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Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Nupur Sharma’s remarks about Prophet Muhammad in a TV debate shocked people of every faith. While the religious sensitivities of the Muslims were deeply hurt, the BJP kept quiet. Meanwhile, pliant journalists and social media legions were mobilised to defend Sharma.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as usual, ignored the commotion but quickly realised it is one thing to target India’s Muslims and another to provoke the wider Muslim world. When Qatar, and other Gulf nations conveyed their displeasure to Indian envoys or issued statements condemning the comments, it became clear that the BJP’s domestic hate campaign was adversely affecting India’s ties with the Islamic world. As the backlash threatened Indian exports to the region and the well-being of Indians working there, Modi realised he had to act. The BJP suspended Nupur Sharma from the party and expelled another leader, Naveen Jindal, for the same reason. Lofty rhetoric about respect for all religions was placed on record.
The BJP’s action, taken under duress, is seen differently by different sections.
Indians concerned over the attacks and hate speeches directed against Muslims since Modi came to power in 2014 see these suspensions as a mere “damage-control” exercise. On their part, the Modi devotees are divided. Some clapped, convinced that one swallow does not make a summer. They hope to return to the business as usual, provoking Muslims with hate speeches and fuelling low-level conflict. Other devotees are angered by the BJP’s action against their “heroine” who was doing a splendid job as the party’s spokesperson. Their disappointment has filled social media. They say the BJP has let down the Hindus by buckling under pressure from Muslims. They feel Modi, whom they crowned as the ‘Emperor of Hindu Hearts’, has abandoned his mission. Hindus have been made orphans in their own land, screams one ideologue.
Of course, no one believes that the BJP’s action against two of its leaders, taken on the pretext of inter-faith harmony, will promote the stated cause. Occasional tactical retreats have never deflected the ruling party from its polarisation mission designed to consolidate Hindu votes in its favour. The ruling party cannot afford to dilute its Hindutva ideology and stop projecting itself as the saviour of Hindus. So, this delayed gesture to placate public opinion in the Gulf countries lacks credibility.
The display of hostility towards Muslims by Nupur Sharma and other BJP and Sangh-oriented commentators on TV is part of a strategy to radicalise the minority community. Hindutva ideologues know that provocation is the best way of promoting radicalisation and that hurting religious sentiments is the best weapon with which to provoke. The resulting anger and even violence by Muslims, if any, will help validate the BJP’s campaign against the minority community.
Liberal Hindu commentators, deeply offended by Nupur Sharma’s remarks, do not applaud the BJP’s disciplinary action for another reason. The fact that the saffron party acted only after several Gulf countries protested the BJP leader’s remarks sends a misleading message to the besieged Indian Muslims: That protection from persecution in their motherland will now come from the Islamic nations rather than from within India. This is problematic because the Gulf rulers are pragmatic and would like nothing more than to return to business as usual with India regardless of the BJP’s policies.
Nupur Sharma’s ‘clarification’ – that she made offensive remarks about Islam because she felt Shiva was being insulted when the supposed ‘shivaling’ at the Gyanvapi mosque was called a fountain – is a reminder of the distance Hinduism in India has travelled thanks to its use as a political instrument.
In the Sanatan Dharma tradition, questioning the ‘supreme being’ or criticising the various divine incarnations and manifestations is not unacceptable. Theological debates were encouraged in this faith tradition that has no central church, no religious head and no single definitive sacred book.
For instance, some years ago, before the empowerment of the Hindutva Brigade, a noted Hindi poetess could be heard in public fora reciting a poem criticising Lord Ram for his treatment of his wife. The Hindu audience enjoyed the poem.
This faith tradition produced a Tamil political leader who campaigned against the hegemony of Brahmins and the caste system and promoted social justice. He urged the people not to build temples. He called the ritual of dissolving the statue of Ganesh into water bodies a stupidity. In 1953, he bought a Ganesh statue and broke it. He urged the judge to also punish those who were immersing the idol in water on Ganesh Chaturthi. The judge released him. This leader, a social-activist fighting superstition and orthodoxy, had considerable political success. His name was E.V. Ramasamy.
All that changed with the empowerment of the Hindutva brigade. Those who are championing the closing of the Hindu mind will be only too happy with Muslims in India embracing a less moderate version of Islam.
Against this backdrop, the BJP’s corrective step reflects the assertion of religion in politics and international affairs – a trend that is intrinsically dangerous. Multiple incidents of lynching and violence against Muslims did not cause so much anger as the offensive words against the Prophet. The Islamic countries were less perturbed by the threats of genocide against Muslims but protested effectively when the BJP spokesperson dragged the Prophet into the equation.
Religiosity matters, humanity does not. Indians grew up watching Hindi films that gave the message that humanity is above all. Take just one Bollywood song of those years written by a Muslim lyricist: Na Hindu banega, na Musalman banega, tu insan ki aulad hai, insan banega. That was the India that was.