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Insulting the Prophet in India triggers unprecedented international backlash

8th Jul 2022
Insulting the Prophet in India triggers unprecedented international backlash

Protestors converge in front of the Indian Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, on June 17, in a demonstration against the insulting of the Prophet Muhammad by two BJP spokespeople. (Credit: Eko Siswono Toyudho/Anadolu Agency)

Sajeda Haider

India’s Hindu nationalist government battled an unprecedented backlash from Muslim nations this month, following highly offensive remarks made about the Prophet Muhammad by one of its leaders on prime-time TV.

Events unfolded on May 26, during a debate on Times Now, a pro-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) news channel, when BJP national spokeswoman, Nupur Sharma, branded the Prophet a child rapist. Fellow spokesperson, Naveen Jindal, doubled down, adding his derogatory remarks to hers. Within hours, Indian Muslims, secular Hindus, and opposition parties took to social media to vent and askedPrime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Jagat Prakash Nadda to take disciplinary action against his spokespeople.

The first street protests by Muslims erupted after Friday prayers on June 3 in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. The protests, which saw the police use force against peaceful demonstrators, continued throughout an official visit by the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, and UP Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath.

Unexpectedly, two days later, an international diplomatic storm erupted with 20 Muslim majority countries, including Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE, vehemently criticising the Modi Government’s inaction, putting New Delhi on the defensive on the global stage. The outrage led to the summons of Indian ambassadors in several capitals, démarches, criticism from foreign ministers, and demands that the Indian government apologise. Campaigns to #BoycottIndia trended on social media; Indian products were pulled from shelves, and Modi’s image was strewn in bins and garbage dumps.

International Islamic institutions such as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Grand Mosque in Makkah, the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, Egypt’s Al-Azhar al-Sharif, and its Grand Mufti, as well as the Fatwa Authorities Worldwide, all issued statements condemning India.

New Delhi was blindsided by the exploding anger of the world’s two billion Muslims and immediately backtracked and offered disingenuous explanations—sans any remedial steps. The BJP said in a statement it is “against any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion,” does not “promote such people or philosophy,” and “respects all religions.”
Indian diplomatic missions issued statements that Sharma’s and Jindal’s comments were those of “fringe elements” and did not reflect the stand of the Government.

In a half-hearted placatory move, Sharma had her BJP membership suspended, while Jindal was expelled, though legally, the duo could be prosecuted. Instead, they avoided any legal repercussions as they were simply espousing the ruling party’s anti-Muslim ideology and divisive Hindu majoritarian agenda, spearheaded by Modi himself.
The Modi Government, used to turning a deaf ear to India’s 200 million Muslims’ plea for justice, was jolted by the unexpected reaction in the Middle East, where eight million Indians are employed and remit $40 billion yearly, representing 55 percent of international remittances. Moreover, Modi has cultivated personal ties with many Gulf leaders to counter the influence of Pakistan—the world’s only Muslim nuclear power.

The remarks demeaning the Prophet perfectly align with the BJP’s calibrated anti-Indian Muslim campaign, which methodically vilifies Muslims to unite Hindus along sectarian lines for electoral gains.

Since Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, Muslims have been killed in India merely for being Muslims. The BJP has passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that has made religion a criterion for citizenship; restricted the slaughter of cows in most states at the cost of livelihood and food habits of Muslims; constructed a Hindu temple on the debris of a demolished mosque in Ayodhya with the help of a pro-Hindu Supreme Court judgement; revoked semi-autonomy provisions of Muslim-majority Kashmir; outlawed the wearing of hijabs in schools and colleges in Karnataka; criminalised marriage between Muslim men and Hindu women; rewrote history books to demonise India’s Muslim rulers as Hindu-haters; is planning to impose a Uniform Civil Code, irrespective of faith and scriptures.

The targeting of Muslims gathered momentum after Modi’s re-election in 2019. The BJP-RSS’s tight grip on once-independent democratic institutions like the media and judiciary has over the last few years made India an increasingly dangerous place for Muslims to live or seek justice. The police in BJP-ruled states have been razing homes of Muslim protestors.

The governments of Muslim nations woke up this time as the remarks directly targeted Prophet Muhammad, angering the masses in those countries. The reaction from the Muslim world made the BJP realise that India’s sharp turn toward bigotry and oppression of Muslims has not passed unnoticed by Muslim nations, though belatedly. Delhi finally realised that foreign relations are intrinsically linked to its domestic politics. Looking the other way is no longer an option, even for regimes in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, or Oman, which have good relations with the Modi Government.

Determined not to dilute his image as the ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ [King of Hindu Hearts] by succumbing to temporary pressure from the Muslim world, Modi has, to date, not condemned the remarks or distanced himself from Islamophobes.

According to Asaduddin Owais, parliamentarian and head of the All India Majlis-e Ittihad al-Muslimin Party, similar intervention by Muslim countries could have mitigated the suffering of India’s Muslims. Modi “pays no heed” to the suffering of Indian Muslims and acts only under global pressure. “Global opinion matters more than protests by aggrieved and hurt Indian nationals,” explained Owais.

The most publicised international statement this year, came in April when during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, US Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar asked the Biden Administration why it was “reluctant to criticise Modi’s Government on human rights”. Omar asked Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman: “How much does the Modi administration have to criminalise the act of being a Muslim in India for us to say something… Because when we remain silent, the situation gets out of control, as it did with the Rohingya…”

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