Words must be chosen carefully, especially when one is in a position of authority or responsibility. Once spoken, they are like arrows that are difficult to retract. The controversy of disrespecting Prophet Mohammed and Islam, which has gone viral, should have never happened, at least in our country.
India is a country of many religions, and the Indian civilisational heritage is a crucible of cultures, traditions, faiths and beliefs. All religions have thrived in this land of spirituality. Tolerance is a virtue, and ‘Swadharme Nidhanam Shreyah’ is the dictum that dictates the societal discourse. Respect for all religions is implicit and inherent in the very fabric of society. The beauty and Unity of India lie in its diversity.
Hence, when Nupur Sharmas of this world utter irresponsibly, the constitutionality of India comes into question. No one has the right to demean another faith or religion even if one does not agree with it. When the State finds them disturbing to the peace and well-being of the Society, exemplary punishment is desirable against the perpetrators.
In the recent case, several Arab countries expressed consternation, even demanding an apology. Some even went to the extent of boycotting Indian products.
India’s ruling party denounced and expelled the two individuals and said it “strongly denounces insults of any religious personalities of any religion. The Bhartiya Janata Party is also against any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion. The BJP does not promote such people or philosophy. During the thousands of years of the history of India every religion has blossomed and flourished, and it respects all religions.”
This statement and the action by BJP and the government assuaged the West Asian countries. But then the Arab governments do not control the Arab street, especially when Muftis and other opinion makers are on full display, especially where religion is concerned.
While the individual countries were being cognisant of the action taken by India, the Pakistani establishment found a window to denigrate India while ignoring its salubrious record of atrocities against minorities.
In the recent past, Islamabad has been miffed by the proclivity of Gulf countries towards India. Hence, this window of aberration and lapse allowed them to hoot in sync with the Arab sentiment. Not only that, their favourite playground, the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation), was harnessed to issue a misleading and mischievous statement as usual.
The spokesman of the External Affairs Ministry rejected the unsolicited comments while asking Islamabad to mind its own business.
As for West Asia, which is possibly our most important extended neighbourhood, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s outreach to them has yielded outstanding dividends as the relationship with most countries moved from transactional to truly strategic.
They are critically important for our energy and food security. And the presence of much liked 8 million Indian diaspora remitting over $50 billion a year and contributing as a living bridge between India and West Asia adds a crucial dimension whose welfare can be impacted by irresponsible politico-religious statements.
Most of those countries have appreciated India’s stance on key issues relating to Pakistan, be it Pulwama, Balakot or Article 370 abrogation, which was a paradigm shift since they began to understand the Pakistan nexus with terror outfits more clearly. And this was unpalatable to Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Unfortunately, an irreverent tongue can twist the tale and hurt the sensitivities of the friends who care. Let us not fritter away the West Asian goodwill that has been so assiduously earned by Modi.
Ironically, this incident got blown up when the Vice President of India was visiting Doha, and the Qatari foreign office summoned the Indian Ambassador to protest against Sharma and Naveen Jindal’s actions. This was the first visit by an Indian Vice President to Qatar when a much greater focus on trade and investment, innovation and diaspora welfare was made but had to be discussed under the shadow of controversy.
For diplomacy and diplomats, it is the most difficult moment. But our relationship with these countries has matured, and they do understand the prevailing dynamic and appreciate the immediate action taken.
India has over 10 percent of the global Muslim population, which is highly successful and an integral part of the national mainstream of progress and development. India is also probably the only country in the world where the minorities have risen to the top of politics, business and judiciary, army and intelligence. Bollywood’s top actors and Indian artists are the national pride irrespective of their religion.
While this time, we may be able to coast through the tide, it is imperative that certain redlines be drawn for those whose words count and can do irreparable damage to the harmony of the society and can adversely impact India’s relations abroad. The media also can not absolve itself of its own responsibility if such anti-social articulation is permitted through its media organs. If we truly believe in ‘Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam’, let the charity begin at home.
This article was first published in CNBC TV 18 as A former Indian diplomat’s take on how not to fritter away gains in West Asian ties on 10 June 2022.
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Youtube- Watch Anil Trigunayat at IMPRI #WebPolicyTalk as part of the panel discussion on the topic Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine: Implications for India and Emerging Geopolitics
About the Author
Anil Trigunayat, former Indian Ambassador to Jordan, Libya, and Malta; Distinguished Fellow and Head of the West Asia Experts Group at the Vivekananda International Foundation