Fall from grace?

The avoidable diplomatic turmoil over Prophet remark has maligned India's standing as a secular democracy but won't impact its trade relations with Gulf nations

Fall from grace?

There is no doubt that the remarks against Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) by two ruling BJP functionaries have not only damaged India's image as a liberal and secular democracy but also brought down its standing in the comity of nations.

India came under fire in the Gulf region, vital to its interests, sparking online calls for boycott of Indian products and forcing New Delhi to launch a diplomatic damage control exercise.

Qatar was first to react on June 5 when Vice President Venkaiah Naidu was on an official three-day visit to the gas-rich Gulf state in a bid to bolster trade. It summoned Indian ambassador Deepak Mittal and demanded a public apology from the Indian government.

Although the Vice President went ahead with his programme of meeting Qatari leaders including Prime Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdul Aziz Al Thani and addressing India-Qatar Business Forum, a lunch with the Ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Ahmed al Thani al Thani, was cancelled at the last moment, albeit on medical grounds. The Vice President also had to cancel his scheduled press conference.

Mittal in a statement said that the offensive tweets were by "individuals" and that these "do not, in any manner, reflect the views of the Government of India. These are the views of the fringe elements."

Subsequently, on June 9, the External Affairs Ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi, reacting to the Arab world's strong response, told a media briefing that "the tweets and comments do not reflect views of the government."

Iran, whose foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited New Delhi last week, followed Qatar and Kuwait by summoning Indian ambassadors to lodge their protests. Other countries that joined the chorus included Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt, Malaysia, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Cairo-based Arab Parliament (the legislative body of the Arab League), Al-Azhar University (one of Islam's most important institutions), Saudi-based Muslim World League and some other organisations have condemned, rejected and denounced the remarks. Saudi Arabia's General Presidency of the Affairs of the Grand Mosque and the Prophet's Mosque termed it a "heinous act."

Faced with a chorus of diplomatic outrage from the Gulf countries, the BJP suspended its national spokesperson Nupur Sharma, who had made the derogatory remarks against the Prophet in a television debate on May 26, and expelled its Delhi unit media head Naveen Kumar Jindal for his comments on social media on June 1. The party in a statement asserted that it "respects all religions" and "strongly denounces insults of any religious personality."

Sharma on her part said on Twitter that her comments had been in response to "insults" made against God Shiva. "If my words have caused discomfort or hurt religious feelings of anyone whatsoever, I hereby unconditionally withdraw my statement."

There have been protests by Muslims in many parts of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — some of them being violent in nature.

The Arab Parliament while condemning the "irresponsible remarks" called for the "necessity of realizing the great difference between freedom of expression and respect for the beliefs of others."

Although much of the damage seems to have been controlled, the government could have handled it with much more acumen. Had it responded to Sharma's remarks immediately, the situation would probably have been different.

There was no action from the Government of India till Qatar summoned the Indian ambassador to express its concern.

"Anybody who has any knowledge of the Gulf and the people there would have known that her statement would cause reaction in the region. Instead of being proactive the government of India was reactive," seasoned former diplomat KP Fabian, who has also served as ambassador to Qatar, said.

The incident has caused avoidable embarrassment to the Vice President, Fabian said, adding, "in diplomacy the correct thing to do is to go to the Foreign Office when there is a reason to believe that it might summon you. Don't wait for summons before taking action. Anticipate the move of the other."

He also said that labeling Sharma and Jindal as "fringe elements" was "unwise" because the most important aspect in diplomacy is credibility. "If you say the national spokesperson of the BJP is a fringe element, you are not credible. Credibility is the most important asset of an ambassador."

The Modi government has made significant efforts in strengthening relations with Muslim countries, especially in the Gulf. Such remarks for petty domestic gains can jeopardise the advantage that has been achieved by the government.

The importance of the region can also be gauged from the fact that Prime Minister, in his first visit abroad this year visited UAE and Kuwait in January. He has visited almost all the countries, some twice, after assuming the office. The Prime Minister has been bestowed with the Highest Civilian Honours by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Palestine.

India has to reassure Arab partners that it is sensitive to their concerns about Islam and would take stringent action against those who indulge in such activities. Islamic nations also should now close the matter.

India is highly dependent on crude oil and gas from the region besides having trade relations with many of the countries. According to the Indian embassy in Saudi Arabia, the GCC has "tremendous significance for India."

The total value of India's trade with GCC in 2020-2021 was worth over USD 87 billion, which included total imports worth nearly USD 60 billion. The total bilateral two-way trade in 2020-2021 saw a growth of nearly 27 per cent over the previous year.

Gulf countries are major destinations for India's overseas workers. Nearly 6.5 million Indians live in the region. Even after the return of migrant workers from the Gulf to India due to the spread of the devastating Covid-19 pandemic, the inward remittances into India remained flat at USD 83 billion in 2020 (a mere drop of 0.2 per cent over 2019), according to a World Bank report.

The controversy also comes at a time when BJP is reaching out to several countries through a campaign called "to know BJP".

There is little chance of any repercussion on trade ties from any of these countries at the government level. However, the possibility of reaction at individual level cannot be ruled out.

The episode has also raised concerns about the conduct of some TV news channels becoming instruments for spewing hatred towards a certain community and their beliefs, just to increase their TRPs and revenue without realising the repercussion and embarrassment that such programmes could bring to the country.

Taking note of the development, the Editors Guild of India has rightly said that the unnecessary embarrassment to the country could have been avoided if some of the TV outlets had been "mindful of the nation's Constitutional commitment to secularism, as well as the journalistic ethics and guidelines that the Press Council of India has issued to handle a volatile communal situation."

The All-India Muslim Personal Law Board is justified in asking Islamic "scholars and intellectuals" not to participate in television debates whose sole intention is to mock and insult Islam and Muslims.

The writer is a former Editor of PTI and served as the West Asia correspondent for the same. Views expressed are personal

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