The suspension of Nupur Sharma was an empty gesture
The decision of the BJP’s most popular leader with high approval ratings from the RSS, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to stay silent, for a week, on the deliberately provocative and obviously incendiary remarks about Prophet Mohammad by a party national spokesperson on television is a signal. India and the world, especially the Islamic world, are interpreting it in ways that suggest that he, as head of the current government, is choosing inaction.
Maintaining silence is always an option and law enforcers warn suspects on their right to do so. The caution is good advice; it protects a suspect from the crime of perjury, which in India carries a maximum seven-year sentence. Inaction, when action is called for, is also an option; it is sometimes considered, always by hindsight, to be masterly and more often, an elemental reaction of fear or freeze in a dicey situation.
There are consequences for crying havoc and unleashing the dogs of war, as Mark Antony discovered in Shakespeare’s play. The world and India is astounded by the apparently sincere avowals of the Narendra Modi government’s commitment to the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom that is wrapped in the larger principles of tolerance, diversity, secularism, equality and justice as part of the allegedly stupendous efforts at “damage control”. The government’s apologists and the spokespersons of the external affairs ministry seem to have forgotten that Mr Modi and his ministers are oath-bound to defend the rights and values enshrined in India’s Constitution. No particular faked and fervent avowals of the “fringe element” kind and the “civilisational heritage and strong cultural traditions of unity in diversity” and the 75-year tradition of the “highest respect to all religions” variety is acceptable.
The Islamic world, spearheaded by Qatar’s protest and the expectation of “a public apology and immediate condemnation of these remarks from the Government of India”, are signs that the free pass that Mr Modi got after becoming Prime Minister in 2014 is being withdrawn. His failure to stop the 2002 pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat, when he was chief minister, had put him on the blacklist of several influential countries of the international community, including the United States. His efforts to retrieve his reputation were effective in that the world did business with him. That approval seems to be on the verge of being rescinded. And his silence and inaction are the problem.
There is no way in which a national spokesperson of the ruling party, who was also a candidate in the 2015 Delhi polls against the Aam Aadmi Party chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, can be described as a “fringe element”. The BJP certainly cannot. The suspension of Nupur Sharma was an empty gesture. The expulsion of Naveen Kumar Jindal, who headed the BJP’s media cell in Delhi, for amplifying her entirely reprehensible and deliberately provocative comment on television on behalf of her party, was a pointless exercise in shooting the messenger.
Neither has been booked for incendiary activities as the law provides under Section 295A IPC that penalises “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage the religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”. The only state that seems to be actively working on Ms Sharma’s hate speech is Maharashtra.
Complaints have been lodged across India, including in Delhi by Trinamul Congress leader Saket Gokhale, against Ms Sharma. As the Delhi police is under the home ministry and controlled by Amit Shah, it is obvious that there is a special dispensation protecting Ms Sharma from police action. In contrast, 54 persons were arrested by the Kanpur police over communal clashes that erupted after Ms Sharma’s comment and its social media amplification. The Kanpur police predictably identified the key conspirator behind the riots as one Hayat Zafar Hashmi and sundry alleged members of the Popular Front of India, a favourite target of the BJP government and establishment.
Jignesh Mevani, an MLA, was arrested from Gujarat and flown to Kokrajhar in Assam for his tweet on Mr Modi. Cartoonists, stand-up comedians and harmless individuals have been arrested and jailed for being critical of Mr Modi and calling out the BJP for its Hindutva politics. India’s Election Commission was compelled to act against hate speeches by the likes of Yogi Adityanath after intervention by the Supreme Court, but has refrained from gagging Mr Modi, who has used kabrasitan-shamshaan (Muslim graveyard-Hindu cremation ground) in political campaigns.
Narendra Modi and the BJP have got away with a great deal in India, where the police and the judiciary have shown an amazing capacity to recognise the obvious. The call for a public apology by the Government of India by Islamic nations is a message that Mr Modi is accountable for intensifying religious persecution and violence.
Mr Modi is free to imagine that his magnetic personality and right-wing Hindutva polarising politics made him a respected member of the top end of the global fraternity. If he thought so, it was delusional. India’s hard-earned goodwill as a secular, tolerant state in the years up to 2014 got him entry into places where he was earlier barred. He has to decide between pandering to his domestic constituency of bhakts, who are incidentally angry and are trolling him for his caving in to Islamic pressure, and the world that is beyond our borders.
The world is home to 60-80 lakh migrant Indians, who remit around $5 billion every year. The world is also an investor in India and a trading partner. Narendra Modi has to choose between silence and inaction that encourages the bhakt vote bank and the world that has India on a leash.