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L’affaire Nupur Sharma caused a serious blowback not only from the governments of many Islamic states but their people. It caught the Modi government completely off guard for multiple reasons.
Firstly, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had been cynically stirring the anti-Muslim cauldron since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s re-election in 2019 and getting away with it internationally. Grumbling was limited to the Western world, consisting mostly of pro forma criticism in annual reports or from individual party members i.e. from the liberal wing of the US Democrats.
External affairs minister S. Jaishankar retorted on most occasions with smart quips, which lacked weight. Like new converts to any faith, his Hindutva evangelism was to earn goodwill within the Sangh family. Most recently, reacting to criticism of India in the US State Department’s annual report on freedom of faith, he dubbed it “vote-bank politics“. Thus the government calculated that even sharpened Hindutva activism would not raise hackles abroad, beyond manageable limits.
Secondly, the government assumed that the Islamic world was distracted by their many mutual differences to confront a big nation. Their silence on the repression of Ugyhurs in China showed that economic interests trumped religious affinity. Prime Minister Modi had also managed to woo the de facto rulers of Saudi Arabia, which normally gave lead to the Islamic world’s angst, and the diplomatically assertive United Arab Emirates (UAE). These two had also been traditionally close to Pakistan. In fact, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) had in recent years been less than zealous in its anti-India assertions on Kashmir or the treatment of Muslims in India.
Smugness prevailed in the BJP and the government, but the recent remarks of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat, on the need for moderation in interfaith relations also indicated concern within the Sangh. Some recognition was dawning that post-Gyanvapi mosque controversy, the red-lines for their followers needed re-drawing.
But all this while, the BJP spokespersons in television studios nightly kept up their Muslim-baiting to polarise voters before the vital upcoming state elections, especially in the prime minister’s own state, Gujarat. Most television channels, chasing higher viewership ratings and the government’s goodwill, devised guest panels and issues for maximum confrontation and verbal duels.
For years, this writer had warned that domestic and foreign policies could not be relegated to separate silos. But four years of former US president Donald Trump, who jettisoned climate change and liberal democracy as issues traditionally relevant to US diplomacy, encouraged the Indian government to believe that diplomacy was unaffected by BJP’s Hindutva project. The pace was accelerated after the 2019 re-election of Narendra Modi to move India from constitutionalism and liberal democracy, as envisioned by India’s founding fathers, to majoritarianism and a reconstructive Hindu Rashtra.
The calculus rested on Modi having successfully divided the bigger Islamic nations and engaged the West, especially the US under Trump, who abandoned the defence of liberalism and democracy. However, Joe Biden’s victory, after Modi’s unwise, subtle endorsement of Trump, raised concerns that the state of domestic play in India may invite US attention. Jaishankar’s unwise snubbing of Pramila Jayapal, an Indian-origin Democrat member of the US Congress during the Trump presidency, was also a cause for concern. But China, climate change and now Ukraine have made the US harbour doubts about the Modi government’s commitment to liberal democracy.
However, pugnacious defence of extreme ideological positions, on the left or the right, can get out of hand. The higher echelons of the BJP polarised public opinion by subtle storytelling, innuendo and subliminal rhetoric, including distorted historical narratives etc. After the Uttar Pradesh election victory and the Ram Temple success, and in recognition of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 which protects the status quo of religious places, the BJP should have abandoned minority baiting. On the contrary, it persisted, raising fresh issues of identity and religion. The spokespersons accordingly laced their narrative with communal poison. What is now disowned as the “fringe” were accredited spokespersons defending the BJP government every night.
The issue arises whether the domestic politics of any nation can be separated from its diplomacy. Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, published in 1988, pitted the UK against the street in the Islamic world. By asserting the writer’s freedom of expression, the British defended their core values without compromising, despite popular protests in many Islamic nations and the issuance of an open death warrant by Iran. Also in 1988, a Pakistani mob overran the US embassy in Islamabad on rumours that the US had bombed the Grand Mosque at Mecca to liberate it from the followers of self-styled Mahdi. In fact, French special forces and not the US had helped liberate the holiest place for Muslims.
Thus it was already known that the Muslim Ummah – the global community of believers in Islam – react with spontaneous anger if the prophet or the revealed word in the Quran are pilloried. Nupur Sharma ignored that truth in the heat of the moment and was lulled into complacency by the assumed approbation of those holding high positions in the Union government. The result has been a nightmare for Indian diplomacy. For Qatar to call in the Indian ambassador to protest while the Indian vice president was on an official visit to that nation is unprecedented. Normally nations wait until the high personage departs.
Qatar has had serious differences with Saudi Arabia and the UAE over its encouragement of the Muslim Brotherhood and other extreme right-wing Islamic groups. By coming first off the blocks on the Nupur controversy, it exposed the flanks of bigger powers – like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Indonesia – that claim leadership of the Islamic world. Once the public ire swirled on social media, they had no leeway left to ignore it. Therefore, what began as a ripple turned into a tsunami.
Will the BJP learn from this and tamp down its majoritarian Hindu Rashtra agenda? Probably not, though they would reassess their tactics to devise approaches that distinguish between targeting Indian Muslims and demonising Islam per se and especially the Prophet and his family. The damage to Indian reputation in the Islamic world is containable though not reversible, unless PM Modi decides to emulate Vajpayee, and explores a middle path between Hindutva and classical Hinduism, as honed by philosophers and saints over many millennia. The Modi government could be at a turning point or a point of no return. India holds its breath as the world watches.
K.C. Singh is a former Indian ambassador to the UAE and Iran and retired as Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs.