NEW DELHI — After a spokeswoman for India’s ruling party made disparaging remarks about the prophet Muhammad during a recent televised debate, rioters took to the streets in the northern city of Kanpur, throwing rocks and clashing with police.
It was only the beginning of a controversy that would have global repercussions.
Indian products were soon taken off shelves in the Persian Gulf after a high-ranking Muslim cleric called for boycotts. Hashtags expressing anger at Prime Minister Narendra Modi began trending on Arabic-language Twitter. Three Muslim-majority countries — Qatar, Kuwait and Iran — summoned their Indian ambassadors to convey their displeasure. The governments of Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Afghanistan on Monday condemned the spokeswoman, Nupur Sharma, as did the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Inflammatory comments by right-wing activists and political leaders in India often make headlines and spark outrage on social media. But rarely do they elicit the kind of attention that Sharma drew in the past week, which sent her political party — and India’s diplomats — scrambling to contain an international public relations crisis.
In a rare move, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, on Sunday suspended Sharma and expelled another party spokesman, Naveen Jindal, who had echoed Sharma’s views and suggested on Twitter that the prophet Muhammad married his wives when they were underage girls. In separate statements, party chiefs said they “strongly denounced” insults against any religion or religious figure.
The controversy highlights one of the challenges to Indian foreign policy at a time when Modi is seeking a greater role on the world stage: Although his government has cultivated strong diplomatic ties with many Muslim nations, including both Saudi Arabia and Iran, his party has come under growing criticism for its treatment of India’s Muslim minority. It is accused by rights groups of stoking Hindu nationalist sentiment and turning a blind eye to religious violence.
“India under Modi has been quite deft in dealing with the Muslim world, but this was almost inevitable,” said Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science at Indiana University. “At home, a lynching takes place and Modi remains deafeningly silent. Now, he feels compelled to act because he realizes the damage abroad could be extensive. When it comes to foreign policy, the stakes are high.”
The Indian government has sought to downplay a string of local religious controversies in recent months, including a ban on headscarves for female students, the razing of Muslim neighborhoods after communal clashes, and efforts by Hindu nationalists to reclaim high-profile mosques.
Senior party officials last month launched a “Know BJP” campaign aimed at foreign diplomats in New Delhi. In a succession of meetings, diplomats were told that the party’s agenda hinged on the economy, not religious issues. The party embraced an inclusive slogan of “unity of all, development of all,” party officials said.
Leaders from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist organization that is closely affiliated with the BJP, have also spoken about the need to lower temperatures. Several senior officials in the organization have urged members and affiliates to crack down on hate speech — including calls for killing Muslims — and stop excavations at mosques, which are seen as paving the way for demolitions.
But those efforts have been overshadowed by the controversy over Sharma’s remarks, which erupted just as India’s vice president landed in Qatar on Saturday for a three-day trip. M. Venkaiah Naidu met senior Qatari officials but called off a previously scheduled news conference. Meanwhile, the Indian ambassador in Doha, Deepak Mittal, distanced the government from the BJP spokeswoman.
“These are the views of fringe elements,” his embassy said in a statement. “In line with our civilizational heritage and strong cultural traditions of unity in diversity, [the] Government of India accords the highest respect to all religions.”
India was founded on secular principles in 1947 and has about 200 million Muslim citizens, more than any other country, except Indonesia and Pakistan. But in recent years, many in the country’s ascendant political right wing, including BJP leaders, have argued that India should be first and foremost a homeland for Hindus.
That rising tide of Hindu nationalism, which has helped buoy the BJP’s fortunes in several recent elections, seemed to turn against the party on Monday following its profuse apologies over Sharma and its decision to punish her.
Influential voices on the Indian right argued that the BJP was caving to the illiberal demands of Muslim countries. On social media, many rank-and-file supporters called for a counter-boycott of Qatar Airways.
“Nupur had been fed to the wolves, alone, cast aside, humiliated and disgraced,” read a column in OpIndia, a website that is seen as close to the BJP. “For the Islamists who were baying for her blood, the message was simple — BJP does not endorse the criticism of Islam … because it may offend the intolerant minority.”
Others said they felt betrayed by a party that was supposed to represent Hindu interests.
“The Islamists only asked the BJP to bend but it chose to crawl,” raged Anand Ranganathan, a columnist and television commentator, as he compared Sharma to Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that was attacked by terrorists in 2015 after lampooning the prophet Muhammad.
On Monday, a half-dozen national spokespersons for the BJP — Sharma’s former peers — declined to comment to The Post about the issue or were not reachable on their mobile phones.
But in the northern Hindu heartland, Monu Bishnoi, a BJP party activist in the city of Moradabad, fumed over what he perceived to be hypocrisy. Bishnoi said Islamic countries have never stood up for Hindus when Muslims disparage Hindu gods. And he said the BJP should remember where it derives its power from.
“The BJP is what it is today because of Hindutva,” or Hinduness, said Bishnoi, a 33-year-old confectionary owner. “If party workers feel the BJP is not representing them, they will find an alternative.”
Anant Gupta and Niha Masih contributed to this report