India moves to assuage outrage in West Asia
The ruling BJP removed two of its spokespersons for controversial remarks against Prophet Mohammed.
Qatar, Kuwait and Iran on Sunday summoned the Indian envoys to protest controversial remarks against Prophet Mohammed made by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokespersons, who were later removed by the party even as the government clarified that such comments were the “views of fringe elements”.
The development followed a groundswell of anger in West Asia, especially Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, over remarks by two former BJP spokespersons against Prophet Mohammed and his wife that were seen as blasphemous in the Arab world. The development also cast a shadow on vice president M Venkaiah Naidu’s official visit to Qatar, where the Indian envoy was summoned to the foreign ministry soon after Naidu’s meetings with top Qatari leaders.
The BJP’s disciplinary committee informed spokesperson Nupur Sharma that she had been suspended with immediate effect, while spokesperson Naveen Jindal was expelled from the party. The BJP issued a statement asserting that it “strongly denounces insult of any religious personalities of any religion”.
The official protests by Kuwait and Qatar were similarly worded, suggesting possible coordination on the matter. Both countries condemned the “insulting” and “controversial” remarks and sought an apology from the Indian government. Both also welcomed the decision by the BJP to suspend the party spokesperson.
Much of India’s energy requirements are met by oil and gas from West Asian countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The Modi government has worked assiduously 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. 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.
It is understood the matter was informally taken up by some other West Asian countries without making any official complaint.
The Indian embassies in Kuwait and Qatar issued an identical statement that said some “offensive tweets” by individuals in India denigrating the religious personality “do not, in any manner, reflect the views of the government of India”. The statement added: “These are the views of fringe elements.”
Strong action was taken against those who made the derogatory remarks, and a statement was issued by “concerned quarters emphasising respect for all religions, denouncing insult to any religious personality or demeaning any religion or sect”, the statement said.
The statement also blamed “vested interests” opposed to India’s relations with Kuwait and Qatar for using the controversial remarks to incite people, and said the countries should work together against such elements.
A statement issued by Iran’s foreign ministry cited Indian ambassador Gaddam Dharmendra as saying that the remarks made on a TV show did not reflect the position of the Indian government, “which has the most respect for religions, and the insulting person has no government position and only a party position”.
In Doha, Indian ambassador Deepak Mittal was handed an official note by Qatar’s minister of state for foreign affairs Soltan bin Saad Al-Muraikhi which expressed disappointment and “total rejection and condemnation [of] the controversial remarks made by an official in the ruling party in India against Prophet Mohammed... Islam and Muslims”.
The envoy was summoned soon after visiting vice president Naidu held meetings with Father Amir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Prime Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al Thani. People familiar with the matter said a banquet lunch to be hosted in honour of the vice president by Qatar’s deputy emir was cancelled.
Indian ambassador Sibi George was handed over a protest note by Kuwait’s assistant minister of foreign affairs for Asian affairs.
A letter sent to Sharma by Om Pathak, member secretary of the BJP’s disciplinary committee, said: “You have expressed views contrary to the Party’s position on various matters, which is in clear violation of Rule 10(a) of constitution of the Bharatiya Janata Party. I have been directed to convey to you that pending further inquiry, you are suspended from the party and from your responsibilities/assignments if any, with immediate effect.”
Apart from complaints filed in India against the spokespersons, anger had been building up in several Arab countries such as Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – all of which have very close ties to India and are home to millions of expatriates – over their comments and a tweet that were seen as derogatory.
Late on Sunday, Pakistan’s foreign ministry and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) also issued statements condemning the recent remarks against Prophet Mohammed.
The BJP statement issued by national general secretary Arun Singh made no mention of the comments or to the two spokespersons who set off the controversy that resulted in clashes in India and consternation abroad. It underlined that the BJP doesn’t condone insults to any religion and respects all faiths.
“The Bharatiya Janata Party is also against any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion. The BJP does not promote such people or philosophy…During the thousands of years of the history of India every religion has blossomed and flourished. The Bharatiya Janata Party respects all religions,” the brief statement said.
The BJP said it follows the Constitution, which guarantees the right to practice any religion.
“India’s Constitution gives the right to every citizen to practice any religion of his/her choice and to honour and respect every religion. As India celebrates 75th year of its Independence, we are committed to making India a great country where all are equal and everyone lives with dignity, where all are committed to India’s unity and integrity, where all enjoy the fruits of growth and development,” it said.
A senior BJP leader who spoke on condition of anonymity said the party doesn’t agree with the statements made by Sharma on a TV show while speaking on the Gyanvapi controversy, and that it goes against the grain of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas”. The functionary said: “Our party’s agenda is development.”
In a note shared on Twitter, Sharma said she had spoken out after attending TV debates in which “our Mahadev was being insulted and disrespected continuously”. She added, “I could not tolerate this continuous insult and disrespect towards our Mahadev and I said some things in response to it. If my words have caused discomfort or hurt religious feelings of anyone whatsoever, I hereby unconditionally withdraw my statement. It was never my intention to hurt anyone’s religious feelings.”
Jindal tweeted in Hindi that his intent was not to demean any faith: “We respect the faith of all religions but the question was only for those mindsets who spread hatred by using indecent comments about our deities. I just asked them a question.”
Soon after Sharma’s suspension, Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala criticised the BJP by saying that “it is nothing but a blatantly counterfeit pretence and sham attempt at damage control.”
On Saturday, one of the top trending hashtags on Twitter in West Asian countries such as Egypt, Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia referred to the controversy and specifically named the Indian prime minister. The hashtag was widely shared along with calls for boycotting India and Indian products.
While there was no response from the external affairs ministry, a senior diplomat from a West Asian country, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged the comments and the tweet from the BJP spokespersons had triggered widespread anger in the region and had also not gone down well with the leadership of some countries.
The matter was first reported by a website in Kuwait and was subsequently picked up by other Arabic news organisations, with most reports referring to an “insult” to Prophet Mohammed and his wife. Some of the reports referred to an escalation of “hatred towards Islam” and compared the issue to Islamophobia in the West.
India and Qatar share close ties in crucial areas such as energy, trade and security. The West Asian country, which is one of the largest suppliers of gas to India, acted after one of the top trending hashtags on Twitter on Saturday was shared with calls for boycotting Indian goods.
The Qatari side said such “Islamophobic remarks” remarks will lead to incitement of religious hatred and “indicate the clear ignorance of the pivotal role that Islam has played in the development of civilisations around the world, including in India”.
There are more than 700,000 Indian nationals living in Qatar – the largest expatriate community in the country – and they include a large number of blue collar workers and professionals in fields such as medicine, engineering, education, finance and business. Kuwait is home to about one million Indians, again the largest expatriate community.