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'Islamophobic' remarks put pressure on India's Modi

Smita Sharma
June 13, 2022

While the Indian government has taken steps to control the diplomatic backlash from Gulf countries over the anti-Prophet comments, Smita Sharma says the real challenges for Prime Minister Modi are at home.

Protesters in India carrying a sign that reads "Shame on PM of India, Shame on BJP
Modi will have to juggle the internal outrage as well as external protests from the Islamic worldImage: Debarchan Chatterjee/Zumapress/picture alliance

In March 2016 at the inauguration of the World Sufi Forum Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed delegates to "the ancient city of Delhi."

"Like our nation, the city's heart has place for every faith, from those with few followers to those with billion believers," he said. "And you represent the rich diversity of the Islamic civilization that stands on the solid bedrock of a great religion." 

A month later, Saudi Arabia conferred its highest civilian honor, the King Abdulaziz Sash, on Modi.

On June 5, 2016, Modi was in Doha at the invitation of Qatar's Emir. In a joint statement after their talks the leaders "welcomed exchanges and dialogue between religious scholars and intellectuals of both countries and the organization of conferences and seminars to promote values of peace, tolerance, inclusiveness and welfare, inherent in all religions."

In an ironic twist, on June 5, 2022, Qatar's Foreign Ministry summoned the Indian Ambassador in the wake of the controversial remarks about the Prophet Muhammad made by two ruling BJP officials in Delhi who have since been dismissed.

Fallout from the Gulf

Indian Journalist Smita Sharma standing on the steps of a building
Smita SharmaImage: Privat

The Modi government has been caught in a backlash from the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The political row has quickly turned into a religious issue. Social media outrage calling for protests against Modi and the boycott of Indian goods started trending while Indian Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu was in Doha on an official visit. 

Keeping in mind the regional sensitivities, the Indian embassies in Qatar and Kuwait described the remarks as not reflective of the Indian government views but those of "fringe elements."

Crucial economic ties

With Muslims making up just over 14% of India's 1.3 billion population, Modi will have to juggle the internal outrage as well as external protests from the Islamic world. Arguably the importance of the business ties between India and the Gulf is driving the government's reaction. 

Indian exports to the GCC nations in 2020-21 stood at $44 billion. These six countries account for nearly 65% of India's annual remittances of more than $80 billion with some 9 million Indians living in the region. India imports around 40% of its oil from the Gulf. Energy supplies have become even more crucial as a result of the war in Ukraine. Earlier this year, India signed a comprehensive trade deal with UAE.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has invested political capital in the region for strategic and economic gains and has now been forced to control the diplomatic damage.

But it needs to listen to the voices of Muslim citizens within the country. The spate of assemblies by emboldened Hindu nationalist groups; the increasing cases of hate speech, the physical abuse and mob lynching targeting minorities, often enabled by a tacit silence or a dog whistle from the state, will keep the diplomatic pot boiling.

A group of protesters running towards riot police in West Bengal
How will the world's largest democracy deal with the growing unrest?Image: Satyajit Shaw/DW

Can the BJP maintain domestic order?

Sections of society today, including many journalists in newsrooms, cheer the act of collective punishment through bulldozers. The selective razing of houses of those accused of rioting and violence without any legal trial should prey on the conscience of the world's largest democracy.

Many of the autocratic countries lecturing India hardly uphold human rights or freedom of speech. But democracies must strive for higher values. Vitriolic discussions on many pro-government television news channels, often compared to Radio Rwanda fanning communal hatred against minorities, must stop. 

Protests in a democratic country must remain peaceful without inciting arson and violence. There can be no justification for public calls for capital punishment and beheadings by some elected Muslim lawmakers among other extremist voices.

"The tallest of our leaders, such as Maulana Azad, and important spiritual leaders, such as Maulana Hussain Madani, and millions and millions of ordinary citizens, rejected the idea of division on the basis of religion. Let us challenge the forces of violence with the kindness of our love and universal human values," Modi said at the World Sufi Conference in 2016.

The question is whether he can he drive home this message and douse the fires within.

Smita Sharma is an independent journalist in Delhi. She is a Contributing Editor with India Ahead News, Visiting Faculty at the Kautilya School of Public Policy in Hyderabad.

Edited by: Rob Mudge

India faces criticism over Muhammad comments