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Saudi scholar's visit: BJP 'shows concern' for need to mollify opinion in Islamic world

By Abhay Kumar* 

Mohammed bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, Muslim World League’s (MWL), secretary general and former minister of Saudi Arabia, recently visited India and met Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He also gave a talk on diversity and pluralism in New Delhi. The Saudi scholar is considered a moderate voice and a supporter of reforms in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Ahead of the General Elections 2024, his visit is quite significant.
Al-Issa spoke at New Delhi’s India Islamic Cultural Centre. The talk was attended by hundreds of people, including Muslim religious leaders and the stage was shared by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Although the function was formally organised by the Khusro Foundation, the main planning of his visit was prepared by the establishment.
By inviting MWL chief Al-Issa, the Modi Government has tried to seek a certificate of legitimacy from the Saudi regime. Saudi Arabia, as the custodian of the two holy mosques, occupies a unique place in the heart of Indian Muslims, particularly Sunni Muslims, who revere the Arab peninsula as the birthplace of Islam.
Addressing the meeting, the Saudi scholar underscored the Islamic principle of coexistence. He also spoke about the importance of diversity and the need to achieve an understanding among faiths. Highlighting the commonalities between Islam and Hinduism, he appreciated India for its diversity.
By highlighting the plural nature of Indian society, the Saudi leader was affirming his policies for Saudi society. Moreover, he understands the importance of India as a major country in South Asia and home to a large Muslim population. He knows very well that a large share of the workforce living in Saudi Arabic is recruited from India.
His positive remarks about India are the manifestation of the growing bilateral ties between India and Saudi Arabia. In the last two decades, both countries have signed several agreements and taken their relationship to the strategic level. In those years, the top leadership made official visits.
For example, King Abdullah made a historic visit to India in 2006 and signed the Del- hi Declaration. Four years later, then- Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a reciprocal visit and forged a strategic partnership with the Kingdom. In 2014, crown prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al- Saud, who is now the de facto king, visited India. Two years later, Prime Minister Modi went to Saudi Arabia where he was honoured with the highest civilian award.
Three years later, crown prince Mohammad bin Salman visited India and declared that approximately US$100 would be invested in India. Six MoUs and agreements were also inked. In October 2019, Prime Minister Modi made another visit to Riyadh and signed the Strategic Partnership Council (SPC) Agreement.
Twelve MoUs and agreements -- in the field of security, civil aviation, small and medium-scale industries, medical products, energy, de- fence production, strategic petroleum reserves, and training of diplomats -- were inked.
Historically speaking, the history of India and Arabs goes much beyond the coming of Mohammad ibn Qasim, the Arab general who led his army towards Sindh in the early decades of the 8th century. Before Qasim, the Arabs had trade and cultural ties with Indians. Since ancient times, the Arabs have been interacting with the Indians through trade and commerce.
The trade also allowed Arabs and Indians to learn about each other’s cultures. Gradually, the process of inter-dining, inter- marriage, settlement and resettlement started, contributing to the evolution of a composite culture.
The importance of Saudi Arabia lies in the economic field as India is heavily dependent on it for oil. A recent figure shows that India gets 22% of its total crude oil imported from Saudi Arabia. Over 25 lakh Indians, which constitutes around 7.5% of the Saudi population, work there and send a huge amount of money back home. Note that India is counted as the world’s largest receiver of remittances, which total up to over $80 billion a year.
The five Gulf countries contribute more than half of it. Saudi Arabia is the second largest contributor (11.6%), followed by UAE (26.9%) among the Gulf countries. Sau- di Arabia is India’s fourth largest trade partner.
In his speech, Ajit Doval stated the official position and praised Islam for its values and its positive role in society. As he put it:
“Islam occupies a significant position of pride with India being home to the second-largest Muslim population in the world. The Indian Muslim population is about the same as the combined population of more than 33 member countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). It was only by being open to accommodating various world views and ideas, interactions and assimilations of various cultures, beliefs and practices that India emerged as a sanctuary for persecuted people of all faiths from all across the world”.

Apart from economic interests, Doval’s statement is aimed at pacifying Muslims. Such an outreach exercise has to do with the current dilemma in which the ruling BJP finds itself caught. While it is compelled to keep the flame of anti- Muslim discourse ablaze to consolidate the voters on religious grounds, it is also aware of the fact that such divisive politics has angered the Muslim world.
For example, the Lok Sabha MP Tejasvi Surya made a highly condemnable statement a few years back that “95 per- cent of Arab women never had orgasms in the last few hundred years”. His statement sparked strong reactions from the Arab world.
Last year BJP leader Nupur Sharma made a highly objectionable statement about Prophet Mohammad, pushing the country into the furnace of communal tension. Her statement was condemned by Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Iran and Oman, Pakistan and the OIC.
While the BJP cannot isolate them for electoral compulsion, it is concerned about the damage caused by the hate speech. A few days after Doval’s positive statement about Islam and his outreach to the Muslim community, the chief minister of BJP-ruled Assam Himanta Biswa Sarma, who sits on a Constitutional post, made a hateful speech against Bengali Muslims for allegedly selling vegetables for a high price. Such a development is a pointer to the limitation of such outreach exercise.
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*Delhi-based journalist. A version of this article was first published in News Trail, Bangalore

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