How Nupur Sharma saga raises more questions than it answers

The suspension of BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma a week after she narrated a controversial episode on a television debate, has raised more qu...

The suspension of BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma a week after she narrated a controversial episode on a television debate, has raised more questions than it has answered. The outrage of many BJP supporters or free speech absolutists who stood by her during the week, and the curiosity of those who heard about what she said for the first time, have both attained a crescendo. The questions that have arisen on the diplomatic front though, have now become the talk of the town. The Indian Vice President being on a tour to Qatar at the time further raised the stakes on the issue. How the issue unravelled at the international level in such a manner is what has left many Indians with a sense of unease.

Three sets of perspectives or reactions have emerged to make sense of the ruling party’s decision. Interestingly, they don’t contradict each other at a fundamental level. In fact, it is only when they come together that one is able to see the puzzle in its entirety.

The first reaction is the one that came from a certain class of people who have pretended to represent the Indian Muslims. They are not all necessarily Muslims themselves, but also include people whose columns about how the Indian Muslim is constantly being persecuted, find a space in the opinion sections of various publications. This class has grudgingly welcomed the decision. The grudge, as they admit themselves, comes from the fact that their outrage for a week, even though it might have incited a riot back home, left the ruling dispensation completely unfazed. In fact, the ruling dispensation fails to acknowledge their grievances even now, but was quick to respond and react when the same issue was brought up by the Arab world. Leaving their track record aside, it is difficult to find a flaw in the argument, at least in the part where they talk about their irrelevance.

The second reaction, which seems like the predominant one, is essentially one that expresses outrage. Did the same India which used the Ukraine conflict to unmask the West’s racial hypocrisy before the world and leverage it in its efforts to establish itself as an independent pole in a multipolar world order, actually bend over backwards before the Arab world? There is a sense of disbelief. After all, a country like Qatar is a tiny and disliked speck in the region. Its propaganda arm, Al-Jazeera, has spread many falsehoods about India all over the world. This is the country which, in a similar situation, granted political asylum to the allegedly blasphemous MF Hussain. Most importantly, when the Arab world broke off its ties with Qatar in 2017 and blocked all air and sea routes to the country, it was India which practically fed the country. The goodwill India enjoyed across the region meant that Indian shipments would never be stalled.

Qatar is only one example. Large sections of the population in most parts of the Arab world continue to live in a bygone era, treating their women as inferior to men and indulging in the worst human rights excesses. How conveniently they have put their co-religionists under the bus in Xinjiang, where Uighurs are tortured in Chinese concentration camps. With these factors contextualising the situation, and quite accurately at that, what moral authority do they possess to dictate how India should handle an internal issue? Why on earth would India allow them to do so?

The third perspective, without answering who they are to dictate India, answers why the ruling party has taken action on the basis of their demands. It can be described as a measured or pragmatic response. Despite the varied and intricate fault lines in the region, India has used diplomacy and trade to navigate the contradictions deftly. In fact, the argument can be made that no other global power, real or self-styled, has managed to engage so deeply with a variety of stakeholders in the region.

There are a number of factors that make the region very important to both India’s foreign and domestic policy. The most obvious and important ones are oil, gas, remittances and investments, but these are only one aspect. The Taliban’s rise in the Indian subcontinent poses a security threat to India since it is partially controlled by Pakistan. However, Qatar, which has been an old friend of India, also controls a faction within it, giving India some leverage. In Iran, India is in the process of developing the Chabahar Port, as a counter to China’s Gwadar Port in Pakistan and a gateway to Central Asian markets. Oman, which is strategically located on the south-eastern coast of the Arabian peninsula, is a key defence partner for India. The Duqm Port there is used by both the Indian Navy as well as the Indian Air Force.

Several countries in the Arab world have cooperated with India to track terror financing, since funds for such activities tend to emanate from the region. The fact that India is one of the few countries in the world that is able to successfully carry out rescue and relief operations each time war breaks out between two opposing camps in the region, is testament to India’s standing. When a government that certain sections love to label as anti-Muslim took charge in 2014, many expected a backslide in India’s relations with different countries in the Arab world. What actually happened was the opposite. India’s Arab allies maintained a silence even when the Modi government revoked Article 370 and enacted the CAA. Essentially, why rock the boat over a 20-second segment in a TV debate?

What the first perspective deftly avoids, while blaming the Modi government for listening to their Arab allies instead of the domestic Muslim population which it claims to represent, is that India’s allies in the Arab world also do the same. In the past eight years, ever since this class emerged and began painting a picture of Muslims being systematically targeted in India, the Arab world has completely ignored it. In fact, as pointed out earlier, even during instances of this class instigating people to take the street-veto route against certain government decisions, the Arab world refused to use the issues in question as a leverage against India.

What this indicates is that their priorities are very different from the Indian instigators. They consider what Nupur Sharma stated as a line being crossed, but couldn't care less if Kashmir’s autonomy was chucked into the garbage bin or if India refused to expedite the citizenship process for Muslims.

This is where the second perspective comes in. For a neutral observer, it is easy to blame them for interfering in the affairs of another country selectively, or for interfering despite having a poor human rights record themselves. As we saw in the comparison with Nupur Sharma’s statement and the other Indian issues for which these countries have maintained a strategic silence, what we tend to forget is where their priorities lie. The Uighurs are not Arabs. Moreover, persecution or discrimination do not stand against their values in any way. Therefore, even if a country other than China were to indulge in it, the Arab world would probably maintain a strategic silence, especially if trade or other factors were on the cards. Whatever their values and priorities may be, the Nupur Sharma issue transcended the worst of excesses in their playbook.

Having completed the puzzle, the only question left to answer is if India could have handled the diplomatic crisis better. Considering how the issue blew up, and how skilful Indian diplomacy has been in the region, it is very likely that India could have. Instead of allowing the Arab world to speak against India, and to make a sacrifice in domestic politics only to calm international waters, India should have ideally anticipated where this was going and diffused it. The fallout though is hardly as bad as it is made out to be. The ruling party has lost a strong spokesperson, at least for a few months. The status quo with the Arab world, a region archaic in character and conduct but necessary for India, has most likely been maintained. A power as important as Iran has withdrawn its official statement on the issue. Meanwhile the cabal that claims to represent Indian Muslims is fanning the flames back home and causing riots, but its voice continues to be irrelevant and unheard both in Delhi and in the Arab world.

Ajit Datta is an author and political commentator. He has authored the book, ‘Himanta Biswa Sarma: From Boy Wonder to CM’. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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