The recent spurt in Islamophobia in India hasn’t gone down well with Gulf countries, and that isn’t helping Indian expatriates there.
In the past week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government have issued urgent appeals for communal harmony in the country. Were these forced by the terrifying prospect of hundreds of thousands of jobless and Covid-19 positive Indian worker expats stranded in the Middle East landing in India?
Yesterday, it was minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi who was trotted out to declare that “those targeting Muslims are a few isolated people”. In an interview to PTI, Naqvi was mindful when he said: “These people are trying to spread misinformation, and we should be united and isolate such elements.”
Curiously, just a few weeks ago, Naqvi had called the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in New Delhi a “Talibani crime”.
Naqvi’s rejigged statement came on the heels of Modi himself declaring, rather belatedly, that the Covid-19 pandemic “does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed language or border before striking”. He further underlined, “Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood. We are in this together.”
If only Modi had paid heed to the response and conduct of his own party colleagues, the irresponsible and unaccountable media, and an indifferent judiciary, would he have had to rush to make amends at all?
The discovery of positive Covid-19 patients from the Tablighi Jamaat congregation in Nizamuddin, New Delhi, in mid-March — and the consequent spread of the virus to various parts of the country — led to the demonisation of the whole Muslim community for weeks. The Tabligis’ disregard of the Delhi government’s health advisory to not have large meetings was inexcusable, but the blame also falls on the negligent Delhi government and the Union home ministry, from which the Delhi police takes orders.
As cases of positive Covid-19 cases were traced back to members of the Tablighi congregation, sections of the media and the BJP troll brigade led by Amit Malviya began to refer to Tablighis and Muslims as “super spreaders”, “corona jihad”, “Covid-786”, and the like.
Soon, BJP lawmakers jumped in to vilify the community. Karnataka’s BJP MLA, MP Renukacharya, asked for those Tabligi members refusing to be tested to be “shot dead”. Kapil Mishra, a BJP leader in Delhi, who is notorious for his hate speeches, said that Tablighi Jamaat members were “spitting on doctors and health workers to infect as many people to kill them”. Mishra said the Tablighis should be “treated as terrorists”.
The Supreme Court too refused to intervene when a petition was filed by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind pleading that the media be stopped from making communal and bigoted statements against the Muslim community. The bench headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde said it “cannot curb the freedom of press”, despite evidence of false reporting.
But all hell broke loose a few days ago when the Middle East haute monde reacted sharply and decisively against the bigotry displayed under the nose of Modi and his government. A series of tweets by a Sharjah princess, an heir to a wealthy business conglomerate, and a human rights lawyer, among others, all put Islam-haters on the mat.
Princess Hend Al Qassimi warned Saurabh Upadhyay, a rich Indian businessman and resident in the Emirates, for his Islamaphobic tweet.
Upadhyay hastily deleted his tweets and deactivated all his social media accounts, including that of his company.
It was then the turn of Preeti Giri, executive director of a well-known firm in Dubai, to face the heat from Noora Al Ghurair, whose family runs the multi-million dollar Al Ghurair companies. She tweeted to the Dubai police to take cognizance of Giri’s Islamaphobic tweet.
Giri soon deleted all her social media accounts.
Al Ghurair also brought up two four-year-old tweets by BJP Lok Sabha MP Tejasvi Surya: a sexist tweet about Arab women and one where he gleefully fantasised about establishing a temple in Saudi Arabia.
Al Ghurair warned Surya not to come to the Arab world even if he became foreign minister. Perhaps it was a jibe at Modi who was banned from the US for years and travelled to the country only after he became prime minister?
A Kuwaiti lawyer also brought up one of Surya’s tweets, saying he expected Modi’s “urgent punitive action”. Surya too deleted his tweet.
Then came the denouncement by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation condemning the alarming violence against Muslims in India and urging the country to take urgent steps to protect their rights.
Not surprisingly, the Indian ambassador in the UAE, Pavan Kapoor, quickly followed on Modi’s heels. Kumar warned Indian expats of hate tweets and bigotry.
At the heart of the matter lies the eight million and more Indian workforce in the Middle East, and the giant remittances of money – $80 billion in 2018 alone – apart from over $100 billion bilateral trade with the oil-rich Arab world. Modi has been feted and embraced by the ruling sheikhs and he has, in turn, built strategic ties with the military, maritime, and mutual investments in trade and state trust funds.
All this stands threatened in the face of the Covid-19 scare among the Indian workforce, their evacuation, rehabilitation, and welfare.
For instance, the lockdown in India has left thousands of workers stranded in Gulf countries, apart from the rest of the world. For starters, there were 19 transit passengers marooned at the Dubai International Airport for three weeks from midnight of March 24, when Modi declared a nationwide lockdown. They were finally rescued and put in an airport hotel after the Dubai media broke the story.
However, it is the plight of thousands of workers in the Gulf countries — from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to the Emirates — who are stuck without jobs and money that is important. They cannot get back home because, unlike many other countries, Modi has simply refused to allow repatriation flights to bring back workers, the elderly, and students, among others. Two weeks ago, according to media reports, the UAE also warned it would review labour ties with countries which were refusing to take back their citizens, including those who lost jobs or were put on leave, and said it was seriously considering strict quotas for work visas issued to nationals of these countries.
Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has written to Modi twice, urging him to repatriate Indian nationals, a majority of whom are from Pinarayi’s state, and assured the people that his government can take care of the testing and quarantine needs of 2,00,000 returnees.
“Kerala is really indebted to its expatriates for its development and progress,” Vijayan told the media. “We will try our best to bring them back. We know they are living in crowded and cramped facilities and are going through distressing times.”
Rahul Gandhi, the Congress MP from Wayanad, Kerala, also demanded that the Modi government bring back workers stranded in the Gulf. He said, "The Covid-19 crisis and shutting of businesses have left thousands of Indian workers in deep distress and desperate to return home. The government must organise flights to bring home our brothers and sisters most in need of assistance, with quarantine plans in place."
Apart from Kerala, other states that contribute to the Gulf emigration story are Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, but there are no indications that either of the two states are prepared to take charge of migrants returning home.
Several people petitioned the Supreme Court demanding repatriation of stranded Indians in the Gulf as well as in the US and UK. But Chief Justice Bobde once again came to the rescue of the Modi government 10 days ago, when he said “people should stay where they are right now as it may not be possible to bring back all Indians under the present circumstances”. Bobde, along with two other judges, took up the various petitions via video conferencing and pronounced their judgement.
So, even as the national airlines of the Middle East fly to the rest of the world repatriating citizens, they have not been allowed to fly to India. But chartered flights from India to Europe, UK and the US carry on despite the lockdown, to ferry expat citizens home. Neither has the Modi government asked its counterparts, which are flying in empty aircrafts to pick up their citizens here, to bring back Indian citizens stranded in those countries.
Clearly, the prime minister has no emergency plans for the hundreds of thousands of citizens stranded abroad who want to return, while their host countries like the Gulf oil kingdoms are beginning to get impatient and concerned about the rising cases of Covid-19 infections. Migrants are also running out of cash and have no access to expensive medical facilities. Their cramped, overcrowded living quarters and the growing retrenchment in jobs is not helping the situation too. The UAE had even offered to fly those who are not infected back home, to no avail.
In this scenario, the last straw was the rampant Islamophobia raging in India, not just amongst fringe groups but in mainstream India. It is pertinent for the Modi government that their hosts’ patience lasts at least till the lockdown date of May 3 passes. Until then, Modi has only the goodwill he shares with the Gulf countries to rely upon.