As Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal were made to relinquish their BJP posts due to their comments that amount to offending socio-religious sentiments, and the salvo of diplomatic reprimands that followed, we have before us very clearly indicated twin aspects of statehood and nationhood – of state and society; and of one country in a world of many. The comments directed at the Prophet took off into a turbulence and crash-landed very badly on India’s image, necessitating understanding the domestic and international impact of such a stunt.
We may call this a ‘stunt’ not to glorify a daring act of courage and bravery, but to acknowledge the foolhardiness of engaging in a dangerous pursuit – even if one gets away with it every time, the one time the stunt or stunt-like conduct fails, it’s a major failure. And this is what the world’s largest democracy has presented before us – all of us, irrespective of the frontiers and oceans and even faiths that mark us apart.
Ethos of a secular India may seem to have taken a back seat on the stage that represents this country and its people. One may argue that India is more than its political representation and that secular values are still very much alive – only not as loud and aggressive – but to the world, the voice of India as a state is that of its political representatives. And it is for this reason, half the world has lost its calm.
A tip of the iceberg of an impact was the embarrassment when the Indian Vice President was visiting Qatar, and the Indian Ambassador was summoned and a public apology from India was expected.
It is very relevant what Qatar said: “Allowing such Islamophobic remarks to continue without punishment, constitutes a grave danger to the protection of human rights and may lead to further prejudice and marginalisation, which will create a cycle of violence and hate.”
In the larger spectrum of interest, it needs to be remembered that India is a part of the world and cannot exist in isolation. It is thus important to maintain cordial relations with countries of partnership, especially given that Islamic countries are a major source of fundamental drivers of the economy-fuel being the primary one.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) includes Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE, and India’s trade with this stood at $ 87.36 billion in 2020-21. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been steadily developing a deeper rapport with these countries since he took over.
Reaching out to Islamic nations is in fact an extension of Gandian values of fraternity and humanity given his role in the Khilafat Movement for the cause of the Ottomans.
From the strategic perspective, the mutual desire for political stability, peace, and security in the region binds India and GCC together, creating opportunities for greater cooperation. This pursuit on the whole widens the scope of commerce and investments and will facilitate development of human resources. Millions of Indians reside and work in the Middle East and send in sizable remittances.
The perils of unbridled cultural intolerance
A free trade agreement with the UAE is a step in this direction. The ties between the two nations deepened to a cultural level when Modi attended the ceremony of the first Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi in 2018. Yet, in the turn of events, the UAE standing in opposition to India, along with other Gulf countries, due to the controversial statement of the top leader is a firmly conveyed message. This can also lead to undoing some recent diplomatic successes with UAE and the GCC nations.
Former diplomat Anil Trigunayat, who has served in the Arab region, is right in indicating that India has put itself in a difficult situation and “only sincere efforts at the leadership level could prevent negative fallout”. The diplomatic cost of the fallout is bound to hurt India’s interest in the region.
Also, in the wake of public outrage to boycott India, which is happening in greater intensity in GCC regions, commercial withdrawal, to some extent, will hurt both economies as India’s exports to GCC stood at $28.06 billion in 2020-21. The bilateral trade at this time worth $87.36 billion was a 27 per cent decline from the previous year. Commercial relations are thus important on both sides.
However, a case in point is a country like China, which in 2020, replaced the European Union as the GCC’s largest trading partner with bilateral trade worth $161.4 billion. The GCC block also happens to be a central pillar of China’s Belt and Road Initiative as the UAE and Saudi Arabia are the second and third prime donors for Chinese projects.
Yet, when China is accused of committing crimes against humanity and possibly genocide in its north-western Xinjiang region – which has the Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic groups – the mighty world does not see it as a problem worth vocalising. Arguably because China is economically in a place to have its own way with the world; also because the nation’s domestic affairs are carried out in a strictly domestic manner and without proactively bringing it on the global stage.
This is probably where Nupur Sharma missed the point. While religious bigotry is not exclusive to any one side, the stage at which offensive thoughts are vocalised matters a great deal and goes beyond the purview of right and wrong. However, it is difficult to overlook that Nupur Sharma (and not the BJP government) is at the receiving end of all the flack as she is a woman, hence a soft target.
When local-level groups turn verbally violent against a community, irrespective of religion, as it often happens with mobilised unemployed and indoctrinated youth for propaganda, nations of the world are unaffected. But when a office bearer of a government that has with it a massive mandate of the electorate falls for such misconduct, it goes out as the voice of India and not that of just a person.
One may be free to say things in restricted spaces, irrespective of religious affinity, but a public forum, especially one with international reach, calls for more mindful conduct. Since offensive comments along lines of religion are not uncommon, it is important to set a precedent in taking to task the offenders at the prominent levels so that taking action against offenders at local levels is less difficult.
India is watched for increased religious polarisation since the BJP rose to power under Narendra Modi. The past few weeks have been particularly spotlighted for creating occasions for religious disharmony by way of threatening vandalism to mosques for the sake of temples that were previously vandalised and demolished in their locations.
Relegating the national spokesperson of the ruling party to a “fringe element” is no escape from the quagmire the Indian government has driven itself into. As a secular state, religion must be kept at a distance so as to not overshadow the functioning of the state. Besides, the government ought to give its people greater choice of pursuits than merely religion and cultural jingoism.
If only this occasion is taken as lesson to mend the ways of “toxic politics”, as dubbed by experts, can we look forward to some “achche din!”