India can't afford the blind zeal for Hindu Rashtra

I Mean What I Say

by Shashi Tharoor

4 min read
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Protest over Udaipur killing in Bengaluru | PTI

The fallout of the offensive statements about the Prophet Mohammed emanating from two of the principal spokespersons of the ruling party, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP, has not yet abated, though the warm welcome given to Prime Minister Modi during his visit to Abu Dhabi suggests that fence-mending has taken place with one of our most important Gulf partners, the UAE.

This kind of Muslim-baiting rhetoric has become standard for the BJP in India’s increasingly toxic politics, since common-or-garden Islamophobia, as a means of polarising majority Hindu opinion, is seen as a potent vote-catcher for the Hindu-chauvinist BJP. But this time it went too far, crossing all acceptable limits by demeaning the Prophet himself. And its implications for Indian foreign policy, especially in Muslim countries, are severe and must give the ruling party pause.

The insular notion that domestic political debate, conducted in Hindi, will only affect domestic Hindi-speaking television audiences, has of course been rendered totally obsolete by the Internet. It did not take long for Islamic countries to hear about the remarks, and to erupt in fury. Most of the Gulf countries, other Muslim nations, and inevitably Pakistan – a total of twenty Islamic states -- summoned the Indian envoys in their capitals to give them a tongue-lashing on the “unacceptable” statement and demand punishment for those who made it. Qatar cancelled a formal lunch for the visiting Indian Vice-President, Venkaiah Naidu. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference, no friend of New Delhi, capitalised on the moment to condemn India and issue calls for the UN to take action against it. Movements to boycott Indian goods erupted in eleven Muslim countries. A number of Indians employed in the Gulf were informed of the termination of their services. Al-Qaeda issued a statement threatening retaliation – and the recent grisly beheading of an Udaipur tailor suggests there are some Muslims in India willing to heed them.

Nupur Sharma slammed over Prophet Mohammed remarks | PTI

Our Ministry of External Affairs scrambled to limit the damage, assuring the Muslim world that the offensive statements in no way represented the view of the Indian government but had been made by “fringe elements” (a characterisation that stretched credulity since both were prominent BJP faces and one had been an election candidate for the ruling party). The two BJP spokespersons, Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal, were summarily removed from their positions, with the former being suspended from the ruling party and the latter expelled. But the incident highlighted the growing number of instances of Muslim-baiting unleashed or condoned by the BJP under the Modi government, and the damage to India’s standing in the Islamic world has been extensive.

It is one thing for the MEA to defiantly dismiss American strictures on India’s increasing Islamophobia as “ill-informed comments”, as they recently did when Secretary of State Blinken decried reports of “violations of religious freedom in India”. The Western world is relatively easy to take for granted because their verbal objections usually have no practical consequences, given India’s importance to the West as a geopolitical counterweight to China. But writing off the Muslim Gulf countries is impossible; with them it is India that needs to be in their good books.

India’s quick surrender to its Islamic critics served as a reminder that the Gulf remains vital to India’s interests. It is a vital trade partner, an indispensable contributor to India’s domestic security, a host to some eight million Indian expatriate workers whose remittances support their families back home, and increasingly a significant security partner in the fight against terrorism emanating from the broader region. To jeopardise all this for the petty self-serving domestic political Muslim-bashing that the BJP increasingly wallows in is profoundly irresponsible. Especially when, ironically, the Modi government had invested considerable effort in strengthening relations with Muslim countries, especially in the Gulf, and so raised their salience in Indian foreign policy.

It has, of course, helped that India has long enjoyed a reputation for being hospitable to Muslim interests, and indeed for celebrating its diversity, embracing its own substantial Muslim population with pride. The Muslim world has been aware of and even familiar with prominent Indian Muslims -– movie stars like Shah Rukh and the other Khans, businessmen like Azim Premji, and sportspersons like cricketer Azharuddin and boxer Nikhat Zareen, but also Presidents, Foreign Ministers and Ambassadors who were both proud Muslims and proud Indians. It was India’s established record, and its domestic traditions of co-existence, that made Muslim countries all the more receptive to its efforts to improve relations, despite the hostility of Islamic Pakistan.

All this has been severely eroded by the domestic politics of polarisation sponsored by the BJP, as India’s ruling party, and the free rein accorded to its loudest voices by a government that should really know better. When your perceived domestic political interests undermine your evident national interests, obviously the nation should come first. So far, the Modi government has successfully managed the paradox of pursuing Hindutva majoritarianism at home while cultivating warm relations with Muslim nations abroad. Perhaps it is time for the Prime Minister to do some plain speaking to his own political underlings, before all his good work with the Muslim world is undone by his own party colleagues in their blind zeal for a Hindu Rashtra.

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