A week after two spokespersons of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party caused a storm at home and abroad with derogatory remarks about Islam and the Prophet, India’s political and diplomatic establishment are still engaged in damage control efforts.
Hate speech is not an uncommon feature of public life in India. The law has provisions to deal with it but successive governments have failed to use them fairly and effectively.
The offensive remarks were made by Nupur Sharma, a national spokeswoman of the BJP, and Navin Kumar Jindal, head of Delhi BJP’s media unit. Opposition leaders immediately called for their arrest.
Initially, the BJP’s top leadership, viewing the issue in a purely local context, thought it could buy peace with some verbal response.
When Qatar and Kuwait summoned Indian envoys to protest against the derogatory remarks about the Prophet, the leadership was forced to rethink. But it still tried to play down the offence as the work of “fringe elements”.
Eventually, however, the BJP suspended both Nupur Sharma and Jindal from membership of the party.
India’s Vice-President M. Venkaiah Naidu, who stopped in Doha, capital of Qatar, on his way home from Senegal, faced an embarrassment when the Deputy Emir, the official host, stayed away from the reception in his honour, pleading a COVID-related ailment.
During the week, at least 15 Islamic states and the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation formally registered protests against the BJP functionaries’ remarks.
On instructions from New Delhi, Indian ambassadors in the OIC countries spent the week explaining to the host governments that the Indian government respects all religions; that the comments denigrating a religious personality did not represent the views of the government or the BJP; and that “strong action” had been taken against those making the comments. They also pointed out that the BJP had issued its own press release reiterating these points.
Ironically, both the offenders and the protesters appeared to be oblivious of the fact that India has the world’s fourth largest Islamic population after Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
West Bengal’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said the remarks of Nupur Sharma and Navin Jindal had tarnished India’s image across the world and they should be arrested. Several other non-BJP leaders also raised this demand.
Last Friday, after prayers, protests against the BJP leaders’ remarks were reported from at least nine states across India. In a violent incident in the industrial city of Ranchi in Jharkhand, two persons were reported killed and 12 others, including four policemen, wounded. Police made at least 200 arrests in Uttar Pradesh. Most of them were people who joined the Friday protests.
Orders banning meetings and processions were imposed in several places as a precautionary measure. An organisation calling itself Al Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) held out threats of suicide bomb attacks in Indian cities to avenge the insult to the Prophet.
According to media reports, the Delhi Police has registered two separate cases in connection with alleged hate speeches made by political leaders of different parties. Those named in the cases include, besides the suspended BJP leaders Nupur Sharma and Navin Jindal, a host of others with differing political and religious backgrounds such as All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen President Asaduddin Owaisi, Shadab Chauhan, who identifies himself as spokesman of the Peace Party, and Saba Naqvi, a well-known Delhi-based woman journalist.
A casual look at the names released by the police is enough to understand that it is taking pains to show that it holds the scales even between different political and religious groups. At the same time, the simultaneous registration of hate speech cases against many others, besides the BJP leaders in the eye of the storm, is liable to be interpreted as an attempt to equate offences of different degrees of gravity.
In a statement, Saba Naqvi expressed shock over the police action against her. She presumed it was related to her forwarding a WhatsApp message. She said she had deleted the message a few hours later. Ms Naqvi, who described herself as a journalist tasked to tell truth to power, said, “I am committed to the secular and liberal ethos of India and stand against any fundamentalism, hate speech and injustice.”
She said she was currently abroad but would be back in India next month. Ms Naqvi’s presence in the list of accused appears to be the result of a knee-jerk reaction rather than of due deliberation.