In his six years as prime minister, Narendra Modi has expended more time, effort and commitment to cultivating ties with the Gulf region than any of his predecessors, and India’s initiatives have been fully reciprocated by his regional counterparts. These interactions have been assiduously promoted with frequent exchanges of visits, warm expressions of personal goodwill, even affection and several agreements to impart substance to the relationship in political, energy and economic areas.
Now, when the world is grappling with the extraordinary challenge posed by the coronavirus pandemic, relations shaped, elevated and solidified by the prime minister have been jeopardised – not by external rivals – but by cohorts from within his own ideological and political bandwagon, the Hindutva brigade. All of a sudden, tweets on social media and reports on mainstream television and newspaper columns are awash with harsh and angry exchanges between India’s Hindu nationalists and some sections of the Gulf’s elite royal family members, business persons, professionals and human rights activists.
These tirades began innocuously enough: in an exchange between two Indians, a resident in the UAE, Saurabh Upadhyaya, who heads a consultancy firm, tweeted abusive messages about members of the Tablighi Jamaat; he, inter alia, referred to the Tablighis spitting on people as a “new form of jihad”. He ended his virulent message with: “Death to radical Islamic tabligi (sic) terrorists and other radical Islamic sons of satan.” To this he added some choice expletives in Romanised Hindi.
The war of tweets
Then, in a unique development in Gulf annals, a member of the Sharjah royal house, Sheikha Hend Al Qassemi responded to this tweet. Recalling her family’s close ties with India, the sheikha said: “your rudeness is not welcome. You make your bread and butter from this land which you scorn and your ridicule will not go unnoticed.” She then quoted UAE laws prohibiting hate speech by citizens and non-citizens. In her later tweets, she listed the several public gatherings by Hindu pilgrims in different parts of India between March 9-19, which had attracted thousands of devotees, and placed the Tablighi congregation of 4,000 attendees within this broad context. She countered the aggressive Hindutva users of social media by reminding them that “Gandhi was a fearless campaigner for the rights and dignity of all people.” “He [Gandhi] won my heart”, she concluded, “and I believe in his peaceful approach to handling hatred.”
In an interview with an Indian television channel, Sheikha Hend was asked if she would similarly condemn “Hinduphobia”; she replied that in the UAE, “No one hates Hindus”.
To be Continued…