India strives to contain fallout from insulting comments about Islam

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NEW DELHI – After a spokeswoman for India’s ruling party made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad during a recent television debate, rioters took to the streets in the northern city of Kanpur, throwing stones and clashing with police.

It was just the beginning of a debate that would have global repercussions.

Indian products were soon pulled from shelves in the Persian Gulf after a high-ranking Muslim cleric called for a boycott of them. Hashtags expressing anger at Prime Minister Narendra Modi have started trending on Twitter in Arabic. Three Muslim-majority countries – Qatar, Kuwait and Iran – recalled their Indian ambassadors to express their displeasure. The governments of Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Afghanistan on Monday condemned spokeswoman Nupur Sharma, as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Inflammatory comments by right-wing activists and political leaders in India often grab headlines and spark outrage on social media. But they rarely generate the kind of attention that Sharma attracted last week, which sent her political party – and India’s diplomats – scrambling to contain an international PR crisis.

In a rare move, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, on Sunday suspended Sharma and expelled the other party’s spokesman, Naveen Jindal, who echoed Sharma’s views and noted on Twitter that the Prophet Muhammad married his wives when they were underage girls. In separate statements, party leaders said they “strongly deplore” the insults against any religion or religious figure.

The controversy highlights one of the challenges facing Indian foreign policy at a time when Modi is seeking to play a larger role on the world stage: Although his government has established strong diplomatic relations with many Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, his party under growing criticism for its treatment of India’s Muslim minority. Human rights groups accuse it of absorbing Hindu nationalist sentiments and turning a blind eye to religious violence.

“India under Modi was very adept at dealing with the Muslim world, but that was almost inevitable,” said Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science at Indiana University. “At home, the lynching is taking place and Modi remains a deafening silence. Now, he feels compelled to act because he understands that the damage abroad can be widespread. When it comes to foreign policy, the stakes are high.”

The Indian government has sought to downplay a series of local religious controversies in recent months, including the ban on headscarves for female students, the demolition of Muslim neighborhoods after communal clashes, and efforts by Hindu nationalists to restore prominent mosques.

Top party officials last month launched a “Know the BJP” campaign against foreign diplomats in New Delhi. In a series of meetings, diplomats were told that the party’s agenda hinged on economics, not religious issues. Party officials said the party has embraced an all-encompassing motto of “all unity, development of all”.

Leaders from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist organization closely linked to the BJP, also spoke of the need to lower temperatures. Several senior officials of the organization have urged members and affiliates to crack down on hate speech – including calls to kill Muslims – and stop excavations in mosques, which are seen as paving the way for home demolitions.

But those efforts were overshadowed by the controversy over Sharma’s remarks, which erupted as the Indian vice president arrived in Qatar on Saturday for a three-day trip. Venkaiah Naidu met with high-ranking Qatari officials but canceled a previously scheduled press conference. Meanwhile, the Indian ambassador in Doha, Deepak Mittal, has distanced the government from the BJP spokeswoman.

“These are the opinions of the fringe elements,” his embassy said in a statement. In keeping with our civilizational heritage and our strong cultural traditions of unity in diversity, [the] The Government of India holds the highest respect for all religions.”

India was founded on secular principles in 1947 and has about 200 million Muslims, more than any other country, except Indonesia and Pakistan. But in recent years, many of the country’s rising political right, including BJP leaders, have argued that India should first and foremost be home to Hindus.

The rising Hindu nationalist tide, which has helped boost the BJP’s fortunes in several recent elections, appears to be turning against the party on Monday after it profusely apologized to Sharma and decided to punish her.

Influential voices on the Indian right argued that the BJP was subservient to the illiberal demands of Muslim countries. On social media, many mainstream supporters have called for a counter-boycott of Qatar Airways.

A column on OpIndia, a website seen as close to the BJP, reads, “Nubur has been fed to wolves, alone, neglected, humiliated and humiliated.” “For the Islamists who were attacking her blood, the message was simple – the BJP is not in favor of criticizing Islam… because it might offend the intolerant minority.”

Others said they felt betrayed by a party that was supposed to represent Hindu interests.

“Islamists just asked the BJP to bend but chose to crawl,” said Anand Ranganathan, a columnist and TV commentator, when he compared Sharma to Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that terrorists attacked in 2015 after mocking the Prophet Muhammad. .

On Monday, six local BJP spokespersons – Sharma’s former peers – declined to comment to The Post about the issue or could not be reached on their mobile phones.

But in the northern Hindu stronghold, Mono Bishnoi, a BJP activist in Moradabad, was angered by what he saw as hypocrisy. Bishnoi said Muslim countries have never sided with Hindus when Muslims disparage Hindu deities. He said the BJP had to remember where it derives its strength from.

“The BJP is what it is today because of Hindutva,” said Bishnoi, the 33-year-old sweets owner. “If the party workers feel that the BJP does not represent them, they will find an alternative.”

Anant Gupta and Neha still contribute to this report

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