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Religious Issues

Has India weathered the desert storm over remarks against the Prophet?

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Has India weathered the desert storm over remarks against the Prophet?

A protest against remarks of two BJP members about the Prophet, at University of Tehran, Iran, in June.

A protest against remarks of two BJP members about the Prophet, at University of Tehran, Iran, in June. | Photo Credit: WANA NEWS AGENCY

India appears to have weathered the storm in Islamic nations over the remarks against the Prophet made by BJP members.

The remarks made by two senior BJP officials about Prophet Muhammad triggered a diplomatic row, with many Muslim countries, mainly in the Gulf, taking serious offence. A few leading clerics and commentators in the Muslim world characterised the remarks made by the BJP national spokesperson Nupur Sharma as “blasphemous”. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) have threatened suicide attacks against Indian targets “to defend the honour of the Prophet”. The IS affiliate in Afghanistan, the ISIS-K, claimed that the attack on a Sikh Gurdwara in Kabul in the third week of June was “an act of revenge”. A Sikh worshipper and a Taliban official were among those killed; seven persons were injured. Condemning the attack, the Taliban government promised to take serious steps to punish the perpetrators.

More than 57 Islamic countries issued strong statements criticising the former BJP spokesperson’s views on the Prophet, who was suspended only after diplomatic protests from governments in the Gulf. Qatar issued a strong note in the first week of June and summoned Deepak Mittal, the Indian Ambassador, for an explanation. Naveen Jindal, the chief of the BJP’s Delhi media cell, was also expelled for his tweet supporting Sharma.

Former BJP national spokesperson Nupur Sharma.
Former BJP national spokesperson Nupur Sharma. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Photo Archives

The official Qatari protest note handed over by Soltan bin Saad Al Muraikhi, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, expressed “the disappointment of the State of Qatar and its total rejection and condemnation of the controversial remarks made by an official of the ruling party in India against the Prophet Mohammad (may blessings and peace be upon him), Islam and Muslims”.

While welcoming the BJP’s disciplinary action, Qatar said it expected “a public apology” and immediate condemnation of the remarks from the government of India. It pointed out that allowing such Islamophobic remarks to continue without punishment “constitutes 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”. Qatar’s Assistant Foreign Minister Lolwah Al-Khater was more blunt, tweeting that unless the Indian government discouraged the rising “Islamophobic discourse”, the country’s two billion Muslims would consider it “a deliberate insult”.

The controversy erupted when Indian Vice President Venkiah Naidu was on an official visit to Qatar. And a scheduled lunch in honour of Naidu was cancelled, although the reasons given were vague.

India’s Vice President Venkaiah Naidu takes part in a business forum in the Qatari capital Doha. A scheduled lunch in honour of Naidu there was cancelled, although the reasons given were vague.
India’s Vice President Venkaiah Naidu takes part in a business forum in the Qatari capital Doha. A scheduled lunch in honour of Naidu there was cancelled, although the reasons given were vague. | Photo Credit: MUSTAFA ABUMUNES / AFP

Pakistan was the first country to officially lodge a complaint, but the Indian government chose not to respond. Later, after citizens of Gulf countries began to retweet and comment in large numbers, and after their governments decided to take up the issue with New Delhi, the Indian government changed its stance, claiming that the “derogatory comments” were the views of “fringe elements” against whom disciplinary action had been taken.

After Qatar’s summoning of the Indian envoy to Doha, many other countries in the region quickly followed suit.

OIC response

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) noted that the incident happened “in the context of the escalation of the hatred of Islam in India and in the context of the systematic practices against and harassment of Muslims, particularly in the light of the series of decisions to ban headscarves in educational institutions in a number of Indian states and demolitions of Muslim property, as well as increased violence against them”.

Pakistan Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and the country’s Foreign Ministry issued statements criticising the Indian government’s handling of the situation.
Pakistan Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and the country’s Foreign Ministry issued statements criticising the Indian government’s handling of the situation. | Photo Credit: George Verghese / AP

The OIC Secretariat called on the international community to “take necessary measures to address practices targeting Muslims in India”. Pakistan Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and the country’s Foreign Ministry issued statements criticising the Indian government’s handling of the situation. The recently ousted Prime Minister, Imran Khan, demanded that Pakistan sever diplomatic ties with India, and called for a boycott of Indian goods. Sheikh Ahmad bin Hamad Al-Khalili, the Grand Mufti of Oman, called for a boycott of Indian goods, and a few supermarkets in the region temporarily removed Indian-made goods from their shelves.

Arab trade ties

More than half of India’s energy imports are from West Asia, and the region accounts for 10 per cent of India’s total global $1 trillion trade. Bilateral trade between India and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members increased significantly this year. India’s exports to the Gulf were around $44 billion, up nearly 58 per cent from the previous year. The sovereign wealth funds of the UAE and Saudi Arabia have begun to invest in Indian business enterprises. Besides, the Gulf region, where over nine million Indian workers are employed, accounts for a significant portion of the foreign remittances (over $35 billion annually) to the Indian exchequer.

The Gulf governments’ initial reaction must have taken the Modi government by surprise. Even after Kashmir’s statehood was revoked, their reaction was muted. Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert and deputy director at the Wilson Centre in Washington, said he had not seen “such a strong and angry response from the GCC countries to the domestic politics in India” in the past. He said that the GCC response could “be potentially damaging” for India. “For years India... has been spoiled. It essentially got a free pass from Muslim states because they value their trade ties with New Delhi and did not want to rock the boat with loud criticism of India’s treatment of Muslims,” Kugelman said. “But now India is in for a rude awakening.”

US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain photographed on the release of the 2021 International Religious Freedom Report on June 2 in Washington.
US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain photographed on the release of the 2021 International Religious Freedom Report on June 2 in Washington. | Photo Credit: Alex Brandon / AP

In its annual report on religious freedom around the world, the US government, which is rarely critical of India these days, accused the Modi administration of discriminating against religious minorities. The report documented instances of open discrimination and incendiary statements by leaders of the ruling party and organisations closely affiliated with it. “In India, some officials are ignoring or even supporting rising attacks on people and places of worship,” Rashad Hussain, US Ambassador At Large for International Religious Freedom, said at the launch of the report in the second week of June. The Indian government dismissed the report as “ill-informed” and “biased”. The Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson said that India, as “a naturally pluralistic society, values religious freedom and human rights”.

Bangladesh and Maldives

Massive anti-India protests erupted in Bangladesh and Maldives in the second week of June. On June 10, thousands marched in Bangladeshi capital Dhaka demanding that ties with India be cut and the government stop buying Indian products until strict action was taken against the two BJP functionaries. The Sheikh Hasina government has been noticeably silent on the issue and has not issued an official protest. Hasan Mahmud, Minister for Information, said the issue was an “internal matter” of India.

In Maldives, which also has a government close to New Delhi, hundreds protested in capital Male. Maldives and the UAE were among the last Islamic nations to officially condemn the “insult” to the Prophet. On June 21, an angry mob attacked participants of a function held in Male to celebrate International Yoga Day.

Police officers intervene as protesters disrupt an event celebrating International Day of Yoga, organised by the Indian High Commission at a stadium in Male, Maldives on June 21.
Police officers intervene as protesters disrupt an event celebrating International Day of Yoga, organised by the Indian High Commission at a stadium in Male, Maldives on June 21. | Photo Credit: RAAJJE TV VIA REUTERS

By the third week of June, the Indian government appeared to have weathered the storm, and it was business as usual with the Gulf countries. The Joe Biden administration too is focussing more on security issues than on human rights and democracy. Kurt Campbell, the Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs in the National Security Council, stated in the second week of June that relations with India “is the most important for the United States in the 21st century”.

A White House official said Washington wants to empower its partners in the region so that they can work together closely. Last year, the UAE signed an agreement with India to build infrastructure projects in the country, including in Kashmir.

As far as the wider Islamic world is concerned, the controversy appears to have been relegated to the status of a storm in a teacup.