The United States has condemned remarks by India’s governing party officials about Prophet Muhammad and his wife Aisha that have sparked an uproar in the country and many Muslim-majority nations.
“We condemn the offensive comments made by two BJP officials and we were glad to see that the party publicly condemns those comments,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Thursday.
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“We regularly engage with the Indian government at senior levels on human rights concerns, including freedom of religion or belief, and we encourage India to promote respect for human rights,” he said.
Nupur Sharma, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on May 26 made televised remarks about the youngest wife of the Prophet of Islam that triggered demonstrations across the Muslim world.
The remarks set off diplomatic protests not only in rival Pakistan but also in wealthy Arab states that usually enjoy close relations with India.
Qatar demanded a “public apology” from the Indian government while the influential 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) said the insults came in the context of an increasingly intense atmosphere of hatred towards Islam in India and systematic harassment of Muslims.
In neighbouring Bangladesh, home to the world’s fourth-largest Muslim population, protesters demanded a formal condemnation from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, a close ally of India.
On Thursday, thousands of people marched towards the Indian embassy in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka in the second week of protests over derogatory remarks about the Prophet by the BJP officials.
The protesters demanded that Muslim-majority nations boycott Indian products and cut off ties with New Delhi.
In damage-control mode, the BJP said it respects all religions and suspended Sharma as well as Naveen Kumar Jindal, another figure in the party who was accused of inflammatory tweets about Prophet Muhammad.
The US since the late 1990s has sought to deepen ties with India, believing the world’s two largest democracies have common interests, especially in the face of a rising China.
The US, however, has several times carefully voiced concerns about religious freedom in India as the BJP faces accusations of pursuing policies that target the Muslim minority.
During the release of a US report on religious freedom globally in 2021 earlier this month, a senior US official said some government officers in India were ignoring or even supporting rising attacks on people and places of worship in the Hindu-majority country.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the report showed religious freedom and the rights of religious minorities were under threat around the world.
“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,” he said.
India’s foreign ministry said the remarks by the senior US officials were “ill-informed” and “biased” as it defended religious rights in India.
However, Indian Muslims protesting against the anti-Islam remarks have seen a “vicious” police crackdown, as rights group Amnesty International put it, asking the government to end the “excessive use of force” and “arbitrary detentions”.
Last Friday, police opened fire in the eastern city of Ranchi, killing two teenagers after demonstrators allegedly threw stones at police.
Since then, homes of several people arrested or identified as protesters have been demolished with bulldozers in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which is governed by the BJP’s hardline Hindu monk, Yogi Adityanath.