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Patna (India) (AFP) – Indian police shot and killed two protesters and arrested more than 130 others during street rallies sparked by a ruling party official’s remarks about the Prophet Muhammad, authorities told AFP on Saturday.
There have been widespread protests across the Muslim world since last week when a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party commented on the relationship between the Prophet and his youngest wife during a televised debate.
In India and neighboring countries, Muslims took to the streets in large numbers after Friday prayers to condemn the remarks, with police firing into a crowd in the eastern Indian town of Ranchi.
“The police were forced to open fire to disperse the demonstrators (…), killing two,” a Ranchi police officer told AFP.
Officers said the crowd defied their orders not to march from a mosque to a market and threw broken bottles and rocks when police tried to disperse the gathering with a baton charge.
Authorities cut internet connections in the city and imposed a curfew, with local resident Shabnam Ara telling AFP the atmosphere remained tense on Saturday.
“We pray for peace and harmony,” she said.
Uttar Pradesh police fired tear gas to disperse at least one gathering after several protests were held in the northern Indian state.
Most protests ended peacefully, but protesters in some towns threw rocks at police and injured at least one officer, said Avanish Awasthi, a senior state government secretary.
“We will take strict action against those who engage in stone throwing and violence,” Awasthi told reporters.
“Those working behind the scenes, inciting violence, will not be spared at all.”
Prashant Kumar, a senior state police officer, told AFP that up to “136 disbelieving protesters” had been arrested in six districts around Uttar Pradesh.
Cities across India saw major protests on Friday, with crowds burning effigies of Nupur Sharma – the spokeswoman for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) whose comments sparked fury.
Authorities also cut internet services for the weekend in several districts near the eastern megacity of Kolkata, after protesters blocked a railway line and stormed a police station.
Sharma’s remarks have thrown India into a diplomatic storm, with governments from nearly 20 countries calling Indian envoys for an explanation.
Since coming to power nationally in 2014, Modi’s government and the BJP have been accused of championing policies that discriminate against followers of the Islamic faith.
His government has proposed a controversial law granting citizenship to refugees in India, but not if they are Muslims, while BJP state governments have passed laws making it harder for Muslims to marry outside their religion.
Last week, the Foreign Office reprimanded US officials for what India said were “ill-informed” and “biased” comments made during the release of a religious freedom report that accused Indian officials of to support attacks on minority worshippers.
Sharma’s comments sent the BJP into damage control, with the party suspending her from its ranks and issuing a statement saying it respects all religions.
Friday saw the largest South Asian street rallies to date in response to the remarks, with police estimating that more than 100,000 people were mobilized across Bangladesh after midday prayers.
Another 5,000 people took to the streets in the Pakistani city of Lahore at the call of a radical religious party, demanding that their government take stronger action against India following the comments.
The row follows anger across the Muslim world in 2020 after French President Emmanuel Macron defended a satirical magazine’s right to publish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
French teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded in October 2020 by a Chechen refugee after showing the cartoons to his class during a lesson on freedom of expression. Images of the Prophet are strictly prohibited in Sunni Islam.
© 2022 AFP