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To Bridge The Gulf

To Bridge The Gulf

Author: V. Sudarshan
Publication: Outlook
Date: May 20, 2002

Introduction: Despite Gujarat, the mood in the region is ripe for an enhanced political engagement

"Why is it that when Hindus kill hundreds of Muslims it elicits an emotionally muted headline in the Arab media but when Israel kills a dozen Muslims, it inflames the entire Muslim world?"

It was New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman who had asked this provocative question. An Arab response to it came from respected journalist Amir Taheri writing in the Arab News. "The latest round of killings started with the massacre of 60 Hindus by militant Muslims in Gujarat," Taheri wrote, adding that "the Government does not conduct the killings in India."

Taheri was indeed making a fine distinction between Israeli action in Palestine and the Gujarat violence.

But he didn't stop at that. "Gujarat is not an occupied territory.... (The) fight in Gujarat is an internal Indian tragedy. The fight in the occupied territories (is) a colonial conflict," argued Taheri. He then made a telling extrapolation: "During the past year or so, Israel has killed 1,100 Palestinians and wounded a further 7,000.
Relative to the total population in the occupied territories that is the equivalent of killing 110,000 and injuring 700,000 Muslims in India, assuming that there are 120 million Muslims in the country. In other words, Israel is killing far too many people among a relatively small population." What's more, Tahiri did not chide India even once.

This is a surprising response in a country considered the custodian of Islam worldwide, more so because India is home to the second largest population of Muslims. New Delhi could take heart from the fact that newspapers here are-and have been-obsessed with recounting the horrors of Palestine. Come to think of it, Arab governments haven't even bothered to send demarches a la the EU.

But this doesn't mean there's no concern here over Gujarat, which does get regularly featured in the inside pages. Gujarat has indeed become an addition to the two existing issues on which Arabs harp upon to visiting Indian journalists. They are unhappy about India's position on Palestine. Second, they express concern over the continued stand-off with Pakistan.

One prominent Saudi official put it succinctly: "We hope the situation between India and Pakistan doesn't slide into a retaliatory cycle. We don't want anybody to drag us into making a statement or siding with one or the other. We don't want to be pushed to the point where India risks abandonment of the Arabs and Muslims." Said in almost one breath, it is difficult to satisfactorily parse these sentiments. But the message is clear-Gujarat is a growing concern here.

Ironically, the muted reaction in the Arab world to Gujarat provides an appropriate excuse for India to impart its relationship with West Asia a broader, more contemporary and, in some respects, strategic dimension. The timing is particularly opportune as the region is on an accelerated path to economic, social and political reforms. This might sound surprising to many. But an emerging political star of the Saudi royal family describes his nation's style of ushering in change as "long-winded, low-profile, bit by bit, no white or green papers and certainly no dramatic announcements tomorrow". But the important thing, he says, is the intention to "get there".

In this new and changing environs the Chinese, Russians and Europeans are already stirring. India shouldn't be left behind, especially since it enjoys historical and cultural affinities with the region. Some think that were the PM and the foreign minister to devote even half their effort and energy they have expended on the Look East policy toward West Asia, India would gain substantially.

There exist innumerable reasons for a political engagement with West Asia. For one, it's part of India's neighbourhood and developments there impinge directly on India's security interests.Then, imports from the energy-rich region meets two- thirds of India's petro needs. It is also a big source of India's foreign exchange remittances, exceeding $4 billion a year.

Considering India's emerging ties with the US and Israel, some cite the September 11 attacks, the consequent war on terrorism and the Palestinian crisis as factors that would complicate and restrict New Delhi's engagement with West Asia. But they overlook several hard realities. For instance, Saudi Arabia, which is the most conservative in the Arab world, has a robust relationship with the US. This experienced turbulence post-September 11 (many of the WTC bombers were Saudis) but Saudi-US ties haven't been fundamentally disrupted.

Most nations are engaged in an internal dialogue that is tilted towards moderation. On November 15 last year, for example, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah summoned top clerics to a meeting and told them "in an emphatic note" that "I hope you appreciate your responsibility before God, your people and officials so we do not land in an embarrassing situation. We are a moderate nation and there should be no exaggeration in religion".

Some also point to the example of China, which maintains close ties with both the Arab world and Israel. There's no either/or situation in diplomacy. But it is true the government needs to do more than pay lip service to the Palestinian cause to endear itself to the Arabs. New Delhi, for instance, could provide financial assistance and organise high-profile visits to Palestine, just as it has done in Afghanistan.

Also, Pakistan is no longer a hurdle. One diplomat says the expulsion of the Taliban from Kabul has reduced the Saudi relationship with Pakistan from "a strategic to sentimental level". In fact, the December 13 Parliament attack saw Riyadh condemn it as an act of terrorism, a first pro-India comment Saudi Arabia had taken over an issue involving Muslims or an "Islamic" cause. Will New Delhi build on that?

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