India's governing party was put on the defensive Wednesday after a lawmaker from an allied right-wing Hindu party was caught on video shoving food into the mouth of a Muslim man who was fasting for the holy month of Ramadan.
The incident occurred last Thursday as 11 members of parliament from the Shiv Sena, a long-standing political ally of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party in the western state of Maharashtra, complained angrily about the food and services at a government guesthouse in the Indian capital, New Delhi.
One lawmaker, Rajan Vichare, was captured on a cellphone video forcing a chapati, a type of Indian flatbread, into the mouth of the catering supervisor, who appeared to be saying in protest, "My fast."
First reported by the Indian Express newspaper in Wednesday editions, the incident caused a storm on the floor of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, as opposition lawmakers demanded an apology from the Shiv Sena, a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's coalition government. Both houses of parliament adjourned temporarily as tensions escalated and opposition parties staged a walkout in the lower house.
The episode renewed uncomfortable questions for the BJP and for Modi, who took office barely two months ago and has long battled charges of being anti-Muslim. According to the NDTV news channel, the Shiv Sena's leader, Uddhav Thackeray, said: "There was no intent to hurt religious sentiments."
Vichare, the lawmaker at the center of the furor, initially denied any wrongdoing but later issued a brief apology.
"I came to know that the employee was a Muslim only after seeing TV footage and I regret it," he said. He added that the lawmakers were merely trying to bring attention to what they described as poor food and tiny rooms at Maharashtra Sadan, the state government's official guesthouse in New Delhi.
According to the government agency managing the guesthouse, a subsidiary of Indian Railways, the lawmakers protested by throwing chafing dishes and verbally threatening the kitchen and service staff. In a formal complaint lodged by the agency and obtained by the Indian Express, the catering supervisor, Arshad Zubair, said he was wearing a uniform with his name tag on it, signaling that he was Muslim.
"They caught me and put the chapati into my mouth," he said. "It caused my fast to break on the eve of Ramadan. I was hurt with the thing they have done as religious sentiments are concerned."
Reached by phone, a spokesman for the BJP in Maharashtra, Madhav Bhandari, tried to distance himself from the incident.
"Why should I bother with what Shiv Sena MPs have done? Let them deal with their controversies," he said.
In New Delhi, the BJP patriarch, L.K. Advani, told reporters that Vichare's actions were "wrong." But it was unclear whether he or the other lawmakers would face disciplinary action.
The Shiv Sena is known for driving the Hindu agenda and has a history of controversial acts. A government commission found that Shiv Sena was behind the 1992-93 communal riots in Mumbai, Maharashtra's largest city, following the demolition of a revered Muslim mosque. Its members also have attacked media houses and journalists they view as being at odds with the party's pro-Hindu agenda.
In December 2003, Shiv Sena members reportedly dug up the field of a cricket stadium in Mumbai before a match with Pakistan.
Parth M.N. is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Shashank Bengali contributed to this report.