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What Nupur Sharma May Cost India

June 10, 2022 11:25 IST
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India's trade with the Gulf-Arab region stands at $180 billion.
India needs the Gulf region more in terms of trade, investments and employment than the other way round.
When it comes to faith, the Gulf-Arab nations have not been found wanting at any point in time, points out N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: A protest in Mumbai against Nupur Sharma, suspended from the Bharatiya Janata Party, demanding her arrest for her remarks on Prophet Mohammed. Photograph: ANI Photo

Independent of the strong rebuttals by the ministry of external affairs, which rightly distinguished party politics from governmental policy in theoretical terms, the avoidable controversy over Prophet Mohammed, triggered by two Bharatiya Janata Party spokespersons, has the potential to damage India not just in terms of international standing and image, but also economically -- which can prove very costly over the short, medium and long terms.

For over five years now, Indians working across the Gulf have been feeling restless, independent of their own religious identity and political philosophy. 

If they did not voice their concerns in public, it owed to the fact that all of it remained a domestic affair and their host nations drew the line between religion and domestic issues, at least up to a point.

Until now it all involved Indian Muslims as a community, now it is about Islam the religion.

The nation's present-day ruling class has taken lightly the inherited Islamic touchiness about any negative reference to the Quran and the Prophet. With the result, they did not care where their issue with the present-day Indian Muslim community -- which again is unfair -- should end, and where concerns over larger Islamic identity began.

Now the anti-India tirade from the international community has taken two clear streaks. Not long ago, US Secretary of State Antony J Blinken ticked off India on alleged human rights violations, centering on the treatment of minorities in the country. The MEA hit back decisively, yes.

But now you have individual Gulf-Arab nations and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation as a unique grouping of nations based on religious identity coming down on the government one more time. The OIC had flagged human right concerns earlier too, with strong rebuttal from India. But this time round, it's entirely different.

According to official data for 2020, nearly 28 per cent of the 13.6 million Indians working/living overseas, or 38 million, were in the Gulf-Arab region. The UAE accounted for the highest 3,4 million, followed by Saudi Arabia (2.6 million) and Kuwait (one million), with the US ranking just above at 1.28 million. 

It is immaterial how many of them were Hindus. But the fact remains that the UAE, as a part of its new-found religious openness policy, had Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurating the region's first Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi, with royal patronage and participation.

Today, the same UAE has become the first country to demand an official apology from the Government of India, for the mischief wrought by middle-level BJP officials.

Whatever be the other outcomes, over the past years Indians, especially Hindus, in the Gulf-Arab region, have been made to feel ill at ease, thanks to events and developments back home that had left the local Muslim community even more uncomfortable, physically threatened, despised and withdrawn, 24x7. They should be feeling even more so after their ill-advised brethren back home had offended Islam, as all Muslims, moderates or extremists, believe.

Maybe it is a reflection on the pressures from within the UAE establishment, maybe it is the polity's inherent inability in the region to still distinguish between the official and party positions in democratic India, on controversial issues of the kind. Or, between the party position and personal pronouncements, so to say.

The problem then is to convince the other, especially after the ruling BJP had propounded and propagated 'belief-based' theories to argue the case for a Ram temple on what used to be the controversial site in Ayodhya. Clearly, condemnation of criticism of Islam in any form also flows from a belief. How civil and religious would it be if people were to be killed or otherwise physically assaulted in the name of belief/faith, one way or the other, cannot be contested.

It does not stop with the anxieties of millions of Indians working in the Gulf. India's bilateral trade with the Gulf-Arab region stands at a substantially high $180 billion.

Loosely put, India needs the Gulf region more in terms of trade, investments and employment than the other way round. Yes, Indians form the backbone of the region's labour economy -- white, brown and blue-collar jobs -- but when it comes to faith, the Gulf-Arab nations have not been found wanting at any point in time.

A tough line officially for the government to take when other nations condemn criticism of the Prophet in India may do good for the ruling party's image back home, but not for the nation. It is unlike India's tirade against Pakistan, or democracy-dictates to Afghanistan.

Rarely did Pakistan get enough traction within the OIC in recent years, but when the OIC reacted not very long ago, New Delhi took a tough stand, which would not have gone down well with friends of India in the OIC and more so, the Gulf region.

From an external perspective, everything pertaining to India's Muslim community may come under a scanner more than any other time in the recent past.

The first of the target/victim could be the ongoing Gyanvapi issue and court case, where RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has divined the so-called middle path, which is nothing but the end-game of the Ayodhya dispute. He has declared that the RSS would not encourage front organisations to take to the streets on the Gyanvapi issue but would like the dispute to be resolved either through negotiations and/or court verdicts.

The Ayodhya dispute was one instance where negotiations proved to be a non-starter. The Supreme Court, in its wisdom, went beyond the 'cause of action', to decide the ownership of the plot of land, between Hindus and Muslims.

The court gave away the ownership and possession of the disputed land to the Hindu community, and introduced a new element that was not mentioned in any petition or counter by the contending parties -- by directing the government to provide land for the Muslims. Thus, it converted what was essentially a civil dispute over property-ownership into one of faith.

Yet, there was hope that Ayodhya would be the last of it all, particularly after the intervening Places of Worship Act committing the Indian State to the position. The government may stick to the Act, perfunctorily or otherwise, but those sympathetic to the ruling party have moved the Supreme Court for striking down the law. A lower court has also let a survey conducted on what is becoming another disputed religious site.

The Supreme Court, given the seriousness of the issue, could still consider taking over the civil court proceedings to its docket. Alternatively, it may consider freezing all lower court proceedings, pending the disposal of the petitions wanting the Places of Worship Act declared 'unconstitutional'.

If the cart is put before the horse, as happened in the Ayodhya case, 'beliefs' as a political and legal argument could get precedence, many more times, as zealots identify more than one mosque which had allegedly come up on a destroyed temple. After Varanasi and Gyanvapi, it could be Mathura. But there may be many more.

Over the medium and long terms, it may not stop there. If you are going to use archaeological evidence or just belief as the yardstick to target places of worship, tomorrow someone could stand up and argue that many Hindu temples in the country had come up on the destroyed ruins of Buddhist and Jain places of worship and/or prayers.

Historians say these two 'sister-religions' of Hinduism prospered across the country until about the seventh century, when alone 'Hindu revivalism' began. There are also versions of followers of these two faiths being butchered and slaughtered, and their places of worships either destroyed or converted into Hindu temples.

There is another angle. Addressing a gathering of Sikh faithful in the Golden Temple, on the 38th anniversary of 'Operation Bluestar', Giani Harpreet Singh, chief priest of the Akal Takht, urged Sikh organisations to encourage training in 'traditional martial arts' and 'modern weapons', especially among the youth. Sikhs form a martial community, and are acknowledged as such.

The call for 'training in traditional martial arts' is one thing, but that in 'modern weapons' is another. Even in the case of the former, there is no knowing what the Giani had in mind -- just physical exercises or something more, as with the use of swords, as used to be the Sikh tradition since the era the religion was founded in the 15th century.

But then, no one could complain, not especially this government, as the ruling BJP's RSS parent has training sessions for its 'swayamsevaks' or 'cadres' in its 'shakhas' or camps, where they are trained in the use of sticks, itself a weapon of great import when used with expertise.

At the end of it all, whether it's alleged blaspheming of Islam or the call for the Sikh community to get weapons-training, it is a reflection of an air of permissiveness that has slowly crept into the body politic and the social fabric over the past decade or less.

Given the absence of clarity, and more so firmness from the top, things have come to a stage when the Nupur Sharmas and the Naveen Kumar Jindals of the BJP decide and dictate what the party's policy is on such issues -- and for the whole world to see, embarrassing the government and 'exposing' the party leadership.

N Sathiya Moorthy is a Chennai-based policy analyst and commentator.

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