“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,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a tweet on Sunday evening from the official Twitter handle of the PMO.
Although it was part of a series of tweets based on his LinkedIn post, the timing of his tweet stressing on “unity and brotherhood” cannot be completely accidental as it came after a strange new phenomenon began in the second week of April.
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: PM @narendramodi
— PMO India (@PMOIndia) April 19, 2020
Arab Twitteratis, it seems, have suddenly woken up to the “plights” and “discriminations” that Muslims in India are facing, and Twitter handles from Kuwait to the United Arab Emirates have been tweeting expressing their displeasure.
The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has also urged 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.”
Although PM Modi did not refer to those, on Monday afternoon India’s Envoy to UAE, Ambassador Pavan Kapoor quoted PM’s tweet, further adding, “India and UAE share the value of non-discrimination on any grounds. Discrimination is against our moral fabric and the Rule of law. Indian nationals in the UAE should always remember this.”
Later, similar tweets were sent by Indian embassies in other gulf capitals, including in Muscat, Doha, etc., cautioning that “forces inimical to India” are trying “to create divisions… (hence) do not get swayed by these malicious attempts to sow discord,” and stressing “friendly relations” based on “shared values of tolerance and pluralism”.
The friendly relations between India and Oman are underpinned by our shared values of tolerance and pluralism. Let us all commit to maintaining unity and social harmony at this critical juncture. As PM @narendramodi said: We are in this together. 2/2 https://t.co/uN6cy5rSq0
— India in Oman (Embassy of India, Muscat) (@Indemb_Muscat) April 22, 2020
What has happened?
Since the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, Muslims in India have been accused of doing “Corona jihad” after it came to light that a congregation called by Tablighi Jamaat at its New Delhi Markaz has turned into “super spreader”, resulting in about one-third of so far known positive cases.
The right-wing ecosystem, helped by the mainstream media, used this opportunity to multiply their diatribe against Muslims, vilifying them and demanding “economic boycott”. They have been targeted in several sporadic attacks, leading to the death of at least one person in New Delhi.
This has come close on the heels of the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (2019), which led to nationwide protests, and the pogroms of Muslims right in the national capital in February 2020.
Attacks and discriminations against Muslims on various pretexts have only increased in the last six years, and leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the larger Sangh Parivar have often led those vicious attacks while the top leadership has largely remained silent.
All these while PM Modi has largely remained silent while those he follows on Twitter spewed venom against Muslims.
What Arabs Are Up to?
Arab media have begun to cover India extensively in recent times. Besides, more and more Arabs are now consuming news besides using social media tools. From Afghanistan to Turkey and the Arab world, many people began to express their resentments in private, and also on social media at what they saw as the ill-treatment of Muslims.
Consequently, several Arabs, including journalists, activists, politicians, and even common people, have woken up to the atrocities committed against Muslims in India, and have taken to Twitter to express their purported anger, and are sharing old news, photographs, and videos of violence against Muslims in India.
ومانقموا منهم إلا أن يؤمنوا بالله العزيز الحميد#الهند_تقتل_المسلمين
ما يتعرض له إخواننا المسلمين في الهند من مجازر وحشيةواضطهاد والتنكيل بهم من قبل الهندوس المجرمين يستدعي تدخل قادة العالم الاسلامي والقيام بمسئولياتهم واستدعاء سفراء الهند والاستنكار وايصال رسالةشعوبهم المتضامنة pic.twitter.com/IEvvLLNXiR
— م عبدالله فهاد (@Abdllah_fhhad) February 28, 2020
Kuwaiti MP Abdullah Fahad had shared photographs and news of Delhi riots on Twitter on 28 February itself terming it “brutal massacres, persecution and abuses”, calling for “intervention of the leaders of the Islamic world”.
The recent interview of the senior BJP leader Subramanian Swamy to Vice News was subtitled and shared by an Arabic language media where he suggests that Muslims do not deserve equal rights. This video has since been shared by many high profile journalists, activists, etc.
A prominent leader in the Indian government promises to expel 200 million Indian Muslims and says: Muslims do not deserve equality in India …!!!!
— عبدالرحمن النصار (@alnassar_kw) April 20, 2020
What has particularly piqued many Arab nationals is that many Indians who are working in Gulf countries have been found writing highly insensitive and anti-Islamic posts besides being abusive against India’s Muslims and threatening women with rape.
Kuwaiti intellectual Abdur Rahman Nassar, with over 200 thousand followers, wrote on 16 April, “Every year, more than 55 billion $ are transferred to India from the Gulf countries, and more than 120 billion annually from all Muslim countries. Indians (mostly Hindus) are treated well in these countries. In return, how are Muslims treated in India?”
In recent months, there have been several reported cases from UAE to Kuwait where such abusive posts were reported not just to Twitter and Facebook, but also their employers, resulting in the sacking of some of them.
One of the most high profile persons tweeting against Islamophobic attitude and comments of the government and its cheerleaders is Princess Hend Al Qassimi, Emirati businesswoman who comes from the Sharjah ruling family has been very critical in her tweets in last one week. She curtly wrote on 16 April, “The ruling family is friends with Indians, but as a royal, your rudeness is not welcome. All employees are paid to work, no one comes for free. You make your bread and butter from this land which you scorn and your ridicule will not go unnoticed.”
The ruling family is friends with Indians, but as a royal your rudeness is not welcome. All employees are paid to work, no one comes for free. You make your bread and butter from this land which you scorn and your ridicule will not go unnoticed.
— Princess Hend Al Qassimi (@LadyVelvet_HFQ) April 15, 2020
Two old tweets that are being shared currently include, a 2019 tweet by Swamy reiterating old Hindutva propaganda of reclaiming “Kaaba (the holiest mosque situated in Mecca) as a Shivaling”; and another tweet (now deleted) by young BJP MP Tejasvi Surya where he quotes Tarek Fateh as saying: “95% Arab women have never had an orgasm in the last few hundred years! Every mother has produced kids as acts of sex and not love.”
I am happy that the OIC Secretariat has issued a statement that Babri Masjid should be re built on Ramjanmabhoomi. If the OIC does not disown this statement then Hindu can reclaim Kaaba as a shivaling
— Subramanian Swamy (@Swamy39) March 3, 2019
Among others, Kuwaiti news-portal Al-Hakea News shared the screenshot of the tweet, urging PM Modi that “India’s relation with the Arab world has been that of mutual respect. Do you allow your parliamentarian to publicly humiliate our women?”
#Islamophobia_in_India was the top Twitter trend globally on the evening/night of 21 April.
@PMOIndia Respected Prime minister @narendramodi India’s relation with the Arab world has been that of mutual respect. Do you allow your parliamentarian to publicly humiliate our women?@Tejasvi_Surya @TarekFatah pic.twitter.com/SLsetRJ5y8
— الحقيقة (@ALHAKEA) April 20, 2020
Dent in India’s Soft Power?
India has traditionally enjoyed the goodwill among the Arabs, and Indians are seen as friendly, hardworking people. Gulf countries also employ millions of Indians and send huge remittances every year besides trade in oil and other goods.
PM Modi has particularly invested in creating very close strategic ties with many Arab nations and has already made several trips to the region. He has also been awarded highest honours in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and UAE.
Arab rulers have never really made any strong statements against India despite its poor track record of dealing with Muslims. It has rather supported India on various international forums. New Delhi too largely keeps itself aloof from the politics in the Gulf region, although in recent years it has been seen inching closer to KSA-UAE vis-à-vis Iran.
But the over-zealot Hindutva leaders and trolls are denting India’s image of tolerance and secularism, particularly in the Muslim world, forcing the foreign office and the diplomats in the gulf capitals to scramble for a concrete response.
It is rather ironical that Arab leaders are reminding India of teachings of Gandhi and giving the message of peaceful coexistence; while the Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi tries to brush aside the criticism saying that “India is heaven for all Muslims”.
If PM Modi is really serious in maintaining India’s goodwill in the Muslim world, he must rein in his social media warriors and have a rethink on his policies back home.
(M Reyaz teaches at Aliah University, and is currently working on an ICSRR sponsored project on India’s Soft Power Diplomacy. He tweets at @journalistreyaz.)