ExplainerHow BJP’s Nupur Sharma’s Prophet Mohammed comments pushed India into diplomatic maelstrom
- Outrage over now-suspended ruling party member’s offensive remarks on Islam’s founder has forced the Modi government to douse a diplomatic backlash from the Arab world
- Experts say the condemnation won’t bring real change to the Hindu nationalist party’s ideology, but may serve as a warning to its hardline followers who spread hate
The comments, made during a television debate in late May, have drawn widespread condemnation from more than a dozen Islamic nations – forcing the BJP to suspend Sharma from the party. The BJP said in a statement last week that it “respects all religions”.
Who is Nupur Sharma and what did she say about the Prophet Mohammed?
Until she got the boot, the lawyer-turned-politician was national spokesperson for the BJP, featuring frequently in TV news channel debates where she vociferously – and often vitriolically – defended the party.
On May 26, she began haranguing one of her fellow participants, a Muslim man. As the discussion heated up, Sharma made snide comments about the Prophet’s third wife Aisha, which are considered offensive by Muslims across the world.
Though the Indian media did not cover the incident widely or reprint the inflammatory comment, videos of her statement went viral on social media and sparked angry protests in some states.
But Sharma remained defiant, boasting in interviews about how BJP leader and federal Home Minister Amit Shah had called her to express his support. She also got the backing of anti-Islam Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders, who said in a tweet: “Don’t listen to the hypocrites. Islamic nations had no freedom and persecuted minorities and they should be criticised.”
Islamophobia has been on the rise in India – so why did it explode this time?
But a direct attack on Islam was the last straw for the Middle Eastern and some Muslim-majority Asian nations who denounced Sharma’s remarks and summoned Indian envoys to protest over the incident. As the diplomatic headache worsened, the ruling party sought to distance itself from the spokeswoman, calling her a “fringe element.”
The episode also left Muslims in India baffled as their efforts including marches to nudge the government to hold far-right perpetrators of religious violence to account failed but the Modi administration swung into action following the global pressure
“Modi paid no heed to the Muslims who are residents of this country. But when the anger of people in foreign countries spread on social media, action was taken,” said Muslim politician Asaduddin Owaisi, leader of the AIMIM party.
India-Gulf ties: What’s at stake and how is New Delhi managing the diplomatic fallout?
India has maintained strong historical, cultural and trade ties with the Middle East. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are New Delhi’s third and fourth largest trade partners, respectively. The South Asian nation also depends on the region for its energy needs, importing about 60 per of its crude from there. Around 6.5 million Indians live and work in the Gulf countries, contributing more than US$80 billion in remittances a year to India’s economy.
Addressing a 2019 party rally in India, Modi touted his efforts to cultivate deeper diplomatic ties with the Gulf states, saying “Why is Modi given so much support by Muslim countries? Today, India has the best-ever relations with the Gulf countries in its history.”
With that rapport now damaged, the government hopes disowning unruly leaders like Sharma would help tide over the crisis and put bilateral relations back on track.
Can the global outrage stem the tide of attacks against Indian Muslims?
Experts say it would be difficult for the BJP, which came to power on the back of an ideology that envisages India as a “Hindu nation”, to tone down its anti-Muslim rhetoric. Millions of its hardline supporters expect the BJP to deliver on their “dream”. It is in the party’s DNA, they argue, to be hostile to Islam and Muslims.
“What seems likely is that any change will be strategic, not fundamental. The BJP has come too far to change its basic message,” analyst Vir Sanghvi wrote in The Print website.
Others hope the outrage serves as a warning to the Modi government that its hate campaign against Muslims will not be tolerated by the Islamic world and prompt the prime minster to rein in his hardcore followers who stoke communal divisions in society.
The BJP appears to have learned a lesson from the controversy, for now. The party issued a list of dos and don’ts for its spokespeople and instructed them to be more restrained in their language and demeanour on television.