External challenge

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Khamenei’s warning that India is in danger of “isolation from the world of Islam” underlines the damage the Delhi violence has done to India’s relations with the Muslim world.

The call of the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for the NDA government to “confront the extremist Hindus” and stop the “massacre of Muslims” could well mark an important turning point in the unfolding backlash in the Islamic world to the recent communal rioting in Delhi. Khamenei’s warning that India is in danger of “isolation from the world of Islam” underlines the damage the Delhi violence has done to India’s relations with the Muslim world. It was only a few weeks ago, in December, that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was flaunting the wide political support for him in the Muslim world as he reacted to the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Delhi cannot dismiss the Iranian reaction like it brushed aside the criticisms from Pakistan and its closest partners in the Muslim world — Turkey and Malaysia. Tehran is not looking at India through the prism of Islamabad, nor is Jakarta, which recently summoned the Indian ambassador to express concern at the communal violence in Delhi. Meanwhile, there is deepening anxiety in Bangladesh and Maldives, two of India’s closest partners in the Subcontinent.

PM Modi is right to claim he developed special relationships in the Muslim world during his first term. He secured the parliamentary ratification of the boundary agreement with Bangladesh, despite considerable opposition from the BJP’s Bengal and Assam units. The UPA government that had unveiled the accord had failed to do so. Modi also succeeded in elevating the partnerships with two key nations in the Gulf — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — and reviving traditional ties with Egypt and Oman. Reflecting the new positive sentiments in the Muslim world, the UAE had invited then external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, to address the OIC meeting in Abu Dhabi in March 2019. Most of India’s friends in the Muslim world avoided being dragged into the controversies over the changes in the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir or the CAA and the NRC. But the violence in Delhi and the Modi government’s apparent lack of empathy for the victims have begun to tip the scales in the Muslim world.

In expressing concern over the Delhi riots, both Tehran and Jakarta have sought to save India’s face. Khamenei has distinguished between the government and the “extremist Hindus” and the foreign office in Indonesia has expressed “complete confidence” in India’s ability to restore religious harmony. Dhaka and Male have held their peace for now. But the NDA government’s continuing reluctance to acknowledge, let alone address, the problem will make India’s setback vis a vis the Muslim nations that much harder to overcome. Asked about the criticism, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar remarked that this will help India figure out who its friends are. That may be a smart rhetorical quip but certainly rubbing your time-tested friends the wrong way isn’t a wise way to test their friendship especially when your economic heft is in doubt. Nearly four decades after the anti-Sikh violence that rocked Delhi in 1984, Indian diplomacy is still struggling to cope with its international consequences. The impact of the fallout in the much larger Muslim world is likely to be far more consequential and lasting if the NDA government remains unwilling or unable to get its act together.