Nupur Sharma: Prophet Muhammad controversy tests India-Islamic world ties

India has been forced to placate its partners in the Islamic world after growing anger over controversial comments made by two members of the country’s ruling party about the Prophet Muhammad.

Nupur Sharma, who was an official spokesperson of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), made the remark on a television debate last month, while Naveen Jindal, who was media head of the party’s Delhi unit, had posted a tweet on the issue. The comments – especially Ms Sharma’s – angered the country’s minority Muslim community, leading to sporadic protests in some states. The BBC is not repeating Ms Sharma’s remarks as they are offensive in nature.

The two leaders have issued public apologies and the party has suspended Ms Sharma and expelled Mr Jindal.

“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,” it said in a statement.

Critics say Ms Sharma and Mr Jindal’s comments reflect the deep religious polarisation that the country has been witnessing over the past few years. Hate speech and attacks against Muslims have risen sharply since the BJP came to power in 2014.

Experts also add that the BJP’s response may not be enough after what looked like the country’s internal matter took an international turn – Kuwait, Qatar and Iran called Indian ambassadors to register their protest on Sunday. Saudi Arabia also condemned the remarks on Monday.

Qatar said it expected a public apology from India.

“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 ministry of foreign affairs said.

Saudi Arabia also used some strong words in its statement. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its condemnation and denunciation of the statements made by the spokeswoman of the BJP,” it said.

Nupur Sharma, former BJP spokespersonIMAGE SOURCE,NUPUR SHARMA/TWITTER
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Nupur Sharma made the controversial comments on a TV debate

India’s ambassador to Qatar, Deepak Mittal, said the remarks from some “fringe elements” did not represent the views of the Indian government. Senior BJP leaders and other diplomats have also condemned the controversial statement.

The 57-member Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and Pakistan have also criticised India. But Delhi criticised both, as it usually does, saying their comments were “unwarranted and narrow-minded”.

Analysts say that the top leadership of the party and the government may have to make public statements on the issue. Not doing so, they say, runs the risk of damaging India’s ties with the Arab world and Iran.

Too much at stake

India’s trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE, stood at $87 billion in 2020-21. Millions of Indians live and work in these countries and send millions of dollars in remittances back home. The region is also the top source for India’s energy imports.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been a regular visitor to the region since coming to power in 2014. The country has already signed a free trade agreement with the UAE and is in talks with the GCC for a wider deal.

Mr Modi famously attended the ground-breaking ceremony of the first Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi in 2018 – it was termed as an example of the growing ties between India and the region.

While Delhi’s relations with Tehran have been lukewarm over the past few years, the controversy could overshadow Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian’s upcoming visit to India.

Experts said the controversy could overshadow some of India’s recent successes.

“Efforts by the current government to improve ties to the Gulf states have been real and the relationships stand transformed. Another bright spot is the handling of the Ukraine crisis,” former Indian diplomat Jitendra Nath Misra said.

“India’s under-staffed Foreign Office will need to spend precious human resources dealing with issues that don’t advance India’s interests. We diplomats do our best to enlarge India’s circle of friends and it’s the sort of firefighting that we can do without,” he added.

Another former diplomat Anil Trigunayat, who has served in the Arab world, said that India was in a difficult situation and only sincere efforts at the leadership level could prevent a negative fallout.

“Exemplary action under the law must be taken so that such fringe elements do not repeat it and create societal chaos and cause damage to the country’s reputation,” he said.

Other analysts say the diplomatic cost from the fallout could greatly hurt India’s interests in the region.

“Indian officials often react defensively when foreign capitals, including close friends of New Delhi, criticise Indian domestic matters. But in this case, expect Indian diplomats to work quickly to defuse tensions with apologies and other forms of damage control,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center think-tank.

Indian workers watch the openning of Dubai's international boat show from the 50th floor of the tower which is beign constructed behind the Dubai International Marine Club, 14 March 2006.IMAGE SOURCE,GETTY IMAGES
Image caption,

Millions of Indians live and work in the Gulf countries

Arab nations are also looking to take concrete action to soothe anger among their own people. Hashtags criticising India have been trending in these countries and the incident has been the top story in their media outlets.

Some of these hashtags have called for a boycott of Indian products. There have also been reports of some stores in Qatar and Kuwait removing Indian products from their shelves.

Mr Kugelman said the relationship was important to both the GCC and India and both sides would be looking at mitigating the risks.

“As concerned as Delhi should be about this angry response from such a strategically critical region, India is also shielded from further damage by its own clout. Because of their economic interests, Gulf states need India to keep importing their energy, they need Indians to continue living and working there, and overall, they need to keep doing business with India,” he said.

He added that there might be limits to how far these countries would go in responding to these anti-Muslim comments.

Growing polarisation

Critics say that religious polarisation has increased in India since the BJP came to power. And the past few weeks have been particularly tense after some Hindu groups went to a local court in Varanasi to seek permission to pray at a centuries-old mosque, claiming that it was built on the ruins of a demolished temple.

TV channels have held provocative debates and social media has seen rampant hate over the issue. Many people associated with right-wing organisations often make controversial statements on TV shows, but critics say Ms Sharma wasn’t a “fringe element” as the BJP has claimed. She was an official spokesperson of the party, tasked with representing the BJP’s views.

Analysts add that the international fallout over the controversy should be a wake-up call for India.

“Delhi is learning that when it comes to the country’s increasingly toxic politics, what happens in India often doesn’t stay in India. As India’s global clout grows and its diplomatic and economic partnerships abroad become stronger, there’s more at stake when its domestic politics cause unhappiness abroad,” Mr Kugelman said.

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