The Indian government has become embroiled in a diplomatic row with Gulf states after two ruling party spokespeople were accused of making Islamophobic and derogatory comments insulting the prophet Muhammad.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) suspended its national spokesperson, Nupur Sharma, and expelled its Delhi media head, Naveen Kumar Jindal, after their comments went viral in the Middle East, where they were met with a chorus of diplomatic anger.
The governments of Qatar, Kuwait, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Afghanistan and Pakistan described the comments as “insulting”.
In a television debate 10 days ago on India’s rightwing news channel Times Now 1, Sharma made derogatory comments about Muslim worship and the prophet Muhammad and mocked her Muslim debate opponent. Following an outcry over the comments, Jindal posted a tweet about the prophet – that he has since deleted – which also caused anger.
The Indian 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 to the controversial remarks made by an official in the ruling party in India against Prophet Muhammad”.
Qatar demanded an apology from the Indian government, accusing it of provoking “a cycle of violence and hate”. Lolwah al-Khater, Qatar’s assistant foreign minister, said India was reaching “dangerous levels” of Islamophobic discourse.
Kuwait’s foreign ministry also summoned its Indian ambassador, Sibi George, to express its “categorical rejection and condemnation of the insulting statements” made by the BJP spokespeople.
Oman’s grand mufti, Ahmad bin Hamad al-Khalili, waded in with strong words, condemning “the insolent and obscene rudeness of the official spokesman for the ruling extremist party in India 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 is trampling religious freedoms and persecuting Muslims”.
As calls for a boycott of Indian goods began to gain traction in the Gulf, an important trading and energy partner for India, the BJP government tried to dismiss the comments as “fringe elements” within the party and said they “do not, in any manner, reflect the views of the government of India”.
The BJP immediately removed both spokespeople and said “strong action has already been taken against those who made the derogatory remarks”.
However, many observers pointed out that the two had faced no action when their comments had first been flagged over a week ago by Muslims and civil rights activists in India. Instead there had been calls by BJP supporters for the arrest of the journalist who had called out the Islamophobic comments on social media.
On India’s rightwing news television channels, anti-Muslim rhetoric is expounded nightly by supporters of the BJP but is rarely, if ever, met with apologies or retractions.
The incident highlighted the increasing tension between the domestic policies of the BJP – a Hindu nationalist party accused of systematically marginalising and overseeing the persecution of the country’s 200 million Muslims – and India’s strategic foreign objectives and growing trade with the Muslim world. Nearly 40% of India’s gas requirements come from Qatar and about 6.5 million Indians live in the Gulf region.
The diplomatic incident occurred as the Indian vice-president, M Venkaiah Naidu, visited Qatar to further deepen ties between the two countries.
The decision to expel Sharma and Jindal was met with anger from some BJP supporters, who called the decision “cowardly”.
A video is circulating online showing the militant Hindutva leader Yati Narsinghanand doubling down on their comments 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. India’s government bristled in response, calling the report “ill informed” and “biased”.