Nupur Sharma, now former Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson, was suspended after she made Islamophobic comments on national television. Photo:Saumya Khandelwal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
The official spokesperson and a key media member of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist party have landed the country in a diplomatic mess over Islamophobic comments against the Prophet Muhammad, which have gone viral and triggered global outrage.Over the last 10 days, India has seen a spate of violence after the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Nupur Sharma’s disparaging comments aired on TV, with Muslim citizens attempting to register police cases against her. Naveen Kumar Jindal, the media head of the BJP in India’s capital city New Delhi, drew flak over his tweets that also insulted the Prophet.
Despite widespread outrage within its Muslim community, the Indian government took no action until the news reached the country’s key Muslim trading partners Kuwait, Qatar, Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose governments immediately released strongly-worded statements condemning Sharma’s comments. Qatar’s foreign ministry on Sunday asked the Indian government to “publicly apologise to all Muslims around the world.” On Monday, the Taliban, which now rules Afghanistan, also condemned Sharma’s comments, referring to her as a “fanatic.”
In Kuwait, superstores have removed Indian products from their shelves, while in Oman, the Grand Mufti ordered a ban on Indian goods. India’s trade with the Gulf Cooperation Council – which includes Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and the UAE – was worth over $87 billion in 2020–21. Gulf countries are a favourite diaspora destination, where some 7.6 million Indians live.
Sharma’s speech is seen as part of a larger – and rising – trend of anti-Muslim hate speech and Islamophobia in the world’s largest democracy. Although India’s 200 million Muslims are a minority, making up 11 percent of the total population of 1.4 billion, the country does have one of the largest Muslim populations in the world. Hindus, meanwhile, are India’s largest religious segment, making up nearly 80 percent of the population. For years, human rights observers in India have sounded the alarm over increasingly “dangerous” levels of Islamophobic hate speech by mobs and prominent Indian politicians. Political leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have maintained a conspicuous silence. Last week, the U.S. State Department released a report documenting killings, assaults, and intimidation of Muslims in India. India’s government called the report “ill-informed” and “biased.”On Sunday, in what national media called the first stringent action against its own politician, the BJP suspended Sharma. It also expelled Jindal for inflammatory tweets about the Prophet. “The BJP strongly denounces insults of any religious personalities,” the BJP said in a statement.
On Monday, Indian ambassadors in Qatar, Kuwait and Iran, who were summoned by the countries’ officials, referred to Sharma as a “fringe” element. In the video viewed widely across the country and beyond, Sharma is seen falsely claiming that the Qur’an says the Earth is flat (it doesn’t), and that the Prophet married a six-year-old girl and had sex with her when she was nine years old. The latter is a common misconception about Aisha, the Prophet’s youngest wife, whom most Islamic historians say was between 18 and 21 at the time of her marriage to the Prophet. Sharma, who has a history of Hindu right-wing activism, initially claimed that her video circulating on social media was heavily edited. She and Jindal later apologised publicly and walked back their comments.
Sharma’s speech triggered violence in the city of Kanpur, which led to the police arresting 36 people and registering police complaints against over 1,500 people for allegedly inciting violence. Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.