In the last week of May, Nupur Sharma, then the national spokeswoman of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, denigrated the prophet Muhammad on one of the country’s most-watched television networks, Times Now. The channel and its anchors, known for their pro-government stance, allowed Sharma to make insulting remarks about the prophet and his marriage. The party’s Delhi media head, Naveen Kumar Jindal, subsequently tweeted another offensive comment about Muhammad, the most revered figure in Islam.
Within hours, Muslims and allies took to social media to express anger at the insults and called for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP to take disciplinary action against the party members.
But this time, it was not just Indian Muslims speaking out. Over the past few days, the governments of Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Libya, Turkey, Maldives, Iraq, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Pakistan and Malaysia issued stinging statements condemning the comments. Similar statements were made by the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Gulf Cooperation Council. India’s turn toward intolerance and communalism is finally eliciting a response from the world.
The backlash came as Indian Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu was on a three-day trip to Qatar. Hours after Naidu met the Qatari prime minister, the Qatari government summoned India’s envoy over the incendiary comments. Qatari Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Soltan Bin Saad Al Muraikhi warned in a statement that “insulting remarks would lead to incitement of religious hatred and offend more than 2 billion Muslims around the world.” A “Boycott India” campaign even trended on social media in Qatar.
Other governments of Muslim countries soon followed suit. Iran’s ministry of foreign affairs also summoned the Indian ambassador to Tehran; incidentally, Iran’s foreign minister will soon embark on his first official visit to the Indian capital to discuss crucial geopolitical issues. Kuwait and Qatar both demanded a public apology for the statements.
This weekend, Sharma said on Twitter that she withdrew her words, and the BJP suspended Sharma and expelled Jindal. Indian diplomats tried to placate the Arab world by calling the figures who made the remarks “fringe” and characterized criticism as driven by “vested” interests who were trying to destabilize India’s relationship with Qatar. But Sharma and Jindal are both key BJP figures who have been elevated to a public platform by the party.
The rebuke from at least 15 majority-Muslim countries, many of whom have been traditional allies or supporters of India, comes on the heels of Secretary of State Antony Blinken naming India while releasing the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report. Reading from the report, Blinken said: “For example, in India, the world’s largest democracy and home to a great diversity of faiths, we have seen rising attacks on people and places of worship.”
Rashad Hussain, U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, went a step further and said that some Indian officials were “ignoring or even supporting attacks on people or places of worship.”
To me — a journalist who has been reporting on the Indian government’s relentless attacks on the country’s more than 200 million Muslims since Modi assumed power in 2014 — this global reaction was long in the offing. In recent years under the BJP, India has seen the passage of a law that made religion a criterion for citizenship for the first time; restrictions on the slaughter of cows in many states; the construction of a Hindu temple at the site of a demolished mosque in Ayodhya; the abrogation of the special status that granted the majority-Muslim region of Kashmir a measure of autonomy; a ban on the wearing of hijabs in schools and colleges in the southern state of Karnataka; and ominous discussions for a Uniform Civil Code applicable to all religious communities (currently, the personal laws of different religious communities are governed by their respective scriptures).
Throughout all of this, the social-media-savvy Modi — known to invoke values of pluralism abroad — has remained silent as Indian democracy has descended into hate and is humiliated with international backlash.
The kinds of views the BJP wants to characterize as “fringe” are, in fact, the language of the ruling party and state, spoken each night on the country’s leading news channels. Members of the prime minister’s party crossed the red line of outrageously insulting Muhammad. Even more concerning is that the BJP’s actions against the two spokespersons occurred days after their comments, and only after public rebukes by multiple nations that are critical to India’s strategic and economic interests.
The world has long viewed India as a nation that has been the melting pot of cultures, religions and customs; a leading light in fighting tyranny and oppression; and a leader on discourse around secular and plural values. India under Modi, however, is coming across as a petty, vindictive nation that seeks pleasure in humiliating the oppressed and the less privileged.
The land of Mahatma Gandhi, Abul Kalam Azad and Rabindranath Tagore is being reduced to a caricature of hate on the global stage.