The demarche issued by a host of Islamic nations with regard to the unfortunate Nupur Sharma incident has stirred up a hornets’ nest in India and unleashed a welter of emotions. A cocktail of shame, embarrassment, anger and helpless distress is swirling in the air. And the usual suspects—the anti-Modi groups—are beating their chests and wailing out loud that our international image has taken a beating, while secretly rejoicing at the BJP’s discomfiture.
A disgruntled ex-BJP leader, a political lightweight, who owes his prominence to the party sanctimoniously claimed that India’s “image has now come crashing down”. He averred (Mask comes off, Indian Express, 11 June 2022): “The outrage in the Muslim countries with which we have had very cordial relations until now obviously cannot be taken lightly. It has brought down India’s standing in the comity of nations and caused grievous damage to our image as a liberal, secular democracy. The cat is finally out of the bag because we are no more a secular, liberal democracy; we have, under Modi, become a ‘Hindu Pakistan’.” Really? Pakistan is a country that has largely eliminated the minorities while India has 230 million citizens from the minority community.
So why do we need to feel ashamed or embarrassed? And does a single incident erode our credibility as a liberal secular democracy? Why are such conclusions floated? We as Indians suffer from a deep-set flaw in our psyche; a profound lack of self-esteem, a dearth of basic self-confidence that stems from not knowing who we are. A direct effect of being subject to oppression for over a thousand years. So much so that even when nations with a combined moral quotient of zero pass adverse remarks about us, we go into a tizzy, lose all composure and subject ourselves to an endless bout of self-loathing. Nothing illustrates this phenomenon better than our response to the current controversy.
First, one person’s aberration even if the individual belongs to the ruling party cannot indict an entire nation and a people. Second the government has acted to rectify the indecorum by asserting its respect for all religions and suspending the errant office bearer. Nupur Sharma too has apologised for her mistake.
Next, let us take a closer look at those Muslim countries that are hectoring India on moralities. These include Kuwait, Qatar, Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Jordan, Bahrain, Maldives, Malaysia, Oman, Iraq and Libya.
The majority of them designate Islam as the official religion; a caveat that automatically relegates all other religions to second class status. When we delve further into the track record of these countries with regard to religious freedom, shocking details emerge. Countries like Saudi Arabia prohibit the construction of non-Muslim places of worship; in some other Gulf countries non-Muslims have to seek government permission to establish religious places.
Some of these countries do not even afford non-Muslims the basic courtesy of dignity in death. Kuwait and Qatar do not allow cremations, forcing non-Muslims to fly dead bodies out of the country to their native places. Other countries like UAE have only three centralised crematoriums, which involves transporting dead bodies over considerable distances. And Qatar is the country that blatantly reiterated and endorsed M.F. Husain’s blasphemy against Hindu Gods by honouring him with a citizenship.
Despite all the criticism that the current government has been subject to, both at home and abroad and despite all the talk of “Hindu hyper-nationalism”, India still remains a liberal democratic country par excellence that treats all its citizens equally. The manufactured narrative of Muslim persecution is nothing more than an illusion; a false campaign of calumny that is often politically and ideologically motivated and far from reality. Muslims have the same rights as any Hindu. They have access to the same educational institutions, same job opportunities, same health facilities and are beneficiaries of the same ration cards that Hindus get. They can build their own mosques and pray unhindered in them.
Apart from some Muslim-majority countries, the wider world has responded with a studied silence; a silence that says that we have been there and will not swayed by the violent tantrums played out on the street. A few scattered reports have appeared that for the most part have been penned by Indians or Indian origin authors with a known anti-Hindu or anti-Modi bias.
Rana Ayyub in an article titled, The world is finally reacting to India’s descent into hate (The Washington Post, June 7) wrote: “Throughout all of this, the social-media-savvy Modi—known to invoke values of pluralism abroad—has remained silent as Indian democracy has descended into hate and is humiliated with international backlash…. The land of Mahatma Gandhi, Abul Kalam Azad and Rabindranath Tagore is being reduced to a caricature of hate on the global stage.”
Debasish Roy Chowdhury writing in Time claimed that the “state machinery is increasingly geared to tormenting and brutalizing Muslims”. He appeared to take delight in the fact that Afghanistan had rebuked India. He sarcastically commented: “It takes considerable talent to be called ‘fanatics’ by Afghanistan’s Taliban government.”
We must not be shamed by countries whose record on religious freedom is questionable. Neither can we allow ourselves to be undermined by the bigots amongst us. We need to be confidentb and answerable to ourselves alone as the bearers of an ancient moral civilization.
Coming to the question of trade, the Gulf Cooperation Council (consisting of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) is a major trading partner with exports of $44 billion and imports worth $110 billion (2021-22). About a third of India’s crude oil needs (Saudi Arabia 18%; UAE 9% and Kuwait 5%) are supplied by Gulf countries.
On the flip side, it is the Gulf countries that are overwhelmingly dependent on India for their food needs. Specifically, India accounts for 84%, 91% and 80% of Qatar, Kuwait and Iran’s rice requirements. So, vulnerability due to trade disruption cuts both ways and both sides will think long and hard before upsetting the apple cart. Relations between India and the Gulf countries remain strong, unaffected by an ill-advised remark that resulted in swift action against the errant member of the BJP.
The most concerning aspect of this imbroglio is that it has emboldened terrorists to come out and threaten India with attacks. Additionally, it has encouraged anti-social elements. Calls for beheading on national television have become common, rioting through the streets has erupted in several cities, and there have been obscene calls for Hindu genocide.
The Gulf countries too must step up to the plate. After having vented their disapproval publicly, they must not allow the narrative to be hijacked by radical fundamentalists. This will only serve the purposes of extremists on both sides. To put this matter to rest, it may be a good idea for them to welcome the Government of India’s actions and acknowledge India as a genuinely secular nation.