Narendra Modi’s jibe that Hamid Ansari’s diplomatic postings had been mostly in West Asia was meant to convey that the former vice president’s world view was limited by his faith. It might have earned the prime minister the fulsome praise of his supporters, outraged by Ansari’s remark that the Muslims felt insecure in India today, but the taunt is symptomatic of the relative indifference with which the ruling establishment views and treats the country’s Muslim intellect and heritage.
By denigrating a distinguished diplomat, Modi undermined the effective practice of employing Indian Muslims to strengthen the country’s relations with the Islamic world. If Ansari spent a lot of years in West Asia, it was perhaps because he was seen as an able candidate to represent India’s interests in that region. This can also explain why the Modi government chose former Mumbai police commissioner Ahmad Javed to head the Indian mission in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Why was Javed, known for his professionalism and integrity, not posted to Paris, Beijing, Tokyo or London?
Successive Indian governments have ensured that Muslim envoys are more frequently posted to Muslim countries than elsewhere. It certainly helps if a diplomat understands the religious, social and cultural sensibilities of the host nation. In 2015, the Barack Obama administration appointed India-origin Richard Verma as the United States ambassador to India.
In fact, India has never had a non-Muslim ambassador to Saudi Arabia, and it seems unlikely that the convention will be broken. One of the key function of the mission in Riyadh is to oversee the facilities for the Haj pilgrims.
Historically too, the Muslims have been employed by different powers and empires in the Indian subcontinent to gain trust and friendships in the Gulf, Africa and West Asia. The British, for one, used Muslim merchants from the trading communities of Khoja and Bohra and their religious leaders to cement ties in Africa and the Gulf through the 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the first Indians to join the British diplomatic service was Sir Rafiuddin Ahmed, who hailed from present day Maharashtra. Queen Victoria sent Ahmed, who gave her lessons in Hindustani, to Turkey, where he excelled as a diplomat representing British interests in the late 19th century.
As late as the mid-1950s, Britain looked to India for prominent Muslims who could arbitrate in its disputes with the Gulf countries. Confidential cables of the period reveal that British diplomats saw Asaf Ali Asghar Fyzee and Sir Mirza Ismail as possible arbitrators to their vast knowledge, expertise in administration and reputation in the Islamic world.
Few people know that two of the world’s most popular English translations of the Quran have an Indian connection – one is by Surat-born Borah Muslim Indian Civil Service officer Abdullah Yusuf Ali and the other by British Muslim Marmaduke Pickthall, who spend considerable time in Hyderabad and Bombay. The cleric Maulana Ali Mian was one of the few people who had the honour of possessing a key to the Kaaba, the holiest place in Islam.
All this goes to show that India has for long been considered a repository of Islamic culture, producing exceptional intellectuals. Modi’s jibe at Ansari unfortunately signals that India is at unease with its Islamic legacy, instead of making the most of it. Unknowingly thus, Modi has given credence to Ansari’s claim.
Like previous governments, the Modi regime affords great importance to the Gulf and West Asian nations for regional cooperation, investment, and remittances from the Indian diaspora. But by linking Ansari’s comments on a domestic issue with having a particular mindset, shaped by his stint in Muslim countries, Modi has painted India in a bad light. That diplomats stationed in India, especially from the Gulf, would not be impressed with his comments is not difficult to imagine. Do Modi’s comments not signal to Muslim countries that while India does not mind making use of their wealth and commercial opportunities, its prime minister holds their people and culture in contempt? Does this also not amount to undercutting his own government’s foreign policy?