Ages ago, when I was a child in primary classes, two subjects were introduced that went beyond Hindi, English, and Arithmetic - History and Geography. In today's India, adults and children alike are being bombarded with exhortations to learn or relearn India's ancient history, but geography, it seems, was forgotten until an international outcry over bigoted statements reminded us of it.
Some were shaken to find a world beyond our shores that watches India not merely with interest, including self-interest, but also, on occasion, with concern over what the Indian people are being told by those in authority. "O my God, there's a world out there," was their almost startled reaction to the offence taken in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and elsewhere at the anti-Muslim and anti-Islam utterances on national TV channels by the BJP's authorized spokesperson, now suspended.
"Thank God there's a world out there!" was the reaction, however, of others in India, and not just of India's Muslims (who number more than 200 million).
If geography has spoken, so has commerce. The removal from store-shelves of Indian products conveyed the message in the clearest language possible, even more compelling than protests from the Gulf's foreign ministries and embassies in India.
The result was an official statement from the BJP containing a new-found clarity. The statement said that the party "respects all religions" and "strongly denounces insult of any religious personalities of any religion". It added, "The Bharatiya Janata Party is also strongly against any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion," and went on to summarize the heart of our Constitution in words that defenders of human rights will quote back to the party's ministers in the months and years to come.
"India's Constitution," the BJP statement said, "gives the right to every citizen to practice any religion of his/her choice and to honour and respect every religion."
In another response, the party suspended Nupur Sharma, the national spokesperson who made the offensive remark, and also removed Naveen Jindal, the media head of its Delhi unit, who had repeated the remark. The Indian Express quotes an unnamed "senior party leader" as saying, "Being a spokesperson for the party for the national media, Nupur Sharma should know that the BJP sets its agenda and narrative around 'sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas, sabka prayas'. The controversy over her remarks and Jindal's tweets has not only hurt our development agenda but also dented the image of the government and Prime Minister at the international level," the leader said.
Taking the BJP to task, Opposition parties including the Congress, Trinamool, the Samajwadi Party, the BSP, Telangana's ruling party, and Owaisi's AIMIM have pointed out the contrast between the BJP's reaction to protests from the Gulf and its indifference to protests in India. It is also worth noting that while insulting Islam is being disavowed by the BJP (even that only indirectly, without mentioning Islam), there are no regrets or apologies for the storms of hate speech released over the last eight years or more from BJP platforms. Inciting hatred towards fellow nationals over their religion cannot be more defensible than insulting a religion's founder.
Before storms over the offensive remarks erupted in the Gulf, and before the BJP acted against Sharma and Jindal, Adityanath's administration in UP displayed its customary toughness against protesters. When disturbances over the offensive remarks took place in Kanpur on June 3, 36 people were swiftly arrested, and cases were filed against over 1,500 people. Police Commissioner Vijay Singh Meena said that "action will be taken against the conspirators under the Gangster Act, and their property will be seized." It seems that the crime of the key identified protester was that he had "told shops to close down through posters and social media posts" and "also called a procession, during which the violence broke out."
Governments can ask for "sabka saath" and "sabka vishwaas". If they wish, governments can also punish people if they do not offer their cooperation or their trust. But leaders in government can also choose to offer their cooperation and their trust to the Indian people, including to people who do not belong to the majority community. Trust cannot flow only in one direction.
The outcry in the Gulf, and the BJP's reaction to the outcry, a reaction possibly blessed if not initiated by Mr. Modi, is not likely to change the Indian scene in any basic way. It is good nonetheless to realize that on occasion, at least, vulnerable citizens can get some relief, even if it is small and temporary, because of protests in other lands.
India is a mighty country. But it does not live alone on the planet. In great parts of the world vital to our life and economy, Muslims or Christians form the majority. And Indians, including Hindus, live right amidst them. The Gulf is conspicuous for obvious reasons. But can we afford to forget that Muslims form 42 percent of the people of vast Africa, and that Christians form 49 percent of that continent's population, not to mention other parts of the world? Not regarding Muslims and Christians as India's equal citizens, not recognizing that along with Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis, Jews, agnostics, and any others, they are co-owners of India, is not just unconstitutional, it is the height of foolishness in the 21st century.