The Indian government has become embroiled in a diplomatic row with the Gulf states after two ruling party spokespersons were accused of making derogatory Islamophobic remarks insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has suspended its national spokesperson, Nupur Sharma, and expelled its Delhi media chief, Naveen Kumar Jindal, after their comments went viral in the Middle East, where they were greeted by a chorus of diplomatic anger.
The governments of Qatar, Kuwait, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Afghanistan and Pakistan called the comments “insulting”.
During a televised debate 10 days ago on India’s right-wing news channel Times Now 1, Sharma made disparaging comments about the Muslim faith and the Prophet Muhammad and mocked her Muslim debate opponent. Following an outcry over the comments, Jindal posted a tweet about the prophet – which he has since deleted – which also caused anger.
India’s Ambassador to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, was summoned and given an official reprimand “expressing the disappointment of the State of Qatar and its total rejection and condemnation of the controversial remarks made by a ruling party official in India against the Prophet Muhammad”.
Qatar has demanded an apology from the Indian government, accusing it of causing “a cycle of violence and hatred”. Lolwah al-Khater, Qatar’s deputy foreign minister, said India was reaching “dangerous levels” of Islamophobic rhetoric.
Kuwait’s Foreign Ministry also summoned its Indian Ambassador, Sibi George, to express its “categorical rejection and condemnation of the insulting statements” made by BJP spokespersons.
Oman’s Grand Mufti, Ahmad bin Hamad al-Khalili, waded in strong words, condemning “the insolent and obscene rudeness of the official spokesman of India’s extremist ruling party against the messenger of Islam”.
Pakistan’s new Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif, who had recently sent conciliatory messages to his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, said the comments were an example of how “India under Modi tramples on religious freedoms and persecutes Muslims”.
As calls for a boycott of Indian goods began to gain traction in the Gulf, a major trading and energy partner of India, the BJP government tried to dismiss the comments as “fringe elements” within the party and said they “don’t do it under any circumstances”. manner, reflect the views of the Government of India”.
The BJP immediately removed the two spokespersons and said “strong action has already been taken against those who made the derogatory remarks.”
However, many observers have pointed out that the two faced no action when their comments were first reported more than a week ago by Muslims and civil rights activists in India. Instead, BJP supporters called for the arrest of the journalist who exposed Islamophobic comments on social media.
On India’s right-wing news TV channels, anti-Muslim rhetoric is exposed nightly by BJP supporters but is rarely, if ever, met with apologies or retractions.
The incident highlighted the growing tension between the domestic policies of the BJP – a Hindu nationalist party accused of systematically marginalizing and overseeing the persecution of the country’s 200 million Muslims – and India’s strategic foreign objectives and trade growing with the Muslim world. Nearly 40% of India’s gas needs come from Qatar and about 6.5 million Indians live in the Gulf region.
The diplomatic incident occurred as Indian Vice President Venkaiah Naidu visited Qatar to deepen ties between the two countries.
The decision to expel Sharma and Jindal angered some BJP supporters, who called the decision “cowardly”.
A video is circulating online showing militant Hindutva leader Yati Narsinghanand doubling down on his remarks about the Prophet Muhammad and calling all Muslims “criminals”.
A US State Department report released last week documented killings, assaults and intimidation of religious minorities in India. The Indian government bristled in response, calling the report “ill-informed” and “biased”.