How will Nupur Sharma’s hate speech change Indian politics?

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Over the past few years, India has experienced enormous social conflict. Friday saw another round of protests as Muslims hit the streets across the country. In some cases, these demonstrations led to violence. In Ranchi, two protestors were shot dead. In Howrah in West Bengal, there was widespread property damage, including reports of Bharatiya Janata Party offices being vandalised. In Uttar Pradesh, the homes of alleged protestors were demolished by the government, as part of a new pattern where collective punishment is summarily meted out to claimed offenders, mostly Muslim, without legal process.

This latest round of communal bloodletting was sparked by derogatory comments about the Prophet Mohammad by a BJP spokesperson named Nupur Sharma on May 27. This was no slip of the tongue: Sharma made those comments on several TV channels. A few days later, another party spokesperson, Naveen Jindal, posted similar comments on Twitter.

Initially, the BJP did not react. In fact, Sharma even appeared on several TV channels to defend her remarks. It was only nine days later, when the incident created an international storm, with dozens of nations condemning India, that the party took action, hurriedly suspending Sharma and expelling Jindal.

Abuse of holy figures is a new communalism

Communalism has seen a sharp intensification in the past few years. Even taking that into account, what Sharma and Jindal did was quite unprecedented. The abuse of gods and prophets has not been a part of Indian politics – and certainly never at a level as senior as party spokesperson or at a forum with as wide a reach as a national television channel.

There is a good reason for this. Even though communal identity politics clearly does have mass purchase, this sort of abuse against the symbols of religion has little currency among Indians. This is a ubiquitous fact of Indian life, perhaps the most quirky expression of which is the tiles imprinted with religious imagery being placed on public walls to prevent littering. There is good data to prove this point. In 2021, for example, a survey by the American think tank Pew Research Center showed that an overwhelming number of Indians felt that respecting all religions was a “core value”.

As a result, even in this age where Hindutva is ascendant, abuse of the Prophet does not find approval among ordinary Hindus. A survey by CVoter shows that action against Sharma had wide support even among Hindus as well as those who voted for Modi in 2019.

In fact, the line that Sharma and Jindal crossed was so egregious and the backlash so severe that their own party has now disowned them. A report in the Indian Express on Sunday talking to a host of senior BJP leaders brings out that the party is keen to push the narrative that it does not support Sharma and Jindal and their remarks about the Prophet Mohammad. “You can expose Muslims, slam terrorist activities, but humiliating the Prophet is crossing a red line,” an unidentified BJP Chief Minister told the paper. “Both Nupur and Naveen have crossed all limits of civility.”

Constant communal messaging from top will change India’s middle

However, politics is a dynamic thing. That Sharma’s remarks have little popular purchase at the moment is one thing. But the fact that such senior Indian politicians could publicly broach such a taboo in Indian public life will also have a top-down impact in simultaneously shifting the needle on what is considered acceptable.

In fact, this has been the dynamic since the BJP took power in 2014. Muscular Hindu nationalism, often accompanied by state violence against Muslims, has been pushed from the top. Simultaneously, bottom-up manifestations of Hindutva (for example, cow protection gangs) are also endorsed and its perpetrators protected by the state, giving it a massive boost. Hindi and English-language national television media has also been weaponised, encouraging radical Hindutva programming.

There is no doubt that Hindutva is genuinely popular among a section of Indian Hindus. But to understand exactly how its extreme manifestations have been pushed by forces at the top, it is useful to consider the situation in non-BJP states. Many of the extremes of Hindutva such as beef lynchings, hijab bans and the demolition of Muslim houses do not occur in states like West Bengal or Tamil Nadu.

To add to this, while Hindutva might be popular, it by itself is not enough to win elections. That is why the BJP is welfarist in its approach. However, given that it practically owns the issue of Hindutva and Hindu political identity, any ratcheting up of communal tensions will help the party.

The party might have suspended Sharma but by crossing a sacrosanct line in Indian politics, which in turn led to violent conflict, she has helped the BJP by pushing India further to the right.

In the short term, while Sharma might have faced punishment, clearly this dynamic of constantly pushing the limits of what is acceptable will be too powerful for the BJP to resist. This, of course, might not mean doing anything as egregious Sharma did, at least in the short term. But it is clear that BJP leaders will constantly be incentivised to push a more and more radical ideology from the top in the hope of yanking Indians increasingly to the right.

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