In its responses to the diplomatic storm over the comments made by BJP spokespersons Nupur Sharma and Naveen Kumar, the government took a stern view of the statement by the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), but it subsequently made a special effort at ensuring that Indian Ambassadors based in every OIC country were briefed and sent “talking points” to deal with the situation on June 5.
Significantly, the reference to the leaders as “fringe elements” was not in the brief by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), sources said. It had possibly emerged from a telephone conversation and was used “mistakenly” in the press statements issued by the embassies in Doha and Kuwait.
The phrase “fringe elements” had caused some consternation within the MEA as well as among officials in the countries that lodged protests against the comments, as it appeared to be misleading, given that Ms. Sharma and Mr. Kumar were prominent leaders of the BJP before the party took action against them. “The initial press statements wrongly described them as fringe elements,” an official acknowledged, adding that the intention of the phrase was to convey that the views they had expressed were “views of the fringe, not the government or the party”.
The six-point memo was sent to all the heads of mission (HOMs) in OIC countries on Sunday, hours after the Ambassadors in Qatar and Kuwait had been summoned. The missive, which was cleared by Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra and sent by the MEA’s Gulf Division, a copy of which The Hindu has seen, told them to “monitor the developments on this issue and report them promptly” to New Delhi.
It also counselled them to draft a statement in case they were summoned by the host government, which made all the points: that the Indian government respects all religions; that the comments denigrating a religious personality did not represent the government or the BJP, that “strong action” had been taken against those making the comments, and that the BJP had issued its own press release reiterating these points.
In addition, the government asked the HOMs to caution their hosts that “vested interests” that are against bilateral relations are “inciting” people and that India and the host country must “work together” against such “mischievous elements”, without naming India’s concerns about Pakistan.
In Islamabad on Tuesday, Pakistan Foreign Secretary Sohail Mehmood met all OIC Ambassadors and “briefed them on the developments regarding the highly derogatory remarks by two senior officials of India’s ruling party BJP”, indicating that Pakistan intends to continue to pursue the issue.
According to a number of officials The Hindu contacted, the MEA had gone into “damage control” mode on Saturday evening itself, when it was conveyed to Vice-President M. Venkaiah Naidu’s accompanying entourage, as they were en route from Senegal, that the Vice-President’s counterpart in Doha, the Deputy Emir of Qatar, would not be able to host him for the ceremonial banquet planned for Sunday due to “medical reasons”.
The Qatari government explained that the Deputy Emir was isolating due to a suspected exposure to COVID-19, but did not suggest that he would depute someone in his absence to host the event, which suggested there was more to the decision.
Alarm bells really went off on Sunday morning, however, when the Qatari Foreign Ministry summoned Indian Ambassador Deepak Mittal to hand him a stern demarche and to demand a “public apology” from the Indian government in the matter, a rare and even unprecedented occasion while an Indian dignitary was in Doha.
“Such an insult has never happened to a leader in my recollection. The responsibility of the foreign policy establishment led by the Minister is to always ensure that the President, Vice-President and Prime Minister are never embarrassed on foreign soil,” former Ambassador Vivek Katju said.
Another big worry for the MEA was the impending visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, who landed in Delhi on Tuesday for a three-day, three-city tour, which is his first visit to India since the elections last year.
Officials also said that while the government worked the phones, it prepared a separate brief for statements being issued by Pakistan and the OIC, that have both been particularly critical of the Modi government on the issue of the treatment of minorities. The OIC in particular is seen as “inimical” to India, according to officials, even though Former External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had addressed the OIC Foreign Minister’s conference in UAE in 2019.
In the past few months, the OIC has been particularly critical of a number of developments in India, including the Hijab ban controversy, communal violence, the delimitation process in Jammu and Kashmir, and the life term awarded to Yasin Malik in a terror financing case, almost mirroring Pakistan’s comments on the issue. In its response to the OIC, the MEA’s statement was particularly strong, accusing the OIC Secretariat of making “motivated, misleading and mischievous” comments against India.
Officials said they hope the interventions will help resolve the issue now. By Tuesday, at least 15 countries — Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Malaysia. the UAE, Jordan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bahrain, Maldives, Libya and Indonesia — had issued formal protests, along with the OIC, and the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council.