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International relations

India does damage control in Muslim world over anti-Islam remarks

Economic partners no longer turning blind eye to Modi government's divisive record

Protesters condemn Indian officials' derogatory references to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad in Lahore, Pakistan, on June 8.   © AP

NEW YORK -- India's government is rushing to appease some of the world's most powerful Muslim-majority countries, after derogatory remarks from two ruling party officials against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad triggered diplomatic outrage and accusations of blasphemy.

One of the officials has been suspended while the other was expelled from the party. Indian security forces, meanwhile, are on high alert as terror groups warn of revenge attacks. Several Indian media outlets shared a letter from the local branch of al-Qaida threatening suicide bombings in Indian states to defend "the honor of the Prophet."

The lineup of countries that have lodged official protests against New Delhi is long. Afghanistan, Bahrain, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Malaysia, the Maldives, Pakistan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have all made strong statements, issued diplomatic demarches or summoned Indian ambassadors to register their condemnation and protest.

On the multilateral level, the influential 57-member Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) also released a statement, highlighting what it says is a growing culture of anti-Muslim hatred being fueled by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's right-wing, Hindu nationalist government.

The incident that triggered the tsunami of outrage occurred on May 27, when the lead spokesperson of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Nupur Sharma, made derogatory comments about the Prophet Muhammad and his wife, Ayesha, during a television debate. Nikkei Asia is not reproducing the offensive remarks.

Soon after Sharma's statements went viral on social media, Naveen Jindal, another senior BJP official, tweeted similar derogatory comments in support of Sharma.

The first wave of criticism, from Indian citizens, journalists and rights advocates, was ignored by the ruling party. As outrage spilt into sporadic protests across the country, India's BJP leadership, including Sharma and Jindal, remained steadfast. Sharma refused to apologize, said she was receiving encouragement and insisted that the "the prime minister's office, the home [interior] minister's office and the party president's office were rallying" behind her.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi attends the Quad leaders' summit in Tokyo on May 24.   © Reuters

Pakistan, India's old foe, was quick to issue a condemnation. But Islamabad's protests are usually met with disdain in New Delhi, and vice versa, and no action was taken by the Indians. But the controversy over Sharma's comments has gone beyond a South Asian spat and is having global repercussions.

By early June, hashtags expressing anger at Modi began trending on Twitter across the Arabic-speaking world. Overnight, Oman's outspoken grand mufti became one of the most prominent critics of BJP policies, and his calls for a boycott of Indian goods led to them being taken off shelves across the Persian Gulf.

As one Arab country after the other blasted India, and even Southeast Asian nations like Indonesia joined the fray, New Delhi finally started to distance itself from the officials in question.

Initially, Indian diplomats tried to blame "fringe" elements -- a tough sell, considering Sharma's high-profile job. Ultimately, Sharma was suspended and Jindal was expelled from the BJP.

While the hardcore right wing of the party protested on Sharma's behalf, the government seemed determined to make a point. A Hindu-nationalist BJP student leader was arrested on Wednesday for inciting violence in the central Indian city of Kanpur.

"For years, India had been spoiled. It essentially got a free pass from Muslim states because they value their trade ties with New Delhi and didn't want to rock the boat with loud criticism of India's treatment of Muslims," said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center in Washington.

"But now India is in for a rude awakening. It's discovered that when a top ruling party official goes way too far, and crosses a line, there will be deleterious diplomatic implications. New Delhi has upset a region with which it has major economic links and dependencies. It's not what you want."

Indeed, once Arab trade partners started showing their concern, it took India less than 24 hours to take action.

The economic stakes are high: More than half of India's 13 million expats live and work in the Middle East, from where they send $35 billion back in remittances per year, helping to make India the largest recipient of remittances in the world.

Moreover, as the third-largest importer of oil, India depends heavily on energy imports from many Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, all of whom have condemned its actions. India has carefully courted Islamic countries in the region to isolate Pakistan and secure its strategic interests, recently signing a free trade agreement with the UAE, which was one of the last Islamic countries to condemn the comments.

Back home, however, the Modi government's checkered record on Muslims is well-documented.

The country has seen the passage of a law that makes religion a criterion for citizenship and excludes millions of Muslims from that status. It has seen the rise of anti-Muslim "cow vigilantism" across the country, or attacks in the name of protecting an animal Hindus consider sacred. Muslim neighborhoods have been razed in communal riots. The government revoked the special status of Muslim-majority Kashmir by scrapping Article 370 in its own constitution, stripping the region of its autonomy, despite United Nations resolutions. One of India's oldest mosques was demolished, followed by the construction of a Hindu temple over it.

That list is not exhaustive. In fact, Sharma was instigating for the demolition of yet another mosque on the pretext of replacing it with a temple when she made her derogatory remarks.

Yet, not in eight years of the Modi government has New Delhi been confronted by the sort of international public relations crisis it faces now.

India is not just being called out by its partners in the Middle East. Releasing the State Department's International Religious Freedom Report last week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken named India in particular. "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."

Ashutosh Varshney, a professor at Brown University and author of "Battles Half Won: India's Improbable Democracy," said that "a fundamental element of Modi's foreign policy has come unstuck."

"For years, he carefully courted the Middle East for oil, for gas, and isolating Pakistan. And he did so successfully," Varshney said.

But now, despite India's growing importance in the global sphere -- with its $2.9 trillion dollar economy, membership of the Quad group of countries and ambitions to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council -- his Hindu nationalist political machine may have gone too far.

"Bigotry cannot be checked after a point," said Varshney. "You're riding a tiger. You can't have a restrained anti-Muslim project. Where will you draw the line?"

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