At a time when the Government of India has to marshal all its confidence and conviction to decide on the extent of lockdown relaxations, it is being forced to defend its record on issues of religious freedom and targeted attacks on religious minorities, especially Muslims.
Developments over the past few days have once again exacerbated communal polarisation between Hindus and Muslims and cast the spotlight on the criticism of India in the Middle East, following a Facebook post on 28 April by Zafarul-Islam Khan, a noted Islamic scholar and currently Chairman, Delhi Minorities Commission.
This post generated much political heat requiring him to write another on 29 April to partly make amends and backtrack from his previous posture.
Arab World Distressed By Stigmatisation of Indian Muslims
These developments have already cast a shadow over New Delhi's robust ties with six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.
For the first time, civil society and the elite of several nations of the Arab world have expressed distress at the stigmatisation and vilification of Muslims in the wake of the Tablighi Jamaat episode. The Islamophobic social media campaign against the Tablighis has been backed by the virtual economic boycott of Muslim traders and vendors.
This resulted in a rare backlash in West Asia against Indians in these countries and New Delhi, for the continuing tirade against Muslims in India.
The reaction in these countries, although not official, certainly had implicit clearance. Among other responders, Sheikha Hend Faisal Al Qassimi, is a UAE princess. Not only did she use Twitter to voice concern at rising Islamophobia, attacks on Muslims and Islam, she also granted interviews to several channels. Al Qassimi has also written a stinging article in Gulf News headlined: ‘I pray for an India without hate and Islamophobia’.
Note Against ‘Targeting of Indian Muslims’ By Kuwait Ministers
India’s Foreign Minister S Jaishankar got into the act and buzzed telephone lines with his counterparts and contacts in the GCC countries. But even before he could complete the process, there was further embarrassment for New Delhi when a Kuwaiti scholar leaked a note in Arabic from Kuwait’s council of ministers, dated 2 March, expressing concern at the “targeting of Indian Muslims”.
The note additionally called on the global community and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to put pressure on New Delhi to stop these attacks. Days before, OIC issued a damning statement condemning the “recent and alarming violence against Muslims in India, resulting in the death & injury of innocent people and the arson and vandalism of mosques and Muslim-owned properties.”
India took grave exception to this, saying that it was ‘intervention’ in the ‘internal matters’ of the country.
In contrast to the consternation then, the response after the leak of the Kuwaiti cabinet note – confirmed as authentic by diplomatic sources – was more calibrated from both sides. Kuwaiti Ambassador Jasem Ibrahem al-Najam, in an official statement, emphasised upon the shared principles in foreign policies, non-interference in other countries’ affairs, and respecting the sovereignty of nations. The Indian side also put out that Kuwait reiterated resolve not to interfere “in the internal affairs of India”.
How Arab World’s Attitude Towards Indian Muslims Changed After Tablighi Row
It is not the GCC countries alone that have found India deficient in its treatment of Muslims. Other Islamic countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey were openly critical of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Recently, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom put it on the ‘Countries of Particular Concern’ list. In December 2019, the General Secretariat of OIC stated that it had been “closely following recent developments affecting Muslim minority in India”. It voiced its concern over the Supreme Court Ayodhya judgment and the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill. Many of these statements are for the record, but is a prod for New Delhi to make amends.
Muslims in India rarely looked towards the Arab world for support when targeted. Arabs too have been more engaged with the Indian State than the condition of Muslims in India.
Authorities in Dubai ticked off a Pakistani group when they protested outside a temple following the Babri Masjid demolition. In GCC countries, where lakhs of Indians work, their religious identities never mattered – they are mostly referred to as ‘Hindi people’.
This however, got altered with the vitriolic campaign when Hindutva votaries blurred lines between Tablighi Jamaat followers and other Indian Muslims, when Jamaat was portrayed as the representative of every Muslim in the country. Worse, displaying poor knowledge of Islam and sects and the myriad institutions within it, the Tablighi was presented as synonymous with jihadis and terrorists.
Why Modi Must Send Out Strong Message Against Targeting of Muslims
The Islamophobic campaign became a major issue after an old tweet of BJP Lok Sabha member, Tejaswi Surya, was re-circulated. Misogynistic in language, the vile tweet targeted Arab women, angering the entire community. Additionally, social media posts spreading Islamophobia by Hindu Indians living in GCC countries added fuel to the fire.
No one in the Indian establishment has sent out an explicit message to sections that require urgent counselling, if not a blunt rebuke – the network of hate-mongers who saw in the Jamaat incident an opportunity to further polarise India on communal lines and solidify the BJP's core constituency. For fear of backlash from Hindus, most Opposition parties chose silence as their strategy.
Modi must tell his cadre to stop stigmatisation of Muslims because it is ruinous to his successful campaign of bridging the Gulf and turning the Arab nations in his favour.
From when visas were denied despite being chief minister of a state with immense business potential, Modi was welcomed by bear hugs that matched his forcefulness. The roundabout line that “COVID-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or border before striking,” is insufficient to tell supporters to shut their Islamophobic campaigns. Likewise, Bhagwat has to say more. In days to come, if the duo does not make amends, it will become evident that they either have little inclination to put an end to this slanderous drive, or are captives of this crusade.
Unenviable Position of Indian Muslims As Is Clear From Zafarul Islam’s Post
The scenario has left Indian Muslims in an unenviable position as is evident from Zafarul Islam Khan's first take on Facebook, and the later retraction of sorts. Although formerly president of All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat (AIMMM), the umbrella body of Indian Muslim organisations, for a few terms, he remained part of the Muslim intelligentsia who have virtually no constituency within the community.
Yet, especially because of the position he holds now, he is labelled as ‘representative’ of Indian Muslims.
His position is not unique but is shared by almost every Muslim who is part of the intelligentsia – their identity always comes first, much before mine or others come as Hindus. While we can voice opinions keeping our identity tags aside, the likes of Khan sadly do not have this privilege.
So his first post thanking Kuwait “for standing with the Indian Muslims” – possibly in response to the leaked Cabinet note – was projected by Hindutva's social media warriors, as ‘evidence’ of Indian Muslims ‘encouraging’ a third party to ‘interfere’ in India’s internal affairs. Khan further wrote: “The bigots forgot that Indian Muslims enjoy huge goodwill in the eyes of the Arab and Muslim world... Mind you, bigots, Indian Muslims have opted until now not to complain to the Arab and Muslim world about your hate campaigns and lynchings and riots. The day they are pushed to do that, bigots will face an avalanche.”
Why Zafarul Islam Khan Had to Swallow His Own Words
An assertion like this was just the 'evidence' that the very dogmatist being attacked required, to further depict Indian Muslims as people looking outside India for protection. Khan's assertion was made to appear by Hindutva adversaries akin to a schoolboy's threat during a brawl, that the bully be warned , or he will complain to his father.
That’s why Khan had little option but to practically swallow his own words and write that he had “not complained against my country to any foreign government or organisation, nor do I intend to do so in future... Indian Muslims have never complained against their country to outside powers.
I, like other Indian Muslims, believe in rule of law, the Indian Constitution, and the fine institutions our country has.” He obviously was also asked by the Aam Aadmi Party to declare that he was not its member, because it does not want to be seen backing Muslim opinion of any sort.
Need for the Indian Muslim to Remember Protagonist of ‘Garam Hawa’
Indian Muslims, who have no intention of taking to the path of confrontation, have unfortunately little choice but to stay with secularist opponents of majoritarianism, many of who are gnawed by the thought of waging a losing battle. There is need for the Indian Muslim to remember what Salim Mirza, the protagonist of MS Sathyu's partition epic, Garam Hawa, decided to do even when many of his family members were leaving Agra, their birthplace, for Pakistan.
The character in the film chose to stay back and join the mass fight for their rights, and for their vision of India.
The reaction in the GCC countries may be momentarily unsettling for Indians, the diplomatic establishment, and the Hindu Indians working in these nations. But eventually, the compulsions of statecraft will iron these out and Muslims in India will again be left to wage their own battle alongside compatriots who think alike.
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)