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India Faces Arab Flak: Should BJP Have Acted Against Nupur Sharma Sooner?

A full ten days had passed between Sharma’s comments and Naidu’s arrival in Qatar on 4 June.

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There are abiding divisions, including on theological issues, among Muslims. Some of them began soon after the passing away of Prophet Mohammad and still persist. This has led to sectarianism and intra-Islamic violence. All this notwithstanding, there is one sentiment that is deeply held by all Muslims and which is a uniting bond among them – a deep reverence for the Prophet of Islam. All adherents of the Islamic faith find words and actions – of non-Muslims or Muslims alike – that are perceived to be insulting to Prophet Mohammad provocative and blasphemous. They stir them to action.

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) former national spokesperson, Nupur Sharma, made objectionable comments during a prominent TV talk show on 26 May and she was suspended from the party on the morning of 5 June. This was a correct decision, as was that to expel party member Navin Jindal for a tweet that was offensive. Spokespersons, and indeed even members of political parties, have to be sensitive to the sensibilities of others. They also have to be measured in their articulation.

Snapshot
  • Former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma and former party member Navin Jindal's recent comments have led to wide backlash from Islamic countries. The party has now expelled the two members.

  • Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu reached Qatar on 4 June for an official visit. A full ten days had elapsed between Nupur Sharma’s comments and Naidu’s arrival in Qatar. The question is, what was the Ministry of External Affairs doing?

  • Sharma and Jindal’s comments went to the core of Islamic faith, and hence this backlash.

  • The best course for India and the Islamic world will be to exercise mutual restraint and not let this grow further, even though Pakistan may wish to fan anti-Indian flames.

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Assuaging Feelings in the Islamic World

The BJP, through a press release on 5 June signed by its National General Secretary and Headquarter In Charge, Arun Singh, stated that it “strongly denounces insult of any religious personalities of any religion”. This was entirely appropriate. The party reiterated that “it is also strongly against any ideology that insults and demeans any sect or religion”. It underlined that “it does not promote such people or philosophy”. Recalling the rights guaranteed by India’s Constitution, the party affirmed its commitment to “making India a great country where all are equal and everyone lives with dignity, where all are committed to India’s unity and integrity, where all enjoy the fruits of growth and development”.

The party’s statement emphasised general principles about the need to respect all faiths. But its timing suggests that it was also seeking to assuage feelings in Islamic circles abroad, including in the Gulf countries, which were outraged by Nupur Sharma’s comments on the TV show. The statement came on the morning of 5 June; Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu reached Qatar on 4 June for an official visit. The revulsion felt in Qatar on Sharma’s comment can be gauged by the extraordinary step taken by that country to summon India’s ambassador, Deepak Mittal, and make a strong demarche even as Naidu was in Qatar.

The 5 June statement by Qatar’s Foreign Ministry says that its Minister of State for Foreign Affairs handed over a statement to Mittal.

Qatar welcomed the BJP statement but added that the country “is expecting a public apology and immediate condemnation of these remarks by the Government of India”.

It also stated that “allowing such Islamophobic remarks to continue without punishment constitutes a grave danger to human rights and may lead to further prejudice and marginalisation, which will create a cycle of violence of hate”. Qatar stressed that Prophet Mohammed’s message was of “peace, understanding and tolerance and a beacon of light that Muslims all over the world follow”. Qatar also said that it supported the “values of tolerance, co-existence and respect for all religions and nationalities” and went on to claim that “these values distinguish Qatar’s global friendships”.

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'Vested Interests' & 'Fringe' Elements

What is particularly important in the context of the ideological debate currently underway in India are these words in Qatar’s statement, “these insulting remakes (sic) would lead to incitement of religious hatred, and offend more than two billion Muslims around the world, and indicate the clear ignorance of the pivotal role that Islam has played in the development of civilisations around the world, including in India”.

The Indian embassy in Doha issued a statement in response to the Qatari demarche. It said that during the ambassador’s meeting in the Qatari Foreign Ministry, a reference was made “to offensive tweets by individuals in India denigrating the religious personality”. The embassy emphasised that these tweets were made by “fringe elements” and do not “reflect the views of the government of India”. This statement also said that “strong action” had already been taken “against those who had made these derogatory remarks” and a statement had been made by “concerned quarters” emphasising “respect for all religions, denouncing insult to any religious personality or demeaning any religion or sect”.

The statement also asserted that “vested interests that are against India-Qatar relations have been inciting the people using these derogatory remarks”. It is noteworthy that this statement only refers to tweets and not comments on talk shows.

The obvious attempt is to call Jindal a fringe element and not cover Sharma in that category. Mittal, as an experienced diplomat, would be aware that a national spokesperson of the BJP can hardly be called a fringe element.

The charge that vested interests are out to damage bilateral India-Qatar ties is likely correct. But the fact is that the outrage against the remarks is not confined to Qatar alone.

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What Was the MEA Doing?

Following Qatar’s action, Kuwait also called in the Indian ambassador and issued a demarche on more or less the same lines as Qatar. Besides, Iran also denounced the comments of the BJP spokespersons. Not surprisingly, Pakistan joined the chorus. President Alvi went to the extent of tweeting that all Muslims can sacrifice their life for the love and respect of their Holy Prophet. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, too, have taken offence.

A full ten days elapsed between Sharma’s comments and Naidu’s arrival in Qatar. During this period, a clip of her comments was circulating on social media. Sharma complained that she had begun to receive threats to her life. She also said that her family members were being threatened. Naturally, such threats are completely unacceptable. If any Indian had a grievance, the proper court was to turn to the legal machinery for redress. Such action was taken by a Muslim organisation in Mumbai by registering an FIR invoking sections of the Indian Penal Code.

It is obvious that the social media clips showing Sharma’s comments began to circulate in the Arab and other parts of the Muslim world within a few days of the TV talk show. Surely, this would have been reported to the Ministry of External Affairs and would have come to the notice of the External Affairs Minister.

The question is, what action did he take or advise be taken in the context of Naidu’s impending visit? This is an important point because it’s standard diplomatic practice to anticipate and take steps to avoid any embarrassment during a high-level bilateral visit.

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Pakistan May Fan the Flames Further

The timing of the BJP statement makes it obvious that indeed there were Indo-Qatari contacts on how to handle the situation arising out of these comments. Clearly, they did not culminate before Naidu reached Doha. If they had, in order to avoid anything clouding this visit, the BJP and Qatari statements would have come prior to 4 June, the day Naidu arrived in Doha. This would obviously have been the preferable option.

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has continued to express great concern about India’s treatment of its Muslim minorities and successive governments have rightly refuted these charges. However, an overwhelming number of Islamic countries have, despite Pakistan’s constant urging, refrained from raising this issue in their bilateral interactions with India. Clearly, there is a distinction in their minds between political and social matters concerning Muslims and approaches to the faith itself. Sharma and Jindal’s comments went to the core of faith, and hence these reactions.

This said, it is now possible that Pakistani propaganda against the Modi government may get greater traction and the ideological contestation in India may be followed with greater care in the Islamic world.

Till now, the official view seems to be that as a former BJP party national spokesperson had made the comment, the government need not get involved despite the Qatari demand. Besides, Indian Missions are issuing suitable statements. But this is an evolving situation and it remains to be seen how the government will take it forward. The best course for India and the Islamic world will be to exercise mutual restraint and not let this grow further, even though Pakistan may wish to fan anti-Indian flames.

(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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