NEW DELHI – Two young protesters were killed on Friday in India’s eastern state of Jharkhand during protests across South Asia by Muslims angered by a comment by an Indian ruling party official that they believe they have desecrated the Prophet Muhammad.
The protesters were shot dead during demonstrations that broke out after Friday prayers in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand. Protesters there were demanding the arrest of Nupur Sharma, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, who made speculative comments about the relationship between the Prophet and his youngest wife on a TV talk show last week.
This comment, along with another about the Prophet, by Naveen Kumar Jindal, also an official in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, sparked outrage across the Muslim world and forced the government to try to stem the growing diplomatic fallout.
Since taking office in 2014, Mr Modi has often been accused of stoking anti-Muslim sentiment or remaining silent when Hindu nationalists attacked Muslims, but his government seemed quick to act after 17 Muslim nations condemned the comments and staged official diplomatic protests.
Iran and Saudi Arabia, often unable to agree on issues, both called India’s envoys to their capitals to complain.
In response, the Bharatiya Janata Party, often referred to as the BJP, suspended Ms Sharma and expelled Mr Jindal. The party issued a statement on how it respects all religious traditions and denounces offending religious figures.
Protests erupted in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh last week. In Ranchi, Friday’s demonstrations began peacefully but turned violent, said Sayub Ansari, one of the protesters.
“It was a peaceful protest – nothing happened except slogans for the arrest of Nupur Sharma,” Mr Ansari said of the thousands who took to the streets after leaving the mosques. “Then the crowd slowly got out of hand.”
Police attacked the crowd with batons, Mr Ansari said, and protesters threw stones in return. Then the sound of gunfire made people flee, he said.
Two protesters were shot dead, including Mudassir Alam, 15, who was shot in the head, according to his uncle Mohammad Shahid Ayyubi. Dozens of other protesters were injured, as were some police officers, according to Indian news reports; They were treated at a nearby hospital.
“It seems the police here are not trained to control crowds that he has been shot in the head,” Mr Ayyubi said.
The other protester killed in Ranchi, Sahil Ansari, whose age was not immediately confirmed, was said to be on his way home when he was hit by a bullet, according to various news reports.
About 330 miles away, in Prayagraj, a town in Uttar Pradesh, a state ruled by one of the BJP’s most vocal Hindu nationalists, police fired tear gas and batoned protesters after motorcycles and carts were set on fire and stones had been thrown. At least 10 police officers were injured, said Prem Prakash, the additional director-general of Prayagraj police.
In Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, there was a brief scuffle between thousands of protesters and police on Friday as they tried to reach the Indian embassy.
A notable exception from among the nations condemning the BJP officials’ remarks was Bangladesh, whose leader, Sheikh Hasina, has close political ties with Mr Modi.
Still, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in the capital Dhaka and other parts of Bangladesh, demanding that the Hasina government join in the condemnations.
“This regime believes that it depends on India to stay in power,” said Asif Nazrul, a law professor at Dhaka University and a political commentator. “Therefore, they are unwilling to do anything that makes India angry or dissatisfied.”
Also on Friday, the family of a Muslim student leader who has been leading protests against a ban on hijab-wearing in Indian schools was arrested in Prayagraj.
Student leader Afreen Fatima’s parents and younger sister were taken from their home by police. Ms Fatima, 24, said she was not involved in Friday’s protests but has led demonstrations in Prayagraj against the hijab ban in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, as well as 2019 demonstrations against a law providing near-tracking of citizenship for non-Muslims Refugees.
Prayagraj police told local news media they have evidence against Ms Fatima’s father – an activist and community organizer who she said was also not involved in Friday’s protests – and is collecting evidence against her in connection with her political activities.
Saif Hasnat contributed to reporting from Dhaka, Bangladesh.
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