When a series of concerted tweets from Arab handles began denouncing attacks on Muslims in India recently, many people were struck by the unfamiliar nature of the development. Never before have Arabs been concerned with India’s internal politics or the treatment of its minorities, so this sudden interest was something nobody was prepared for.
Adding a further dash of interest to the turn of events, UAE princess Hend Al Qassimi joined the chorus. In a tweet, she called out a UAE-based Indian professional, Saurabh Upadhyay, for his anti-Muslim tweet. Upadhyay had posted abusive messages against Tablighis whom he blamed for exacerbating the spread of the novel coronavirus in India, terming it a “new form of jihad custom made for 2020.”
Retweeting Upadhyay, Princess Al Qassimi commented that “anyone that is openly racist and discriminatory in the UAE will be fined and made to leave.”
There have been many more anti-RSS (India’s chief Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and anti-Hindutva tweets since then, spearheaded by Arab elite, royals and businessmen from the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi scholar Abidi Zahrani proposed sending back all “militant Hindus” working in the Gulf engaged in spreading hate against Muslims.
“List all militant Hindus who are working in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) and spreading hate against Islam and Muslims or our beloved Prophet Muhammad,” he wrote using the hashtag #Send_Hindutva_back_home.
A Kuwaiti lawyer, Khalid al-Suwaifan, said violence in India was not an internal affair of that country, but a “crime against humanity.”
“A heinous practice of racism with international silence and the absence of human rights organizations is happening,” he wrote.
Similarly, a prominent cleric tweeted that “in 53 Muslim countries, Indians, most of them Hindu, are treated with humanity and respect. See how Muslims are treated in India?”
One of the most visible handles in this Twitter onslaught is the Editor in Chief of Gulf News, Abdul Hamid Ahmad, whose paper has been publishing news and carrying opinion pieces on attacks on Muslims in India. Gulf News also carried a front-page opinion piece by Princess Al Qassimi about India, titled: “I pray for an India without hate and Islamophobia.”
“Hate is being preached openly in India against Muslims in a nation of 182 million Muslims,” Al Qassimi wrote in her piece. “A snowballing movement has been started which has reverberated across the Arab world. People have taken note, and with the start of Ramadan the Muslim hearts are deep in prayer and will not allow the sparks to burn a country down”.
This sudden Arab Twitter storm has forced India to take note. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar called his counterparts in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Algeria and Palestine. The viral anti-Hindutva posts from these countries were one of the prominent issues that figured in these discussions.
Later, Indian missions in the Gulf also warned Indian nationals against hateful messaging. They also defended India’s record on religious freedom. Indian Ambassador to the UAE Pavan Kapoor said: “India and the UAE. share the value of non-discrimination on many grounds. Discrimination is against our moral fabric and rule of law. Indian nationals in the UAE should always remember this.”
India’s reaction showed the seriousness with which it viewed the Twitter reaction in the Arab world. Stakes certainly are huge. There are over 8 million Indian expatriates in the Middle East, accounting for annual remittances of 40 billion U.S. dollars. And a prolonged Twitter discourse about atrocities against Muslims in India could soon become a part of the Arab narrative about the country, creating a hostile social environment against Indians employed there.
So far, India and Gulf countries have enjoyed the best of relations. Both the governments of these countries as also their people have hardly bothered about India’s internal politics or the inter-community relations. In fact, last year, the UAE conferred its highest civilian award “Order of Zayed” on Prime Minister Narendra Modi immediately after his government stripped Kashmir of its autonomy. Around the same time, Modi was also honoured by Bahrain with “The King Hamad Order of the Renaissance.” In 2016, Modi was conferred with “King Abdulaziz Sash Award” by Saudi Arabia.
Arab discourse, on the contrary, has traditionally focussed on the West, so has its social media. This is largely because they are bound by a long history of wars, mutual conquests, reciprocal grudges, grievances and prejudices, not to mention the deep cultural and economic exchanges. A glimpse of the post-World War II history reveals this mutual pre-occupation: the creation of Israel in 1948, consequent Palestinian dispossession and the intermittent U.S. interventions in Arab countries turned Muslim opinion against the West. This also explains the rise, over the years, of the West-focussed pan-Islamist jihadist groups, which have often provoked conflict and war.
India, for that matter, had generally been viewed as a benign power known for its secularism and democracy. New Delhi itself has attached a high priority to the ties with the Arab world, even while maintaining a close relationship with Israel. This has, at times, involved walking a diplomatic tightrope walk. In 2018, when Modi visited Israel, he also visited Palestine.
India’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE had become ever more closer under Modi, persuading the two key Gulf powers to overlook the Hindutva excesses in India and the nullification of Kashmir’s autonomy. So much so that Saudi Arabia-led Organization of Islamic Conference had largely been a mute spectator to New Delhi’s Kashmir move, Pakistan’s protestations notwithstanding.
But as the sudden Twitter backlash in the Gulf would have one believe, India’s image in the Muslim world has since suffered a setback. Looking back, several successive developments over the past year come to mind that have cumulatively transformed otherwise India’s carefully cultivated reputation with the Arab world, beginning with the revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and the following months-long crackdown in Kashmir. The social turmoil triggered by the Citizenship Amendment Act that fast-tracks the Indian citizenship of only non-Muslim refugees from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan has made the world as also Arabs sit up and take notice. With Delhi violence that killed 52 people and the subsequent scapegoating of Muslims for the spread of coronavirus, the matters have come to a head. It has threatened to alter the Arab perception about India, and the barrage of anti-Hindutva tweets emanating from several Gulf countries confirms it.
Where do we go from here? It’s difficult to tell. But the situation may change for the worse unless New Delhi takes concrete steps to shore up its image.
The Twitter outrage that is still confined to the elite sections of the Arab society may spread among general masses creating an unfavourable climate for the Indians in the region and, in turn, on their employment prospects. The friendliness of the governments of these countries may not be much of a use here as it never was in the region’s relationship with the West when people turned against the policies of the U.S. and some European states.
Issue would be left to be sorted out between two troll armies – Hindutva versus Arab. And the fallout of this social media war may leave a deep damage at the social level that may not be easily repairable by the bonhomie of the governments.