For long, India’s right-wing Hindutva-led BJP government escaped the geopolitical cost of its extremist anti-Muslim policies. However, the recent remarks by a BJP spokesperson highlight the risky course the BJP government is treading, which definitely would have severe geopolitical and geoeconomic consequences.
India witnessed massive unrest and triggered censure from the Muslim countries after a spokeswoman of the ruling political party passed offensive and Islamophobic statements against Holy Prophet (PBUH). Not to mention that the topic regarding the alleged age of Aisha (RA) when married to Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), comes from the spokesperson of a state with the highest rate of child marriages in the whole world, i.e., 1.5 million1. In the backdrop of increasing Islamophobia fanned by the ruling party’s members, it is not surprising that their hearts are brimming with hatred against Islam, however, what did come as a shock were the utterly disrespectful words by a close aide of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Nupur Sharma, in a talk show aired on the national television on May 262. Adding insult to injury, a tweet all the more aggravating was posted by the Delhi media head of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Naveen Kumar Jindal, with reference to the same topic. The entirety of Muslim minority of India, who has been suffering severe communalistic and Islamophobic violence, was wounded and enraged by these insulting remarks to the point that they broke the silence and rallied on the streets to protest. Muslims all over India poured out on the streets after Friday congregational prayers, in major cities like Delhi, Srinagar, Kolkata, Lucknow, Prayagraj and Shopian,3 etc. The opposition was on the same page with the protestors but to no avail. The Hindutva-led BJP government, rather than apprehending its members, demolished houses of Muslim protestors.
Reaction of the Gulf Countries
As nothing really rests inside the borders in this globalized world, this matter could not stay domestic as well. Where the majority of Islamic world has let India get away with the despotism and targeted brutality against Indian Muslims and those of Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK), saying it is a ‘domestic’ issue of India, believe that the BJP members have crossed the line this time. Each and every country in the Gulf region made it clear that an insult of any kind regarding Holy Prophet (PBUH) shall not be tolerated. Gulf states and other Muslim countries including Egypt, Malaysia, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain, along with Pakistan expressed concern, and so have the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).4
Qatar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that "Allowing such Islamophobic remarks to continue without punishment constitutes a grave danger to the protection of human rights and may lead to further prejudice and marginalization, which will create a cycle of violence and hate."
Qatar was the first state to come forward and criticize the statements made by BJP members. The executives of the said state summoned the Indian Ambassador, demanding an official apology from the Indian government and public censure of such remarks, hence making Qatar’s response the sharpest. Qatar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that "Allowing such Islamophobic remarks to continue without punishment constitutes a grave danger to the protection of human rights and may lead to further prejudice and marginalization, which will create a cycle of violence and hate."5
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation (MoFAIC) of the United Arab Emirates also issued a statement after Iran, Kuwait and Qatar’s protest. The statement read, “The Ministry underscored the need to respect religious symbols and not violate them, as well as confront hate speech and violence. The Ministry also noted the importance of strengthening the shared international responsibility to spread the values of tolerance and human coexistence while preventing any practices that would inflame the sentiments of the followers of different religions”.6 The statement aiming at correcting Indian behavior is quite out of the ordinary coming from the UAE, as relations run deep between the two states, given the fact that the UAE backed India even in the case of revocation of Article 370.
Response by the Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry led by Prince Faisal Bin Farhan Al-Saud was explicit, "The Ministry of Foreign Affairs expresses its condemnation and denunciation of the statements made by the spokeswoman of the #Indian Bharatiya Janata Party (#BJP), insulting the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)."7
Anger amongst local population doesn’t seem to be coming to an end as calls to boycott Indian products and let off Indian workers has grown.
It never went unnoticed that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has always paid special attention to India’s relations with the Gulf countries. In this case as well, a state that has stood unyieldingly against the opinions of even the superpower, showed compliance with the demands of the Gulf states, that too in a matter of hours. Right after Qatar, Kuwait and Iran called the ambassadors of India to record their protest and boycott of Indian products started, BJP’s General Secretary, Arun Singh, issued a statement without any context or reference saying the party doesn’t promote such thinking or any belief that insults or demeans any sect or religion.
Nupur Sharma was suspended hours after the statement “with immediate effect” and Kumar Jindal was expelled from the party membership. This pattern of actions against the two ex-representatives of the party shows how insincere the measures taken by the ruling party were. Had the actions been actually taken in order to discipline the hate-spewing individuals, the tweets by Naveen Kumar Jindal deserved a stronger response as they were even more offensive and vile. However, since the talk show was mentioned more frequently in boycotts, action against Nupur was relatively stronger.
Anger amongst Gulf’s local population doesn’t seem to be coming to an end as calls to boycott Indian products and let off Indian workers has grown.
BJP swiftly separated itself from the two ex-representatives of the party and very conveniently called them ‘fringe elements’ as if this was the first time someone from the party showed abhorrence towards the Muslim minority and is not a uniform behavior exhibited by the majority of the current ruling party. The government got into damage control mode as soon as the Gulf countries showed their dissent towards the comments passed during the talk show, however, when the same was done by the OIC and Pakistan, a contrasting spite was displayed by Indian government calling their statements ‘unwarranted’ and ‘narrow-minded’. Furthermore, despite the forerunners of this diplomatic nightmare for India were the Gulf states themselves, Pakistan was still somehow dragged into the whole fiasco and blamed as the spoiler between India and the Gulf nations. Internal anger against Qatar was brazenly put on display over Qatar’s request to apologize, not specifically to Nupur but to India as well, conveniently avoiding the actual premise of the demand by Qatar, i.e., addressing the structural and societal discrimination, and communal violence against Muslims.
Indian government responded to the protest by the local Muslim minority through a totalitarian tool, i.e., demolition of houses and arrests of about 300 protestors.8 State’s right-wing Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, himself gave orders to demolish any illegal establishments and houses of those who are even ‘accused’ of being involved in the unrest.
Why are Gulf Countries Important for India?
This raises a question as to why a group of countries that aren’t even India’s neighbors or share a common religion, culture or history are more important for her than the demands of her own citizens? It may be argued that it is due to the USD 156 billion trade volume coming from the Gulf region that is hanging in the balance for India, after Qatar cancelled a dinner that was to be hosted for Vice President Naidu, though in the guise of the health of Qatar’s Deputy Emir.9
Trade, oil, gas, and energy are the imperative aspects of bilateral relations between India and many countries of the Gulf region. A large number of Indian citizens also work in the Gulf countries. But India has trade relations with the USA and China as well, which were rarely, if ever able to mold India’s decision to their liking. The magnitude of energy supply coming from the Gulf region shapes the whole scenario of significance of Gulf countries for India. Its business with the GCC, a regional intergovernmental political and economic union, which includes Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE stood at USD 87 billion in 2020-2021.10 Also, the UAE with USD 72.87 billion trade volume, and Saudi Arabia with USD 42.9 billion trade volume, are India's third and fourth largest trading partners after the U.S. and China11. Iraq is India’s seventh largest trade partner with a trade volume of about USD 34.3 billion12.
Qatar stands as the most important supplier of natural gas. Iraq’s oil supply to India increased from 9 percent to 22 percent in 2021-2022, coming up as the largest exporter of oil to India. 17-18 percent of oil has been imported to India from Saudi Arabia for more than a decade. Kuwait, the UAE, and Iran also export oil to India.13 According to an analysis by Observer Research Foundation, India has imported about 60 percent of its crude oil needs from the Persian Gulf countries over the last 15 years.14
Despite the forerunners of this diplomatic nightmare for India were the Gulf states themselves, Pakistan was still somehow dragged into the whole fiasco and blamed as the spoiler between India and the Gulf nations.
Indian diaspora in the gulf is the largest remittance contributor. India was the largest recipient of remittances in 2020 at USD 83.15 billion, according to World Bank data15. 3.41 million Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) hosted by the UAE, 2.6 million by Saudi Arabia and 1.03 million by Kuwait account for over half of the NRIs in the whole world, i.e., 6.5 million.16 Indians form 30 percent of the UAE's population according to the Ministry of External Affairs. Around 7.6 million NRIs are living in the Middle East at present. Statistics show that in 2021, around USD 87 billion were received by India as remittances which amounts to 3.1 percent of India’s GDP.17 India has also signed a free trade agreement with the UAE and is in talks for a more comprehensive deal with the GCC, therefore the stakes are very high for India.
Can the Gulf Countries Impact India’s Decision-making Capability?
Given the energy needs of India, the huge diaspora hosted by the Gulf region, and the sheer magnitude of trade and energy supply, India is becoming increasingly dependent on the Gulf states. Even if one considers shifting the focus of trade and remittances to other areas around the world, it would cost India substantially to look the other way for energy supply. So, if it is needed of the Gulf states to want to impact Indian decisions, they surely can, just like they were able to influence since after the incident.. But ties between the Gulf states and India have never been religious, cultural or historical in nature. What connects them is solely economic and trade concerns which are being catered to by both sides. So, another question, aside from the potential grounds, arises on the ground reality, i.e., whether the Gulf states will ever compromise their ties with India. And what could be the interest of the Gulf states in influencing India?
Will GCC Compromise on Their Ties with India?
The trade relation between the Gulf states and India is beneficial for both of them. Gulf countries are heavily dependent on food imports via India. Rice, meat, spices, marine items, fruits and vegetables, and sugar are among the foods shipped to the Gulf countries, therefore the boycott demand may not endure for long. Indians will also have to continue working in the Gulf countries, because those countries have a significant portion of their workforce comprised of Indians, and they must continue doing business with India. As a result, a call for a boycott of Indian products or Indian workers may not last long. However, the resentment among the people of the Gulf countries can significantly check, if not reduce, the continuously growing remittances, as other developing countries’ citizens are abundantly available to work in the Gulf region. That being said, it is a wake-up call to all political parties and affiliated organizations, not just BJP, that when expressing their views, they should be more thoughtful because, as has been observed in this case, what happens in India does not necessarily stay in India; there are international costs to be paid.
1. “Ending Child Marriage and Adolescent Empowerment,” UNICEF India, accessed June 13, 2022, https://www.unicef.org/india/what-we-do/end-child-marriage.
2. Helen Regan, “What to Know about India's Prophet Mohammed Controversy,” CNN, June 11, 2022, https://edition.cnn.com/2022/06/10/asia/india-nupur-sharma-islam-comments-explainer-intl-hnk/index.html.
3. Editorial, “Prophet Muhammad Row: After Friday Prayers, There Was a Ruckus across the Country, Protest from Jama Masjid in Delhi to Kolkata, People Came out on the Road,” News NCR, June 10, 2022, https://www.newsncr.com/national/prophet-muhammad-row-after-friday-prayers-there-was-a-ruckus-across-the-country-protest-from-jama-masjid-in-delhi-to-kolkata-people-came-out-on-the-road/.
4. Dipavali Hazra, “Test of Faith: Can the Deep Ties between India and Gulf, Delinked from Faith, Weather the Row over Derogatory Remarks on Islam?,” Times Now, June 7, 2022, https://www.timesnownews.com/exclusive/prophet-muhammad-controversy-ex-bjp-leader-nupur-sharma-gulf-countries-against-india-news-explained-article-92059749.
5. Vikas Pandey, “Nupur Sharma: Prophet Muhammad Remarks Deepen India's Diplomatic Crisis,” BBC News, June 7, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-61701908.
6. India New England News, “Now, UAE Condemns Statements Insulting Prophet,” INDIA New England News, June 7, 2022, https://indianewengland.com/now-uae-condemns-statements-insulting-prophet/.
7. Geeta Mohan, “Saudi Arabia Slams Remarks on Prophet Muhammad, Welcomes BJP's Decision to Suspend Nupur Sharma,” India Today, June 6, 2022, https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/saudi-arabia-slams-remarks-prophet-muhammad-welcomes-bjp-decision-suspend-nupur-sharma-1958775-2022-06-06.
8. Alisha Rahaman Sarkar, “Prophet Muhammad Row: Homes of Muslim Protesters Demolished after Riots,” The Independent, June 14, 2022, https://www.independent.co.uk/asia/india/prophet-muhammad-muslim-house-demolished-b2099590.html.
9. Deepshikha Ghosh, “In Gulf Fury vs India, ‘Fringe Elements’ Defence, Cancelled Dinner in Qatar,” NDTV, June 6, 2022, https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/in-gulf-fury-vs-india-fringe-elements-defence-cancelled-lunch-in-qatar-3041770.
10. Time News, “India's Trade Worth $ 87 Billion with Gulf Countries by 2021: India's Trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council Stood at $ 87 Billion in 2020-21,” Time News, June 7, 2022, https://time.news/indias-trade-worth-87-billion-with-gulf-countries-by-2021-indias-trade-with-the-gulf-cooperation-council-stood-at-87-billion-in-2020-21/.
11. Krishn Kaushik, “Explained: Why the Gulf Matters for India,” The Indian Express, June 8, 2022, https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-why-the-gulf-matters-for-india-7956115/.
12. Riya Paliwal, “The Reason Why India Can't Ignore Gulf Outrage,” The Economic Times, June 9, 2022, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/foreign-trade/the-reason-why-india-cant-ignore-gulf-outrage/articleshow/92052158.cms.
13. Krishn Kaushik, “Explained: Why the Gulf Matters for India,” The Indian Express, June 8, 2022, https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/explained-why-the-gulf-matters-for-india-7956115/.
14. PTI, “India's Trade with GCC Nations Increasing at Rapid Pace” The Times of India, June 7, 2022, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/business/india-business/indias-trade-with-gcc-nations-increasing-at-rapid-pace/articleshow/92045984.cms.
15. Manas Srivastava, “UPSC Essentials: One Word a Day- Gulf Cooperation Council,” The Indian Express, June 9, 2022, https://indianexpress.com/article/upsc-current-affairs/upsc-essentials/upsc-essentials-one-word-a-day-gulf-cooperation-council-7960663/.
17. Hammad Habibullah, “Explained: Why Gulf Countries Are Indian Diaspora's Favourite Destination,” IndiaTimes, October 18, 2021, https://www.indiatimes.com/explainers/news/indians-migrants-in-gulf-countries-551901.html.
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