The Indian government was surprised by the escalation of reactions over the statements of a member of the ruling party insulting the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.
These statements came on May 30, and Indian Muslims expressed their anger at them, calling for legal action against those responsible.
India has a strict law that prohibits insulting sacred figures, books or symbols of the religion. Earlier these laws were well implemented because the vast majority of the religious population in India respect each other’s religions.
The diverse religious groups present in India have generally maintained mutual respect as the relations between the followers of different faiths in the country were once in ideal conditions compared to all other multi-religious societies.
India also has a set of laws that restrict and prohibit the use of insulting remarks and offensive statements against any religious figure and sacred symbols including Islamic symbols. When two weeks ago two members of the ruling party – Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal – issued statements offensive to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, Muslims of India protested against the statements and demanded that decisive steps be taken against them in accordance with the law. This issue has nothing to do with freedom of expression but rather related to the enforcement of laws in India in this regard.
No matter who rules
Due to a delay in taking action against the two members of the ruling party, their videos and tweets started spreading from India to all over the world, causing great pain and uneasiness among the Muslim population across the globe. And the Indian government has been sensitive about its relations with the Muslim world, as it enjoys solid, rather than ordinary, relations. These relationships go back centuries, and India has always been a part of the wider Muslim world no matter who rules the country.
Many Indians and Arabs do not know that Indian Islamic scholars have greatly contributed to the sciences of hadith and jurisprudence, making India the third largest center for hadith science after Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Dozens of Indian Muslim scholars since the Mughal era have interpreted the classical texts published and used by Islamic institutions around the world. Respect for India as a center of Islamic knowledge and studies gave it a special status, and hundreds of Muslim students from all over the Islamic world came to India to receive Islamic sciences.
During the struggle of Indians for independence, freedom leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Maulana Azad and others also expressed their support for the independence of Muslim countries and opposed all forms of imperialism and colonialism. This support in the past was another reason why India and the Islamic world became a natural friendship, as they were part of an extended family who took care of each other’s issues for centuries.
Relations between India and the Arab world blossomed like never before during the processes of urbanization, as the Gulf states favored Indian workers, and hence the region became home to more than 7 million Indian workers who send remittances estimated at $40 billion annually to India.
Reconnecting with the Islamic world
The offensive remarks made by two members of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party were against the thinking and approach of the government. India held its first International Sufism Conference in 2015 with the attendance of Prime Minister Modi and King Abdullah II of Jordan, in which about 100 Sufi and Muslim scholars from all over the world participated. The event was seen as a major step in reconnecting with the Islamic world based on the shared spiritual values of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and other Indian beliefs. The offensive statements of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ have damaged India’s reputation and undermined its diplomacy in the West Asian region.
Indian officials have been late to realize the power of social media that transmits information and disinformation faster against their legal action. A week after those strange statements, the whole world was aware of them except for the Indian law enforcement authorities. Recently, Indian diplomatic missions began collecting information from Arab social media and felt the damage to their diplomatic efforts due to the legally reprehensible statements. Those responsible for the statements were excluded and their membership in the party was frozen.
The first foreign reaction also came, which escalated within days in 15 countries. The government and diplomatic missions were quick and clear in disassociating the government from the two individuals’ positions and statements. The government officially presented its statements and the necessary clarifications, which were appreciated by various Arab and Islamic countries, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
However, this incident left many lessons for India’s diplomacy in West Asia. The Indians, despite the expansion of bilateral relations with the region, they continued to deal with it on the basis of economic transactions only, and the relations between the peoples of both sides – who could tell about the sensitivities – remained very weak. Unlike China, which is expanding its public diplomacy in the region by opening its television channel, websites, and Arab cultural centers, India has not attempted to reach out to the Arab population and public opinion. The Indian government has no efforts in the exchanges between India and West Asian countries in the way Hindu religious figures visit Western countries to promote yoga and Hindu spiritual traditions.
Surprisingly, members of the world’s largest political party (BJP) are not adequately trained in public diplomacy and the common issues between India and its friends. It is not appropriate to ignore the offensive statements of the Prophet ﷺ as an internal affair of India. Why do members of the ruling party not know that the peoples of the friendly countries of India in the Gulf and Southeast Asia have a special emotional relationship with the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ? This shows the ruling party’s lack of training and awareness of foreign relations. Why are there no dialogues and cultural exchanges between India and the countries of the Middle East? Good relations with the member states including the countries of the Islamic world are necessary for India’s permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council, and it is also necessary because India has been a part of their civilization for centuries and has contributed to the development of these countries greatly.
India is not and cannot be an isolated country like Denmark. It is the fate of India, whether we like it or not, which with its history and geography is part of the highly diverse Islamic world, Central Asia, the Persian-speaking Eurasia, the Arab-Turkish world, and the countries of Southeast Asia. BJP members need an understanding similar to what the National Congress had during India’s struggle for independence.
By impeaching the two members, the ruling party has already taken a step in the right direction, avoiding a repeat of the events of 2005 in Denmark, when the entire world was shaken by official and public protests in a major way. But reactions on social media in the Arab world suggest that India’s reputation and diplomacy face a major challenge ahead. Both the Indian government and the party need active public diplomacy to quell the rising anti-Indian sentiment and salvage its major national interests abroad especially in the Middle East, Central Asia and Southeast Asia.
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