India: Diplomatic storm over BJP staff insult of Prophet Muhammad

BJP suspends Nupur Sharma and Naveen Kumar Jindal. saying it respects all religions and ‘strongly denounces’ insult of any religious personalities.

A protest in Bengaluru, India on Saturday, April 30, 2022 to promote communal harmony and denounce Islamophobia in the wake of recent communal violence in India [Aijaz Rahi/AP]
A protest was held in Bengaluru, India, on April 30, 2022 to promote communal harmony and denounce Islamophobia in the wake of recent communal violence [Aijaz Rahi/AP]

An international diplomatic storm has engulfed India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, following the sanctioning of two party spokespersons over insulting remarks the pair are reported to have made towards Prophet Muhammad.

BJP national spokeswoman Nupur Sharma was suspended from the party’s primary membership on Sunday for comments made in a recent television debate, while the BJP’s Delhi media operation head Naveen Kumar Jindal was also expelled, according to BJP documents and media reports.

Sharma is reported to have insulted the prophet and his wife Aisha in a TV debate last week. Following an outcry over the comments made during the debate, Sharma’s colleague Jindal is reported to have posted a now-deleted tweet about the prophet that also angered many.

The remarks have been blamed for clashes in an Indian state and have also prompted demands for the spokeswoman’s arrest in India.

India’s ambassadors to Kuwait and Qatar were summoned on Sunday to receive official notes of protest over the comments, and Pakistan’s ministry of foreign affairs issued a statement condemning the “highly derogatory remarks” and the BJP’s response.

“These totally unacceptable remarks have not only deeply hurt the sentiments of the people of Pakistan but of billions of Muslims around the world,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

“BJP’s attempted clarification and belated and perfunctory disciplinary action against these individuals cannot assuage the pain and anguish they have caused to the Muslim world,” the ministry said.

Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Indian ambassador to present an official note “expressing the disappointment of the State of Qatar and its total rejection and condemnation to the controversial remarks”, the QNA state news agency reported.

While welcoming the BJP statement and suspension of staff, Qatar is expecting a public apology and condemnation of the remarks by the government of India.

“The State of Qatar calls on the Indian government to immediately condemn these remarks and publicly apologise to all Muslims around the world,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Majed Mohammed Al Ansari said.

Kuwait also summoned the Indian ambassador and said it had handed the ambassador a protest note in which Kuwait rejected and denounced the statements made by the BJP official, Reuters reported.

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation – the second-largest intergovernmental organisation in the world after the United Nations, with a collective population reaching over 1.8 billion – also added its voice to the condemnation.

“The General Secretariat of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation expresses its strong condemnation and denunciation of the recent insults issued by an official in the ruling party in India towards the Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him,” the 57-member state organisation said in a statement.

Saudi Arabia condemned the remarks, describing the spokesperson’s comments as “insulting” and calling for “respect for beliefs and religions”, according to a foreign ministry statement.

‘International price to pay’

Delhi-based journalist Saba Naqvi told Al Jazeera that the BJP had previously benefitted politically from “mobilisation” against Muslims in India.

“But in this instance, there has been an international price to pay,” Naqvi said.

“India has one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, so it has come to the notice of the world that this is happening,” she said.

In a statement on Sunday, the BJP said it respects all religions and “strongly denounces insult of any religious personalities of any religion”.

“The Bharatiya Janata Party is also strongly against any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion. The BJP does not promote such people or philosophy,” the party said.

“India’s Constitution gives right to every citizen to practice any religion of his/her choice and to honour and respect every religion”.

The statement did not directly reference the insulting remarks or the sanctioning of the two party officials.

The controversy has raised the ire of social media users in Arab countries who have called for a boycott of Indian products, denounced the escalation of hatred against Islam and Muslims, and accused India of following in the footsteps of France and China in promoting Islamophobia.

In April, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) urged the US Department of State for the third straight year to place India on a list of “countries of particular concern” in terms of religious freedom.

The independent bipartisan panel accused India of “engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom”.

“During the year, the Indian government escalated its promotion and enforcement of policies—including those promoting a Hindu-nationalist agenda—that negatively affect Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and other religious minorities,” the commission said in its annual report (PDF).

In its statement, Pakistan’s foreign ministry said it was “also deeply concerned at the alarming rise in communal violence and hatred directed against the Muslims in India”.

Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Imran Khan also weighed in on the controversy, accusing the Modi government of being “allowed to get away with its Islamophobic policies”.

Qatar’s Assistant Foreign Minister Lolwah al-Khater also said that “Islamophobic discourse” has reached “dangerous levels” in India – a country well known for its “diversity and coexistence”. Hate speech against Muslims in India needs to be officially confronted, al-Khater said.

In a tweet on Sunday, the BJP’s suspended spokeswoman Sharma responded to the controversy saying that she had said things in response to comments made about a Hindu god but it was never an “intention to hurt anyone’s religious feelings”, and that she wanted to “unconditionally withdraw my statement”.

In a subsequent tweet, Sharma said that a “security threat” had been made against her family.

Reuters news agency reported that Jindal, her colleague who was expelled by the party, said on Twitter that he had questioned some comments made against Hindu gods: “I only questioned them but that does not mean I am against any religion”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies