India’s standing diminishes not just in Islamic countries, with US and the UN also taking a second look
"I hope the Prime Minister has understood that foreign policy cannot be conducted by forcibly hugging leaders, playing on swings or going for biryani uninvited,” had said Dr Manmohan Singh
The Islamic world’s denunciation of India for its domestic Islamophobic rhetoric and attacks on the community is part of a trend where the Narendra Modi government’s perceived excesses are being noticed and reviled the world over.
There is a widening perception that the Modi government’s apparent policy failures and contempt for democracy are diminishing India’s geopolitical standing across the world, with the present controversy threatening the Islamic world’s trade relations with India, and endangering the vast Indian diasporas these countries harbour.
Several Arab-Islamic countries from across Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and sprearheaded by the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), have condemned the Indian government for its alleged excesses against Muslim citizens, the latest being shocking anti-Prophet utterances on national television by the spokeswoman of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
As calls for boycotting Indian products and for repatriating the Indian settlers resounded in these countries, and Indian envoys were summoned by many of their foreign offices to record their protest, the BJP-led government suspended the spokeswoman, Nupur Sharma, and also expelled Delhi BJP media in-charge Naveen Jindal for similarly provocative comments. Many felt, however, that as Indian citizens are today being routinely arrested under the draconian sedition law, which provides for life imprisonment, simply for remarks, writings or social media posts, even forwards, critical of the Prime Minister and other BJP leaders, Sharma’s and Jindal’s public comments should have invited at least comparable action.
However, the absurdity of such selective action was clear from the fact that Sharma issued no apology, but simply a statement informing that she wished to withdraw her remarks, and the government, in turn, assigned her and her family high security on fears of reprisals following her televised comments. The concerned television channel too has not been questioned on the episode, when there has often been swift official action against certain media on various grounds.
In another foreign policy gaffe, India had Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu embarking on a state visit to Qatar even as outrage was building up in the Gulf countries. Qatar’s Deputy Emir abruptly cancelled a state banquet he was to host for Naidu, though on health grounds, and the Vice President also called off his scheduled press conference in Doha. Upon his arrival on Saturday, Naidu was received by Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Soltan bin Saad Al Muraikhi, who the next day summoned Indian Ambassador Deepak Mittal to convey his country’s protest over the comments.
An economic and diplomatic backlash can have disastrous consequences for India, which has enjoyed enduring ties with most Islamic countries despite the communal polarisation arising from the inexorable, but unstated, march towards a Hindu rashtra (Hindu nationhood).
Attempts are being made to desecrate Mughal-era mosques and monuments, including the world heritage Taj Mahal in Agra, on the belief that they were raised on the sites of demolished Hindu temples, Muslims have been lynched or humiliated in the streets for being Muslim or on charges of consuming beef, targeted Muslim homes and shops have been razed with bulldozers, protests are organised against the head-dress of Muslim women and loudspeakers on mosques, the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) seeks to deport undocumented Muslims and hold them in detention centres until their deportation, and BJP-affiliated political and religious leaders openly call for armed uprisings and genocide against the community, rape of their women, and boycott of Muslim businesses.
Last year had seen savage attacks on Muslims by Hindu mobs that evoked little official condemnation. While Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind petitioned the Supreme Court against assaults and repeated instances of hate speeches against Muslims across the country – especially genocidal calls made at the Dharma Sansad (religious conclave) in Hardwar by Hindu extremists who pledged to eliminate Muslims if necessary to make India a Hindu rashtra - 76 SC lawyers sought immediate judicial intervention, while voicing concern about law enforcement agencies “succumbing to non-state actors” in failing to protect minority rights. The petitioners also alleged that Uttar Pradesh police had arrested over 100 Muslims who were protesting against particularly inflammatory remarks by conclave organiser Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati, while none of the “hate mongers” had been acted against.
Modi has invested much effort in cultivating ties with the Arab world, visiting the UAE four times as Prime Minister, the emirates being India’s third-largest trading partner, behind China and the US. Saudi Arabia supplies around 20 per cent of India’s crude oil requirements and Qatar, nearly 40 per cent of India’s gas imports. Kuwait doubled its bilateral trade over the past two years, and in 2020-21, India’s trade with the six GCC nations amounted to nearly $155 billion, its exports accounting for just $44 billion of this. These countries also host nearly nine million Indian expatriates, while accounting for nearly 65 per cent of India’s annual remittances that totalled $87 billion in 2021, India being the world’s largest recipient of remittances.
Washington, in turn, appears to be yet weighing the odds on defining its partnership with India. When he was the Democratic US presidential nominee in 2020, Joe Biden, now President, had expressed disappointment over the CAA as well as over the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam, and had urged for the restoration of rights of all Kashmiris. His policy paper had noted that “these measures” were inconsistent with India’s long tradition of secularism and sustenance of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy. Also, in her meeting with Modi in Washington last September, Indian-origin Vice President Kamala Harris did not shirk from impressing upon him how imperative it was to defend democratic principles and institutions, and to uphold human rights.
Biden also singled out India from within the Quad, the Indo-Pacific-focussed coalition of the US, India, Australia and Japan, when he called out India as “somewhat shaky” in supporting the US-led condemnation of Russia’s war against Ukraine, even as Australia and Japan were unequivocal in their rebuke. He went on to warn that “there is no room for excuses or equivocation”. His setting up last September of a new trilateral security alliance for the Indo-Pacific, called AUKUS, an acronym of the three partner countries, Australia, the UK and the US, also complicates India’s constancy in the US-led campaign against a rising China in this region. The move might presage an eventual supplanting of India by the UK in Washington’s scheme of things, signaling the Biden administration’s waning dependence on India in rebalancing the power equations in the littoral.
It is also believed that Biden might find it increasingly difficult to enlist a democracy-shunning India in partnerships like the Quad, which is positioned against an undemocratic China. After all, the 2021 Country Report on Human Rights Practices: India, released in April by his State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, has stopped just short of accusing the Modi regime of crimes against humanity. This annual report, also known as the Human Rights Report, covers internationally recognised individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements.
Some of the human rights issues it lists are: unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by police and prison officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention by government authorities; political prisoners or detainees; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on free expression and media, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, use of criminal libel laws to prosecute social media speech; restrictions on internet freedom; overly restrictive laws on the organisation, funding, or operations of nongovernmental organisations and civil society organisations; refoulement of refugees; serious government corruption; government harassment of domestic and international human rights organisations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; crimes involving violence and discrimination targeting members of minority groups based on religious affiliation, social status or sexual orientation or gender identity; and forced and compulsory labour, including child labour and bonded labour.
It adds: “Despite government efforts to address abuses and corruption, a lack of accountability for official misconduct persisted at all levels of government, contributing to widespread impunity. Investigations and prosecutions of individual cases took place, but lax enforcement, a shortage of trained police officers, and an overburdened and underresourced court system contributed to a low number of convictions.”
Even the World Health Organisation (WHO) called the Modi government’s bluff on its handling of the coronavirus. In his online ‘State of the World’ address to the World Economic Forum in January, Modi had boasted, “(India) has saved the world, entire humanity, from a major tragedy by effectively controlling coronavirus.”
A 16 April New York Times report had, however, revealed that the publication of a WHO survey of the pandemic was being delayed by a defiant India as the survey had estimated India’s toll at 4 million when the country officially claimed a total 483,178 virus-related deaths. Modi accorded a sumptuous reception to WHO director general Tedros Ghebreyesus on his India visit on 19 April, even jocularly naming him ‘Tulsibhai’, a name common in his homestate of Gujarat, saying, “As a Gujarati, I would call my best friend Tulsibhai.”
Ghebreyesus perhaps was unimpressed, as the WHO report on India, finally released on 5 May, persisted firmly with the reported tally, maintaining, “Several million Covid-19 deaths have most likely gone unreported in India.”
The Prime Minister had pledged to build a “New India” while canvassing in 2019, but the country in 2021 witnessed scenes that harked back to the pestilence of the Middle Ages: multiple bodies heaped on pyres, bodies burnt in the streets as cremation and burial grounds ran short of space, and decomposing bodies floating in the Ganga, at times being picked at by stray dogs. Barrages of corpses overwhelmed mortuaries, and graves were dug to depths that accommodated two to four bodies in tiers.
It was former Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, who said, “I hope the Prime Minister has understood that foreign policy cannot be conducted by forcibly hugging leaders, playing on swings or going for biryani uninvited.”
(The writer is executive editor of Business India. Views are personal)