In his six years as prime minister, Narendra Modi has expended more time, effort and commitment to cultivating ties with the Gulf region than any of his predecessors, and India’s initiatives have been fully reciprocated by his regional counterparts. These interactions have been assiduously promoted with frequent exchanges of visits, warm expressions of personal goodwill, even affection and several agreements to impart substance to the relationship in political, energy and economic areas.
Now, when the world is grappling with the extraordinary challenge posed by the coronavirus pandemic, relations shaped, elevated and solidified by the prime minister have been jeopardised – not by external rivals – but by cohorts from within his own ideological and political bandwagon, the Hindutva brigade. All of a sudden, tweets on social media and reports on mainstream television and newspaper columns are awash with harsh and angry exchanges between India’s Hindu nationalists and some sections of the Gulf’s elite – royal family members, business persons, professionals and human rights activists.
These tirades began innocuously enough: in an exchange between two Indians, a resident in the UAE, Saurabh Upadhyaya, who heads a consultancy firm, tweeted abusive messages about members of the Tablighi Jamaat; he, inter alia, referred to the Tablighis spitting on people as a “new form of jihad”. He ended his virulent message with: “Death to radical Islamic tabligi (sic) terrorists and other radical Islamic sons of satan.” To this he added some choice expletives in Romanised Hindi.
The war of tweets
Then, in a unique development in Gulf annals, a member of the Sharjah royal house, Sheikha Hend Al Qassemi responded to this tweet. Recalling her family’s close ties with India, the sheikha said: “… your rudeness is not welcome. … You make your bread and butter from this land which you scorn and your ridicule will not go unnoticed.” She then quoted UAE laws prohibiting hate speech by citizens and non-citizens.
In her later tweets, she listed the several public gatherings by Hindu pilgrims in different parts of India between March 9-19, which had attracted thousands of devotees, and placed the Tablighi congregation of 4,000 attendees within this broad context. She countered the aggressive Hindutva users of social media by reminding them that “Gandhi was a fearless campaigner for the rights and dignity of all people.” “He [Gandhi] won my heart”, she concluded, “and I believe in his peaceful approach to handling hatred.”
In an interview with an Indian television channel, Sheikha Hend was asked if she would similarly condemn “Hinduphobia”; she replied that in the UAE, “No one hates Hindus”.
This royal intervention has opened the floodgates to comments from other sources. An academic based in the US, specialising in Islamophobia, Khaled Beydoun, wrote in The New Arab about how the entire Indian Muslim community had been stigmatised for the transgressions of the Tablighis: they were being “scapegoated as disseminators of the novel virus in India”, through such appellations as “Corona jihad” and “Muslim virus”.
He said that Islamophobia in India was “state-sponsored”, and, referring to the communal riots in Delhi in February, held Prime Minister Modi responsible for the spread of “this pandemic violence”. He thought that this “novel strain of the Hindutva menace” was capitalising on “national anxiety” due to the global pandemic to demonise Muslims.
A religious scholar in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abidi Al Zahrani, called for the listing of “militant Hindus” in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries who were “spreading hate against Islam, Muslims or our beloved Prophet” under the hashtag “Send Hindutva Back Home”. In another tweet, he noted that millions of Indians lived in the Gulf and were treated free of charge if they were infected by the COVID-19 virus, “while Hindutva terrorist gangs are committing crimes against Muslim citizens”.
Gulf states host millions of #Indians some of whom are infected #COVID__19 are treated free of charge regardless of their faith
While #Hindutva #Terrorists gangs are committing crimes against #Muslims citizens
— م/ عبيدي الزهراني (@ZahraniAbidi) April 12, 2020
Another Gulf resident, Preeti Giri, an executive director with a major local company, in her tweet told her followers that the actor Amir Khan belonged to the Tablighi Jamaat which was “Sunni, Hanafi ideology which was 99% Deobandi”; she exhorted them not to be so naïve as to “run after his films”. A prominent Emirati businesswoman, Noora al Ghurair, reprimanded Giri: “By your hateful logic Sunnis by association are terrorists because of propaganda against Muslims in India? Do U know [in] the country you live in all rulers are Sunnis? U want to boycott us?”
An academic of Indian orign, Ashok Swain of Sweden’s Uppsala University, wrote an opinion piece in Gulf News, Dubai, on April 22 in which he detailed how the pandemic had been deliberately communalised by Hindutva elements. He said: “Islamophobia has reached its peak in India with the increasing rise of coronavirus crisis. This is not just a primordial reaction of society, but a very well planned and finely executed political project.”
Noting the mis-steps of the government in handling the pandemic and the attendant serious economic crisis, Swain concluded:
“India’s Hindu nationalist regime aims to give the coronavirus crisis a communal colour, which will give it an escape route from its abject policy failures and also at the same time the increasing anti-Muslim environment will bring them political benefits in the coming elections in crucial states like Bihar. Coronavirus has brought a very serious crisis for India, but for the Narendra Modi regime, it has also provided a powerful political opportunity.”
Indian hate campaign bleeds into the Gulf
While these exchanges were on, tweets by the BJP member of parliament, Tejasvi Surya from 2015, quoting the self-styled Islamic “scholar” Tareq Fatah (who had been popular in Hindutva circles in India a few years ago) cropped up. The tweet said, “95% Arab women have never had an orgasm in the last few hundred years. Every mother has produced kids as act of sex and not love.”
This obviously was found most offensive. Noora Al Ghurair, a prominent businesswoman in Dubai, said: “Pity your upbringing that respect for women couldn’t be instilled in U despite India having some great female leaders.” She advised that, if he were to join the Indian foreign ministry in future, he “should avoid visiting Arab lands. You are not welcome here”.
A commentator from Kuwait, Abdul Rehman Nassar tweeted directly to Prime Minister Modi insisting that Tejasvi Surya be deprived of his parliamentary membership. He told the prime minister that Indians in Kuwait constitute the largest community among those infected with the coronavirus and were being treated in the best hospitals. He reminded Modi that Indians remitted billions of dollars to their country and all of them (mostly Hindu) were treated well in all Gulf countries. How are Muslims treated in India, he asked.
A Kuwaiti lawyer and human rights activist, Mejbal Al Sharika, also questioned Modi on the Surya tweet, pointing out that Surya had “publicly humiliate(d) our women” and demanding punitive action. He announced he was attaching himself, with other Gulf activists, to the cause of the Indian Muslims against “Hindutva fascism”.
On April 19, Modi intervened for the first time with a tweet.
COVID-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or borders before striking.
Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood.
We are in this together: PM @narendramodi
— PMO India (@PMOIndia) April 19, 2020
Most observers would see these remarks as reflecting little conviction and less enthusiasm. In any case, they are likely to have no impact on his zealous followers. As Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay has pointed out in his article on April 24:
“… his [Modi’s] words … were posted on a platform which is primarily a business and employment-oriented service used for ‘networking’ by professionals.
“The vital question is, was this message intended for his supporters who have been fanning hatred towards Muslims or was it just to put it on record that the prime minister was opposed to religious profiling of coronavirus patients? Modi’s messaging is odd on two counts. One, if this is indeed aimed at signalling to the proverbial bhakts or blind supporters, Linkedin was not the appropriate platform to convey. Secondly, the smear campaign does not contend that the virus ‘chooses’ victims on basis of their religious identity and instead depicts Muslims as the chief and wilful carriers of the pandemic in the country.”
Why this intervention can be seen as half-hearted is because the hate campaign against Muslims on social media has been rampant within the country for a few years, but it has only now seriously entered Gulf consciousness, with Twitter traffic today consumed by the Hindutva narrative and Gulf nationals expressing their sentiments vociferously. This has also provided a great opportunity for Pakistani agencies to join the anti-India discussion with fake messaging, though, of course, their task is facilitated by the relentless abuse concocted and proliferated by Hindutva zealots.
Demonising Muslims by blaming the Tablighi congregation as being primarily responsible for the spread of the virus in India became central to the Hindutva narrative from late March itself, with mainstream Indian media an enthusiastic accomplice.
Figures from official sources were quoted to show how the Tablighis, returning home after their congregation in Delhi, had spread the disease. To this were added stories of their misbehaviour and misconduct – walking without trousers in hospital wards, making vulgar advances at nurses, throwing vegetarian food, defecating in wards, and deliberating spitting into food to spread the virus. These reports pandered to the traditional caricature of the Muslim in Hindutva lore – dirty, lascivious, uncouth and very malevolent and dangerous.
Senior political leaders publicly spoke of Muslims as “human bombs” and “enemies of humanity” – “Corona jihad” and “Muslim virus” have entered the national vocabulary and stayed in the mindset.
And, all of this was fake. Stories of Tablighi misconduct were later denied by officials, but without the vehemence and enthusiasm with which they had first emerged. The story of the figures of contamination by the Tablighis is even more interesting. Irena Akbar has explained how this was done; she has pointed out: “If many positive cases from March 29-30 onwards are linked to the Tablighi Jamaat, it’s because its members and their contacts are being rightly but selectively tested while the overall testing remains abysmally low.” She refers to this as “sampling bias”.
Recognising the need for more effective damage-control, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar personally intervened in the imbroglio: on April 23-24, he spoke to his counterparts in the UAE, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia. According to press reports, he assured his interlocutors that India would continue to provide food supplies during the holy month of Ramadan and would make available the medicines required to fight the pandemic. Reports on television said he affirmed India would remain committed to its “Look West” policy.
The Gulf countries have now for the first time woken up to the scourge of extremist Hindutva to which they had so far paid little attention. It will come as a surprise to Hindutva cadres that, despite periodic rhetoric, faith has hardly played any role in determining the direction and strength of the Gulf countries’ ties with India. Through the Cold War, the GCC countries were tied to Pakistan politically and militarily not because it was a Muslim country, but because they were allies on the same side of the global divide, their ties being cemented by their shared affiliation with the US.
After the Cold War, the Arab Gulf nations, united in the GCC, stretched out their hand to India when we had a BJP government led by Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. The visit to Riyadh of external affairs minister Jaswant Singh in January 2001 marks the commencement of fresh political relations, symbolically strengthened by the gift of two Arabian horses to the Indian minister. Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the son of Crown Prince Abdullah, told Jaswant Singh what his father had said to him: “I like the minister. He is honest; he is a Bedouin like us.”
Indo-Saudi strategic energy ties evolved to a “strategic partnership” after the Mumbai attack of November 2008 which had clearly revealed Pakistan as the nursery and sanctuary of extremist violence. This was enshrined in the “Riyadh Declaration” signed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in February 2010.
Over the last six years, Prime Minister Modi has built on these foundations with a focus on taking these relations to new heights. These relations flow from the millennia-old engagements that India has had with West Asia. Every joint statement concluded during Modi’s interactions with Gulf leaders recalls the age-old civilisational links between India and the Gulf, as also their shared views and concerns relating to the regional security scenario.
Thus, the India-UAE joint statement of August 2015 noted the “centuries-old ties of commerce, culture and kinship” shared by India with the UAE, and then celebrated their modern-day partnership to help “realise the vision of an Asian Century”. In the joint statement with Saudi Arabia of April 2016, the two countries recognised “the close interlinkage of the stability and security of the Gulf region and the Indian sub-continent”. In the later joint statement of February 2019, India welcomed the “moderation and openness” being pursued by the Saudi crown prince in his country, while the latter appreciated “the Indian model of ethos of inclusiveness, pluralism and tolerance”.
The India-Oman statement of February 2018 noted “the historically close bilateral ties, involving vibrant maritime trade and cultural exchanges” that had been fostered by the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, and had opened opportunities for a “strategic partnership based on trust and mutual respect”.
The ties fostered during Modi’s prime ministership have gone beyond rhetoric to concrete deals. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have offered to make major investments in India, amounting to $70 billion and $100 billion, respectively, to develop India’s infrastructure and the energy and industrial sectors. Investments of a few billion dollars have already been made in specific projects.
The countries have also manifested their personal regard for the Indian prime minister by bestowing high awards upon him: the UAE conferred on him the “Order of Zayed”, its highest civilian award in August 2019; it had first announced the award in February, in the midst of the general elections, making clear its support for him. In August, he also received the “The King Hamad Order of the Renaissance”, Bahrain’s highest civilian award. Earlier, in April 2016, the Saudi ruler conferred on him its highest award, “The King Abdulaziz Sash”.
Hindutva zealots, blinded by the religious binary, seem largely unfamiliar with the 5000-year heritage that has bonded the Indian and West Asian civilisations and peoples – an engagement that has been uninterrupted, has been rarely influenced by considerations of faith and has been constantly refreshed to impart contemporary value to the relationship.
There is archaeological evidence on the links of the Harappan civilisation with Bahrain and Oman, with India providing cereals, textiles and items of gracious living, items which dominate India’s export basket to this region even now. Later, India had close maritime ties with Assyria, Persia and Egypt, and, through Arab merchants, with the Roman empire. For 2000 years before the advent of Islam, Indian and Arab peoples lived for long periods in each other’s lands and were familiar with each other’s religion, culture, social norms and values and way of life.
After the advent of Islam, the Arabs first encountered India militarily with the invasion and occupation of Sindh in 718-800 AD. While this had little significance politically, its cultural impact was profound; Malik Mohammed says: “The Arabs … were astonished at the superiority of [India’s] civilisation. The sublimity of Indian philosophical ideas and the richness of the Indian intellect were a strange revelation to them.” (The Foundations of the Composite Culture in India, Aakar Books, 2007, p. 58.)
Ancient Indian works in the areas of medicine, astronomy and mathematics was translated from Sanskrit into Arabic. These included: Arthashastra, Sidhandha Charaka Samhitha and the Panchatantra. In the reign of the Abbasid caliph Mamoon (813-33 AD), the mathematician Al Khwarizmi (780-840) adapted Sanskrit numerals into Arabic mathematics.
Arabs came to southern India as merchants and travellers and were warmly welcomed by local rulers. The Arab traveller Ibn Batuta (1304-77), during his travels along India’s western coast, saw several Muslims from Persia and Yemen living in prosperous conditions.
Between the 8th and 15th centuries there were considerable cross-religious influences, particularly with the initiation of reform movements by Vaishnava and Shaivite saints. The scholar Dr Tarachand has written: “[It was in the south where] Islam came into contact with Hinduism and leavened the growing mass of Hindu thought.”
This was reflected in the thinking and speculations of sages such as Ramanuja, Vishnuswami, Madhava and Nimbarka in the 12th and 13th centuries whose thought reflected a “closer parallelism” with Islam. Tarachand notes the following influences from Sufism: emphasis on monotheism; emotional worship; self-surrender (prapatti) and veneration of the teacher (guru-bhakti); loosening of the caste system, and indifference to mere ritualism.
Indian communities have been resident in the Gulf for at least the last millennium; there are records of Indians from Kutch residing in Muscat for the last 600 years. From the 15th century, it had colonies of Bhatias from Thatta, who were later followed by Kutchi Bhatias and Khojas from Sindh, known in Oman as Lawatis. A Kutchi merchant, Narottam, is believed to have supported an Omani uprising against the Portuguese in 1649; his descendants are honoured in Oman to this day.
In 1765, the Dutch explorer Carsten Niebuhr wrote of Muscat thus:
“In no other Mahometan city are the Indians so numerous as in Muscat; their number in the city is no less than 1200. They are permitted to live agreeable to their own laws, to bring their wives hither, and to set up idols in their chambers, and to burn their dead.”
The Gulf communities imported foodstuffs, textiles, wood and metal from India, while Indians imported horses and pearls which were then made into jewellery and sold globally. The Indian rupee was used in the Gulf from the 16th century up to the 1960s. Today, in Oman, about a hundred Kutchi families have Omani nationality; they are headed by their own “Sheikh”, Kanakbhai Khimji.
As the British consolidated their political power over the Gulf from the early 19th century, the administration was entirely manned, financed and controlled from India. Resident Indian communities flourished as business persons, professionals, technicians, government officials and skilled workers. James Onley has in fact argued that the Gulf constituted the outer edge of the British Indian empire:
“For over 4000 years, Arabia fell within the economic and cultural orbit of India. During the British rule, it also fell within the political orbit of India. Between 1820 and 1947, its political affairs were dominated by the East India Company and its successor, the British Government of India. Arabia was the western-most frontier of the British Indian Empire.”
India had a tremendous influence on the cultural life of people in the Gulf in terms of local architecture, clothing and cuisine. Gulf Arabs enjoy Indian curried lamb, biryani and seekh kabab and even the humble samosa is a delicacy to this day; the Indian “kadak chai” is an addiction. The Gulf countries are the main markets for India’s basmati rice.
With the influx of oil revenues, the Gulf went truly global – now major international corporations came to the region to execute high-value infrastructure, energy and manufacturing projects. India again rose to the challenge – it soon became the principal source of manpower to execute the projects. Commencing with just a million in the early 1980s, the Indian community expanded to three and a half million by 2000, six million by 2010 and now stands at over eight million. This community remits about $35 billion to India annually.
Indians are the largest expatriate community in every country of the Gulf and are the majority in three countries – the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar. The profile of the community has also changed: in 1990, it was 90% blue-collar; today, though six times larger, it is just about 65-70% blue-collar, with at least 20% being professionals – engineers, doctors, managers and accountants. Hundreds of Indian chartered accountants hold distinguished positions in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Oman and dominate the upper levels of the financial sector.
The last few decades have witnessed the emergence of entrepreneurs from within the community, from small business persons to tycoons of international standing in the areas of health, construction, education, infrastructure, finance and retail services.
Over the last 20 years, India has become a major importer of hydrocarbons from the Gulf – 50% of its imported oil and gas comes from the GCC. The GCC countries collectively are among the top three of India’s trading partners in terms of blocs, while two GCC countries – the UAE and Saudi Arabia – are in the top five of India’s trade partners. The UAE is also India’s number two export destination, after the US. Even as GCC countries have increased their investments in India, Indian corporations too have expanded their presence in the region in the infrastructure and energy sectors.
The Gulf countries – with the exception of Saudi Arabia – have not attached any significance to faith in the public domain; they have recruited people and given them opportunity without regard to their belief. Thus, the UAE has over a hundred nationalities, with Indians being about 55% of the total. All GCC countries, except Saudi Arabia, have temples and churches as well as burial and cremation grounds for non-Muslims.
Even in Saudi Arabia, which is founded on an affiliation with the narrow and rigid Wahhabi doctrine, faith has generally been an instrument for the assertion of political authority rather than reflecting a serious commitment to belief. On the one occasion when the kingdom banned the recruitment of Sikhs in the early 1980s (which was quickly reversed under diplomatic pressure), there has never been any bias in favour of Muslims in local employment. Hence, reflecting India’s population, the majority of Indians in the Gulf in different categories, including the tycoons, are non-Muslims.
Outlook for ties
At this point, it would be useful to place the recent acrimony in perspective. There has been no comment from GCC official sources. All told, there have been only a few hate messages from Indians resident in the Gulf. From the GCC side, the responses have been few and restrained: anger has been directed at specific sources of the tweets and collectively only against extremist Hindutva elements. There has not been a generalised critique of India; unlike the Hindutva messages, there has been no communal content in the GCC tweets. In fact, the GCC responses have expressed anguish at what they see as the betrayal of India’s time-honoured values – accommodation, moderation, respect for women, etc.
This is not surprising. The Gulf communities have never viewed India through a communal prism, only in the framework of India’s core principles – democracy, secularism and pluralism in a multi-cultural society. India is seen as unique among developing countries in that: it is a democracy; it is a secular and pluralistic society, where both personal law and civil codes co-exist, the latter even providing for cross-communal marriages; it has a free press and an independent judiciary; and, within this framework of democracy and pluralism, it has made great strides in economic and technological achievement.
It will surprise India’s zealots to learn that the Indian “model” has evoked extraordinary respect and admiration across the region over the last several decades.
It is not as if the region did not know of the periodic communal conflagrations in India; but these were viewed as aberrations in a large and diverse nation. Thus, there were no public criticisms of India from official sources after the destruction of Babri Masjid and the subsequent riots.
When this writer, as Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia in 2002, attempted, under government instructions, to explain the post-Godhra violence to a senior Saudi minister and royal family member, the latter said no explanation was called for; this was an exceptional episode. Saudi Arabia had full confidence in India’s commitment to its essential values of pluralism and accommodation of all its diverse communities.
Still, there is no room for complacency. The hate messages that proliferated in the Gulf did not originate in the region; they were churned out in India where a hate industry is in full swing, disseminating fake news and abuse through hundreds of messages on social media that are then enthusiastically and mindlessly repeated by its cohorts. What the recent exchanges have done is to expose Hindutva in its full nakedness and ugliness to the Gulf public. It has planted the first concerns that India might no longer be shaped by its traditional values, that the India they knew and cherished is perhaps withering away before their very eyes.
Will this impact on India’s political and economic ties with the region and the continued recruitment of its people? Perhaps not in the immediate future. The region’s rulers are objective and hard-headed in understanding their interests – they know that India will continue to need their energy resources and they will continue to need India’s manpower. Certainly, there is no other nationality that can substitute for the skill, the discipline and the apolitical character of the Indian. In their recent personal interactions with the region’s leaders both Modi and Jaishankar have played on these realities.
But, while the rulers do not permit religiosity in the public space for political purposes, the pervasive society is still Muslim. And, whatever the wishes of the rulers, Islam, generally projected as “moderate”, remains a force in the region’s political order. Saudi Arabia uses its guardianship of the two holy mosques of Mecca and Madinah to promote its leadership of the global Muslim community. Qatar is firmly anchored in political Islam. It has affiliated itself with Turkey and Iran and regional Islamist movements to promote its interests on this basis. Kuwait has a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated political party that is influential in domestic politics.
The UAE prides itself as an exponent of moderate and “enlightened Islam”, but Islam remains an important factor in its foreign policy. As Giorgio Cafiero has noted:
“In what is called the ‘geopolitics of religious soft power,’ the UAE utilizes Islam to strengthen its regime’s legitimacy, compete with rival states’ visions for Islamic leadership, and project an image of moderation and tolerance before global actors, namely Western countries. Along with Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, the UAE has sought to present itself as a purveyor of “moderate Islam” that stands firmly against extremism.”
Unquestionably, domestic considerations heavily influence the UAE’s use of Islam in its foreign policy. At the heart of the Emiratis’ reasons for utilising religion in this manner is the Abu Dhabi regime’s fears of political Islam fuelling change in the Emirates.
Now that the region has been made familiar with the ideology, agenda and aggression of Hindutva adherents, it is difficult to believe we can go back to business-as-usual. Can Modi’s persona continue to radiate across the Gulf’s firmament while the Muslim community at home is being demonised, abused and violated? The challenge before Modi and his colleagues is to sincerely and robustly confront the hate and abuse being spewed by their cadres at home that are then impacting attitudes and mind-sets in the Gulf and are jeopardising the centuries-old ties we have enjoyed with this region.
There is a sharp warning coming in from the Gulf – alongside several other sources. But are there listeners in Delhi?
Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune and is consulting editor, The Wire.