Sunday, November 27, 2022

India on the Back Foot

Anti-Muslim rhetoric and attacks in India seem to have affected diplomatic ties as a US panel and some countries in the vital Gulf region have slammed the government for the rising Islamophobia. By Seema Guha

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At some time or the other, the hate mongering rampant in India had to catch up. At home, the government can maintain a stony silence. But when there are signs of it affecting India’s diplomatic relations, there has to be a course correction. The time for that has come now considering what is at stake.

Recently, a US government panel called for India to be placed on a religious panel blacklist. Earlier, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), headed by Saudi Arabia, had called out India. Moreover, a UAE princess, as well as the Kuwaiti government, made remarks on Islamophobia that has gripped India.

Anti-Muslim sentiments and vigilante attacks on the community have been reported since 2014. These intensified after the BJP returned to power with a massive majority in 2019. Since the pandemic, much of the hate remarks were triggered by the Tablighi Jamaat meeting in Delhi. Many from the congregation had unknowingly spread the virus across the country. The general public, goaded by some TV anchors, pointed fingers at the entire community for the spread of the virus. Social media exploded with accusations of Muslims deliberately setting out to spread the disease. While all this is a reaction to fear of an unknown virus, as well as latent anti-Muslim sentiments in a section of Indians, India needs to get its act together if it has to retain its image as a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual country where major religious groups live in harmony. The co-existence of different religious groups took a major hit with the Delhi riots, which happened on the second day of US President Donald Trump’s India visit in February. The riots were widely covered in the foreign media.

The reactions soon started coming. First, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent bipartisan US federal government commission, slammed India, just like it did in 2019. It said the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was discriminatory. The amendment allows minority Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists and Jains living in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh to get Indian citizenship to escape religious persecution. The glaring omission is of Muslims who are also often targeted, especially Shias in Pakistan. What is more, the panel called for placing India on a religious freedom blacklist over a downturn in religious freedom since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office.

In its annual report published recently, it said that India should join the ranks of “countries of particular concern” that would be subject to sanctions if they do not improve their records. Three members of the panel disagreed with the decision to include India in the list.

It is highly unlikely that the US will slap sanctions on India for religious intolerance. This can only happen when relations between India and the US deteriorate to such an extent that the latter goes ahead with sanctions. India’s ties with the US have improved tremendously since the civil nuclear deal was signed in 2006 by George W Bush and Manmohan Singh. Ties underwent a dramatic change since then. This has been carried forward by Modi and US President Donald Trump.

India, naturally, refuted the USCIRF allegations. “We reject the observations on India in the USCIRF annual report. Its biased and tendentious comments against India are not new,” Anurag Srivastava, the ministry of external affairs (MEA) spokesman said. “But ­on this occasion, its misrepresentation has reached new levels….We regard it as an organisation of particular concern and will treat it accordingly.”

In an incident which could have no relation with the USCIRF report, Trump unfollowed Modi on Twitter. This might seem strange considering that after his ego-boosting trip to India in February, where a stadium full of people welcomed him in Ahmedabad, he followed Modi.  

Trump also unfollowed Indian President Ram Nath Kovind, the PMO and the Indian embassy in the US. The reason for this behaviour is not known. Perhaps with presidential elections in November and the Christian right a part of Trump’s support base, he is being extra cautious. Right-wing Christian groups have always spoken out against religious intolerance in India. Whether this is merely Trump being his usual whimsical self is unclear.

But of much more significance to India is the criticism coming out of the Gulf region, which is pivotal to the Indian economy. Over six million Indians live and work out of the oil-rich Gulf kingdoms. These workers send back valuable remittances which fuel the economy of states like Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. India’s political ties with the Gulf countries have always been good. But in the last few years, the centre tried to invest much more political capital in the region—be it foreign minister Jaswant Singh’s visit to Saudi Arabia during the Vajpayee years, Manmohan Singh visiting Saudi Arabia or Modi pushing the envelope even further.

Modi was honoured with the highest civilian award by UAE last year.  Even the scrapping of Kashmir’s special status and abrogation of Article 370 did not get much traction in the Gulf. Despite Pakistan’s best efforts, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two most powerful economies in the region, remained non-committal. In fact, there was commentary in the Pakistani press that Prime Minister Imran Khan could not depend on the Muslim world to back his country’s efforts to highlight the plight of Kashmiris. But that could well change if the government continues to allow its followers to push the communal narrative.

In a statement on April 27, Kuwait appealed to OIC to look into the rising Islamophobia in India. The OIC is a group of 57 Muslim countries meant to look after the interests of member states. The General Secretariat of the Kuwait Council of Ministers expressed its “deep concern” about the treatment of Indian Muslims. It asked the OIC to take “necessary and urgent measures” to “preserve the rights of Muslims there”. Abdullah al-Shoreka, a minister in Kuwait’s Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, tweeted that it was time for Muslims to speak up against the persecution of their co-religionists.

But India has denied this. The MEA said in a statement: “The government of Kuwait has assured us that they are deeply committed to friendly relations with India. They do not support any interference in the internal affairs of India.” Srivastava also noted that India had sent a Rapid Response Team of doctors and medical supervisors to assist Kuwait fighting Covid-19. “During its two weeks’ stay in Kuwait, the team rendered valuable medical assistance in testing and treatment of afflicted persons and training their personnel.” The MEA is doing damage control at home. But perhaps more important is to stop the growing public statements being made by BJP party MLAs and workers asking for boycott of Muslim vegetable vendors in UP and Gujarat.

In the past too, the OIC had regularly come up with anti-India statements. Successive governments in Delhi have not paid attention, mainly because the MEA would informally tell reporters that individual nations always told Delhi to ignore the OIC statements. They often went along with the prepared texts and said yes, but would not let any of this ruin ties with India. This was decades back. Whether the same rules hold today is another question.

Somehow things seem different now. Earlier, the Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission, which is part of the OIC, tweeted about “unrelenting vicious #Islamophobic campaign in #India maligning Muslims for spread of #COVID-19 as well as their negative profiling in media subjecting them to discrimination & violence with impunity”. And again, in another tweet: “#OIC-IPHRC urges the #Indian Govt to take urgent steps to stop the growing tide of #Islamophobia in India and protect the rights of its persecuted #Muslim minority as per its obligations under int’l HR law.”

To top it, Saurabh Upadhyay, an Indian working in the UAE, tweeted abuse about members of the Tablighi Jamaat. He referred to them spitting on people as a “new form of jihad”. He also called for “Death to radical Islamic tabligi (sic) terrorists and other radical Islamic sons of satan.” Then, in a unique development, a member of the Sharjah royal house, Sheikha Hend Al Qassemi responded to this tweet. Recalling her family’s close ties with India, she said: “… your rudeness is not welcome. … You make your bread and butter from this land which you scorn and your ridicule will not go unnoticed”. She then quoted UAE laws prohibiting hate speech by citizens and non-citizens. She followed up with a front-page opinion piece in Gulf News, titled: “I pray for an India without Islamophobia”.

 That would be the best way forward for India.

Lead Picture: UNI

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