By Omair Anas
The Indian government was caught by surprise by the spiral of reaction over the ruling party member’s remarks against Prophet Mohammad. The remarks were made on 30 May, and Indian Muslims were agitating against the remarks demanding legal action against the party members. India has a stringent law against insulting any religion’s sacred personalities, books or symbols. For most of its history, these laws were early affected because India’s overwhelmingly religious population had the understanding to respect each other. In general, India’s diverse religious groups have maintained respect for each other, and inter-religious relations in India were once in ideal conditions in comparison to all other multi-religious societies. India also has a set of laws that restricts and bans the use of derogatory remarks against any religious personality and their sacred symbols, including Islam’s. Two weeks ago, when two of the ruling party members, Nupur Sharma and Navin Jindal, used derogatory remarks against Prophet Muhammad, Indian Muslims protested the remarks and demanded action against them according to the law. This issue is not about freedom of speech and freedom of expression; it is rather about the implementation of existing laws.
As the action against the two members was delayed, their videos and Tweets started spreading from India to all over the world, causing serious pain and unease among Muslim populations worldwide. To this extent, the Indian government has been sensitive that its relations with a large Islamic world are not ordinary relations. These relations are centuries old, and India has always been part of a larger Islamic world regardless of who ruled the country. Many Indians and Arabs do not know that Indian scholars of Islam have contributed immensely to the knowledge of Hadith and Fiqh, making India the third-largest centre of Hadith scholarship after Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Dozens of Indian Islamic scholars from the time of the Mughal era to now have interpreted classical texts, which have been published by and used by Islamic seminaries around the world. The respect of India as a centre of knowledge for Islamic studies has given India a special place, and hundreds of Muslim students from across the Muslim world have been coming to India to learn Islamic sciences.
During her independence struggle, Indian freedom fighters, Gandhi, Nehru, Maulana Azad, and others, had also supported the independence of Muslim countries and had opposed all forms of imperialism and colonialism. This was another reason that India and the Islamic world had become natural friends and part of an extended family who had cared for each other for centuries. Relations between India and the Arab world flourished like no other relations. During their massive urbanization and construction drives, all Gulf countries preferred Indian labour, and the region became home to more than seven million Indian workers who send nearly forty billion dollars every year. These relations have improved regardless of whether the party and leader ruled India. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, the relations between India and the Gulf states have been considered his most significant foreign policy achievement. He has visited almost all Gulf countries and has engaged with the Organisation of Islamic Countries, the Arab League, and the Gulf Cooperation Countries. The bilateral trade has expanded, relations were upgraded to strategic levels, and many of the Gulf nations joined India’s initiative of the International Solar Alliance.
The derogatory remarks by two of Prime Minister Modi’s party members were, in all sense, against the thinking and approach of the government of India and Prime Minister NarendraModi. In 2015, India had organised its first-ever International Sufi Conference, which was attended by Prime Minister Modi and King of Jordan Abdulla II. More than a hundred Sufi and Islamic scholars from around the world attended the conference. The event was a major step toward reconnecting with the Islamic world based on common spiritual values of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other Indian religions. The remarks against Prophet Muhammad harmed India’s reputation and undermined India’s West Asia diplomacy.
However, Indian officials were late to realize the power of social media, which carried the information and misinformation faster than their legal process. A week after these statements, almost the entire world was aware of the grotesque remarks except the law enforcement. Of late Indian diplomatic missions started gathering information from Arabic social media, and they got the sense of the damage that was being inflicted on their diplomatic efforts by these legally reprehensible remarks. By the time the two members in question were removed from the party, the first foreign reaction also came that spiralled in days to more than fifteen countries. The government and the diplomatic missions were quick and clear in distancing the government from the two persons and their statements. Their official statements made necessary explanations that also received appreciation from various Arab and Islamic nations, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
However, the incident has left many lessons for India’s West Asia diplomacy. Despite having expanded and deepened relations with the region, Indians have been engaging with the region merely on a transactional basis. The people-to-people relations, which could have informed both sides of their sensitivities, are very weak. Unlike China which has been expanding its public diplomacy in the region by opening its Arabic TV channel, websites, and cultural centres, India has not tried to reach out to the Arab population and public opinion. The way Hindu religious figures visit Western countries to promote Yoga and Hindu spiritual traditions, there is no such exchange between India and West Asian countries. It is surprising that the members of the world’s largest political party, the BJP, are not sufficiently trained in public diplomacy and issues that are common between India and its friends. It is not sufficient to shrug off these derogatory remarks against the prophet by calling it an internal affair. Why do the ruling party members not know that the people of India’s close friend countries in the Gulf and Southeast Asia have special emotional relations with Prophet Muhammad? This only shows the ruling party’s lack of training and sensitization for successful foreign relations. Why are there no cultural dialogues and exchanges between India and Middle Eastern countries? It is not only India’s permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council that India should have good relations with these countries; it is also important because India has been part of a shared civilizational continent for centuries.
India is not and cannot be an isolated country like Denmark. It is India’s destiny, we like it or don’t; thanks to India’s history and geography, India is part of a diverse Islamic world, Persian-speaking Central Asia and Eurasia, the Arab world, the Turkic world, and the southeast Asian countries. The members of the BJP need to have an understanding similar to one that the members of the Indian National Congress once had at the time of India’s independence struggle. Today’s BJP is enjoying the same popularity and influence in the Indian society once enjoyed by the INC. Prime Minister Modi’s West Asia diplomacy could not have succeeded without a strong legacy left by India’s previous governments, who also, like Modi, had maintained close relations with India’s West Asian neighbours. By removing the two members, the ruling party had taken a corrective step and stopped the backlash from spreading much. The bad memories of the 2005 protests over the prophet’s cartoons in Denmark had only created a divide between the Islamic and the Western world. The reactions on Arabic social media indicate that India’s reputation and diplomacy now have a big challenge. To save India’s greater national interests abroad, especially in the Middle East, Central Asia, and SouthEast Asia, the government and the party needs to be part of people-to-people exchanges and dialogue.
(Author teaches International Relations at Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University, Turkey. He is also Director Research of Centre for India-West Asia Dialogue. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).