ABU DHABI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened a grand Hindu temple in the United Arab Emirates on Wednesday, capping off a two-day visit to the Muslim nation that is home to around 3.5 million Indians. A day earlier, tens of thousands of Indians filled a football stadium in the capital Abu Dhabi, cheering on Modi who is seeking a rare third term in India’s upcoming general election.
Modi’s visit to one of India’s largest trading partners showed how the Hindu nationalist has deepened New Delhi’s relations with the Middle East. At home, critics say that since Modi took the prime minister’s office in 2014, religious polarization has risen and that Indian Muslims, who make up 14 percent of the 1.42 billion population, are being marginalized.
The opening of the temple in a Muslim country has garnered widespread domestic press coverage in India and follows last month’s opening by Modi of a massive temple in India built on the site of a 16th-century mosque destroyed by a Hindu mob in 1992. The UAE government gifted the 27 acres (11 hectares) in Abu Dhabi where the grand temple was built at a cost of about $95 million by the Hindu BAPS organization that was founded in Modi’s home state of Gujarat more than a century ago.
Hindu temples have for decades existed in the UAE, a Gulf state whose one million citizens are a minority in a country of some 10 million residents who are the backbone of the workforce. Accompanied by Hindu religious leaders and monks, Modi offered prayers and performed rituals as he toured the temple in an event that was attended by members of the UAE government, Bollywood actors and the Indian community.
“This temple is a symbol of the shared heritage of humanity. It is a symbol of the mutual love between the Indian and Arab people. It reflects the philosophical connection between India and the UAE,” Modi said to a crowd waving UAE and Indian flags. UAE Minister of Tolerance Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al-Nahyan, addressing the inauguration ceremony, praised Modi for strengthening relations and said the temple reflected the UAE’s openness to different religions and ethnicities.
The opening of the first traditional, stone-carved Hindu temple on the Arabian Peninsula, the birthplace of Islam, is symbolic of the close ties between India and the UAE. Modi thanked UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, whom he refers to as his brother, for granting permission to build the temple. India’s relationship with the influential Middle East state, built on more than a century of trade links, has expanded since Modi took office.
The two countries signed a series of agreements during the visit, including a framework accord on developing a sea and rail trade corridor from India, across the Arabian Sea, to the UAE and through Middle East states, including the Zionist entity, to Europe. “This visit is more about consolidating an already very strong legacy in the Middle East,” said Harsh V Pant of Indian think tank Observer Research Foundation.
The opening of the temple showed how Modi conducts foreign policy on his own terms and has taken the message of a culturally embedded Hinduism in Indian politics overseas, he said. Modi is widely popular among his Hindu-majority base who see the leader, who has established a strong man image at home and among world leaders, as leading a Hindu re-awakening in India.
Indian Muslims accuse Modi’s right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of imposing laws interfering with their faith. Modi denies this but the situation has led to sporadic violence between members of the two communities. The seven emirates of the UAE are represented by the seven spires of the Abu Dhabi temple, which was built with sandstone from India’s Rajasthan and marble from Italy. Hindu deities are depicted along with ancient civilizations and other religions, including Islam, the only official religion of the Gulf state. – Agencies