The Middle East Must Prepare for Blowback from India’s Domestic Crisis

Dnyanesh Kamat

AFP Photo: Narinder Nanu

The Middle East must prepare to act in light of the ongoing political strife in India, as there is an increasing chance of blowback from across the Arabian Sea. Successive governments in New Delhi have managed what other countries have long aspired to in the Middle East, which is to maintain friendly relations with all in the region. This could, however, quickly unravel.

The more that India’s current government, run by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, doubles down on the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), and the more this provokes nationwide protests against it, the more difficult it will be for India’s friends in the Middle East to ignore a looming crisis in their relations.

The CAA offers a quick route to citizenship for persecuted individuals from India’s neighborhood, except if they happen to be Muslim. This is problematic because it runs against the values enshrined in the constitution, which guarantees equality to all persons irrespective of their religion. However, when combined with the proposed NRC, in which the onus of proving citizenship will be on the people being counted, the effects are potentially tectonic. Those unable to prove their citizenship can reclaim it through the short-cut offered by the CAA – unless they happen to be Muslim.

India’s Muslims, the vast majority of whom are poor and unlikely to possess the required documentation, are looking into the abyss as the prospect of statelessness, disenfranchisement and deportation hangs over their heads. This will reverberate far beyond India’s immediate neighborhood.

The GCC is host to 7 million Indians, representing more than 60 percent of Indian citizens living abroad. A sizable proportion of this community is Muslim. Indians are found across all segments of society – construction workers, doctors, business tycoons and so on. Not only does this community contribute enormously to the economic development of their host countries, but it also sends back close to half of all remittances received by India.

What would GCC countries do if they suddenly found themselves host to a massive number of disenfranchised and stateless Indians? Indeed, such are the political sensitivities over demography that many GCC countries have very strict naturalization policies. Nonetheless, in order to provide an environment of a home-away-from-home for their expatriate populations, GCC countries like Oman, the UAE and Bahrain have fostered an environment of religious inclusivity and cultural tolerance. The UAE, for example, houses temples, churches and a synagogue. Across all these countries, Hindu festivals like Diwali, Holi and Navaratri are celebrated with as much gusto as in India.

All of this may become politically untenable if insecurity among India’s 200-million-strong Muslims causes reverberations across the Middle East. In any case, no less a person than the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, has worked hard to tie in the GCC’s Indians, hitherto politically aloof, to politics in their homeland. It is natural that any tension in India’s social fabric will also affect social cohesion among Indians in the Gulf.

In Tehran, Iranian leaders may also find it increasingly challenging to remain aloof to the goings-on in India. The BJP has long tried to cultivate Indian Shias as a political constituency, as a counterweight to the more numerous Sunnis. In a rare concession to visiting foreign leaders, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was allowed to make a public speech from a 16th-century mosque of historical importance to Indian Shias in 2018.

Since the CAA-NRC threatens to ensnare Indian Muslims across sects, protests have also erupted from historically Shia centers in India. Viewing itself as the Shia power in the world, a large part of the Iranian regime’s legitimacy rests on it speaking up on behalf of Shias worldwide. Despite their friendly ties, Iran’s leaders have in the past not held back from criticizing New Delhi’s domestic policies. In 2016, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei pointedly referred to Kashmir alongside Palestine in a speech, a not-too-subtle jab at New Delhi. He mentioned Kashmir again last year, after New Delhi scrapped the territory’s autonomy and imposed direct rule.

The only country in the Middle East from which New Delhi may hope to gain some support is Israel. Inserting religion as a criterion for citizenship and defining one’s country as the exclusive homeland of specific religions seems eerily similar to the ideology favored by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. He may look for validation and the continuance of his own policies toward Palestinians and Israeli Arabs by pointing to developments in India.

It is only a matter of time before the ripples caused by India’s domestic politics reverberate across the Arabian Sea. A new and uncomfortable topic – India’s domestic politics – is then likely insert itself into India’s relations with the Middle East.

 

Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst on the Middle East and South Asia. He also advises governments on policies and strategic initiatives to foster growth in the creative industries such as media, entertainment and culture.