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The highlights this week: New Delhi faces a diplomatic crisis in the Persian Gulf, India’s government weighs deepening engagement with the Taliban , and Bangladesh suffers a deadly industrial fire .
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: New Delhi faces a diplomatic crisis in the Persian Gulf, India’s government weighs deepening engagement with the Taliban, and Bangladesh suffers a deadly industrial fire.
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India’s Diplomatic Wake-Up Call?
Majority-Muslim countries in South Asia and beyond reacted angrily this week to offensive remarks about the Prophet Muhammad by two senior leaders from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Nupur Sharma, the BJP’s main spokesperson, made derogatory comments during a television debate last month, prompting protests in India. Naveen Jindal, the party’s top media staffer in New Delhi, followed up with a since-deleted tweet about the prophet.
Both BJP leaders were punished, with Sharma suspended from the party and Jindal expelled. However, for New Delhi, the diplomatic damage is already done.
Twenty governments and multilateral organizations, including the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation, have already issued formal condemnations. The Al-Azhar mosque in Egypt, one of the world’s foremost institutions of Muslim scholarship, also lambasted the comments. In the Persian Gulf region, where India has deep economic ties, governments have denounced the remarks and summoned Indian ambassadors.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric, discrimination, and violence have intensified in India in recent years, but many majority-Muslim governments—with India’s rival Pakistan as a major exception—have voiced little public criticism. Governments haven’t wanted to risk jeopardizing important trade ties with India, the world’s sixth-largest economy. But BJP leaders insulting the Prophet Mohammed have prompted an uncharacteristically loud response, especially in the Gulf.
By pursuing deeper ties with the Muslim world while failing to address the plight of its own Muslim citizens, India has played with fire. As it strengthens its diplomatic and economic partnerships abroad, New Delhi now has more at stake when its domestic politics trigger outrage overseas. At the same time, its rising global clout shields it from further fallout: Muslim states are angry, but they’re not likely to truly imperil their commercial ties with India.
The Gulf states are top suppliers of Indian energy and a major source of remittances, hosting nearly 9 million Indian expatriates. The region is also a key supplier of a third critical Indian economic need: infrastructure. In 2015, India and the United Arab Emirates agreed to a $75 billion infrastructure fund.
More broadly, the region is a top Indian trade partner. Trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council was nearly $90 billion last year. A framework agreement in place since 2004 calls for increasing bilateral commerce, and New Delhi implemented a new trade deal with Abu Dhabi last month. India’s economic dependence on the Gulf, coupled with the fact that Sharma and Jindal’s comments were especially egregious, likely explains why the BJP took disciplinary action. Other anti-Muslim comments by party leaders have rarely been held accountable.
However, India is currently not at risk of losing its partnerships with key states in the Muslim world, especially as the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine make for a precarious economic moment. Indian diplomats will also make the case to interlocutors abroad that the BJP leaders who made the insulting remarks are not members of the government and their comments do not represent its views.
Business as usual continues: India and Qatar concluded new commercial agreements this week, with India’s vice president visiting Doha. Iran’s foreign minister was in India this week to discuss trade and connectivity. Nonetheless, New Delhi’s soft power may suffer, with some shopkeepers in Kuwait removing Indian products from shelves. Security threats have also emerged: Al Qaeda’s South Asia branch has vowed retaliatory attacks after the comments.
Many statements condemning the insulting remarks described them as part of a worsening campaign of Islamophobia in India. Its Gulf partners have put New Delhi on notice that such egregious comments from ruling party leaders cannot stand—and must not be repeated. Perhaps India has received a wake-up call: Its toxic domestic politics can deliver big blows to its diplomatic and security interests.
What We’re Following
India explores Taliban engagement. Further information about an Indian delegation’s visit to Afghanistan last week suggests that New Delhi is seriously considering scaling up engagement with the Taliban regime. The Indian Express reports the Indian officials stayed in Kabul for two nights, visiting the Indian Embassy and four India-financed sites to assess security conditions. The delegation reportedly found that the security situation has improved in Kabul despite economic stress.
Security assurances are a key precondition for India to reopen its embassy in Kabul, which it has been considering for weeks. Short of formal recognition, deeper Indian engagement with the Taliban regime wouldn’t be too surprising. India has been one of Afghanistan’s top bilateral donors, and Indians enjoy goodwill among Afghans. The Taliban are keen to engage with governments with the capacity to provide aid to Afghanistan.
The Taliban regime also seeks to showcase its independence from longtime patron Pakistan as part of an effort to boost its domestic legitimacy. Strengthening ties with India would help. New Delhi hopes to regain some of the influence it enjoyed in Kabul during the last 20 years; developing a workable relationship would also help it deepen relations with Central Asian states.
Deadly Bangladesh port fire. Last weekend, at least 49 people died and more than 100 others were injured in a massive fire in a container depot near the Bangladeshi port of Chittagong. Authorities are investigating the cause of the blaze, which took a few days to extinguish. Human error appears to be a key factor: Officials said the chemicals that caught fire were mislabeled by the depot manager, leading firefighters to accidentally spray water on hydrogen peroxide, exacerbating the fire.
Bangladesh has experienced numerous industrial accidents in recent years, including a building collapse in 2013 that destroyed five garment factories and killed more than 1,100 people. That tragedy prompted the United States to suspend Bangladesh’s special trade privileges until it strengthened worker safety regulations. The Chittagong fire could be a blow to Dhaka’s ongoing efforts to restore those privileges.
Rajapaksa: China loses interest in Sri Lanka. In an interview with Bloomberg this week, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said China is shifting its strategic focus away from Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa contends that economically struggling South Asian states, including China’s close ally Pakistan, can’t count on the support they received in the past. He added that Beijing has declined to provide a $1.5 billion credit line deal to Colombo and has not responded to a request for a new $1 billion loan for essential goods.
Rajapaksa’s claims are striking, given that China has been a top source of assistance and of foreign direct investment to Sri Lanka since the end of its civil war in 2009. Sri Lanka’s status as a key battleground for India-China competition makes Beijing unlikely to move on from the country. Rajapaksa is likely trying to lower expectations, so Sri Lankans won’t be disappointed if China doesn’t provide as much as hoped for. But he may be signaling that he welcomes more assistance from China’s rivals, especially the United States.
Under the Radar
Bangladesh’s government has revoked the operating license for a respected human rights group, Odhikar. Dhaka accuses Odhikar of publishing misleading information and tarnishing Bangladesh’s global image. The group has long documented human rights violations, including those of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a top security institution sanctioned by the United States last year.
That Dhaka didn’t cite vague reasons for canceling the license suggests it’s not afraid to signal its desire to control the narrative on human rights issues. The move comes amid a period of busy diplomacy with Washington. A key agenda item for Bangladesh is to remove the sanctions on the RAB, but whether and when the United States does so depends on Bangladesh’s willingness to reform the organization.
Dhaka certainly doesn’t help its cause by cracking down on a top human rights nonprofit. Although Bangladesh says Odhikar has undermined the country’s reputation overseas—a particularly sensitive matter for the government—the move to sideline Odhikar is likely to have a bigger impact.
Writer Beenish Mahmood discusses Pakistan’s worsening environmental challenges in the Express Tribune. “The need of the hour is to switch to sustainable ways of living and introduce transformative actions and techniques,” she argues. “It is essential to invest in nature-friendly techniques. Introducing ways to sync nature with the urban is the answer to our problems.”
A Kathmandu Post editorial decries the failures of Nepali officials to better tackle waste management and address its impact on city residents. “What is at stake is the sensorium of the residents. … They have suffered enough of the filth and the disease emanating from the metropolitan city that cares little about their health and wellbeing,” it argues.
In Mint, economist Upasna Bhardwaj proposes a plan to tackle India’s high inflation despite “limited scope” to act without disrupting growth. “Monetary tightness needs to be complemented with the supply-side fiscal interventions to ease price pressures,” she writes.