l’affair Nupur Sharma caused a serious backlash not only from the governments of many Islamic states, but also from their people. It completely caught the government by surprise for several reasons.
First, since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s re-election in 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had cynically stoked the anti-Islamic cauldron and largely got away with it internationally. The grumbles were mostly confined to the Western world, consisting mainly of pro forma criticism in annual reports or from individual party members, that is, from the liberal wing of the American Democrats.
Secretary of State S. Jaishanker replied on most occasions with clever witticisms that carried no weight. Like most new converts to any faith, his Hindutva evangelism was aimed at earning goodwill within the Sangh family. Most recently, in response to criticism of India in the US State Department’s annual report on freedom of religion, he called it “vote bank politics.” For example, the government calculated that even tightened Hindutva activism abroad would not cause hacks beyond manageable limits.
Second, the government assumed that the Islamic world was distracted by their many differences among themselves to face a great nation. Their silence about the repression of Ugyhurs in China showed that economic interests trump religious affinity. Prime Minister Modi had also managed to win over the de facto rulers of Saudi Arabia, which normally sparked the fears of the Islamic world, and the diplomatically assertive United Arab Emirates (UAE). These two were also traditionally close to Pakistan. In fact, in recent years the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) had been less than zealous in its anti-Indian claims about Kashmir or the treatment of Muslims in India.
Complacency reigned among the BJP and the government, but Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat’s recent comments about the need for moderation in interfaith relations also raised concerns within the Sangh. Some recognition began to emerge that the controversy over the mosque after Gyanvapi, the red lines for their followers needed to be redrawn.
But all the while, BJP spokesmen in television studios continued at night with their Muslim aggression to polarize voters ahead of the crucial upcoming state elections, especially in Gujarat, the prime minister’s own state. Most television channels, in pursuit of higher ratings and the goodwill of the government, devised guest panels and issues for maximum confrontation and verbal duels.
For years this writer had warned that domestic and foreign policy could not be relegated to separate silos. But four-year-old US President Donald Trump, who discarded climate change and liberal democracy as issues traditionally relevant to US diplomacy, encouraged the Indian government to believe diplomacy was unaffected by the BJP’s Hindu project. . The pace accelerated after Narendra Modi’s re-election in 2019 to move India from constitutionalism and liberal democracy envisioned by India’s founding fathers to majoritarianism and reconstructive Hindu Rashtra.
The calculus was based on the fact that Modi had successfully divided the larger Islamic nations and involved the West, especially the US under Trump, which had given up defending liberalism and democracy. However, Joe Biden’s win, after Modi’s unwise subtle endorsement of Trump, raised concerns that the state of the domestic game in India could attract US attention. Secretary S. Jaishankar’s ill-advised rejection of Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat of Indian descent from the US Congress during Trump’s presidency, was also a cause for concern. But China, climate change and now Ukraine have made the US question the Modi government’s commitment to liberal democracy.
However, a combative defense of extreme ideological positions, left or right, can spiral out of control. The higher echelons of the BJP polarized public opinion through subtle stories, allusions and subliminal rhetoric, including distorted historical narratives etc. After the election victory in Uttar Pradesh and the success of the Ram Temple, and in recognition of the Law on the Places of Worship ( special provisions), 1991, which protects the status quo of religious places, the BJP should have stopped provoking minorities. Rather, it continued to raise new issues of identity and religion. The spokesmen peppered their story with common poison. What is now dismissed as the “edge” were accredited spokesmen who defended the BJP government every night.
The question arises as to whether a nation’s domestic politics can be separated from its diplomacy. The novel by Salman Rushdie The Satanic Verses, published in 1988, set the UK against the street in the Islamic world. By defending the writer’s freedom of expression, the British defended their core values without compromise, despite popular protests in many Muslim countries and Iran’s issuance of an open death sentence. Also in 1988, a Pakistani mob captured the US embassy in Islamabad on the basis of rumors that the US had bombed the Great Mosque in Mecca to free it from the followers of the self-proclaimed Mahdi. In fact, the French special forces and not the US helped to liberate the holiest site for Muslims.
For example, it was already known that the Muslim Ummah – the worldwide community of believers in Islam – reacts with spontaneous anger when the prophet or the revealed word in the Quran is pilloried. Nupur Sharma ignored that truth in the heat of battle and was lulled into complacency by the supposed approval of those in high positions in the union government. The result is a nightmare for Indian diplomacy. Qatar’s call on the Indian ambassador to protest while the Indian vice president was on an official visit to that country is unprecedented. Normally nations wait for the high character to leave.
Qatar has had serious disagreements with Saudi Arabia and the UAE over the encouragement of the Muslim Brotherhood and other far-right Islamist groups. By being the first to get away from the Nupur controversy, it exposed the flanks of bigger powers – such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Indonesia – claiming leadership of the Islamic world. As the public anger swirled on social media, they had no wiggle room to ignore it. Therefore, what started as a ripple turned into a tsunami.
Will the BJP learn from this and manipulate its majoritarian Hindu Rashtra agenda? Probably not, although they would rethink their tactics to come up with approaches that differentiate between attacking Indian Muslims and demonizing Islam as such and especially the Prophet and his family. The damage to India’s reputation in the Islamic world is manageable, but not irreversible, unless Prime Minister Modi decides to pursue Vajpayee and seek a middle ground between Hindutva and classical Hinduism, as perfected by philosophers and saints over many millennia. The Modi administration may be at a turning point or at a point of no return. India holds its breath as the world watches.
KC Singh is a former Indian Ambassador to the UAE and Iran and retired as Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.