The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why did India listen to Arab governments before its own Muslim citizens?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he receives Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan at the airport in New Delhi in 2017. (Manish Swarup/AP)
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Nupur Sharma, the now-former spokeswoman for India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, has been shamed on the global stage for insulting the prophet Muhammad on prime-time television. After unprecedented backlash from Muslim-majority nations — starting with Qatar and including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Indonesia and Maldives — she was suspended from the party and Naveen Jindal, a BJP spokesman in Delhi who also tweeted derogatory remarks about Islam, was expelled.

In reality, however, the diplomatic kerfuffle is unlikely to draw any long-term red lines around the Hindu right wing’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. If anything, positions might become even more hard-line.

Sure, for now, media representatives of the BJP will watch their words when they appear on panels. But let’s not kid ourselves. For hundreds of thousands of far-right supporters of the Modi government, Sharma is a cause célèbre. Just look at the flood of “I stand with Nupur Sharma” comments on social media and calls to boycott Qatar Airways. This mass messaging once again appears to be coordinated by a well-oiled, centralized machinery. I wouldn’t be surprised if, after some time, Sharma’s political career is eventually made rather than unmade by this ugly controversy.

Should India be lectured on pluralism and human rights by undemocratic nations, some of them theocracies with poor records on diversity? There is some merit to the questions being raised along these lines. Even the most ferocious critics of the BJP’s Hindutva politics are often uncomfortable with sermonizing from external powers, including strong democracies such as the United States. Many applauded India’s foreign minister when he recently reminded the United States that any dialogue over human rights has to be between equals and not framed as a patronizing admonition. And India’s Muslim politicians have repeatedly pushed back against Pakistanis who offer commiserations to the community.

But this only makes the ultranationalist BJP more answerable for why it responded to outrage from governments of at least 15 Muslim-majority nations, but did not react to the hurt triggered in its more than 200 million Muslim citizens. Perhaps the answer lies in the billions of dollars of trade, oil, food exports and remittances at stake in these countries. Or it could be that Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who has had considerable success at enhancing diplomatic relations with the Muslim world — feels his personal brand has been sullied. India’s vice president, who was on a visit to Qatar when its government summoned the Indian ambassador over the issue, has been embarrassed abroad.

Whatever the reason — and perhaps it is a combination of several — the BJP and the government took days to act against Sharma, and only did so when it became an international issue.

That the government ignored domestic criticism speaks to what retired diplomat Navdeep Suri calls the “duality” of the BJP. “The party thought … the government, the diplomats and the prime minister could woo the Muslim world, but back home the politics of polarization could be pursued for electoral gain,” Suri, who served as Indian ambassador to the UAE, told me. “Is this a diplomatic failure for India? No, it is a political failure that diplomats have to fix.”

In truth, the furor over Sharma’s comments were initially ignored because the BJP has never had to pay a political price for the othering of the Muslim community. Nor is it especially bothered if religious diversity and inclusiveness get rolled over by its victorious electoral juggernaut. There is a chance that the party might soon have no Muslim in parliament. If that happens, it won’t be sheepish.

But today the Modi government is having to firefight on two fronts: with angry Islamic nations, where millions of Indians live and work, and rabid sections of its own base who are apoplectic about what they see as surrender. Online right-wing platforms are full of provocative outbursts about “betrayal.” Clearly, the BJP's backers believe the last word has yet to be spoken.

The perfect enabling environment for these dog whistles is provided by India’s private television news channels and their toxic culture of coarseness. Every evening, anchors deliberately pit the most extreme voices against each other, chosen precisely for how undignified, venomous and unsubstantial they are. Noam Chomsky has lamented the “manufactured consent” of mass media; Indian channels upend that with a theatrical model of “manufactured dissent.” While the newspaper arms of these media conglomerates publish editorials on the perils of polarizations, their broadcast businesses thrive on being factories of hate. This has continued even in the aftermath of the fracas with Persian Gulf nations.

Supporters of Sharma have argued that the response from the gulf countries is a result of an organized campaign by India’s adversaries. Reports of threats by al-Qaeda to carry out suicide attacks over the ‘“blasphemous” comments will only bolster this narrative.

It goes without saying that all violence, including threats to Sharma, is indefensible. But the irony is that — while terrorists issue threats with impunity, politicians argue and point fingers, great powers joust for strategic one-upmanship and performative television hosts debase the profession — ordinary Indian Muslims and their voices will likely remain on the margins.

Sharma might have been disingenuously labeled “fringe” in India’s official clarifications. But chances are that today’s “fringe” is tomorrow’s mainstream.

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