India will have to contest charges of religious bias
Pakistan is spreading propaganda. But counter it through effective action and a return to constitutionalismUpdated: May 11, 2020 17:53 IST
There is disquiet in some sections in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), among other Islamic countries, that parts of Indian society and polity are exhibiting signs of Islamophobia, especially manifest after the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to counter this sentiment. In a tweet on April 19, Modi emphasised the need for unity and brotherhood in combating the virus for it targets all. He was conveying that it was wrong to hold all Muslims responsible for the actions of the Tablighi Jamaat. The same view was expressed more directly by a senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) office-bearer in these pages.
As in the past, this year too, Modi extended Ramzan greetings. He tweeted, “May this Holy Month bring with it abundance of kindness, harmony and compassion”. Two years ago, Modi recalled Prophet Mohammad’s message of equality, brotherhood and the value of charity. And in an address to the World Sufi Forum in 2016, Modi spoke of the “rich diversity of the Islamic civilisation that stands on the solid bedrock of a great religion”. In the same speech, he said, “It is this spirit of Sufism, the love for their country and the pride in their nation that define the Muslims in India. They reflect the timeless culture of peace, diversity and equality of faith of our land…” These stirring words reflect neither Islamophobia nor a bias against Muslims.
Why is it then that sections of the Islamic ummah are troubled by India’s emerging orientations? This was not witnessed during Modi’s first term when, building on past policies, he strengthened relations with mutually-antagonistic West Asian nations. Hence, the Modi 2.0 government’s policies and actions that impact or are perceived to impact on India’s Muslims have to be examined. It must also be examined how Pakistan has sought to exploit these issues.
Four developments stand out: The constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act or CAA and fear of Muslims that it would be the precursor to the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the Delhi riots, and the reaction to the Tablighi Jamaat congregation.
The constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir were looked upon in the peninsular Arab countries as political and within India’s domestic jurisdiction. Pakistan’s accusations of India violating international law, United Nations resolutions, seeking to change the demographic structure of the Valley and disregarding human rights found no traction. Its diatribe against the Modi government and its ideological Hindutva roots was also ignored.
The exclusion of Muslims from CAA was premised on the consideration that the Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Afghan polities being theocratic are inherently discriminatory and sometimes persecutorial. The Modi government correctly asserted that the CAA did not impact Indian Muslims. However, large numbers of Muslims were alarmed because they felt that it was the precursor of NRC, which could make many of them stateless.
The long agitations which followed were noticed in the Muslim world, including the Gulf countries. While international liberal opinion was further alienated because of religion becoming a factor in granting nationality, despite Pakistan’s best efforts, the Gulf countries did not become hostile. However, Malaysia and Turkey did.
The Delhi riots and, in some cases, the inflammatory reactions to the Tablighi Jamaat’s actions which contributed to the spread of Covid-19 soured sections of Gulf opinion. This was on account of reports in the international media that Muslims were particularly and violently targeted.
Some reprehensible comments made against Muslims in general in the wake of the Tablighi Jamaat’s conduct, and some irresponsible demands that Muslims be boycotted, caused dismay and anger among some in the Gulf. This was heightened by the objectionable social media comments of a few Indian expatriates living in Gulf countries. This somewhat fertile setting has given Pakistan the opportunity to fan anti-Indian flames through bogus social media accounts and also by dredging up its entire litany of charges against the Modi government. Its current specific endeavour is to make the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) pass strictures, at a high level, against India for officially encouraging Islamophobia.
A few days ago, in a four-page note to OIC countries, it stressed that the BJP rose to power on the “central plank” of “hatred for Muslims” and has fostered it thereafter.
Clearly, these charges of Islamophobia have to be challenged and combatted. It is true that Islamic countries as theological polities are basically discriminatory. They are also not condemning China’s oppression of its Uighur Muslims. Making these points may work in a school debate but not in the world of diplomacy, which, in any event, is not about scoring points but securing national interest.
What is necessary, without being on the defensive, is to assure Islamic nations that India is not moving away from its constitutional moorings by ensuring harmony and effective action against those who disturb it irrespective of their party affiliations. It is also necessary not to show disdain for global liberal opinion, but to engage with it.
Vivek Katju is a former diplomat
The views expressed are personal