Foot in Mouth

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India sparked a diplomatic row with key Muslim countries after two ruling party representatives were accused of making Islamophobic comments and derogatory statements about the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, the Guardian reported Monday.

The uproar began after Nupur Sharma, the national spokesperson of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), made a series of offensive statements about Muslim worship and the prophet during a television debate. Soon after, a media spokesman, Naveen Kumar Jindal, posted a controversial tweet about the prophet. It has since been deleted.

Both comments and posts went viral and prompted outrage in neighboring Pakistan and the Gulf countries. Qatar summoned India’s ambassador and demanded an apology from the Indian government, accusing it of inciting “a cycle of violence and hate.”

Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif also criticized the comments, saying they were an example of how Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is “trampling religious freedoms and persecuting Muslims.”

Following the criticism, the BJP immediately removed both spokespeople, and said the statements were made by “fringe elements” and “do not, in any manner, reflect the views of the government of India.”

Even so, observers noted that their dismissals only happened following complaints from Gulf nations – which are India’s important energy partners. They added that no action occurred after comments by Jindal and Sharma were flagged more than a week ago by Muslims and civil rights groups in India.

The incident underscored the increasing tensions between the Hindu nationalist BJP’s domestic policies and India’s strategic trade with the Muslim world: Qatar supplies about 40 percent of India’s gas needs, and the Gulf region is home to around 6.5 million Indians.

The BJP has been accused of systematically marginalizing and overseeing the persecution of the country’s 200 million Muslims.

Last week, a report by the US State Department highlighted the deaths, assaults and intimidation of religious minorities in India. The Indian government reacted angrily, labeling the report “ill-informed” and “biased.”

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