Last week, as violent protests erupted over Nupur Sharma’s comments on the prophet, it became clear that the problem was not going away. The government may finally have a diplomatic fall but the domestic implications are still unfolding.
For anyone who considers himself a free speech liberal, what happened is appalling. Over the past week I have been asking questions about what stance should be taken for those of us who support freedom of speech.
I came up with some answers. They are probably not conclusive but in terms of its value, here are some answers I have come up with.
Q. Did Nupur Sharma do something wrong?
A. Supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been on social media for the past few days arguing that Nupur Sharma’s statements are well and that he is a victim.
Well, that’s the mistake she made.
a) He was the official spokesperson of the BJP. The BJP’s statement is that it honors all religions. Speaking of the prophet in such disrespectful terms clearly violates that policy. From the BJP’s point of view, the BJP has broken the cautious nurturing code that says that it is not against Islam, but against jihadists, pseudo-seculars and those who destroyed temples centuries ago. Her words demonstrated the contempt of Islam. This is contrary to the public stance of the BJP.
More cynically: The BJP’s strategy is to boil the pot of communalism, not let it boil. Nupur Sharma ignored that tactic and crossed a line.
B) There is a silent agreement among India’s responsible politicians that nobody should speak derogatoryly about religion in public forums in order to maintain communal harmony. People like Yogi Adityanath are dangerously close to breaking that consensus but they usually stop short. Anti-Hindu, anti-Muslim, anti-Christian, etc. are often criticized by marginalized politicians, but not by the official spokesperson of the ruling party.
Q: Is she aroused by people mocking Shivalinga?
A: There is no doubt that her remarks go beyond the political consensus of restricting criticism of religions. But, as a result, it is not clear that anyone mocked Shivalinga, leaving Shivaji.
Various Hindu organizations claim that the fountain in the mosque of Kashi is actually Shivalinga. A number of people were skeptical of the claim and suggested other structures that could be mistaken as Shivalingas. These comments, made for fun, to emphasize the absurdity of people seeing Shivalingas in every mosque.
This was not just the view of ‘anti-Hindu secularists’. Mohan Bhagwat, head of the National Volunteer Union, has objected to this endless search for Hindu symbols in every mosque. “Why seek a Shivalinga in every mosque?” Bhagwat said at an event in Nagpur on June 2.
People who mock the Shivalinga in search of Shivalingas in every mosque do not say that Shivaji is insulting or Shivaji does not follow.
This certainly does not provide any justification for Nupur Sharma’s statements about the Prophet.
Q: What about the right to freedom of speech?
A: It’s a difficult thing. When it comes to religion, let’s admit that India has long since restricted freedom of speech. Movies have been censored because of the protests of religious groups, and books (mainly The Satanic Verses but Aubrey Menen’s Rama Retold) have been banned for fear of harming religious sensibilities.
If judged on the basis of it, Sharma is at least as aggressive as the previously banned books and films and things that got him into trouble.
Beyond that, India’s record in this field is not proud of anyone who believes in freedom of speech. In my view, we should never ban Satanic Verses. We should never allow Hindu extremists to drive MF Hussein out of this country.
I may be the exception; Most Indian liberals do not always agree with me. I have retweeted the Charlie Hebdo cover and have spoken out against all the brevity of freedom of speech on religious grounds. In the West, this is not common: it is difficult to find educated people who supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie or justified the attack on Charlie Hebdo.
But in India, we put very strict boundaries on freedom of speech in matters of religion. For example, when MF Hussein was expelled from India, the Congress was in power. The government did not shout for his help.
In my view, what Nupur Sharma said was a serious objection to Muslims. But the law does not exist to protect people from crime. In fact, freedom of speech is meaningless unless you have the right to offend people. (If no one is ever offended, why should you defend your freedom of speech?)
Moreover, it is a slippery slope. Once you support measures that censor or punish, because of their views on religions, where does this end? Tomorrow Yogi Adityanath’s police force may start picking people up for “anti-Hindu statements”. (If this has not already happened.)
It is okay for BJP to suspend Nupur Sharma. He has violated party statement principles and has gone beyond his brief as a spokesman. She had to do so the next day she appeared on TV and didn’t wait until the international commotion forced it to act.
But, contrary to what many liberals say, I am not convinced that she must suffer legal consequences or fines.
Q: What about the waves of Muslim anger?
A: Three points.
One: the law does not follow that people are angry only when they are angry. Muslims have every right to be angry or angry. They deserve a protest. But once their protests turn to violence, those involved in the violence must be prosecuted.
Two: These protests are not voluntary. There were no protests for several days after Nupur Sharma made his statement. The protests started only after the government of India bowed to the protests of Muslim countries and suspended Sharma. This is not a voluntary outburst of anger.
And three: there is no place in civilized society for those who ask for the beheading of Nupur Sharma or for killing her. Legal action should be taken against them.
The only answer to those who claim that the major leaders of the Hindus have instigated violence against Muslims is this: Yes, it was terrible. The Modi government has been attacked for refusing to take action against those leaders. But the government’s failures in those cases do not justify the threat of beheadings in this case.
There is no doubt that the ruling party has created an atmosphere of ‘other Muslims’, and there is no doubt that in many states of India, minorities have been deprived of their rights and treated with terror. But that does not change as people are threatened with beheading.
Q: And finally, what does this do for the communal situation in India?
A: That’s complicated. The Modi government knows that the Muslim world is watching now. Therefore, it is a careful step in the future. A BJP spokesperson will be told to stick to the old line: attack Muslims, not Islam.
But it is more dangerous. If these protests are not over soon, the calls for beheadings, if not expedited or terminated, could benefit the BJP.
It suggests these reactions and suggests that Indian Muslims try and appeal to violent fanatics and Hindu prejudices. This line is being upheld by a staunch media and every day demonstrates vague, angry fundamentalists, using them to caricature all Indian Muslims.
So, it is best to leave the thing to lie. Nupur Sharma has been publicly insulted and suspended. The Modi government has to bow down to the Muslim world. There can be more setbacks – especially if it involves violence.