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BJP cracks down on spokespersons for their remarks against Prophet Muhammad and Islam after Gulf nations protest

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

BJP cracks down on spokespersons for their remarks against Prophet Muhammad and Islam after Gulf nations protest

Supporters of a Pakistani religious group during a demonstration to condemn the derogatory references to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad made by Nupur Sharma, in Karachi, Pakistan, on June 6.

Supporters of a Pakistani religious group during a demonstration to condemn the derogatory references to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad made by Nupur Sharma, in Karachi, Pakistan, on June 6. | Photo Credit: FAREED KHAN

In a curious but belated move, the central leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cracked down on two of its spokespersons, one of whom was a popular face on national television, for their offensive comments against a particular religion. It even labelled them as fringe elements.

Nupur Sharma, a former Delhi University Students Union (DUSU) president from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and one of BJP’s key national spokespersons, was suspended from the party, whereas Naveen Kumar, spokesperson of the Delhi BJP unit, was expelled from the primary membership of the party for their derogatory remarks and tweets against the Prophet Muhammad and Islam respectively. While Nupur Sharma’s membership was suspended for six years for her comments during a television debate on May 26 on the Times Now channel, Naveen Kumar was expelled from the party for his offensive social media comments. The disciplinary action, citing party rules, came a good 10 days after her comments, and might not have been initiated but for the strong outrage from powerful Gulf nations over the derogatory remarks.

Both Qatar and Kuwait, considered important members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), summoned Indian Ambassadors and demanded an apology from the Central government. Soltan bin Saad Al-Muraikhi, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Qatar, handed the Indian Ambassador Deepak Mittal an official note “expressing its disappointment” with and rejection and condemnation of the controversial remarks made by an “official in the ruling party in India against Prophet Muhammad, Islam and Muslims”. While Qatar welcomed the BJP statement announcing the suspension of the “party official”, it said that it expected “a public apology and condemnation of these remarks from the Government of India” and pointed out that “allowing such Islamophobic remarks to continue without punishment” constituted a “grave danger to the protection of human rights and may lead to further prejudice and marginalisation, which will create a cycle of violence and hate”.

In Kuwait, media reports stated that Indian products were pulled out of department stores. The Foreign Ministry of Saudi Arabia condemned and denounced the statements made by the “spokeswoman of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party...” and welcomed the “action taken by the BJP” of suspending the spokeswoman “from work”. Iran and Pakistan also registered their strong objections with the Indian embassy officials.

Damage control

The Indian embassy in Qatar conveyed that the tweets did not reflect the views of the Indian government and that they were the views of fringe elements. In a four-paragraph statement issued by Arun Singh, BJP national general secretary, the party held that it “respected all religions” and “denounces insult of any religious personalities of any religion”. It said that the party was “strongly against any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion. The BJP does not promote such people or ideology”. Nupur Sharma was suspended for expressing views that were “contrary to the party’s position on various matters”.

The comments by Nupur Sharma had already sparked off protests in Kanpur, after which several persons from the minority community were booked. Even at that point, the central leadership did not take action against her or Naveen Kumar. Social media was also rife with reactions on the comments made by the two mainstream party leaders, now relegated as “fringe” elements by their own party. Nupur Sharma later issued a half-hearted apology after her suspension and claimed that she had received threats to her life and person.

Meanwhile, the official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) rejected the comments by the General Secretariat of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which had urged the United Nations to take measures to address “the practices targeting Muslims in India”. It said that the “abuses come in the context of escalation of hatred and abuse of Islam in India and in the context of systematic practices against Muslims and restrictions on them, especially in the light of a series of decisions banning headscarves in educational institutions in a number of States and demolitions of Muslim property in addition to the increase of violence against them”. In its own statement, the MEA clarified that “the offensive comments and tweets denigrating a religious personality were made by certain individuals. They do not, in any manner reflect the views of the Government of India. Strong action has already been taken against these individuals by relevant bodies.” It “rejected the unwarranted and narrow minded comments” of the OIC.

It was apparent that had there not been an outrage from the influential wealthy West Asian nations, it was doubtful any action would have been initiated. Secondly, if the BJP was really sincere about hurting the sentiments of another community or religion, it would have taken similar action against several top leaders for their comments during public meetings and election campaigns.

These reactions from West Asian nations had coincided with a three-nation official visit by Vice President Venkaiah Naidu to the region. Given India’s large expatriate population in West Asia and India’s trade relations with Qatar and other GCC nations, the risk of annoying those governments was one that the BJP was not prepared to take. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made several visits to the United Arab Emirates since he assumed the reins of power in 2014. In 2016, he was awarded the highest civilian honour by the Saudi government. For the Indian government, it was a question of saving face more than anything else. It remains to be seen whether the BJP will now rein in the rest of the fringe and mainstream elements, including sections of its top leadership, that constantly speak the language of polarisation and divisiveness. At the moment, it is realpolitik at play and little to do with principled morality.