A Debacle of the Worst Kind: How India Scrambles to Save Face

Zahra Kazmi and Juan Abbas

Social media has an odd propensity to make a meme out of everything, from celebrities to international relations. Wars are carried out and fought at their fingertips. A million monkeys type out more than a trillion words each day, and yet these monkeys often manage to hit the nail on the head. In unsavoury terms and swear words, but the effect is what years of diplomatic relations, machinations and news agencies have not been able to achieve.

The first week of June saw the carefully constructed façade of Sweden’s image crumble underneath social media pressure, thereby laying bare the systemic racism that is the hallmark of European countries. The second week of June saw India being dragged far and wide by netizens, and subsequently by the heavyweights of the Muslim nations. Entire countries, it now seems, can be cancelled on social media. It all started when BJP’s national spokesperson began to spew degradation remarks about the Prophet Muhammad (SAWW). A routine occurrence in India, where millions of Muslims live under the shadow of lynching and murder. This time, however, it was different. The video made it to social media, where the uproar was so furious that it prompted explanations and condemnations from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran, to name a few. While India scrambled to make apologies and cover-up, its ruling BJP government faced increasing criticism at home from its radicalised voter bank. The realisation that while they can oppress the Muslims at home, the oil-rich Muslim countries that pay a huge chunk of the remittances that make their way to India are a whole different kind of beast, must have been a very bitter pill to swallow.

India has declared Nupur Sharma and her ilk as “fringe elements” and that it was “against any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion” and added that it did not “promote such people or philosophy”. But as many have pointed the glaring fact out, Sharma is most definitely not a fringe element. The 37-year-old lawyer was a much-desired “official BJP spokesman” who appeared night after night on TV debates to advocate and defend Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government until she was fired. Her obscene remarks were made during a debate about the Gyanvapi mosque dispute. Hindus allege that the mosque in Varanasi was built on the ruins of a large 16th-century Hindu sanctuary, which was destroyed in 1669 by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, and some are now requesting permission to pray within the mosque complex from a court.

The international effect should serve as a wake-up call for India, which should understand that divided politics can have global consequences.

On 3rd June, a Muslim protest in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, turned violent in response to her remarks. The state, led by hardline Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath, retaliated harshly against the protesters, filing hundreds of complaints and arresting dozens of Muslims. But Sharma and the BJP could not brazen it out any longer, especially after countries in the Middle East condemned her statement, summoning Indian diplomats in Kuwait, Iran, and Qatar, and issuing a strong statement. Even the United Arab Emirates, whose relations with India have greatly improved in recent years, has condemned the remarks.

India’s diplomatic nightmare over provocative remarks regarding the Prophet Muhammad made shows no signs of ending. The United Arab Emirates, Oman, Indonesia, Iraq, the Maldives, Jordan, Libya, and Bahrain have all criticised the remarks, joining a growing list of Islamic countries. Kuwait, Iran, and Qatar had previously summoned Indian embassies to express their displeasure, and Saudi Arabia had released a forceful statement. Indian diplomats have been attempting to appease these countries, with whom it has warm relations, but the storm is far from finished. Qatar has demanded a public apology.

Qatar said it expected a public apology from India.

“Allowing such Islamophobic remarks to continue without punishment, constitutes a grave danger to the protection of human rights and may lead to further prejudice and marginalisation, which will create a cycle of violence and hate,” Qatar’s ministry of foreign affairs said.

In 2020-21, India’s trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was $87 billion, including Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Millions of Indians live and work in these nations, sending remittances worth billions of dollars back home. In addition, the region is India’s primary source of energy imports. Since taking office in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been a frequent visitor to the region. The country has already inked a free trade agreement with the UAE and is in the process of negotiating a larger accord with the GCC. In 2018, Mr Modi famously attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the first Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi, which was hailed as an indication of the region’s strengthening connections with India.

In light of this, the UAE’s decision to join the chorus of critics of India is noteworthy. In recent years, relations between the two countries have greatly improved. In multi-nation forums, the UAE has also endorsed India. According to experts, the dispute may cast a pall over some of India’s recent diplomatic victories.

“Indian officials often react defensively when foreign capitals, including close friends of New Delhi, criticise Indian domestic matters. But in this case, expect Indian diplomats to work quickly to defuse tensions with apologies and other forms of damage control,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center think-tank.

Arab countries are likewise attempting to take meaningful steps to calm their own citizens’ rage. In these nations, anti-India hashtags have been trending, and the incident has been the top story in their news outlets. Despite the public display of rage, analysts such as Mr Kugelman believe that the relationship is crucial to both the GCC and India, and that both sides will be seeking to mitigate the dangers.

“As concerned as Delhi should be about this angry response from such a strategically critical region, India is also shielded from further damage by its own clout. Because of their economic interests, Gulf states need India to keep importing their energy, they need Indians to continue living and working there, and overall, they need to keep doing business with India,” he said.

He went on to say that there may be a limit to how far these countries will go in responding to anti-Muslim remarks. Religious polarisation in India has risen, according to critics, since the BJP came to power. Provocative conversations have aired on television, and the matter has sparked widespread hatred on social media. Many people linked with right-wing organisations make inflammatory statements on television, but detractors argue that Ms Sharma was not a “fringe element,” as the BJP claims. She was the BJP’s official spokesman, responsible for representing the party’s viewpoints.

According to analysts, the international effect of the incident should serve as a wake-up call for India, which should understand that divided politics can have global consequences.

“When it comes to the country’s increasingly corrosive politics, Delhi is finding that what occurs in India often doesn’t stay in India. With India’s growing global weight and greater diplomatic and commercial ties, there’s more at stake when its domestic politics provoke discontent overseas.” opined Mr Kugelman.

Whether India chooses to clear up its act remains to be seen. BJP has spent years stretching its polarised narrative across India. It cannot undo the damage within the space of a few months. As before, the issue might die down in the face of political and economic interests, since Muslim countries, especially the wealthy ones, have an unhealthy propensity to turn a blind eye to what does not suit their interests.