Insulting Prophet Muhammad is straight out of the BJP playbook

The anti-Islam insults by high ranking BJP staffers that caused a diplomatic storm are hardly anomalies.

Prophet Muhammad insult
Indian Muslims shout slogans as they react to the derogatory references to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad made by top officials in the governing Hindu nationalist party during a protest in Mumbai, India, Monday, June 6, 2022. [AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool]

In the past few days, India’s governing Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) has found itself in the middle of a political and diplomatic storm after two of its high-ranking staffers – the party’s national spokeswoman Nupur Sharma and Delhi media operation head Naveen Kumar Jindal – publicly made disparaging remarks about Prophet Muhammad.

On Friday, hundreds of Muslims took to the streets in the Uttar Pradesh city of Kanpur to protest against the offensive remarks. Rather than moving to calm the tensions and punish those responsible under India’s hate speech laws, the authorities responded with violence: The police booked protesters under the state’s stringent “Gangster Act” and even threatened to “seize and demolish” their properties.

As the news about the offensive remarks – and the government’s response to protests over them – reached beyond the country’s borders, at least five Arab nations, including Qatar, lodged official protests against India.

Calls for a boycott of Indian goods have also been made on social media in several Arab countries and Indian products were removed from shelves in some shops in Kuwait.

In the end, not the understandable anger of Indian Muslims, it seems, but the threat of international condemnation and economic repercussions motivated Indian authorities to embark on an operation to limit the damage.

Soon after the diplomatic protests, the government announced that strong action had been taken against the accused – Sharma was suspended and Jindal expelled from party membership. The BJP also issued a generic statement, saying: “[The party] strongly denounces insults of any religious personalities of any religion.” India’s ambassador to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, meanwhile, said the offending remarks were made by some “fringe elements” within the party, and did not represent the views of the Indian government.

The move to “suspend” and “expel” the staffers who insulted the prophet, and the efforts to distance the government from their comments, however, did not satisfy anyone inside or outside India – and for good reason.

First of all, Sharma and Jindal can hardly be described as “fringe elements” within the party. After all, prior to the incident, they both held high-ranking positions within the BJP – positions that allowed them to speak for the governing party and communicate its policies and strategies to the nation.

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, it is difficult to argue that their Islamophobic views do not represent the government of India when none of the BJP’s leaders came out to issue a strong apology and the party’s Islamophobic policies, actions and statements are already well documented.

Indeed, Islamophobia has always been part and parcel of the BJP’s governing strategy.

In the not so distant past, for example, the BJP’s leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, tried to make connections between Muslim figures from India’s distant history and current-day “terrorism and religious extremism” in two of his public speeches, implying that India’s Muslims should be held responsible and punished for the alleged crimes committed by their “ancestors”. He received no pushback from the party for these blatantly Islamophobic comments.

Yogi Adityanath, the BJP affiliated chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, also made anti-Muslim speeches during the last state assembly elections. In one such speech, he mocked Muslims and said he sees the state elections as a battle between the 80 percent (the percentage of Hindus in the state) and the 20 percent (the percentage of Muslims).

The BJP-affiliated Chief Minister of Assam Himanta Biswa Sarma is even more brazen in his speeches. Last year, he called the killing of two Muslims, including a minor, by police officers during a forced eviction drive in Assam “an act of revenge” for past “martyrdom” of Hindus.

Under the BJP’s rule, several campaigns have been started to ensure mosques and other places sacred to Muslims across the country are handed over to Hindus who claim that these places were originally Hindu. There are, for example, such campaigns currently under way to transfer the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi, Jamia mosque in Srirangapatna, Qutub Minar in Delhi – and many others – to Hindus.

Earlier this year, right-wing Hindu groups held processions in Muslim neighbourhoods and made hate speeches during Ram Navmi celebrations in several states. In states ranging from Gujarat to Delhi, Hindu men wearing saffron scarves – and in some cases carrying sticks and swords – played provocative songs laced with threats of genocide outside Muslim homes and mosques, and raised hate slogans.

The BJP authorities not only refused to punish these provocateurs but also used all of the Indian state’s might to prevent Muslims from defending themselves. Indeed, Muslim men who stood up to these mobs were swiftly arrested and their properties bulldozed by authorities.

And beyond casually and regularly making Islamophobic comments, and supporting the violent Islamophobia of their supporters, BJP leaders have also passed countless Islamophobic and discriminatory policies and laws in the past few years.

Laws criminalising triple talaq or instant divorce, banning cow slaughter, criminalising religious conversions supposedly in the name of “preserving religious freedom”, criminalising unions between Muslim men and Hindu women and executive orders across the country practically banning all meat consumption are but a few examples of the Islamophobic policies that took effect during the BJP’s reign in India.

Of course, there is also The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which discriminates against Muslims as it makes faith a basis for granting Indian citizenship. The BJP government not only passed this anti-Muslim law but also allowed its supporters to target Indian Muslims protesting against it. None of the BJP leaders who added fuel to the CAA-related clashes faced any meaningful rebuke from the party, despite the violence claiming hundreds of lives.

In light of all this, it is clear that the BJP government’s claims that the offending comments by Sharma and Jindal do not represent its views are deeply disingenuous.

Those remarks were not missteps by “fringe elements” within the governing party or mistakes by a few low-ranking staffers, but an accurate reflection of the BJP’s views on and attitudes towards Muslims and Islam.

This reality was perhaps explained best by the Saudi Arabia-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in a statement issued about the latest controversy.

The OIC not only condemned the offending remarks by the BJP staffers in its official statement but emphasised that they came in a “context of intensifying hatred and abuse toward Islam in India and systematic practices against Muslims”.

The OIC’s statement clearly struck a chord, as the Indian government swiftly and sharply rejected it, calling the criticism “unwarranted” and “narrow-minded”. “It is regrettable that OIC Secretariat has yet again chosen to make motivated, misleading and mischievous comments. This only exposes its divisive agenda being pursued at the behest of vested interests,” it said.

The government responded harshly to the OIC’s statement because it pointed out that India, under BJP rule, is becoming an Islamophobic country where attacks and insults against Muslims are commonplace.

As the world reacts to the latest Islamophobic controversy in India, it should keep this in mind and not buy the BJP’s story that the offending remarks were mere emotional eruptions by some wayward individuals whose views do not represent the governing party.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.