After the Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari, voiced concern over the emergence of the “inner demons” of hate, greed and ignorance among people in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, UN secretary general Antonio Gueterres has spoken of a “tsunami of hate and xenophobia” sweeping the world targeting, among others, migrants, refugees and Muslims.

Mercifully, Indian society and the political class has been mostly free of such scourges, whose most potent expressions have been found in the firming up of autocratic tendencies under right-wing parties in countries like Hungary and Poland in Europe and in the US. Long before the eruption of the present crisis, Barack Obama had referred to the possibility of a “harsher, meaner, more troubled world” because of the rise of the far right outfits. Now, his fears are coming true as the Grim Reaper stalks the world in the guise of a deadly virus.

Indian democracy has at least ensured that no religion or community are openly targeted at the political level with Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointing out that the virus does not distinguish between race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or borders. But the message does not seem to have reached a section of the Indian TV which has now come under fire from the Arab countries for Islamophobia. There has been a demand, therefore, from the influential UAE-based Gulf News for a ban on a number of right-wing television channels which have a wide viewership outside of India.

The Gulf News suspects that the Islamophobia of these channels has led to the posting of derogatory messages on the social media directed against Muslims. Some of the purveyors of these online hate messages have been sacked, persuading others to delete their diatribes. The Indian ambassador in the UAE has also tried to calm tempers by saying that India and the UAE “share the value of non-discrimination”. But the recourse to hate is a menace which can no longer be ignored either in the Gulf countries or in India.

As is known, these channels, like the BJP’s numerous trolls, have been a part of the party’s election machinery, spewing hate against the Muslims and presenting the BJP as the only party of patriots in India where the “pseudo-secularists” – to use a term coined by L.K. Advani – like the Congress and the Left-Liberals have long been engaged in Muslim “appeasement” for the sake of minority votes.

For the BJP, it was a win-win until now with the television anchors and saffron netizens reinforcing the party’s nationalistic agenda and the Congress/Left-Liberals battling the charges of being unpatriotic. As the BJP’s friends in the media and the cyber world continued with their tirades, the party itself did not overtly target the Muslims except occasionally as when the prime minister said that the anti-citizenship law agitators could be identified by their attire. Or when Union minister Giriraj Singh lamented that all Muslims were not sent to Pakistan in 1947 or when Tejasvi Surya, M.P., reiterated the BJP’s old theory that even if all Muslims were not terrorists, all terrorists were Muslims.

However, the BJP does not appear to have considered the impact of its anti-Muslim propaganda on the Modi government’s foreign policy. The first time that it had to take cognizance of this aspect of realpolitik was when the government’s “surgical strike” on Kashmir last August made the world take note of the civil liberties situation in the newly-formed Union territory. Then, the international community and human rights organizations began to castigate the Modi government on the citizenship law since it sparked off nationwide protests by Muslims.

The government tried to fend of the criticism, especially on Kashmir, by arranging all-expenses-paid junkets by groups of foreign dignitaries, including members of far right European parties known for their anti-immigration and anti-Muslim stance. But it didn’t have any answers to the agitations against the citizenship issues except dubbing these as the harbingers of a Mughal raj or Caliphate 2.0. The government must have been relieved when the coronavirus outbreak forced the protesters to call off their sit-in demonstrations. But now it is facing a new challenge relating to the anti-Muslim television channels.

Arguably, the government’s task may have been made easier by the filing of FIRs against some of the vituperative anchors for poisoning Hindu-Muslim relations. If they become embroiled in legal tussles, the proprietors of the television stations may back off since their interest in propagating hate was mainly to keep the government in good hurmour and they have little interest in prolonged and potentially damaging legal battles.

But even if the TV channels tone down their Islamophobia, the BJP and its mentor, the RSS, will find it difficult to follow suit since an anti-Muslim stance is the cornerstone of their worldview. It is also an indispensable electoral card for the BJP. Moderating its attitude will place the party in the company of the secular brigade like the Congress and the Left-Liberals. That will confuse and alienate the BJP’s core base of communal-minded Hindus.

At the same time, the government cannot antagonize the Islamic countries of West Asia lest they team up with Pakistan, thereby posing a serious challenge to India’s foreign policy which will boost the morale of the secular camp.

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