Wednesday, Sep 28, 2022

Gyanvapi Issue And India's Image Abroad: A Pandora's Box?

The world today is very different from what it was in the 1990s when the Babri mosque was brought down by Hindutva mobs. A look at how Gyanvapi claim may affect India's international relations.

Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi
Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi Tribhuvan Tiwari/Outlook

A pandora’s box is opening in India with social and political pressures on not just rewriting history but on attempting to take over mosques alleged to have been built by Muslim conquerors on sites where remains of old Hindu temples once stood. This is a move to blank out the magnificent cultural and religious monuments that reflected that period of Indian history. The Gyanvapi claim is just one of perhaps a long line of such incidents that will follow in the run-up to the 2024 national elections. How will this affect India’s image abroad?

None of this so far has had a far-reaching impact on India’s relations with the Muslim world. Significantly, India’s relations with the Gulf kingdoms have never been better than now. Much of the credit for better political and trade relations goes to Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has worked assiduously to have close political ties with the various Gulf states in India’s extended neighbourhood. The fact that he was honoured with the UAE’s highest civilian award and picked it up a few months after Kashmir’s special status was revoked in 2019,  tells its own story.

The world today is very different from what it was in the 1990s when the Babri mosque was brought down by Hindutva mobs. It was a shock at that time. December 6, 1992,  was a Black day for the nation and a blow to India's international credentials as a secular, pluralistic democracy. The entire Muslim world protested.  "That act resonated across the world because the entire structure was physically pulled down," says Kanwal Sibal, India’s former foreign secretary. "The Gyanvapi issue and others like Mathura will be dealt with by the courts. That will be a legal process, and from the foreign policy perspective will not have much effect,’’ he says.

The destruction of the 16th-century mosque followed by large scale riots across the country also led to anger in many Muslim countries. There were attacks on Hindus in neighbouring Bangladesh and Pakistan, and demonstrations in front of  Indian missions in several countries with sizeable Muslim populations. Country after country condemned India for allowing fanatical religious zealots to destroy an ancient monument and the Indian foreign ministry then headed by the brilliant J.N.Dixit went into damage control mode.

Expectedly Pakistan protested the loudest. But it was not the only one. The entire Muslim world felt it was an affront to Islam. Neighbouring Pakistan naturally led the charge. Islamabad’s main focus is Kashmir, but the brazen pulling down of the mosque ignited anger across the country.

Anti-India protests were held by religious groups across Pakistan. Mobs attacked temples and stormed the office of Air India in Lahore. Effigies of the then prime minister P.V.Narasimha Rao were burnt. In Bangladesh, angry mobs destroyed Hindu temples, attacked shops, and homes of Hindu’s and tried to disrupt an India-Bangladesh cricket match taking place in the national Bangabandhu stadium in Dhaka.10 people were killed in the violence unleashed in Bangladesh after the Babri demolition.

The Gulf Cooperation Council, condemning the incident adopted a resolution that described the demolition as a ``crime against Muslim holy places.’’ Saudi Arabia which sees itself as the leader of the Muslim world was strident in its criticism of India. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), while criticizing New Delhi, was more calibrated. There were street protests and anti-Indian demonstrations mostly by Indian and Pakistani workers. Violence broke out in one incident in a place called Al-Aim. The authorities got tough, arrested the protesters and deported them to India and Pakistan. The Gulf countries do not encourage protests whatever the cause. Since the Arab Spring in the early 2010s the Gulf rulers switched the panic button, Saudi Arabia came up with a slew of welfare measures as did many others but was ever on the lookout for signs of protest from the bazar. Crackdown on dissent increased. Rulers are unlikely to comment on human rights in any other country considering their record.

Today we live in a more pragmatic world where traditional ideologies have transformed. It would have been impossible at one time to think of the  UAE, Bahrain, and Israel establishing diplomatic and political relations as they did by the Abraham Accords, signed in 2O20, with the US, more specifically Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner acting as the honest broker. Saudi Arabia is expected to follow the trend but not so long as the ruler  King Salman Abdullah is alive.  Normalising ties between Israel, once the sworn enemy of the Arab rulers could not have been possible in earlier decades. Jordan was the only Arab state to have established diplomatic ties with Israel as early as 1994. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have been working together, much before this to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal. All three countries see Iran as a threat, the Saudis and UAE mainly because Iran is a Shia Muslim power. Countries now look to their own interests rather than what is happening to fellow Muslims elsewhere. The Palestinian cause that once reverberated across the Muslim world has fallen off the radar.

"Most Islamic countries are authoritarian, even tyrannical, and perpetrate extraordinary abuses on their citizens. Hence, they tend to avoid commenting on abuses in other countries, even if they involve their co-religionists, like the Uyghurs in China. Having said this, if there is persistent abuse of Muslims in India, foreign leaders will be under domestic pressure to chide India, though this could be conveyed outside the public eye,’’ says Ambassador Talmiz Ahmad former diplomat and scholar, and an authority on the region.

Apart from Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia were the other two major Muslim nations that came up with strong statements against the scrapping of article 370 in 2019. This had also to do with Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan’s rivalry with Saudi Arabia to appropriate the leadership of Sunni Muslims across the world. The Saudis see themselves as the keeper of the faith mainly because the keys to two of the holiest shrines of Sunnis,  Mecca, and Medina are located in the kingdom. Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad raised Kashmir at the UN too in 2019, as he too was playing the religious card and supported Turkey against the Saudis. He has however now faded from the political scene.

 Now democracies are also in flux and the rise of populism has led to polarisation and a  new level of intolerance, whether in the US or India or other countries. Human rights come up only when it fits into a nation’s agenda. So it is all right to single out Russia’s Vladimir Putin a sworn enemy of the US from the Cold War period or President Xi Jinping, a recent one. The persecution of Uyghurs in China did not figure much in the western discourse, till China was seen as a challenger to  US power. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or MBS as he is popularly called, the power behind the throne, has got away with imprisoning his rivals, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. True a lot of statements were made by the US and the West but they did not affect the overall relations with the Saudi ruling family a close ally of the US in the region.

"All countries today, authoritarian and democratic, are experiencing serious domestic political and economic challenges. Hence they don’t have the interest to be judgemental about developments in other countries. Even a major democracy like the US is deeply polarized in matters relating to race, faith, and gender and can hardly comment on these issues in other countries,’’ Ahmad adds.

Despite flaunting their Muslim credentials whenever it is politically convenient, the rich Gulf rulers are not interested in the condition of Muslims across the world.``  Winds of change are blowing across the Gulf. The UAE has brought in new rules that would have been seen as un-Islamic in the past.  In Saudi Arabia too MBS is moving away from the austere  Wahabi theology…these are major shifts and a re-think of traditional policy,’’ says Sibal. ``Yes, lobbies will continue to work against India, the same ones that raised CCA and NRC and Shaheen Bagh protests. New York Times will keep writing ….but this will not result in a major change of US policy toward India.’’

 Nobody, however, can clearly say what will happen in the future. One thing however is clear that there is a deep sense of disappointment across the world that India has given up its unique model of co-existence which was the envy of many countries across Asia and Africa.