Outrage in Gulf over BJP leaders’ hate remarks, party acts against them

New Delhi faced a chorus of diplomatic outrage from Gulf countries and the ruling BJP Sunday cracked down on two of its leaders over their derogatory references to Islam and the Prophet. While Qatar, Kuwait and Iran summoned India’s ambassadors to their countries, calls emerged on social media across several nations for a boycott of Indian products.

On Sunday, the BJP suspended its national spokesperson Nupur Sharma and expelled its Delhi media head Naveen Kumar Jindal over their comments while the party issued a statement asserting that it “respects all religions” and “strongly denounces insults of any religious personality”.

Welcoming the action against the ruling party’s leaders, Qatar’s foreign ministry said in a statement that Indian Ambassador Deepak Mittal was summoned and handed an “official note, expressing the disappointment of the State of Qatar and its total rejection and condemnation to the controversial remarks made by an official in the ruling party in India against Prophet Muhammad”.

The statement added that Qatar is “expecting a public apology and immediate condemnation of these remarks from the Government of India, pointing out that allowing such Islamophobic remarks to continue without punishment constitutes a grave danger to the protection of human rights and may lead to further prejudice and marginalisation, which will create a cycle of violence and hate.” It also said the “insulting remarks would lead to incitement of religious hatred, and offend more than two billion Muslims around the world”.

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BJP leader Nupur Sharma. (Photo: Facebook/Nupur Sharma)

Lolwah Alkhater, Qatar’s Assistant Foreign Minister, tweeted, “The Islamophobic discourse has reached dangerous levels in a country long known for its diversity & coexistence. Unless officially & systemically confronted, the systemic hate speech targeting #Islam in #India will be considered a deliberate insult against the 2 billion Muslims.”

The controversy comes at a time when Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu is on an official three-day visit to Qatar.

In response to what it said were “concerns” raised by Qatar “with regard to some offensive tweets by individuals in India denigrating the religious personality”, the Indian embassy in Qatar said Ambassador Mittal “conveyed that the tweets do not, in any manner, reflect the views of the Government of India. These are the views of fringe elements”.

“In line with our civilisational heritage and strong cultural traditions of unity in diversity, the Government of India accords the highest respect to all religions,” the embassy said, adding that “strong action has already been taken against those who made the derogatory remarks… Vested interests that are against India-Qatar relations have been inciting the people using these derogatory comments.”

Kuwait’s foreign ministry, too, handed Indian Ambassador Sibi George an official note with its “categorical rejection and condemnation of the insulting statements” of the Prophet “issued by one of the officials in the ruling party”.

The statement mentioned that Kuwait also welcomed the “statement issued by the statements party in India, during which it announced the suspension of the aforementioned official from carrying out his duties and activities in the party because of these offensive” and demanded a “public apology” for those hostile statements”.

While sources confirmed the summoning of the Indian ambassador, until late Sunday night, Tehran was yet to issue an official statement. Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian is expected to visit India this week.

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Pakistan, too, reacted angrily, with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif condemning the “hurtful comments”. “Have said it repeatedly India under Modi is trampling religious freedoms & persecuting Muslims… World should take note & severely reprimand India,” he tweeted.

A statement released later by Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, “BJP’s attempted clarification and belated and perfunctory disciplinary action against these individuals cannot assuage the pain and anguish they have caused to the Muslim world.”

On Saturday, Oman’s Grand Mufti Ahmed bin Hamad al-Khalili tweeted, “The insolent and obscene rudeness of the official spokesman for the ruling party in India against the Messenger of Islam, peace be upon him, and his pure wife, Mother of the Believers Aisha, may God be pleased with her, is a war against every Muslim in the east and west of the earth, and it is a matter that calls for all Muslims to rise as one nation.”

BJP’s decision to suspend the two leaders follows the imperatives of India’s large expat population in Qatar and other Gulf countries, and the country’s trade and strategic ties with some of them.

Naidu’s ongoing visit to Qatar is a nod to what the Vice President called “deep rooted centuries old ties” with the Gulf country. On Sunday, Naidu led delegation-level talks with Prime Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al Thani and called on Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, father of the emir of the country.

Naidu acknowledged that nearly 40 per cent of India’s gas requirements are met from Qatar and called for a “need to move beyond buyer-seller relationship into a comprehensive energy partnership”. He later addressed members of the business community at the India-Qatar Business Forum in Doha.

Indians are the largest expatriate population in many of the Gulf nations, with official data showing that nearly 6.5 million Indians live in the region.

Besides being dependent on crude oil and gas, India enjoys trading relations with many of the countries in the region. According to India’s Embassy in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — which is headquartered in Riyadh and includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE — has “tremendous significance for India”.

In 2020-2021, the total value of India’s trade with GCC nations was worth over US $87 billion, which included total imports worth nearly US $60 billion. The total bilateral two-way trade in 2020-2021 saw a growth of nearly 27 per cent over the previous year.

The importance of the region for India can also be gauged by the fact that in his first international visit in 2022, Prime Minister Modi visited UAE and Kuwait in January. Modi has been a regular visitor to the region, having visited many of the countries several times since 2014.

The backlash over the BJP leaders’ remarks had resulted in Twitter trends across the Gulf countries with several asking for Indian products to be boycotted.

The controversy also comes at a time when the BJP is reaching out to several countries through a campaign called “to know BJP”. The party has been calling top envoys from several countries to its headquarters in an attempt to help them “understand the party” and its ideology.

Sources said such meetings have been held with envoys from some of the countries in the Gulf region, and that many more are expected in the coming rounds.

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