Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | Prophet comments: Why the diplomatic storm should bother ...

Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | Prophet comments: Why the diplomatic storm should bother India

n this episode of Worldview, we discuss whether the protests in the Islamic world over comments in India will impact India’s ties with the Gulf region and beyond.

This week, the government dealt with a sudden diplomatic storm- one which it clearly didn’t expect, as a flurry of countries across the gulf and other parts of the world picked up on statements made about Prophet Mohammad by spokespersons of the ruling party here more than a week ago. While there have been protests in India for some days, the government had not reacted to them- and the MEA seemed unprepared for what followed.

– Social media in Arab countries began running reactions to the comments, calling for a protest against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and a boycott of Indian goods unless there was an apology or action. While this was not too worrying, the first sign this was turning into a theological issue was when the Grand Mufti of Oman tweeted about it on June 4. The Al-Azhar University in Cairo condemned the comments next.

– As Vice President Venkaiah Naidu flew to Doha, Qatari officials conveyed that his counterpart the Deputy Emir Abdullah bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani had to cancel the banquet in his honour, due to possible exposure to Covid. However, unlike the diplomatic norms, he did not suggest deputing someone else to host the banquet, which began to worry the MEA. The BJP announced it was suspending the spokespersons, subsequently expelled one of them, and issued a statement that the party respects all religions.

– Fears were confirmed when the next morning, the Qatari Foreign Ministry summoned Indian ambassador Deepak Mittal, handed him a stern demarche, and demanded a public apology from the Indian government. This is rare, even unprecedented- for a government to do this while hosting a visiting Indian dignitary. Kuwait too summoned the Indian ambassador. The Embassies then posted a response saying that the Government of India respects all religions, and had nothing to do with the comments, which were made by “Fringe elements”

– Soon, other countries in the Islamic world began to issue summons too- at least 15 in all-including the Gulf region, Iran, Libya Indonesia, Malaysia, Maldives Pakistan, and even the Taliban regime in Afghanistan called on India to “rein in fanatics”

– Predictably Pakistan’s protest was the most vocal- not just an MFA demarche, but a resolution passed in both houses of Parliament, and a call for protests by lawmakers, political parties and

– Groups like the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and the 6-nation Gulf Cooperation Council also issued strong statements. The OIC went a step further, linking the comments to other allegations on minority rights in India- from the Hijab ban to bulldozers on the property and communal violence. The government rejected the OIC statement and the Pakistan statement, stayed silent on most of the others.

– Next came Iran, which had summoned the Indian Ambassador just 3 days before the visit of its Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian to Delhi. The visit proceeded as scheduled, but the Iranian side played up its conversations with India on the issue, as the MEA attempted to downplay it.

On Previous editions of Worldview, we have dealt with why the Gulf matters, and why Iran matters to India, but let me briefly take you through the main reasons.

Data Point:

1. Trade- 16% of India’s imports and 12% of exports- the first new Indian FTA is with UAE

2. Oil- 40% of India’s oil imports

3. Employment- 28% of overseas Indians, or 9 million Indians live and work in the Gulf region

4. Remittances- They account for 55% of India’s remittance inflows

5. Strategic reasons- India has strategic partnerships with many countries in the Gulf, and all have been helpful in fighting terror. Iran is important for access to the Chaahar port. Qatar and Iran are also important for India’s ties to Afghanistan and then Central Asia.

6. PM Modi’s outreach- This has been an area of particular outreach for the Modi government since 2014. PM Modi has himself visited more than a third of the OIC countries, Former EAM Sushma Swaraj addressed the OIC FMs in 2019 in UAE, and India has hosted leaders of nearly all.

What are the main takeaways on the diplomatic impact of this controversy?

1. The government and the diplomatic establishment can never underestimate the power of hurt sentiment, and religious sensitivities in foreign policy, or the speed of social media. Many have questioned whether the reaction would have been as tough if the government had taken the controversy and protests more seriously domestically and engaged with the problem much earlier. It was a lesson the US learned in 2012, after protests over a movie on Prophet Muhammad turned violent, and led to the terrorist attack on the US embassy in Benghazi in which the US Ambassador was killed. The attacks on Charlie Hebdo and cartoonists in Europe in 2007 were another case in point- clearly, the sensitivities over a religious matter are important- as is protecting freedom of speech, and ensuring no violence or harm comes to anyone.

2. While India’s image has taken a hit in the Gulf region, the goodwill India generates, which is a product of its diaspora that works there, and India’s reputation as a tolerant pluralistic democracy as well as will remain. It is significant that once the governments made their protests, and New Delhi responded, the matter seems to be put to rest for them. In its reaction, the Islamic world has mostly drawn a line- while India’s treatment of minorities and Jammu Kashmir are a concern, they are an internal matter, but an insult to Islam is an international matter.

3. It is also important to note the schisms within the OIC countries as well- and a sense of one-upmanship that drove Qatar to lead the way in protests, and Iran to be most vocal- while rivals UAE and Saudi, which would have normally dealt with the issue more discreetly were pushed to put out statements a day later.

4. However, India needs to pay more importance to the lasting repercussions of such incidents in the neighbourhood: the Citizenship Amendment Act saw protests in Bangladesh and Afghanistan against the Modi government for the first time. While the reaction from Pakistan and the Taliban is to be expected, New Delhi must watch friendly countries like the Maldives, where the government issued a statement, but blocked an opposition resolution in parliament. Bangladesh has been muted, but there are protests there too, and as PM Sheikh Hasina plans a visit to Delhi in July, this could cast a cloud over ties. Close attention to reactions in South East Asia- like Indonesia and Malaysia is important, just as Delhi prepares to welcome ASEAN foreign ministers for the Delhi dialogue next week.

5. Not just diplomatic ties, but India’s economic engagement can also suffer as a result of prolonged tensions on issues like the Prophet’s comments, and New Delhi must factor in the power of the calls for a boycott of Indian goods, or the concerns over the safety of millions of Indians living working and repatriating savings in other parts of the world.

In the broad scheme, the Modi government’s takeaway must be a reasoned look at how its domestic policies cannot be divorced from its diplomatic engagements. While the government was able to rebuff the US, for example for its report on religious freedoms with a chapter on India released by the State Department on June 3, it was not able to similarly shrug off the concerns of Qatar and other countries just a few days later.

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