NEW DELHI -- India is under major diplomatic pressure from Muslim-majority nations after top officials of the Hindu nationalist party made disparaging references to Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and other Arab countries. This has led to accusations of blasphemy in some Arab nations. New Delhi is now struggling to contain the negative fallout.
At least five Arab countries have filed official protests against India. Pakistan and Afghanistan also strongly reacted Monday to comments made by two prominent representatives from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Social media has been flooded with anger and calls for boycotting Indian products have been made in some Arab countries. It has led to protests in certain parts of India against Modi's party.
These controversial comments are in response to increasing violence against India's Muslim minorities, perpetrated by Hindu nationalists, who have been encouraged by Modi’s consistent silence about such attacks since his first election in 2014.
Indian Muslims have been repeatedly targeted over the years for their food, clothing and inter-religious marriages. Rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have warned that the attacks could get worse. They also accused Modi's ruling party of allowing hate speech against Muslims and 14% of India’s 1.4 billion population. However, they are large enough to be the country's second-largest Muslim community.
Modi's party refutes the allegations, but India's Muslims claim that attacks on them and their faith are increasing.
Since last week, anger has grown after Nupur Sharma, and Naveen Jindal made speculative comments that were seen to be insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad and Aisha.
Modi's party did not take any action against them until Sunday when a chorus of diplomatic outrage erupted with Qatar and Kuwait calling for their Indian ambassadors. The BJP suspended Sharma, expelled Jindal, and then issued a rare statement in which it "strongly denounces insults of any religious personalities." This move was welcomed by Qatari and Kuwait.
Later, Iran and Saudi Arabia filed complaints with India. The Jeddha-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation stated that the comments were made in the context of "intensifying hatred and abuse towards Islam in India" and "systematic practices against Muslims."
India's Foreign Ministry rejected Monday's comments by OIC as "unwarranted and narrow-minded." It also stated that the statements made about Prophet Muhammad and Islam were not the views of the Indian government.
However, the criticisms from Muslim countries were severe. This indicates that insulting Prophet Muhammad was unacceptable.
Sharma's comments during an Indian TV program and Jindal's tweet about it could damage India’s relations with Arab countries.
India has strong relations with the Gulf countries. These countries rely on India's millions of migrants from South Asia to provide services for their small populations and drive daily life. India is also dependent on oil-rich Gulf Arab nations, like Saudi Arabia, for its energy-hungry economy.
These remarks caused anger in Pakistan, India's archrival, as well as in Afghanistan.
Monday's summons by Pakistan's Foreign Ministry to an Indian diplomat was a response to Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif's comments that Pakistan is a "serial violator of minorities rights" and that India should not "engage in alarmist propaganda or attempting fomenting communal disharmony" in India.
Arindam Bagchi, spokesperson for the ministry, stated that India accords highest respect to all religions.
Kabul also received criticism. According to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Indian government shouldn't allow "such fanatics insult Islam and provoke the emotions of Muslims."
Modi's party was also criticized by some of its supporters. But, it was for another reason. Many Hindu nationalists made comments on social media claiming that the government was bowing to international pressure.
Modi has seen an increase in anti-Muslim sentiments, and even attacks, across India. U.S. Secretary Antony Blinken stated last week that India was experiencing "rising attacks against people and places of worship." This prompted a New Delhi response, calling the comments "ill-informed."
Religious tensions have increased in recent years after Hindu groups sought permission to pray at a mosque built in 17th-century Iran. They claimed that the mosque was built from the remains of a temple. Critics claim that these tensions were further exacerbated when Indian television anchors participated in raucous debates.
This report was contributed by Jon Gambrell in Dubai, Munir Ahmed and Rahim Faiez from Islamabad, as well as Samy Magdy and Samy DeBre in Cairo.