One of the successes and hallmarks of the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the past eight years has been the careful cultivation of ties with the Middle East, despite the Bharatiya Janata Party’s intolerant attitude toward Muslims, who constitute a majority in that part of the world.
However, last Sunday, there was tension between India and the Middle East after hateful comments made on the Prophet Muhammad by a national spokeswoman for the BJP on television. Qatar, Kuwait and Iran summoned the Indian ambassadors and protested against those comments diplomatically. The BJP swiftly responded by suspending one of its officials, Nupur Sharma, and expelling another, Naveen Jindal.
The expulsion of two party officials is only a face-saving move by the BJP. The action by the party came only after there was widespread anger in the Arab world, on which India is dependent for most of its oil and gas supplies. A large number of non-resident Indians (NRIs) live there.
The BJP has since claimed that the views expressed by Sharma and Jindal were not held by the government, but were made by “fringe” elements.
But even more disturbing is the deafening silence of the federal government and the BJP about concerns raised domestically on the hateful comments. The party took action only when other nations criticized and protested, and not when India’s own citizens raised their voices against the hateful comments.
Globally, India’s image as a pluralistic, secular and tolerant country has taken a beating in recent times, especially after the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014. For the past couple of months, voices against instances of communal disharmony have become louder internationally.
As recently as last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken referred to concerns over human rights in India. The US State Department released a report on international religious freedom, shortly after which Blinken made a statement in which he alleged that India is seeing “increasing attacks on places of worship”:
“For example, in India, the world’s largest democracy and home to a great diversity of faiths, we’ve seen rising attacks on people and places of worship; in Vietnam, where authorities harassed members of unregistered religious communities; in Nigeria, where several state governments are using anti-defamation and blasphemy laws to punish people for expressing their beliefs.”
Beyond these countries, the report documents how religious freedoms and the rights of religious minorities are under threat in communities around the world.
With real issues such as inflation, agrarian distress, a rise in terrorism in Kashmir and massive unemployment confronting the citizens of the country, it is high time the Indian government realizes that the more it encourages communal division and hatred toward minorities and remains silent, the more the anti-India voices will grow louder.
India has seen enough of divisive politics and hatred already. A country like India that has a multiplicity of religions, castes, creeds and languages cannot allow majoritarian politics to take over the lives of its citizens.
Clearly, the recent incident should come as a wake-up call for the Indian government. It must understand that silencing critics within the country is easy, but critics cannot be silenced on a more global scale.