Full Text | ‘It Is a Very Serious Crisis’: Talmiz Ahmad on India’s Ties With the Muslim World

A transcript of the author's chat with The Wire.

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On June 7, 2022, an interview of one of India’s senior diplomats, Talmiz Ahmad, by Karan Thapar was uploaded to The Wire’s YouTube channel. In the 30-minute chat, the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE spoke at length on why the crisis with the Muslim world – following the gulf backlash after the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s leaders’ remarks against Prophet Muhammad – is very serious.

The full text of the chat is produced below. It has been edited lightly for syntax in places.

Hello, and welcome to a special interview for The Wire. At last count, at least 15 Islamic countries, including the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), have strongly protested against the derogatory comments made about the prophet by a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national spokesperson as well as the head of the BJP Delhi media cell. So today we ask, how much of a problem does India face with the Islamic world?

Joining me to answer that question is someone who served twice as India’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia. He’s also served as an ambassador to Oman and the United Arab Emirates, and he recently published a book on West Asia, called West Asia At War, Talmiz Ahmad.

Mr Ahmad, as I said in that introduction, at least 15 Islamic countries including the OIC have strongly protested against derogatory comments made by senior BJP leaders against the prophet. They include leading GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and the UAE. They include Libya, Indonesia, Jordan, Afghanistan, as well as our neighbour, the Maldives. Is this a serious problem or is it a crisis?

I think it is a serious problem. As far as the Muslim world is concerned, and every Muslim anywhere, the Prophet is the most revered personage in Islam and any negative references to him or his family are deemed to be unacceptable and obnoxious. We have had a communal discourse in our country that has been ongoing for a few years. It is a reinvention of the idea of India by the ruling party. And yes, we’ve had a lot of abuse and violence directed at Muslims in our country, but so far most of these countries have remained silent. They do not like to make remarks about the internal events in other countries. But, a negative reference to the Holy Prophet is a crossing of the red line.

This is not acceptable and this is deemed to be a repeat and a feeding of Islamophobia, with which this entire region is concerned. So I have a feeling that without fully realising the implications of what they were saying and doing, just consumed with anti-Muslim animosity, these young people decided to cross the line and get into areas which have caused this extraordinary outrage all across the Muslim world.

I noticed that you very carefully chose to call it a serious problem, not a crisis. Why is it not a crisis when 15 countries including the entire OIC have protested in very strong terms? Why is it not a crisis?

No, it is a crisis, it is a very serious crisis and I would suggest that we take it very seriously ourselves because there is a communal discourse, which seems to so far function with impunity. I think that era of impunity has gone. What happens in our nation has implications outside our borders, it affects our national interest, it reflects reversely on our international posture, and I believe that there is something, a kind of alarm bell, that has been sounded and I think we would do well to heed it.

Let’s then begin by trying to assess why this is, to use your words, ‘a very serious crisis’. As you point out in your book, West Asia At War, eight million Indians work in GCC countries, three million of them alone in Saudi Arabia, and the annual remittance they send home is $35 billion. Am I right in saying this is critical to the Indian economy? 

Absolutely, you know these remittances that we receive constitute over a third of our oil bill, our annual oil bill. Our own people’s efforts in the region fund a large chunk of the oil bill that we have in order to fuel our economy. So it is central to the economic welfare of our country. It also benefits several million people.

Do recall here, that for every person working in the gulf, there are at least four people directly dependent on them. So, at least 40 million Indians directly depend on and directly benefit from the employment of our people in the region. Indians are held in very high regard in the region. We have people who are tycoons, we have small businesses, professionals, technicians and blue-collar workers, and each and every one of them is now feeling genuinely concerned about his or her future in the region.

Now you refer to oil, and I notice again from your book that 40% of India’s oil comes from West Asia, and again 18% from Saudi Arabia alone. Furthermore, I believe 40% of India’s gas comes from just one country, Qatar. Again, am I right in saying this is the second critical dimension of the relationship?

Yes, we have very substantial ties with the region. We have an energy-related tie, we get the bulk of our energy from the region, both oil and gas, and this is an ongoing and enduring relationship. It is likely to continue for several decades to come and try as we might but there is no ready substitute for these resources. We also have very substantial economic ties with the region. They are our major trade partners, both in terms of imports as well as exports. Do recall here that many of our exports actually go to countries in other parts of the region, countries with which we do not trade directly like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, African countries, etc. We have a crucial relationship.

We are also looking at logistical connectivity, projects which have very significant strategic value for India as well and then, of course, you have the presence of the community. So all of these are very substantial relationships. So far our sections of Ali leadership had tended to ignore the implications of what we say and do at home, on our ties with this region. I think now the time has come to take a fresh look at what we are doing at home, how we are managing our affairs at home, and what implications this has for the long-term interest of our nation.

Also read: Book Review: Talmiz Ahmad’s Encyclopaedic Study of West Asia and North Africa

You mentioned trade and I believe, according to your book, trade is the component of the relationship that has escalated and grown fairly dramatically in the last few years. You point out that in 2000-2001, it was just $33 billion but by 2018-19, it has almost quadrupled to $121 billion, and I believe last year alone it increased by 25%. But yesterday [June 6], there were threats in Kuwait to boycott Indian goods. If those threats are implemented, or worse if they spread to other Arab and Muslim countries, how worrying would that be? 

My own impression is that some of these so-called threats are exaggerated. India is a major supplier of foodstuff to the region, rice and wheat etc., and sugar ploughed. We also are major suppliers of textiles and of course, jewellery, items of gracious living. I’m not sure that there is likely to be a very major immediate impact on this. These are crucial items on both sides. We import energy from them. There is a certain degree of propaganda involved here and a kind of jingoism from certain sections. I also suspect that certain people from Pakistan could be encouraging this boycott of Indian goods. As of now, I don’t tend to be concerned about this.

My principal concern is about the recruitment of Indians. The recruitment of Indians doesn’t go through the government. It is something that is decided by the individual employer, and the individual employer would be very concerned about recruiting Indians who may turn out to be zealots and could be creating discord within the country – firstly within the company and then within the country.

Do recall here, that Indians have been recruited by these people as Indians. There has been no discrimination in favour of Muslims, and we, therefore, have a very large non-Muslim community from India that works in this region. This is because Indians have been seen as apolitical, as people … multicultural, pluralistic people at home who are technically well-qualified and are a very disciplined community as well. So in this background, if you were to see a sense of burgeoning zealotry on the part of certain people, then that would be unacceptable. It would be a source of national discord and as you know, they have favoured Indians because we do not cause problems for them. So, I think this is where we should be focused as of now.

So in a nutshell, what you’re worried about is not the boycott of goods, which you suggest could in fact be Pakistani propaganda, what you’re worried about is the recruitment of Indians. We’re talking about a potential 8 million employed in Gulf countries, and more importantly, we’re talking about the $35 billion they send back as remittances every year and even beyond that, we’re worried about the 40 million people in India who depend upon those remittances. So if there’s a boycott of recruitment of Indians, that would be a serious problem, wouldn’t it? 

There would be a very serious problem. See, I want to remind your listeners that there have been shifts away from certain communities due to political concerns. In the 1960s and 70s, we used to have Arabs dominating the workforce, but because of their affiliation with socialism and nationalism, there was a shift away from them because they brought not-so-right values into the Gulf. Then you had a shift in favour of Pakistanis, but in that again there was a shift because Pakistanis were viewed as affiliated with extremist Islam, the global Jihad in Afghanistan being a manifestation of that.

The shift in favour of Indians was precisely because of the qualities we bring to the table. We are moderate people, disciplined people, we come from a pluralistic order. We have a sense of accommodativeness, and we do not get involved with domestic politics in the region. And this is the background in which the shift in favour of Indians occurred. Imagine a scenario today where you were to have a sense among potential employer that certain Indians could be zealots and could be a source of discord, inter-communal discord, within the country and within the company, so, there would be concerns in this regard. I am simply sounding an alarm that we have to be concerned. It may not happen overnight, there could be corrective measures taken in India, but I am pointing out that the qualities for which we have been recruited should be preserved and strengthened, rather than creating doubts about their efficacy. That is what I’m saying today.

Now, I believe the first country to lodge a formal protest was Qatar. They summoned the Indian ambassador, they protested on fairly strong terms, and they even called for an apology. More importantly, a dinner that was to be hosted for the Indian vice president, who’s visiting Qatar at the moment [June 4-6], was ostensibly cancelled around the grounds that the host had come in contact with someone who was COVID positive. How do you assess Qatar’s response?

Well, there are signals being given in different ways, at different stages. Gulf diplomacy is very subtle and nuanced, and yes, therefore, I would take these gestures quite seriously. There are signals being given, it is our duty to understand them, our duty to understand where they are coming from and what they are seeking from us. I think the central message here is that they would like India to seriously address these issues of communal discord. For far too long we have allowed this communal discord to dominate our national order. I think the demonising of one particular community and occasions of abuse and violence against them, I think that’s gone on long enough.

I think the message we are getting, from both within the community at home as well as from cherished friends of India in the region is very, in one word, enough. I think that is what we have to hear.

Now as you said, the cancellation of the dinner for the vice president, whatever the explanation given, is a signal, it’s a signal we should pay attention to but Qatar was one of several countries that called for an apology, a public apology by the government. Is an apology due? Should an apology be given by the government? 

You see governments don’t like to state that they are apologising because this is not what governments…it sort of diminishes the status of the government concerned. Also, the government has tried to defend itself by saying, these are ‘fringe elements’, and in any case, they do not belong to the government. But there is a larger concern here. There is no way you can distinguish the spokesperson from BJP from mainstream politics in the country. They would not have had the ability to actually utter the remarks that they did if they did not have the sense that these are sanctioned.

Doha: Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu with Speaker of Qatar Shura Council Hassan bin Abdulla Al Ghanim and others, during a meeting, in Doha, Qatar. Photo: PTI

For far too long we’ve had the scenario at home, where there has been a very powerful communal discourse and therefore, these young people who come with very little knowledge of either history or sociology and anthropology, culture of India, make these loose occurrences without understanding what implications this will have.

So the message has to come from the top. Do recall here, the prime minister of our country has based his government on the slogan – ‘sabka saath, sabka vikaas, sabka vishwaas’. The RSS chief has said that we are one united people and that all of us share the DNA with each other, and we will not allow any single community to be targeted. Now this message has to go down across the various levels of government and the party and reach down to the ordinary worker. And this must be led from the front and should be led sincerely and robustly.

But I’m going to repeat my question, several countries including Qatar have called for a public apology from the government. Should there be an apology from the government, yes or no? Just give me a straight answer, yes or no? 

No, I don’t think an apology from the government is called for and I don’t think it will be forthcoming. What I am looking for is genuine corrective action at home.

Also read: In the Nupur Sharma Episode, Religiosity Wins Over Humanity

What about something else, so far neither the foreign minister nor the prime minister have spoken on the subject, they are conspicuous by their total silence, and remember it is now over 10 days since Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal made their very offensive comments. Should the prime minister, should at least the foreign minister have spoken? 

Well, if they have their own interests and compulsions, many of them connected with domestic politics, I’m sure there is some kind of domestic, some kind of diplomatic initiative being taken behind the scenes. There has been a sense, and I will try to explain to you what has been happening.

There is a sense that we have a domestic situation where you are pursuing a certain agenda at home, which consolidates the communal divide and gains you a degree of mobilisation of electoral and political support, and you divide this in terms of what is happening in terms of foreign policy. I think this is a mistake. There can be no divide between what you do at home and what kind of policies you pursue abroad. What we have got now from the Gulf is a very clear signal, a very strong signal, that the domestic scenario and our foreign policy approaches are two sides of the same coin, they are integrated and they have to be viewed as such.

But I want to repeat, 10 days have passed and there hasn’t been a word from the foreign minister and the prime minister. Do you not think, given that you acknowledged that it is a mistake to believe that you can separate domestic and foreign policies, that at least the foreign minister should speak up? 

I think the foreign minister needs direction from the top leadership of the government and from the RSS, that has not come to him. He is their instrument. …what we are calling for is a fundamental review of the approach of the ruling party of India. They want to reinvent the idea of India on the basis of their ideology. So far they have done so with impunity. Today this is being questioned strongly. The foreign minister on his own cannot intervene in this debate because it is linked with the larger interests of the ruling party and the ideology that supports it from behind. But I have pointed out and I will continue to point out, that the prime minister himself has articulated the slogan ‘sabka saath, sabka vikaas, sabka vishwaas’.

The RSS chief has also stated that he believes in the unity of our people, he believes all are equal, and will not accommodate or tolerate any mistreatment of any Indian. In this background, I believe the mandate is very clear and what we should do at all levels of government is implement seriously what our leaders have already stated in public.

I’m going to just underline a very important thing you said about the foreign minister, you said he needs direction from the very top of the government before he…

Absolutely, because it pertains to the ideology of his party and of the movement with which he is affiliated today, he is not a free agent…call for course correction at home.

He is not just not a free agent, you actually said earlier he was “an instrument” of the government and the RSS. You said he cannot on his own intervene in this debate because the ideology comes from higher up and he needs their authority to do so. Let’s then come to the official explanation put out on India’s behalf by the ambassador in Qatar. He actually claimed that Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal are in fact ‘fringe elements’. Now I want to put to you, how can a national spokesperson of a party be a ‘fringe element’? How can the Head of the Delhi Media Cell be ‘fringe element’? I take it, this is well known to Arab countries and Muslim countries, will they be deceived by being told these are ‘fringe elements’ or will they see through it and will they resent this attempt to deceive them? 

None of them is a fringe element. What we have been seeing for such a long time is the mainstreaming communal discourse, the abuse and violence of a certain minority community. This is a mainstream effort. What you have in the shape of these two individuals Nupur Sharma and Jindal, as the only articulation of a view that they have seen expressed by…

Can I interrupt? Will Arab countries, Muslim countries be deceived when they are told these are ‘fringe elements’, or will they feel this is an attempt to deceive them and resent them? Which of the two?

They will not accept that these are fringe elements and they will not be deceived, they follow affairs very closely. It does not need a genius to realise that they are articulating mainstream views of the ruling party and the ruling order.

Now Nupur Sharma has only been suspended, she has not been expelled. And she certainly hasn’t been arrested. Yet if a Muslim has spoken in these terms of a Hindu God, he would have been arrested almost instantaneously. Once again, are Arab Nations, are Islamic countries aware of the difference in treatment? 

Absolutely, I mean they know already and they know a lot. They know by the way they are obviously very deeply concerned about the way the communal discord and communal abuse have become the normal, the norm in our setup. They know all of this, they also know which way things are going. There is a sense of impunity that you can articulate the most obnoxious remarks and you can take certain really horrendous actions against a particular community and get away with it.

Do recall here the treatment given to those boys who were selling Muslim women on the internet and the police after a short custody simply said they need counselling so that they become better human beings. This is the kind of very different approach with regard to the conduct that is happening in a public space and it really is a matter of deep concern. You see these are all well-wishers of India…

A protest against Nupur Sharma over her alleged remarks on Prophet Mohammad, in Thane, Tuesday, May 31, 2022. Photo: PTI

Forgive me sir, I’m interrupting you. I mean to interrupt you because we are running out of time and I want to ask you two questions before we run out of time. Now, the first question I want to ask is in the light of what happened in India, was it fitting for the foreign ministry to respond so sharply to the protest by the OIC? The foreign ministry called it ‘unwarranted’, it called it ‘narrow-minded’. The point is many of the protesting countries from Saudi Arabia, Qatar to Indonesia are members of the OIC.

See, the OIC is affiliated in our mind with Pakistani activism. You see, Pakistan, we are a little free with our criticism of the OIC because Pakistan is the one that is viewed as the dominant role player in the OIC as far as India is concerned. Therefore, we don’t see the OIC as a collection of a large number of Muslim countries, many of which are our friends, but we see them as an instrument of Pakistan.

Mr Ahmad, only a few years ago Sushma Swaraj was invited as guest of honour by the OIC. Have we forgotten that when we today call them narrow-minded and say their responses are unwarranted? Was it fitting to respond in this way when all the other countries who protested are also members of the OIC? 

Yes, we are free in our criticism of the OIC because in our mind the OIC reflects Pakistan’s influence against India, and therefore it is seen as something Pakistan has been manipulating for the last 30 years and OIC in our view does not reflect the views of its members, many of which are otherwise friends of India. Hence, the sharp action-reaction to the OIC.

My very last question, the BJP only reacted and took action against Jindal and Nupur Sharma nine or 10 days after they had made their offending comments on Times Now. And indeed many people believe the BJP would not have acted if Qatar would not have started the series of protests that we’ve since seen. And my question is very simple that if the BJP had acted earlier, not waited nine or 10 days but acted earlier, might this international embarrassment, the crisis as you called it India faces, have been averted? 

Your point is well taken, but it would have been completely out of character for the BJP to have acted earlier because communal abuse, communal violence has become the mainstream and indeed the very foundation of the political order as we experience in our country today. So, while we would have wished that they would have robustly intervened earlier, they have never robustly intervened earlier in any matter. How come we can expect them to do something like this today?

That’s a very fair point. I thank Mr Ahmad for joining me. I apologise to the audience for the poor connectivity, but I’m particularly grateful that you made time for us in the middle of your important teaching duties in Pune to join us for this discussion. Thank you for putting it precisely, if not bluntly, when you said this is a very serious crisis although you added an apology is not called for from the government. Take care, stay safe.