There is growing realization within the government and diplomatic community that India stands to lose a great deal in allowing Islamophobia to spread within India and among Indians abroad and some nimble diplomacy is required to change perceptions, writes Nilova Roy Chaudhury for South Asia Monitor
While it is battling on a variety of fronts, humanitarian, medical and economic, to cope with an unprecedented pandemic gripping the world at large, the Indian government has had to move to curb some unfortunate yet particular domestic problems. COVID-19 appears to have brought out some of the worst, most prejudicial traits among a section of illiberal Indians who, in perhaps a manifestation of fear and insecurity at the relentless spread of the disease, have reacted by blaming its spread on various easily identifiable, most vulnerable groups of people, among them medical personnel and Muslims.
Public attacks on the former are unintelligible, considering that doctors, nurses and medical staff are in the frontline, battling the disease despite numerous constraints and considerable risk to themselves while caring for patients. After doctors threatened to take action to stem the tide of attacks against them, including physical and verbal abuse and even denying them dignity in death, a worried government issued a set of stern guidelines and strict punishments for what it called “uncivilized” behaviour, which would not be tolerated.
For the latter, it needed a statement from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to ease the relentless attacks on Muslims that have escalated across India in the wake of a large gathering of an Islamic missionary sect, the Tablighi Jamaat, in mid-March in New Delhi, which saw an upsurge in cases of COVID-19 among attendees who went to destinations and interacted with others across the country. Fake videos and anti-Muslim posts became rampant on social media and even pro-government mainstream media, while the event was singled out in official briefings. There have even been reports of religious segregation in hospitals and medical facilities in treatment of COVID-19 patients.
The government’s own failure to prevent the gathering of over 3,000 people in the heart of the capital city even as the virus was spreading globally saw the offensive reaction on the attendees, naming and practically blaming them and, by extension, all Muslims, for the spread of the disease in India, creating what the New York Times has called a “pandemic of prejudice and repression.”
Over a month after the Tablighi event, Modi in a tweet, his favourite form of communication, said, "COVID-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or borders before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together."
The prime minister’s tweet came after a rising backlash and anger among West Asian and Gulf countries and others, many of them India’s close friends, at what has been perceived as the Indian government’s refusal or inability to curb the attacks on Muslims and religious profiling that has spread with what many believe was the tacit support of the Hindu-supremacist BJP-led government and its favoured public broadcasters and social media warriors.
Indians even in Gulf countries have posted messages against Muslims, causing consternation and catching the attention of several prominent citizens in those countries, leading to many Indians being summarily sacked. Several Arab members of royal families have been very critical of the actions of Indians in this country and abroad. Even the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) criticised India and clubbed it with Pakistan and Cambodia for its “failure to protect vulnerable religious communities” and “increased stigmatisation”.
Urging the Indian government to act to protect Muslim minorities being “negatively profiled,” facing “discrimination and violence” amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) criticised what it called “growing Islamophobia” in India, reflecting the growing resentment in the Arab world over reports of Muslims being targeted in India over the coronavirus pandemic
“[We] urge the Indian Govt to take urgent steps to stop the growing tide of Islamophobia in India and protect the rights of its persecuted Muslim minority as per its obligations under international Human Rights law,” said a tweet issued by the OIC’s Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission on April 19, 2020.
The prime minister’s tweet that day was part of crisis management that became imperative in the face of growing anger in Islamic countries. India’s ambassador to the UAE, Pavan Kapoor, echoed Modi, saying, “Discrimination is against our moral fabric and the rule of law. Indian nationals in the UAE should always remember this," he said.
Deft diplomacy and high-level engagement are the only way to ensure that the millions of Indians in West Asia continue to remain safe and gainfully employed there. In fact, soon after he announced the complete lockdown in India on March 24, Modi spoke to several of his counterparts in the region, as did External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar and assured them of support to confront the Covid crisis. India even sent a team of 15 Indian doctors and health-care professionals to Kuwait and to Iran, to supplement efforts of those governments, and supplied the Hydroxychloroquine drug and other scarce medical equipment to many of these countries, to counter the negative perceptions.
Denying any discrimination against minorities, India's Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said Muslims are prosperous in the country and those trying to vitiate the atmosphere cannot be their friends. Speaking on the eve of Ramzan, the Islamic holy month, Naqvi said, "We are doing our job with conviction. The prime minister whenever he speaks, he talks about the rights and welfare of 130 crore (1.3 billion) Indians."
There are around nine million Indians living in West Asia and the Gulf, who send close to 60 billion dollars in remittances home annually. Countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are among India’s key strategic partners, who were planning huge investments in this country. There is growing realization within the government and diplomatic community that India stands to lose a great deal in allowing Islamophobia to spread within India and among Indians abroad and some nimble diplomacy is required to change perceptions. Whether it has succeeded or not remains to be seen but it is clear that there will be far closer scrutiny of events within India by not just Arabs, but by human rights groups everywhere.
(The writer is a senior journalist and analyst)