India’s Arab memory

India has long loomed large in the Arab imagination, a place of alluring beauty, a source of silk and spices, and a land for travellers and traders alike

We all know the Arab world as a vital source of oil and gas for our energy security, an important trade and investment partner and home to some six million of our compatriots who send back billions of dollars of vital remittances that help fuel our growing economy.

But the Arab world also offers an instructive example of something rather special in international relations: a context in which people-to-people connections are fundamental to the success of the relationship.
My personal contacts with the Arab people have left me with a deep sense of appreciation of the historic, cultural and civilisational ties that bind India and the Arab countries. Our ties predate our emergence as nation states. The Arabian Sea has connected us since the days when primitive dhows crossed its rather tranquil waters to India, bringing traders, smugglers, missionaries and migrants to our shores. Our own intrepid sailors travelled resolutely in the other direction for centuries too. Our trade certainly precedes recorded history. There is evidence, for instance, of trade links between the Harappan civilisation and that of Dilmun in the Gulf. The ongoing excavations in and around the Red Sea coast continually produce fresh evidence of ancient contact. India has long loomed large in the Arab imagination, a place of alluring beauty, a source of silk and spices, and a fraternal land for travellers and traders alike.
The early years of the 20th century saw a revival of these historic links. Indian soldiers participated (under the British flag) in the arduous military campaigns in Egypt and Palestine in the First World War and in the bloodier battles in Iran, Syria, and Iraq during the Second World War. The post-First World War years, marked as they were by the beginning of the end of Western colonialism, witnessed much interest in the fortunes of the Arab and Islamic world within India’s own freedom movement. The Khilafat struggle, led by Mahatma Gandhi and calling for the restoration of the Ottoman Caliphate at the end of the First World War, perhaps best exemplified this: it served as a major unifying force within the Indian nationalist movement, even if its thrust was soon rendered irrelevant by the ascent of Kemal Ataturk to power in Turkey. One of India’s great nationalist leaders, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, president of the Indian National Congress in the crucial years leading up to Independence, was born in Mecca and studied at the famous Al-Azhar University of Egypt. The leaders of our freedom movement closely monitored developments in Egypt and other countries, a trend that was also noticeable after we gained freedom. The struggle of the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria and President Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the Suez Crisis of 1956 were two important historical developments that found resonance in India’s support for Arab peoples.
Many Arabs, especially from the Gulf countries, lived and worked in India, developing close relations with the country. Before the post-1973 oil boom dramatically increased Arab incomes and widened educational possibilities, many Arabs, again especially from the Gulf, were educated in India. I have come across Arabs of a certain age from Kuwait, Bahrain, the Emirates and Oman who learned English at schools in India, picked up smatterings of Hindustani and habits (such as drinking Indian tea) which they have preserved in Arabian adulthood.
Direct knowledge of India is not, of course, necessary for Arabs to enjoy the popular Indian cinema of Bollywood, which consolidated its hold on Arab viewing publics when the political isolation of Egypt after its peace with Israel in 1977 meant that Egyptian films were banned in many parts of the Arab world. Though that ban has long since been lifted, Indian cinema remains popular. I recall meeting the owner of the major cinema theatres of Oman and being told the principal fare on offer was Hindi movies; asked if that reflected a considerable Indian presence in his country, he replied that over 90 per cent of his audiences were Arab. An Indian diplomat serving in Damascus informed me a decade ago that the only publicly displayed portraits in that city that were as large as those of the then President Hafez al-Assad were posters of the Indian megastar Amitabh Bachchan. Such extensive familiarity continues to predispose many Arabs favourably towards India.
A crucial element in consolidating Indo-Arab relations has been the presence of a large, growing and highly successful Indian expatriate community, particularly in the Gulf.
When, in recent years, the Gulf region, awash in newfound prosperity after its discovery of oil and the raising of its price, took up the massive expansion of its infrastructure and welfare institutions, India came forward with its human resources, initially blue-collar but increasingly progressing to professionals. The numbers were significant, with Indian workers often exceeding the population of the host countries themselves. It was said in the early 1980s that the largest ethnic group in Bahrain was not Bahrainis but Keralites from India. In the UAE, it is unofficially estimated that 90 per cent of the population is expatriate, and more than 70 per cent of those are Indians. With Gulf Arabs thoroughly accustomed to seeing Indians in their midst, India’s presence in the Arab imagination is not just historical or commercial, but involves a far more intimate mutual dependence affecting every sphere of daily life.
In view of the large Indian population in the region, a number of issues come up from time to time relating to the welfare of the Indian community, particularly expatriate workers. Many heartrending stories have been told about the working conditions of some of the Indian blue-collar workers on construction sites and their residential conditions in labour camps. Though they are undoubtedly there of their own free will, and suffer these difficulties in order to send savings back home, we need to do what we can, in co-operation with the host countries, to ease their conditions of life and work.
The fact remains that there is no aspect of the Gulf economy which has not been touched by an Indian contribution. The people of India in the Gulf and the Arab world have contributed immensely to the economic development of both India and the countries they reside and work in. Win-win is clearly the word.

The writer is an MP from Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram constituency

Comments

The panygeric of Tharoor is

The panygeric of Tharoor is not relevant to the contemporary situation. How are Indians working in the Arab world dominated by Islam today treated by the governments and individual Arab employers? What do the Indians working in that part of the Islamic world think and say privately about Arabs? How many Arab States support Indian interests today? Totally one-sided articles of this type by intelligent people with a flair for language are meaningless but misleading.
R.Venkatanarayanan

@Sameer did you forget to

@Sameer did you forget to take your medicines? Anti hindu bigot!

Many Arabs dislike Indians.

Many Arabs dislike Indians. Only a few respect Indians/Paks/Bangladeshis. They fail to acknowledge the hard amount of work our people have done in their countries. Many say that they want their countries to be rid of immigrants. However, lets remember that before these areas were just desert with many inhabitants living in tents. The Arabs have a superiority complex that has given them discontent among both Desi Muslims and Desi Hindus. Indians need to voice their opinion for better working conditions. Arabs need to lower their egotism and prejudice. Know as India is emerging as a strong global economy they may have to eat up their own pride. Its only a matter of time that Indians will be competing with China for the top. What will the Arabs do to the Indians then???

Turkish are not Arabs. If

Turkish are not Arabs. If they are referred to as Arabs, they are likely to take serious umbrage.

Turkish are not Arabs. If

Turkish are not Arabs. If they are referred to as Arabs, they are likely to take serious umbrage.

Hello, Firstly I would like

Hello,

Firstly I would like to mention that this my first response to your article. Though I follow you in social media, I haven't read any articles in full.

My first response to this article is, within small article / words to be more precise, you have brought out the relevant association between the Arab world and India. Very precise and to the point.

As the article unwinds, I see there was a rush to close and a socialist view..while the start was in a more historical. Good quick read, I would say.

Thanks

We Indians still have to

We Indians still have to learn a lot from Arab land especially the pre-Islam era and how Islam got rid of the ignorance, superstition, female foeticide and idolatry so much rampant in present day India.

Muslim terrorist attacks

Muslim terrorist attacks carried since 2002, total 18,000 with 20,000 people killed. An estiamted 150 women a day in pakistan are victims of acid attacks. In North Africa, middle east, and central asia, female genital mutilation is widely carried out. A muslim women is not allowed to marry a non muslim man, a muslim man can indulge in many wives. Saudi arabia has an islamic state government which means non muslims have to take a inferior role to muslims, they cannot buy land in arabia, gain citisenship, cannot celebrate fetivals, must walk out of the way of muslims, where men and women are killed for denying the koran. In Europe Islamic sex gangs are rampant, luring girls and then converting them. So please before you speak have some understanding. Only abrahamic faiths of christian and islam have enslaved more people, killed more people than any other faith in the world.

Excellent Article Dr.

Excellent Article Dr. Tharoor!! I am truly glad to see you finally touch the subject in public. Although the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs is making strides in this department, this is exactly the publicity that this issue demands! Cheers!

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