Modi government scrambles to contain spiraling outrage in the Middle East

Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

As Islamic nations, Saudi Arabia and Iran are as far apart as can be, given that the former is the nerve center of Sunni Islam and the latter of Shia Islam, the two competing sects which have historically had violent animus. And yet the two are on the same side among Islamic countries denouncing India over inflammatory observations about Prophet Mohammed by two now suspended members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The unapologetic zealotry of many on the Hindu right has become the norm since the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. The prime minister’s general strategy has been to remain above the fray even as members of the extended Hindu right family go about making incendiary and bigoted statements of varying intensity and in many cases even acting out on those emotions to violent ends. Modi has generally maintained a calibrated silence over the repeated transgressions by his ideological cohorts. That approach has worked wonders for him electorally in the last eight years as his popularity has continued to be high despite some obvious disasters on the domestic and international fronts.

India’s foreign policy under Modi generally and Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar particularly has been one of unusual confidence and candor in its dealings. For instance, New Delhi described the U.S. State Department’s 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom as “ill-informed” and “biased”. The country’s foreign ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi said on June 3 in a statement, “As a naturally pluralistic society, India values religious freedom and human rights.” He added, “In our discussions with the US, we have regularly highlighted issues of concern there, including racially and ethnically motivated attacks, hate crimes and gun violence.”

India’s singling out U.S. sore points such as racial attacks, hate crimes and gun crimes was particularly noteworthy. New Delhi has projected an independent foreign policy that does not apologize for its muscular dimensions.

Perhaps that was in response to this passage in the State Department’s report: “Ten of the 28 (Indian) states have laws restricting religious conversions. In February, continued protests related to the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which excludes Muslims from expedited naturalization provisions granted to migrants of other faiths, became violent in New Delhi after counterprotesters attacked demonstrators. According to reports, religiously motivated attacks resulted in the deaths of 53 persons, most of whom were Muslim, and two security officials.”

However now, the Modi government is scrambling and bending over backward to contain the angry fallout from over a dozen Islamic countries over a spectrum as wide as Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Iran, all united in their paroxysm over the comments by the BJP’s once national spokesperson Nupur Sharma and party functionary Naveen Kumar Jindal. While the former has been suspended from the party for six years with every expectation of rehabilitation much before that, the latter has been expelled from it altogether. For a party not known to discipline its cadres when it comes to religiously and culturally divisive pronouncements, it has been shaken by the concerted wrath of the Islamic world.

There is a combination of factors why the normally unrepentant Modi government is going out of its way to pacify the anger in the Islamic world. It is a combination of strategic interests, oil, trade, inward remittances and employment in the region of some 15 million people of Indian origin. To the last point, some of the countries angered over their faith’s defining figure being described in derogatory terms might consider replacing Indian workers gradually with workers from Muslim nations is fraught with economic debacle for India.

Indians employed in the Islamic heart remit over $40 billion a year, a massive source of foreign exchange reserve for the country. Add to that India’s export of merchandise worth $40 billion and the reasons for New Delhi soft gloving some withering denunciation from these countries become clear.

India imports about 60% of its oil from the Middle East, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Figures from the Petroleum Planning & Analysis Cell peg India’s peg oil import at 212.2 million tons of crude worth $119.2 billion in 2021-22.

Beyond the immediate interests such as oil and remittances, India is also focused on the highly strategic nature of its engagement with the region particularly as it pertains the Islamic countries’ view of the ever tense India-Pakistan dynamic and where they might come down on the question of Kashmir. Despite the oft-repeated theory of pan-Islamism, by and large India’s Muslim population that constitutes 14% percent of the total 1.4 billion does not regard itself in that light. There are, of course, convergences where many orthodox and puritanical Muslims feel a pan-Islamic pull but as a rule they have historically put the country’s interests before their faith since the 1947 Partition.

It is remarkable that the BJP, which took no action against Sharma and Jindal until Sunday despite violent protests in some places, moved quickly as soon as the outrage began in the Islamic world. The party acted irrespective of where the early outrage emanated. Consider just one example of Qatar. It is a country about 284 times smaller in its size and with a population of less than three million, which is about 0.21 percent of India’s, and yet it managed to push India on the defensive over Sharma’s comments. The timing was particularly inopportune since India’s Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu was on an official visit to Qatar.

It is anybody’s guess whether the swift denunciation from the Islamic world would compel the BJP government to tone down its many proxies’ incendiary rhetoric. The prospects seem low considering that the country is a little less than two years away from the general election which the BJP would like to win. Appearing to be too accommodating to the Islamic world outside and Muslims at home would be problematic the party’s core Hindu base.