How Hindu nationalism is threatening India's foreign relations

6 min read
13 June, 2022

For the last two weeks, India has been engulfed in a diplomatic crisis following remarks made by two senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) officials about the Prophet Muhammad.

As outrage and protests spread within India, condemnation also started pouring in from across the Islamic world. As a result, at least 20 Muslim-majority states have summoned their Indian ambassadors to provide an explanation.

The crisis began when Nupur Sharma, the national spokesperson for the BJP, made offensive comments about the Prophet Muhammad in a televised debate. Another BJP spokesperson, Naveen Jindal, then took to Twitter to endorse her comments and add derogatory remarks.

Anger spread across the Middle East, resulting in a Twitter storm under the hashtag #AnyoneButTheProphetOModi.

"The Muslim world has traditionally stayed relatively quiet about anti-Muslim issues in India because it values its trade relations with India. Clearly insulting the Prophet Muhammad was a red line"

Infuriated, several Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states lodged strong protests with the Indian government for ignoring insulting behaviour from key officials.

Taking a tough stance, Qatar demanded an apology from the Indian government during a visit by Vice President Venkaiah Naidu to Doha on a trade mission. Soltan bin Saad Al-Muraikhi, the Qatari Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, said “these insulting remarks would lead to incitement of religious hatred, and offend more than two billion Muslims around the world”.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry also condemned the remarks while the UAE denounced the “statements insulting the Prophet in India”. Meanwhile, supermarkets in Kuwait boycotted Indian goods.

Noting growing tendencies towards hate speech in India, the Saudi-led Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) also stated, “These insults come in the context of the increasing intensity in hatred of and insults to Islam in India and the systematic harassment of Muslims”.

Since Arab states rarely comment on India’s domestic issues, New Delhi may not have expected such a backlash.

“The Muslim world has traditionally stayed relatively quiet about anti-Muslim issues in India because it values its trade relations with India. Clearly insulting the Prophet Muhammad was a red line,” Michael Kugelman, South Asia senior associate at The Wilson Center in Washington, told The New Arab.

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Indulging in a spat with the oil-rich Gulf Arab states is a luxury New Delhi cannot afford as its trade, energy imports, and remittances, are at risk. Millions of Indians live and work in the Gulf states and jeopardising their livelihoods is not feasible.

Having trade worth $90 billion in 2020-21 with Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE, New Delhi had to swiftly take action amid calls from within these countries to boycott Indian goods.

Sharma was suspended by the BJP, while Jindal was expelled from the party. 

In a rather delayed attempt at damage control by the Indian foreign ministry, the Indian embassy in Doha responded: “comments of fringe elements does not represent views of the Government of India”.

Hindu extremism in 'secular' India

Since the 42nd amendment of the Indian constitution in 1976, India has been officially ‘secular’, but with PM Narendra Modi in power, Hindu nationalism has surged.

Attacks against Muslims and Christians are common while offensive and intolerant views about minorities are often aired on leading news channels.

Initially, Modi promoted Hindutva ideals to garner votes from right-wing groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a powerful right-wing Hindu nationalist paramilitary organisation.

Packaging it as a ‘New India’, his party rejected the socialist and secular policies pursued by his predecessors and introduced Hindu supremacism into the political landscape.

Contrary to expectations, however, economic reforms instituted by Modi slowed growth after initial successes. Job creation promises did not materialise and the BJP’s demonetisation scheme dealt the final blow to his popularity.

Protests have taken place across India following controversial remarks by senior BJP officials. [Getty]

In dealing with these setbacks, Hindutva ideology has become a useful diversion.

“Hindutva ideology is primarily an anti-Muslim and anti-Christian ideology. It took some time for the international community to realise this,” Ashok Swain, Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at the Uppsala University in Sweden, told The New Arab.

“However, India’s large market and its strategic position continued to help the Hindutva regime escape strong censure from the West or Islamic nations. But India’s deteriorating economy and increasing anti-minority politics fails to provide cover for the regime anymore,” he added.

With the Sharma incident, a red line was crossed.

“Despite growing Islamophobia in India, Gulf countries had decided to overlook it and maintained a cordial relationship with the Hindutva regime for economic reasons,” Swain said.

“But the insult to the Prophet by the spokespersons of the ruling party in India brought immense civil society pressure on the leaders of the Gulf countries, which forced them to take India’s Hindutva regime to task.”

"Indulging in a spat with the oil-rich Gulf Arab states is a luxury New Delhi cannot afford, as its trade, energy imports, and remittances are at risk"

Islamophobia and Indo-GCC Ties

Though relations with the Arab states have improved since Modi’s election in 2014, they are centralised around the economy. Trying to gain an edge over China, New Delhi has consolidated its position in the Gulf with trade.

India’s pro-Hindutva tilt, therefore, has the potential to hinder its foreign policy objectives.

“There is a troubling irony here for India: its Hindutva policies and the surge in Islamophobia that accompanies them could have the most damaging impact in the Muslim world, an important foreign policy space for India, and especially the GCC,” Kugelman said.

“India has heavy dependences on these countries, from oil and gas imports to remittances. New Delhi cannot afford to alienate them, but it is not about to change the policies at home that upset the GCC,” he added.

This is not the first time that Hindu nationalist policies have had an adverse impact on India’s foreign policy interests, Kugelman notes.

“The citizenship law that it announced several years ago, for example, caused a diplomatic row with Bangladesh because Dhaka objected to the law’s exclusion of Muslim immigrants from fast-track citizenship options,” he told TNA.

“Dhaka even cancelled a few high-level visits to New Delhi. But the current crisis is especially striking and serious because of the unusually large, sustained, and coordinated response from a wide array of countries.”

Even if this matter dies down, could similar incidents in the future endanger New Delhi’s ties with the GCC?

Considering the inter-dependent nature of Indo-Gulf ties, Kugelman believes that their ties will not remain strained for long.

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“All this said, I wouldn’t overstate the long-term effect on India’s relations with the GCC. India needs the GCC, but the GCC needs India too. The GCC needs India to buy its energy and it needs Indian workers in its countries.”

Moreover, hostilities between Russia and Ukraine have not ended yet.

“Sustained ties with India are critical for the economic interests of these [GCC] states, especially at a precarious moment when the pandemic and the war in Ukraine are inflicting major shocks on the global economy,” Kugelman said.

“In effect, the GCC cannot afford to rock the boat with India. Short of public condemnations of the insulting comments from the BJP leaders, the GCC governments are unlikely to go much further in their responses.”

New Delhi’s Gulf ties also have implications for the Kashmir dispute, which India keeps in a deliberate state of limbo.

“India’s dependence on having good relations with Gulf countries is much more than importing oil or exporting labour,” Swain said. “India needs the support of Gulf countries to counter Pakistan making Kashmir an issue for the whole Islamic world.”

As a result, New Delhi is likely to keep on covering up injustices against minorities at home and offering only temporary solutions for the growing extremist malaise in Indian society, even as the country changes beyond recognition under Hindu nationalism.

Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer, and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, the Middle East and South Asia. 

Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi