India is scrambling to contain a diplomatic storm that has erupted in Islamic countries following controversial comments made about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad by two officials of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Pakistan have registered protests made by BJP’s national spokesperson during a recent televised debate.
Several of these countries summoned Indian ambassadors to denounce the derogatory statements. Calling the comments “Islamophobic,” Qatar has demanded a public apology from India. The controversy turned particularly embarrassing for India as it erupted while its vice president, Venkaiah Naidu, and business leaders were on a visit to the country.
Denouncing the statement, Saudi Arabia said it “reaffirms its permanent rejection of prejudice against the symbols of the Islamic religion.”
Besides official outrage, anger against the remarks poured out on social media in several Arab nations with some people calling for a boycott of Indian goods.
The influential Organization of Islamic Cooperation said they came in a "context of intensifying hatred and abuse towards Islam in India and the systematic harassment of Muslims." It also cited a decision by some states in India to ban the Muslim headscarf, the hijab, as well as incidents of violence against Muslims.
Rejecting the OIC’s comments as “misleading and mischievous,” the Indian foreign ministry said that the government accords the highest respect to all religions. In a statement, it said that the “offensive” comments and tweets “do not in any manner reflect the view of the government of India” and were made by individuals against whom action has been taken.
The foreign ministry criticized Pakistan, which had also condemned the remarks, calling it a “serial violator of minority rights” and saying that it should not engage in “alarmist propaganda.”
BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma, who made the remarks, was suspended by the party while Naveen Jindal, the media head of the Delhi party unit, who had tweeted on the issue, was expelled on Sunday.
“The BJP strongly denounces insults of any religious personalities of any religion. The BJP is also against any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion. The BJP does not promote such people or philosophy," the party said in a statement.
Sharma said on Twitter that there was never any intention to hurt anyone’s feelings and that she spoke in response to comments made about a Hindu god.
Sporadic protests have also erupted in some Indian states as the remarks caused anger among Muslims, who are India’s largest minority, making up 14 percent of the country’s 1.4 billion people.
The remarks are being seen in the context of what critics say is a rise in hate speech targeting Muslims since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014.
In an editorial, The Indian Express newspaper said, “The truth is that it was no sudden eruption of bigotry. The BJP’s electoral victories since 2014, and especially after 2019, have emboldened party activists and others of the saffron brigade to an extent that they indulge in casual everyday anti-minority actions.” By saffron brigade, the paper was referring to Hindu nationalists.
Political commentators said such controversies could set back India’s effort to enhance ties with Persian Gulf countries, which has been a key focus of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Tens of thousands of Indians work in the UAE and in Gulf countries like Kuwait, and New Delhi is also trying to strengthen trade ties with these nations.
The U.S. State Department, in its latest annual report to the Congress on international religious freedom, named India as among countries that were violators of religious freedom. It alleged that attacks on members of minority communities, including killings, assaults and intimidation took place in India throughout 2021.