Price paid by India for bigotry on live TV – diplomatic crisis and strained relations with close allies

Poisonous discourse against Islam and attacks on Muslims – verbal as well as physical – is contributing to a gradual shift in how India is perceived by Arab citizens, governments, Arab investors

Nupur Sharma
Nupur Sharma

Bobby Naqvi

There are lessons to be drawn from the controversy over remarks made by office-bearers of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, triggering a mini diplomatic crisis and inviting public condemnation from India’s closest allies in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

The Arab region, especially the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), a powerful grouping of six nations, is cautious, and, to emphasise, conservative in taking positions on domestic narratives and political issues in friendly countries. They are known to engage with friendly countries discreetly on sensitive issues and convey their displeasure, if any, privately through diplomatic channels.

The controversy over the BJP leaders’ insulting remarks against the Prophet of Islam and his wife was dealt with swiftly and publicly by the GCC nations, a rare departure from previous stances on events involving Muslims and Islam.

The first lesson is that the prime-time discussions, often poisonous and brazenly bigoted, on Indian news channels are no longer confined to the borders of India. Most Indian news channels are part of bouquets of service providers in Arab countries and a time difference of just 90 minutes means prime-time in India is prime time in the Gulf region.

Also, controversial remarks made in Hindi or other Indian languages on live television break linguistic barriers and reappear in social media and get amplified.

Second, reckless remarks by office bearers of the ruling party, made in the heat of the moment or with a clear intent to insult symbols and followers of Islam, have the potential to blow up into a diplomatic crisis, requiring India’s Ministry of External Affairs to marshal its diplomats to contain the fallout.

In other words, bigotry on television has a big price – a full blown diplomatic crisis and strained relations with some of the closest global allies, a crisis India must avoid especially at a time when nations are recalibrating global alliances.

Third, the Arab world knows India as a land of diversity and where pluralism is cherished and nurtured. Indians living and working in the Arab world are known for their hard work and humble attitude. However, the aggressive and bitter debates on news channels presents an ugly side of India that comes in conflict with the country’s perceived value systems and its global image. This poisonous discourse against Islam and attacks on Muslims -- verbal and physical -- is contributing to a gradual shift in how India is perceived by Arab citizens, Arab governments, and Arab investors, thanks to Indian media’s eagerness to amplify divisive voices.

The Indian diplomats, who are in the frontline of a battle to manage perceptions in the backdrop of this controversy, have attributed the remarks to “fringe” elements and are citing the robustness of Indian democracy that allows free exchange of ideas.

However, the diplomats, including some who spoke to me about this crisis, are consciously aware of the limitations of such efforts in the absence of the Government of India’s ability or lack of intent to stop news channels from spreading hate.

Given the prevailing atmosphere of divisiveness in Indian politics, society and media, the biggest challenge before India’s foreign establishment is to restore India’s image as the land of ideas and opportunities for global investors, a source of skilled human capital, a land that guarantees freedom of worship to all faiths, a stable democracy, and a country with which cash-rich economies do business regardless of their own global affiliations, alliances, and value systems.

The Gulf Arab is hosting the largest Indian diaspora; of the 18 odd million Indians living abroad, around 7 million live and work in the GCC countries. This population of Indian expatriates comprises of followers of most religions, including Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, and Sikhs.

The Indian expatriates in the Arab region are the most powerful ambassadors of their nation and their public conduct and activities on social media contribute to the Arab perception about India. Their conduct on social media, and in public life, in turn are guided by the discourse on Indian news channels.

In the past, several Indian nationals lost their jobs and were deported from the GCC countries after they made offensive remarks against Islam or Muslims.

So, on one hand, the bigotry on Indian media is contributing to the changing perceptions about India on the Arab streets, it is also influencing the thoughts of an average Indian citizen living in this part of the world.

(The writer is a former Editor of Gulf News and a senior journalist based in Dubai)

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