NEW DELHI: India is facing a major diplomatic row with Muslim countries after top officials from the country’s ruling party made insulting remarks about the Prophet Muhammad, with experts saying on Monday the fallout could damage the South Asian country’s relations with its Islamic nations.
Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal, prominent spokespersons from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, made derogatory references to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad on different occasions, sparking anger among Muslims in India and overseas.
The BJP suspended Sharma and expelled Jindal on Sunday, following a chorus of diplomatic outrage from Islamic countries and institutions, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, as ire poured out on social media, and calls for a boycott of Indian goods surfaced.
The controversial remarks follow increasing violence targeting India’s Muslim minority, which makes up about 13 percent of its 1.35 billion population, carried out by Hindu nationalists, who have been emboldened by Modi’s regular silence about such attacks since taking office in 2014.
As criticisms from Muslim countries mounted over the weekend, experts said India’s international standing, especially in the Gulf, is in jeopardy.
“The government of India should have seen what was coming and should have proactively stopped all these hate propaganda, politics and activities. Unfortunately, the ruling party was promoting it,” Sudheendra Kulkarni, political activist and former advisor to the former BJP Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, told Arab News.
“It’s not the BJP but the country that will bear the cost of anti-Muslim politics.”
India’s foreign policy under Modi has prioritized relations with Arab nations and the close ties it enjoys hold importance for the South Asian country, including for oil imports and the remittances it receives from Gulf states, as around 4 million Indian nationals work in the region, sending over $80 billion annually.
“For all these reasons, India cannot afford to have an Arab world which is angry with India,” foreign policy expert Manoj Joshi, who is attached with the Delhi-based think tank Observer Research Foundation, told Arab News.
India’s relations with the Arab world are passing through “a golden phase,” said Meena Singh Roy, who heads the West & Central Asia Center at Tilottama Foundation.
“We should not do anything to derail it,” she told Arab News.
Sanjay Kapoor, chief editor of the political magazine Hard News, urged action by the nation’s leadership.
“India’s image has been hurt badly and this is something that cannot be fixed by diplomacy, but corrective action by political leadership in India,” Kapoor told Arab News.
The Indian government has yet to comment on the protests lodged by Arab nations, but the Ministry of External Affairs said on Monday that the OIC’s statement on the matter was “unwarranted” and “narrow-minded,” while India’s embassies in Qatar and Doha issued statements that the views expressed about the Prophet Muhammad and Islam did not reflect those of New Delhi.
The BJP said the remarks “were not in alignment with the ideology the BJP represents.”
Spokesperson Sudesh Verma told Arab News: “The BJP does not believe in disrespecting reverential figures of any religion.”
As the treatment of Muslim minorities in the country has been a “matter of great concern for the people,” India’s former foreign minister, Yashwant Sinha, said the latest controversy may pave the way for change.
“The vast majority of the people don’t approve of this and now that there is a backlash abroad these people will become more careful,” Sinha told Arab News.
Rahul Gandhi, leader of India’s main opposition Congress Party, said on Twitter that the ruling party’s actions are weakening the country at the global level.
“BJP’s shameful bigotry has not only isolated us, but also damaged India’s standing globally,” Ghandhi said.