India Comments Spark Rift with Muslim States

Senior officials associated with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party set off tensions with India’s key trading partners following a series of derogatory comments about Islam.

The comments reinforce perceptions that Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is inherently anti-Muslim and serves to increase already heightened tensions between religious communities.

Reactions from many Muslim-majority states to the comments will set back India’s efforts to expand its influence in the Persian Gulf and broader region.

The dispute over the comments could compound India’s economic difficulties, including those resulting from its dependence on energy imports and remittances.

On May 25, Nupur Sharma, the spokesperson of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), offended Muslims in India and the broader region by making derogatory comments about Islam. Muslim communities both in India and abroad were deeply offended and the BJP suspended Sharma from the party. The head of the party’s Delhi media unit, Naveen Kumar Jindal, was also suspended, for sharing a screenshot of her offensive comment in a tweet, further propagating the statement. Domestically, Muslims protested the comments, suggesting that the community was not satisfied by assertions of BJP leaders that the comments represented only unrepresentative “fringe” views within the party, particularly in light of growing intercommunal tensions in the country. Several observers and political leaders contended that the comments reflected the inherently anti-Muslim and Hindu-nationalist ideology of the party, reflected in widespread perceptions that Prime Minister Modi’s government has sought to marginalize the Muslim minority in India and pursue majoritarian policies.

Although unrest within India appeared to be largely contained, reactions to the comments from several Muslim-majority states carries potentially serious and long-term adverse consequences for India’s foreign policy and economy. Violent extremist organizations also weighed in. On June 8, the terrorist network al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) issued a statement condemning the remarks – warning that the fired BJP officials will “find refuge neither in their homes nor in their fortified army cantonments.” However, no terrorist attacks or assassinations linked to the dispute have occurred in India, to date, suggesting that AQIS might be seeking to use the incident to recruit followers rather than respond directly to the offending comments.

International responses to the remarks represent a material – although likely temporary – setback to India’s efforts to expand its economic, political, and strategic influence in the region. Many Muslim-majority nations – including virtually all of the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain), Indonesia, Malaysia, Libya, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan – demanded apologies from New Delhi and summoned diplomats to protest against the remarks in the TV debate. The influential 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – which includes all of India’s Muslim-majority neighbors – said in a statement that the insults came in the context of an increasingly intense atmosphere of hatred toward Islam in India and systematic harassment of Muslims. The rebukes threatened to ostracize Modi, who has been a regular visitor to the Persian Gulf region since coming to power in 2014. He has worked to expand India’s ties to the Gulf, in part to counter a rising China, as well as to counterbalance the longstanding ties between the Gulf states and Islamabad – which is New Delhi’s historic rival. The rebuke by the United Arab Emirates was particularly significant, especially in light of Prime Minister Modi’s attendance at the ground-breaking ceremony of the first Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi in 2018, viewed at the time as a watershed example of the growing ties between India and the region. Relations between the two countries have significantly improved in the past few years; both the UAE and India are currently members of the UN Security Council and have developed a strong working relationship.

The row also threatens to inflict further damage on an Indian economy already reeling from the spike in energy and food prices, resulting from Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine. India, the world’s third-biggest importer of oil, gets 65% of its crude oil from Middle Eastern countries. It is also a major customer for the Gulf’s natural gas exports. Along with the United States, New Delhi has sought to persuade Gulf energy exporters – in particular, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – to increase production to counteract rising prices. Simultaneously, India has taken advantage of the sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to buy Russian oil at a steep discount. In addition, millions of Indians work in the Gulf region, sending home billions of dollars in remittances each year. The UAE alone, where some 3.5 million Indians live, accounts for 33% of remittances to India, at more than $20 billion a year. A move by any Gulf state to expel Indian expatriate workers because of the BJP leadership insults would dramatically reduce that revenue stream.

Trade is also at risk. India’s trade with all of the Gulf states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC: Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, and the UAE) stood at $87 billion in 2020-21, and India has hoped to expand that volume significantly. India has already signed a free trade agreement with the UAE and has been in talks with the GCC for a wider deal. The UAE had singled out India among seven other nations as its future economic partner. All of the progress India has made on trade with the Gulf states might now be at risk because of the BJP officials’ comments: some stores in Kuwait and some of the other GCC countries have removed Indian products from their shelves following similar calls for a boycott. Still, as the Gulf and other Middle Eastern countries question the U.S. commitment to the region and come under pressure to sanction Russia for its Ukraine invasion, India will remain a necessary strategic partner for the region. The strategic rationale for expanding ties to India increases the likelihood that the dispute over the BJP comments will fade over the coming weeks, though it may continue to color already heightened tensions between religious communities within India.