Diplomatic storm over comments against the Prophet by India's ruling party officials

OIC, GCC, Al-Azhar voice condemnation

June 06, 2022
Millions of Indians live and work in the Gulf countries.
Millions of Indians live and work in the Gulf countries.

NEW DELHI — An international diplomatic storm has engulfed India’s ruling party after it expelled a party official over insulting remarks she had made toward the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

Nupur Sharma, an official spokesperson for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was suspended from the party’s primary membership on Sunday for comments made in a recent television debate. BJP’s Delhi media operation head Naveen Kumar Jindal was also expelled, according to BJP documents and media reports.

Critics say comments by the pair reflect the deep religious polarization that the country has been witnessing over the past few years. Experts add that the party's response may not be enough after the country's internal matter took an international turn.

Sharma made the derogatory remarks against the Prophet (pbuh) and his wife Aisha (RA) in a TV debate last week. Following an outcry over the comments made during the debate, Sharma’s colleague Jindal posted a now-deleted tweet about the Prophet that also angered many.

Saudi Arabia described the BJP spokesperson’s comments as “insulting” and calling for “respect for beliefs and religions”.

In a statement issued late Sunday, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its condemnation and denunciation of the offensive statements made by the BJP spokesperson. The ministry reiterated its permanent rejection of any insult to the symbols of the Islamic religion. It also rejected anything that is offensive to all religious figures and symbols. While welcoming the measures taken by the BJP to suspend the spokeswoman, the ministry reaffirmed the Kingdom’s position of showing respect to all religions and faiths.

India’s ambassadors to Kuwait, Qatar and Iran 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 apologize 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 Organization of Islamic Cooperation – the second-largest intergovernmental organization 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 Organization of Islamic Cooperation expresses its strong condemnation and denunciation of the recent insults issued by an official in the ruling party in India toward the Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him,” the 57-member state organization said in a statement.

In Cairo, Al-Azhar Al-Sharif expressed strong condemnation and denunciation of the remarks by the two politicians.

In a statement, Al-Azhar described the behavior as “a real terrorist action that helps to push the entire world to devastating crises and bloody wars”. It called on the world community to firmly ward off such threats.

Al-Azhar confirmed that the recent resort of some politicians to “defame Islam to collect votes of extremists is a blatant call for extremism, spread of hatred and discord among followers of religions.”

Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Dr. Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf expressed strong condemnation and denunciation of the statements by the BJP leader. He reaffirmed GCC's permanent rejection of prejudice against the symbols of all religious figures and symbols.

Delhi-based journalist Saba Naqvi told Al Jazeera that the BJP had previously benefitted politically from “mobilization” 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,” it said.

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).

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 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 deities: “I only questioned them but that does not mean I am against any religion”.

India's trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE, stood at $87 billion in 2020-21. Millions of Indians live and work in these countries and send millions of dollars in remittances back home. The region is also the top source for India's energy imports.

Prime Minister Modi has been a regular visitor to the region since coming to power in 2014. The country has already signed a free trade agreement with the UAE and is in talks with the GCC for a wider deal.

While Delhi's relations with Tehran have been lukewarm over the past few years, the controversy could overshadow Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian's upcoming visit to India.

Experts said the controversy could overshadow some of India's recent successes.

"Efforts by the current government to improve ties to the Gulf states have been real and the relationships stand transformed. Another bright spot is the handling of the Ukraine crisis," former Indian diplomat Jitendra Nath Misra said.

"It is the sort of firefighting that diplomats can do without. We do our best to enlarge our circle of friends, and when this happens, it's not very nice," he added.

Another former diplomat Anil Trigunayat, who has served in the Arab world, said that India was in a difficult situation and only sincere efforts at the leadership level could prevent a negative fallout.

"Exemplary action under the law must be taken so that such fringe elements do not repeat it and create societal chaos and cause damage to the country's reputation," he said.

Other analysts say the diplomatic cost from the fallout could greatly hurt India's interests in the region.

"Indian officials often react defensively when foreign capitals, including close friends of New Delhi, criticize Indian domestic matters. But in this case, expect Indian diplomats to work quickly to defuse tensions with apologies and other forms of damage control," said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center think-tank.

Hashtags criticizing India have been trending in Arab and Muslim countries and the incident has been the top story in their media outlets.

Some of these hashtags have called for a boycott of Indian products. There have also been reports of some stores in Qatar and Kuwait removing Indian products from their shelves.

Kugelman said the relationship was important to both the GCC and India and both sides would be looking at mitigating the risks. — Agencies

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