The fracas over the offensive statements about the Prophet Mohammed emanating from two of the principal spokespersons of the ruling party, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own BJP, had not abated at the time of writing this column. This kind of Muslim-baiting rhetoric has become standard for the BJP in our country’s increasingly toxic politics, since common-or-garden Islamophobia, as a means of polarising majority Hindu opinion, is shamefully seen as a potent vote-catcher for the BJP.
But this time it went too far, crossing all acceptable limits by demeaning the Prophet himself. The insular notion that domestic political debate, conducted in Hindi, will only affect domestic Hindi-speaking television audiences, has of course been rendered totally out of date by the Internet. In India, the remarks had caused hurt and outrage among Muslims, yet elicited no condemnation by the government. But when Islamic countries heard about the remarks, and erupted in fury, the government had to hasten to cover its tracks.
The reaction was strong by diplomatic standards. Five Gulf countries, plus Malaysia and Pakistan, summoned the Indian envoys in their capitals to give them a tongue-lashing on the “unacceptable” statement and demand punishment for those who made it. Six others issued denunciations. Qatar cancelled a formal lunch for the visiting Indian Vice-President. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference, no friend of New Delhi, capitalised on the moment to condemn India and issue calls for the UN to take action against it. Movements to boycott Indian goods erupted in eleven Muslim countries. A number of Indians employed in the Gulf were informed of the termination of their services.
India scrambled to limit the damage, assuring the Muslim world that the offensive statements in no way represented the view of the Indian government but had been made by “fringe elements”. (Why the nation’s principal political party had appointed “fringe elements” as official spokespersons was not explained.) The two BJP spokespersons were summarily removed from their positions, with one being suspended from the ruling party and the other expelled. But the incident highlighted the growing number of instances of Islamophobia unleashed or condoned by the BJP government, and the damage to India’s standing in the Muslim world has been extensive.
The backlash, and India’s quick surrender to its Islamic critics, served as a reminder that the Gulf remains vital to India’s interests. It is a vital trade partner, an indispensable contributor to India’s domestic security, a host to some seven million Indian expatriate workers whose remittances support their families back home, and increasingly a significant security partner in the fight against terrorism emanating from the broader region. To jeopardise all this for the petty self-serving domestic political Muslim-bashing that the BJP increasingly wallows in, is profoundly irresponsible. Especially when, ironically, the Modi government had invested considerable effort in strengthening relations with Muslim countries, especially in the Gulf, and so raised their salience in Indian foreign policy.
It helped that India had long enjoyed a reputation for being hospitable to Muslim interests, and indeed for celebrating its diversity, embracing its own substantial Muslim population with pride. The Muslim world had been aware of and even familiar with prominent Indian Muslims – movie stars, businessmen and sportsmen, but also Presidents, Foreign Ministers and Ambassadors, who were both proud Muslims and proud Indians. It was India’s established record, and its domestic traditions of co-existence, that made Muslim countries all the more receptive to our efforts to improve relations, despite the hostility of Islamic Pakistan.
This kind of Muslim-baiting rhetoric has become standard for the BJP in our country’s increasingly toxic politics.
All this has been severely eroded by the politics sponsored by India’s ruling party, and the free rein accorded to its loudest voices by a government that should really know better. When your perceived domestic political interests undermine your evident national interests, obviously the nation should come first. But for the first time we seem to have a government that fails to distinguish between itself and the political party that dominates it. Indeed the Indian Embassy in Oman even circulated the BJP general secretary’s press release explaining its dismissal of its own spokespeople – thereby eroding the very distinction between our government and a political party that MEA had relied on to distance the government of India from the inflammatory remarks. As this embarrassment revealed, our embassies have become too eager to serve the interests of the ruling party.
Many have argued that the humiliation of India’s craven supplication before its critics abroad should have been borne by the ruling party and not the government -- that it is the BJP that should have gone around the world on bended knee, apologizing for the disgraceful words of their authorised spokespersons. But in fact the government needs to apologize too – not to foreign countries but to our own people – about its inexcusable failure to proceed earlier against the offenders under India’s existing criminal laws against hate speech. Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code already makes it a criminal offence to outrage “the religious feelings of any class of citizens of India”; anyone who by “words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs” of Indians should have been prosecuted by the police. But such has been the impunity enjoyed by the incendiary BJP spokespeople and their abettors in the media, that the Delhi police, controlled by the Home Ministry, did not lift a finger against them. (Belatedly, the Maharashtra police, working in a non-BJP-ruled state, have now done so.)
Let us hope this episode serves as a wake-up call to our government, reminding them that inflammatory words at home can have consequences abroad. The Prime Minister has spoken of India being a “vishwaguru”. To be a good guru one needs to be a good shishya first. That is a lesson New Delhi has learned this week.