Prophet row: Gulf countries vital to India’s interests; BJP shouldn't jeopardise it, say former diplomats

Former diplomat and Cong MP Shashi Tharoor said the situation was ironic considering the Modi govt had invested considerable effort in strengthening relations with Muslim countries, especially in Gulf

Prophet row: Gulf countries vital to India’s interests; BJP shouldn't jeopardise it, say former diplomats

Ashlin Mathew

With the unprecedented backlash by 20 countries over comments on Prophet Mohammed by BJP spokespersons, several former diplomats have underscored that the Gulf countries are vital to India’s interests and the country’s ruling party shouldn’t jeopardise it for petty domestic gains amongst its Hindutva brigade.

Countries including Qatar, Kuwait, Iran, Oman, Indonesia, Iraq, Pakistan and Malaysia condemned the derogatory remarks made by BJP spokespersons Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal, and summoned the ambassadors to register their strong protest over the remarks.

BJP had to backtrack by calling their spokespersons ‘fringe elements’ and that the views of these individuals “did not, in any manner, reflect the views of the government of India”. Jindal has been expelled from the party and Sharma suspended. Sharma had made these comments on a national TV channel.

Former international diplomat and Congress MP Shashi Tharoor underscored that this situation was ironic considering the Modi government had invested considerable effort in strengthening relations with Muslim countries, especially in the Gulf.

“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,” highlighted Tharoor.

There are two dimensions to this issue, explained former ambassador Anil Trigunayat. “The first is the government to government dimension and the other is one between people,” he said. Trigunayat has served in Libya, Jordan, worked in the West Asia and North Africa and Gulf divisions in the ministry of external affairs and has served as Director General/Joint Secretary for the Gulf & Haj Division.

“The problem lies at the people to people level. In those countries, the streets are controlled by the Muftis and religious authorities. The ambassadors have controlled much of the damage which emerged from these comments, but they will have to address the concerns at the grassroots level also,” explained Trigunayat.

The fiasco broke out first with Qatar summoning the Indian ambassador Deepak Mittal on June 5, 2022, and demanding a public apology from the Indian government over the BJP leader’s comments on Prophet Mohammed. This happened when Vice President Venkaiah Naidu was in the country. A lunch with Naidu was cancelled, albeit on medical grounds.

The Indian embassy in Qatar issued a statement on the same day stating that the offensive comments and tweets by individuals in India “do not, in any manner, reflect the views of the government of India”, adding “these are the views of fringe elements.”

Trigunayat asserted that the other governmental interactions went ahead as planned. The meetings with Qatari companies for greater investment in India went ahead in the few days that the Vice President was there. “It would have been ideal if the controversy wasn’t there,” added Trigunayat.

Iran is one of the other countries which had summoned our ambassador. “The Iranian foreign minister is here in the Capital and of course, the meeting was planned much before the controversy broke out. He must have been apprised of the situation,” added Trigunayat.

India seems to have a government that fails to distinguish between itself and the political party that dominates it, explained Tharoor, and the Indian Embassy in Oman even circulated the BJP General Secretary’s press release explaining its dismissal of its own spokespeople. “This eroded the very distinction between our government and a political party that the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had relied on to distance the government of India from the inflammatory remarks,” said Tharoor.

“The issue here is that these comments were made by the BJP spokespersons and that is what caused the major problem. In India, law will take its own course. Abroad the embassies represent the country and not a political party. The Embassies must have collected facts from BJP as the time was short to react,” maintained Trigunayat. BJP, also for a change, has come out with a statement that they respect all religions and are against anything that disrespects any religion. “This is what our Constitution also says. It is not that they were doing it at the behest of BJP,” he added.

This is a mistake committed by the spokespersons, said professor Rajan Kumar, School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Probably these spokespersons didn’t realise the extent of the economic engagement that we have with the Gulf countries. This is a comment on the Prophet and one would expect spokespersons from all parties to know what is sensitive to different communities. The historical culturalism that we have built over the last several decades can be undone by these kinds of comments,” explained Kumar.

According to the 2020 World Bank data, 82% of the total remittances were sent to India from seven major countries – UAE, United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, United Kingdom and Oman. Of these five are in the Gulf region and are also the countries which condemned the statements. From UAE, India got $43 billion as remittances and from Saudi Arabia $34.5 billion.

Kumar noted that these countries were important to India, not just for the economical aspect, but because a large number of Indians work there and “we have to be concerned about the security of our citizens”. There are more than 6 million Indian in those countries.

“We cannot be isolated from the world. The policy is to engage with all the powers. We have certain issues with the West because of our stand on Russia and this kind of controversy can alienate the Gulf countries,” added Kumar.

Though minister of external affairs S Jaishankar has largely been seen as missing, Kumar opined that all the statements that were released by the Embassies could not have been without the consent of the minister.

Tharoor quipped that this episode could serve as a wake-up call to the government, reminding them that inflammatory words at home can have consequences abroad. “The Prime Minister has spoken of India being a “vishwa guru” (world leader). To be a good guru one needs to be a good shishya (student) first. That is a lesson New Delhi has humiliatingly learned this week,” added Tharoor.

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