to minorities must be resolved within the Constitutional framework,” Ambassador Venu added.
As Ambassador Venu pointed out, it was only recently that the US designated “India as a ‘country of particular concern,’ or CPC, for engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Annual Report 2022. The Report says: “the Indian government escalated its promotion and enforcement of policies—including those promoting a Hindu-nationalist agenda—that negatively affect Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and other religious minorities. The government continued to systemize its ideological vision of a Hindu state at both the national and state levels through the use of both existing and new laws and structural changes hostile to the country’s religious minorities.”
In response to this Report, an MEA spokesman said: “It is unfortunate that vote bank politics is being practiced in international relations. We would urge that assessments based on motivated inputs and biased views be avoided.
As a naturally pluralistic society, India values religious freedom and human rights. In our discussions with the US, we have regularly highlighted issues of concern there, including racially and ethnically motivated attacks, hate crimes and gun violence.” Curiously, in less than three days after this statement from MEA, India has been driven from pillar to the post on a question similar to the one raised in the USCIRF. The upshot of the recent diplomatic row is clear enough. India as an emerging power with multilevel global engagements cannot remain oblivious to the twists and turns in domestic politics insofar as the dividing line between ‘domestic’ and ‘international’ is getting blurred today more than ever before.
The author, an ICSSR Senior Fellow, is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala.