Govt works to contain West Asia diplomatic row
On Sunday, the ruling BJP suspended a leader and expelled another for their controversial remarks on Prophet Mohammed.
New Delhi: India on Monday continued to deal with the diplomatic fallout of controversial remarks on Prophet Mohammed made by a former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokespersons, with countries in West and South-East Asia denouncing the comments and welcoming the action taken by the ruling party against those responsible.
Following widespread anger in West Asian countries over the weekend, Kuwait, Qatar and Iran summoned Indian ambassadors on Sunday to protest against the remarks by Nupur Sharma, who was removed as a spokesperson and suspended by the party, and Naveen Jindal, who was expelled by the BJP. The external affairs ministry said such comments reflected the “views of fringe elements”.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) issued statements late on Sunday and through Monday denouncing the remarks, while a senior Omani foreign ministry official raised the matter with the Indian ambassador. Indonesia became the first South-East Asian country to condemn the remarks.
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Later in the day, Maldives also released a statement against the remarks. “The government of Maldives unreservedly condemns all and any action that purports to pervert the true nature and teachings of Islam and attempts to demean the holy Prophet Mohammed,” it said. The country, one of India’s closest partners in the region, welcomed the denouncement by the Indian government of the derogatory remarks. Late on Monday, Libya also condemned the remarks.
The external affairs ministry did not respond to the statements from the West Asian countries, Indonesia and GCC but spokesperson Arindam Bagchi rejected the criticism from Pakistan and OIC.
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Much of India’s energy requirements are met by oil and gas from West Asian countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The Indian government has worked assiduously in recent years to bolster relations with the region, described as India’s extended neighbourhood, and ties have dramatically improved with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). West Asia was also home to some nine million expatriates before the Covid-19 crisis, and many Indians who came back home have returned as pandemic-related restrictions were eased.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry summoned the Indian charge d’affaires in Islamabad on Monday to protest against the “highly derogatory remarks”.
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Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry, in a statement, expressed its “condemnation and denunciation” of remarks by a spokesperson of the BJP that were seen as “insulting” the Prophet Mohammed. It welcomed the action taken by the BJP to “suspend the spokeswoman from work” and reiterated Saudi Arabia’s position “calling for respect for beliefs and religions”.
A statement from UAE’s foreign ministry condemned the remarks perceived as an insult to Prophet Mohammed and “underscored the need to respect religious symbols and not violate them, as well as confront hate speech and violence”. A statement from Jordan’s foreign ministry, too, condemned the remarks.
Indonesia’s foreign ministry tweeted that a message condemning the “derogatory remarks” by two Indian politicians had been conveyed to the Indian envoy in Jakarta.
The foreign ministry of Bahrain welcomed the BJP’s decision to “suspend the party’s spokeswoman” and stressed the need to “denounce any reprehensible insults” against Prophet Mohammed, which amounted to an “incitement to religious hatred”.
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Bahrain called for respecting all religious beliefs, symbols and personalities and sought concerted efforts by the world community to spread the values of moderation, tolerance and dialogue between religions and to confront extremist ideas.
Sheikh Khalifa bin Ali bin Issa Al Harthy, undersecretary for diplomatic affairs in Oman’s foreign ministry, met Indian ambassador Amit Narang and raised the remarks by the former BJP spokespersons. Al Harthy noted the spokespersons had been suspended and said such statements and incidents are not conducive to relations of peaceful coexistence between different religions.
The secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Nayef Falah M Al Hajraf, condemned statements made by the BJP spokesperson and called for rejecting “provocation, targeting or underestimating beliefs and religions”.
External affairs ministry spokesperson Bagchi reiterated the Indian government’s initial response about the country according the “highest respect to all religions”, and that the “offensive tweets and comments denigrating a religious personality were made by certain individuals”.
He also reiterated that these comments “do not, in any manner, reflect the views of the government of India” and “strong action” had been taken against the individuals by relevant bodies.
“It is regrettable that OIC secretariat has yet again chosen to make motivated, misleading and mischievous comments. This only exposes its divisive agenda being pursued at the behest of vested interests. We would urge the OIC secretariat to stop pursuing its communal approach and show due respect to all faiths and religions,” Bagchi said.
The OIC’s statement had sought to link the latest controversy to other incidents such as the ban on headscarves in educational institutions in some parts of India and the demolition of homes of Muslims.
Bagchi responded to comments and statements from the Pakistan government and leadership, including Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, by calling on Islamabad to focus on preventing the systemic persecution of Pakistan’s minorities such as Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and Ahmadias.
“The absurdity of a serial violator of minority rights commenting on the treatment of minorities in another nation is not lost on anyone,” he said, adding that fanatics are eulogised in Pakistan and monuments built in their honour.
“We call on Pakistan to focus on the safety, security and well-being of its minority communities instead of engaging in alarmist propaganda and attempting to foment communal disharmony in India,” he said.
Following a tweet on the issue by Sharif and statements by foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Pakistan’s foreign ministry summoned the Indian charge d’affaires to lodge a protest. The foreign ministry said the remarks by the former BJP spokespersons were “totally unacceptable” and Pakistan is concerned about what was described as an “alarming rise in communal violence” in India.
Afghanistan’s Taliban setup too sought to rake up the issue, with spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid tweeting on Monday that the regime “strongly condemns the use of derogatory words” against Prophet Mohammed. He said the Indian government should not allow such insults to Islam.
The issue has also kicked up a political storm in India, with opposition parties stepping up pressure for legal action against Sharma and Jindal. They demanded that the two be arrested for their controversial remarks, and accused the BJP of denting the image of the country. The BJP has said that it respects all religions and strongly denounced insult of any religious personality.