On Sunday, the ruling BJP suspended its spokesperson Nupur Sharma for her remarks on Prophet Muhammad. The BJP also sacked Naveen Jindal, who was media head of the party's Delhi unit, over his tweet on the founder of Islam.
The actions have come amid a diplomatic and social media offensive from the Islamic world of West Asia that has left the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to do the damage control. Arab or Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the UAE, as well as Iran in the Persian Gulf, have condemned the remarks. Qatar and Kuwait even said they expected a public apology from India, prompting India to say the comments from some "fringe elements" did not represent the views of the Indian government.
WHO IS NUPUR SHARMA?
Nupur Sharma was the Delhi University Students’ Union president before becoming an advocate, unsuccessfully contesting against AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal in the 2015 Delhi Assembly election and emerging as one of the more prominent BJP spokespersons.
During a TV debate last week on the ongoing Gyanvapi Masjid row, Sharma had made her remarks in response to “Muslims mocking the Hindu faith by making fun of the Shivling and calling it a fountain.” The police in Hyderabad, Pune, and Mumbai registered cases against her for hurting religious sentiments as both clashes (including in Kanpur) and protests for her arrest and also threats against her spiralled. Sharma withdrew her remarks. Jindal also deleted his tweet.
But the BJP’s actions are not entirely because of what the two said. The stakes in India-West Asia relations are pretty high.
THE HIGH STAKES
India's Muslim population is the world's third-largest and the world's largest Muslim-minority population. But part of the reason why the BJP acted against Sharma and Jindal, as Indian ambassadors were summoned and handed protest notes, are the high stakes in West Asia where anger among the local population and calls to boycott Indian products grew.
India has the largest diaspora population in the world. The UAE has the highest Indian population living outside of India. In fact, Indians form 30% of the UAE’s population. The other preferred destinations are Saudi Arabia, the US, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar. According to the MEA, most Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), almost 7.6 million, live in West Asia, also referred to as the Middle East, for education or work, mostly semi-skilled or unskilled but also white-collar jobs. Their safety is a concern.
The remittances that the diaspora sends back to India are crucial to the Indian economy. India consistently remains the largest receiver of remittances in the world. In 2021, India received over 87 billion dollars in remittances. Remittances constitute about 3.1% of India’s gross domestic product (GDP), up from 1.45% in 1980. The majority of these remittances come from the US, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman.
Then there is the trade angle. India's business with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, stood at $87 billion in 2020-21. India has signed a free trade agreement with the UAE and is in talks for a more comprehensive deal with the GCC, a regional, intergovernmental, political, and economic union. The strategically critical region, frequently visited by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is also the top source of India's energy imports.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia are India’s third and fourth-largest trading partners, respectively. Both countries have committed billions of dollars for investment and infrastructure creation in India. Aviation is another crucial sector between both sides.
There are also cultural and other bilateral stakes. PM Modi visited the UAE earlier this year, his fourth visit to the county as Prime Minister. The Indian Pavilion at the Dubai Expo showcased India’s culture and achievements, from yoga and ayurveda to space programmes. The pavilion also had a model of the Ram Temple and BAPS Hindu Temple, being built in Abu Dhabi at Rs 900 crore. When PM Modi visited the UAE in 2015, he was the first Indian Prime Minister to do so in 34 years.
The UAE has conferred its highest civilian award, the “Order of Zayed”, on PM Modi. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, has visited India twice during PM Modi’s tenure, including as the Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations in 2017.
India says the UAE is central to India’s extended neighbourhood. “We see the UAE at the crossroads of international trade. As Singapore is to the East, UAE is to the West,” India said recently.
The UAE was also among the first countries that backed India on the abrogation of Article 370 from Jammu and Kashmir.
Of late, India has maintained cordial relations with two of the main rivals in the region: Iran and Saudi Arabia. PM Modi has also travelled to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, and Iran. And leaders from these countries have also visited India, diluting Pakistan’s traditional influence in the region.
No wonder that, apart from suspending Sharma and sacking Jindal, the BJP also released a statement that said it respects all religions and strongly denounces insults of any religious personality.
“The BJP is also against any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion. The BJP does not promote such people or philosophy," the party said. “India’s Constitution gives the right to every citizen to practise any religion of his/her choice and to honour and respect every religion”.
Will this be enough? The criticism is growing. The 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the second-largest intergovernmental organisation in the world after the United Nations, has also condemned the remarks on the Prophet.
So, what next for India-West Asia relations?
BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD
On Sunday, India rejected OIC’s comments as "unwarranted" and "narrow-minded". MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said India “categorically rejects OIC Secretariat's unwarranted and narrow-minded comments. The government of India accords the highest respect to all religions."
The West Asia offensive came when Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu was in Doha, Qatar. But even before Nupur Sharma triggered a storm, leaders in the Muslim world had been expressing displeasure over controversial remarks by Indian politicians. And this might not be the last either.
Experts believe that once the current storm is over, both sides, India and the Muslim world, will have to ultimately come back to the drawing board.
India’s dependence on West Asia’s oil and gas is massive, especially after supply disruptions caused by the Russia-Ukraine war. India meets 80% of its oil needs through imports.
But it works both ways. While concerned about the diplomatic offensive, New Delhi also knows Gulf countries need India to keep importing their oil. India primarily imports oil from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. They also need Indians to continue living and working there. They also need to keep doing business with India.
Also, West Asia massively depends on food imports from India. The items include rice, meat, spices, marine products, fruits and vegetables, and sugar. So, boycott calls may not last long.
Be that as it may, the ongoing row may also mean that the BJP will have to be more cautious in articulating its views during religious debates in the media and also election campaigning. After all, as we have seen now, what happens in India doesn’t necessarily stay in India. There are international prices to pay.