India’s relations with majority-Muslim countries have been strained this month after two officials in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made demeaning comments about the prophet Muhammad. Stores in countries such as Kuwait pulled Indian products off their shelves, and protesters continue to call for boycotts of Indian-made goods; more than a dozen governments in majority-Muslim countries and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation condemned the comments. Good. Religious intolerance under Mr. Modi has gone unchallenged long enough.
The backlash produced some modest results. In response, the BJP suspended spokeswoman Nupur Sharma and expelled spokesman Naveen Jindal. The ruling party also issued a statement June 5 denouncing the “insult of any religious personalities of any religion,” stating that the BJP opposes “any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion,” as the party “respects all religions.”
This is not how Mr. Modi or the BJP has governed. India, founded as a secular nation despite its 79 percent Hindu majority and 15 percent Muslim minority, has slid toward Hindu nationalism under BJP rule. Bulldozers have razed houses in majority-Muslim neighborhoods under dubious pretenses, with local officials even boasting of the demolitions. The BJP-run state government of Karnataka banned hijabs in schools, a motion the state court upheld in March. Hate crimes against Indian Muslims and other religious minorities number in the hundreds each year, as local and state BJP officials engage in hate speech themselves. Amid all this, Mr. Modi and the national BJP have been quiet — until now.
Given this history, it seems unlikely the BJP’s nice-sounding statements reflect a sudden concern for religious tolerance. Indeed, two people were killed and dozens more injured as police charged a crowd of protesters last Friday.
That India’s ruling party did anything to condemn religious intolerance probably reflects concern about alienating Middle Eastern states, on which India depends heavily for natural gas, economic cooperation, infrastructure projects, counterterrorism and intelligence. Millions of Indians work and live in the Persian Gulf region, sending home remittances. Mr. Modi wants to make India a leader on the global stage; the recent backlash shows that he and his party might respond when other countries object to rife anti-Muslim sentiment in India, tolerated or encouraged by his party.
The United States should increase the pressure. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in April that the Biden administration is monitoring human rights abuses in India; this month, he named India as a country with deteriorating religious freedoms. But the White House has been silent as this most recent controversy has unfolded. India could be a pluralistic democracy or a country defined by a dark, intolerant nationalism. The United States should work actively in favor of the former.
This article first appeared on washingtonpost.com