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Hate against Indian Muslims: Widening Gulf?

Responses from important personalities in Gulf has come in the wake of the vilification of Indian Muslims and Islam by some Hindutva votaries during the COVID-19 outbreak
Last Updated 24 April 2020, 05:03 IST

For the first time since Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office, his government is overtly at odds with the civil society and intelligentsia of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. This development has the possibility of casting a shadow on New Delhi's relationship with the six Middle Eastern countries of this political and economic alliance: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.

The spate of public responses from important personalities in some of these countries has come in the wake of the vilification drive fanned by Hindutva votaries against Indian Muslims and Islam after several people contracted the coronavirus infection after either attending an event organised by the Tablighi Jamaat or by interacting with those who were present.

These responses from abroad -- expressed through social media -- do not remotely carry the official tag. Yet, it needs to be kept in mind that in these societies, public discourse -- especially on subjects that could have a diplomatic fallout -- is rarely witnessed unless there is confidence that the regime shall not frown on those articulating such views. Consequently, India faces the prospect of erosion in its diplomatic and strategic capital.

Increasing criticism against India

Worryingly, India has already earned the ire of the Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC), an expert body with advisory capacity established by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). It has formally condemned "the unrelenting vicious #Islamophobic campaign in #India maligning Muslims for spread of #COVID-19 as well as their negative profiling in media subjecting them to discrimination & violence with impunity." It further asked New Delhi to "take urgent steps to stop the growing tide of #Islamophobia in India and protect the rights of its persecuted #Muslim minority as per its obligations under international law."

Interestingly, appreciable anger on social media against the attempts to whip up Islamophobia in the wake of the Markaz Nizamuddin incident stands in contrast to the muted response in these countries over the past six years during which Indian Muslims were targets of hostile programmes and drives. The primary reason behind the torrent of tweets in recent days, against Hindutva and its backers, is that the campaign mounted following the outbreak post the Jamaat event was not restricted to Indian Muslims, but became an attack on Islam per se. This development, for these nations, who see themselves as leaders of the Islamic world, was interpreted as a symptom that majoritarian agent provocateurs in India had crossed the proverbial Rubicon.

Modi’s balm

The Indian government has gone on an overdrive to recover lost ground but the worry is that the response is not just reactive, but too late and muted. The official Indian response is at two levels. The first is the move to recover the situation somewhat with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's blogpost headlined 'Life in the era of COVID-19', on Linkedin.

Three sentences containing 31 words from this 1147 worded blogpost in his name has been widely quoted: "COVID-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or border before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together."

Then on April 23, another instance of damage control came in the form of Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi stating in an interview that the entire Muslim community cannot be held responsible for one group’s "crime". He added that most of the minority community members have condemned the group’s action.

To return to Modi, his words, written towards the end of the article, 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.

Additionally, the campaign has painted just the Tablighi Jamaat as representative of all Muslims. Furthermore, it has been alleged that the event was organised with the devious intention of spreading the virus and that was a grand Islamic design. This argument has worried every Muslim in the world, especially in the GCC countries.

Raking up of old, offensive tweets

The added anger in these countries is over an old tweet of Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament from Bangalore, Tejasvi Surya, resurfacing on social media. This post was sexually offensive and derogatory towards Arab women. Its circulation, after the consistent anti-Muslim/Islam campaign since end March was reported in the mainstream Arab media, added fuel to fire. A social media user, evidently a Kuwait-based lawyer, responded sharply to Surya's post and tagged Modi, on his personal as well as official handle.

The points made were pointed: a) India's relationship with the Arab world is based on mutual respect; b) how could Modi allow Indian parliamentarians to humiliate Arab women; and c) Arab civil society expected 'punitive action' against Surya. There were others tit-for-tat tweets too, some from luminaries of society. For instance, Princess Hend Al Qassimi, a member of a royal family in the UAE.

She posted a long list of Hindu religious festivals that were held across India between March 9-19. She even gave an interview to several Indian media houses and platforms in which she said: "Hatred is not welcome in Emirates. Hate is illegal in UAE... I grew up with Indians all my life, but this attitude (the vilification) was not Indian". Anger in these countries was also directed at members of the Indian Hindu diaspora in the Middle East for embarking on a campaign against Islam in general and targeting Indian Muslims. Such people were ticked off, and warned that anyone openly discriminatory and racist would be fined.

India’s late response

Significantly, the GCC countries, either governments or civil society, maintained a studied silence when India was in the throes of anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act agitation in late 2019 and early this year, even though several other Muslim nations, Malaysia and Turkey reacted negatively to the new law. The public reaction and response it has evoked from India has once again ensured that countries in this region are the leaders of the Ummah or the Islamic community, as far as resisting attempts to foster Islamophobia, even if it is being done in a nation with friendly ties.

Although Hindutva exponents have consistently targeted Indian Muslims for alleged pan-Islamic loyalties, they have never been favoured when compared to Hindu diaspora by Arab nations where they live and work profitably. The Indian government has realised, possibly a bit late, that allowing the hate campaign to spin out of control, especially outside India and to extend to Islam per se, has been counterproductive.

Several Indian missions in West Asia have followed the Embassy in UAE in urging the Indian community that they must not sow seeds of discord on basis of religious identity. This is an obvious consequence to the anger seething through the Arab intelligentsia. The Indian embassy in Qatar on April 21 claimed 'fake' Twitter accounts were being used to create schisms within the Indian community.

The Indian embassy in Oman has also stressed on the need to stay focused on fighting the coronavirus pandemic and "not get distracted by fake news on social media with malicious intentions". Earlier, the Indian Ambassador in UAE had stated: "Discrimination is against our moral fabric and the Rule of Law. Indian nationals in the UAE should always remember this."

While the categorical message from the Indian governmental and diplomatic establishment is a welcome development, the root of the problem is the consistent stigmatisation and disparagement of Muslims and Islam. Unless Modi personally puts down this offensive, the ties with the GCC and other Islamic nations have a likelihood of getting tenuous.

While diplomacy demands Modi to come down on his supporters with an iron hand, domestic political compulsions have often prevailed in the past. The path he chooses on this occasion will certainly be closely monitored in the Gulf and this shall have a direct bearing on continued harmonious diplomatic and business ties with nations in this region.

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based journalist and author. His latest book is RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right. He has also written Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (2013))

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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(Published 24 April 2020, 01:47 IST)

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