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With much to lose on trade & expats, India works to cool ‘anti-Islam’ anger in Gulf nations

While New Delhi believes it has made its stance on two BJP spokespersons’ anti-Prophet remarks clear, its envoys will ‘deepen engagement’ with govts of Gulf nations in coming days.

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New Delhi: After days of firefighting the outrage among Gulf countries over two BJP spokespersons’ controversial remarks about Prophet Muhammad, the central government is now charting out a major diplomatic exercise to assuage the concerns of these nations, ThePrint has learnt.

India believes that its responses to the démarches made to its envoys in Qatar and Kuwait have made it clear that the statements by Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal — who have since been suspended and expelled, respectively — constitute “fringe” views. 

However, New Delhi’s envoys across the Gulf countries will continue to “deepen” their engagement with the governments there, sources told ThePrint.

Pushed to a diplomatic corner, India believes that the controversy can have a trickle-down effect, possibly hurting business and trade ties, with a potential threat to the livelihood of Indians living across the Gulf.

India believes that while it was crucial to issue statements in response to the summoning of its envoys — which has resulted in the matter “cooling down” — it has to continue working with the governments of Gulf nations, mostly at the local level, to ensure Indians working there do not face any impact of the controversy.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — a grouping of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — as well as Iran continue to have significant importance for India on account of trade and energy ties.

New Delhi has reminded the GCC that Indians living there have never made any untoward remark against the Prophet or Islam, and continue to work there diligently.

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Shift from restraint on speaking about a nation’s ‘internal matters’

Some Gulf countries have told the Narendra Modi government that they are also fearing backlash from their own people and will continue to monitor the situation, said a senior diplomatic source.  

While this is the first time that the Arab world has chosen to go public to mark their protest, it is learnt that they have been cautioning New Delhi on remarks being made against Islam, especially with reference to issues such as the Gyanvapi mosque dispute or the Hijab row.

Some local newspapers published in the Arabic language continue to report on these issues, making their population more aware about what is happening in India, an Indian envoy serving in one of the GCC countries said on condition of anonymity.

Sources told ThePrint that the latest controversy has hurt India’s image to a “large extent” and, if this trend continues, there could be more public anger against India in these countries.

According to the senior envoy quoted earlier, the “GCC and Middle East never speak on a country’s internal matters, and even if they do so, it is always done silently through diplomatic channels”.

But, in this case, the remarks made about the Prophet have given rise to public anger in the Muslim world.

Gulf nations that host a sizable number of Indian expats fear that some employers may hesitate to hire Indian workers if such incidents continue, and want India to stop such remarks from being made.

Around 10 million Indians live across the Gulf, sending remittances of about $45 billion annually on average, according to certain estimates.

Talmiz Ahmad, former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, told ThePrint that “abuse of Muslims, expansion of communal discord and regular violence against the community has become a neo-normal in India”.

“All this, while the Gulf observed but didn’t comment as they don’t comment on internal issues of a country. But insulting the Prophet becomes an insult to the entire community,” he added.

Ahmad, author of West Asia At War: Repression, Resistance and Great Power Games, further said that the issue “will not die down so easily”, and that “there are bound to be implications”.

“The government should just listen to what RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has said and implement that policy going forward to settle the issue once and for all,” he added.

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Robust economic ties at risk

The GCC is regarded as the pillar of India’s energy requirements and two-way trade.

India was the largest recipient of remittances in the world in 2021, receiving around $87 billion, approximately 50 per cent of which came from the Gulf, according to a World Bank report.

Sources said there may not be any immediate economic impact, but if such incidents continue, the countries could be forced to act.

Two-way trade in goods between India and the West Asia-GCC region reached $154 billion in 2021-22, according to commerce ministry data.

India’s aim to attract a substantial chunk from the sovereign wealth funds of Arab countries such as the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia for feeding its large-scale infrastructure projects can become “risky” if such incidents continue, the sources further said.

Anil Trigunayat, former Indian envoy to Jordan, Libya and Malta, said that while the governments have “officially” accepted India’s position on the controversial remarks, “individual grudges” will remain.

“This is going to be harmful for us. We need to understand that such things give an incorrect impression of India on the roads. The employers in these Islamic nations are local people and not the government. They can get swayed by this and may stop recruiting Indians and opt for more Pakistanis,” he added.

“These countries will nevertheless still continue to invest here with their sovereign wealth because India is a huge and growing market. In pure economic terms there will not be much change, unless of course we fail to put a restraint on this,” Trigunayat said.

Late Monday evening, Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu met the Speaker of the Qatar Shura Council, Hassan bin Abdullah al-Ghanim, who also objected to the remarks and said that such acts “do not help in the rapprochement between peoples”.

Sheikh Abdur Rahman Al Sudais, the Chief Imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, too had protested against the remarks about the Prophet.

Supermarkets in Kuwait have reportedly removed Indian products from their shelves as a mark of protest and called the comments “Islamophobic”.

“The public in these nations is now outraged. It isn’t about the remarks made by BJP spokespersons only, but also about the larger controversies against the Muslims in this country. India was known for co-existence and secularism, but that image is now getting increasingly questioned,” said Zikrur Rahman, a former Indian diplomat who has served in a number of Arab countries, and an expert on Gulf affairs.

“Despite all the efforts which we have built for the last so many decades, today this has happened. But they like Indians and they think this is a temporary phase and are looking at it as an aberration. But certainly this has to stop,” he added. “They are now changing and adopting modernity, we are returning to old, primitive times. They are certainly watching and they will be compelled to act if this continues.”

(Edited by Gitanjali Das)

Also Read: Swachh Bharat, Beti Bachao — Modi implementing Prophet Muhammad’s message: BJP minority chief


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