Ecosystem of hate and religious bigotry have dented India's secular image, writes A L I Chougule

The communal juggernaut that has been set rolling in India has not only dented India’s secular image, but bigotry and hate speech has been mainstreamed and normalised by the BJP’s spokespersons, TV anchors, and the so-called “fringe elements” of some of the right-wing organisations.

A L I ChouguleUpdated: Tuesday, June 14, 2022, 11:01 AM IST
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Former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma | Twitter/@NupurSharmaBJP

A product of the polarising ecosystem, the controversy over hate speech by BJP’s national spokesperson Nupur Sharma is not only a national embarrassment but has hurt India’s global image. As India faced flak from several Middle-East nations, the saffron party acted ten days after Nupur made objectionable comments on Prophet Muhammad and suspended her from the BJP. Along with Nupur, the BJP also expelled party member and head of its media cell in Delhi, Naveen Jindal, for his offensive tweet. Both were disingenuously dubbed “fringe elements” by the government. But a mere suspension in one case and expulsion in another is neither the appropriate action nor solution to the ecosystem of hate and religious bigotry against the minorities.

Although the BJP, through a press release on June 5, stated that “it strongly denounces insults of any religious personalities of any religion”, the government would have avoided the entire controversy had it acted according to the law against the offenders in a timely manner. Though the party reiterated that “it is also strongly against any ideology that insults and demeans any sect or religion”, for a long time its silence surrounding the communal utterances of right-wing loudmouths has been seen as a kind of indirect encouragement to the so-called “fringe elements” to continue with their vilification of the minorities without any consequence.

Notwithstanding the BJP’s emphasis on the rights guaranteed by India’s Constitution and its commitment to “making India a great country where all are equal and everyone lives with dignity, where all are committed to India’s unity and integrity and where all enjoy the fruits of growth and development”, the reality as regards the minorities, particularly Muslims, is something else ever since the BJP came to at the Centre power in 2014. Not only the ruling party is accused of having created an ecosystem of hate against the Muslims, the entire controversy around the Prophet and its fallout calls for some introspection within the establishment and the BJP to dispel any impression of condoning religious bigotry and to ensure that the fringe does not become the mainstream.

While the party’s statement emphasised general principles about the need to respect all faiths, its timing suggests that it was done to assuage feelings in the Islamic circles, including the Arab countries, which were outraged by Nupur’s comments on a TV debate. But the question is whether Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal are “fringe elements”. This was precisely the response of India’s ambassadors who were summoned by three Gulf nations over the two BJP leaders’ remarks on Prophet Muhammad. It's true that both Nupur and Naveen had no position in the government. But, by no stretch of imagination can they be called fringe elements. No political party appoints fringe elements as its national spokespersons.

The point is both had crossed the red lines of decency and the hate speech against Islam they peddled on television and social media was derogatory and reprehensible. The electoral majority does not entitle a political party and its members to believe that there are no red lines to their conduct. But time and again, red lines have been violated and the latest episode of hate speech is not a sudden eruption of bigotry but has been a regular feature of prime-time television as also of mainstream social and political discourse over the last eight years, more so, after the BJP’s emphatic victory in the 2019 general election.

Hard-line sections of the BJP and others of the saffron Parivar have been so emboldened that they have been regularly creating controversies and indulging in anti-minority rhetoric and actions with confidence and impunity without any fear of the law. But the government and the ruling party have preferred to remain silent, while the anti-minority woofing gets loud and shrill. The result is that there is no end to the peddling of hate by the so-called “fringe elements” of the saffron brigade, but more of it has been happening with even more brazenness because of official silence and lack of action against the offenders.

If the BJP has acted against its two spokespersons, it is largely because of the backlash their offensive comments evoked from many countries across the Islamic world, many of whom have robust ties with India. Apologies and declaration of respect for all religions notwithstanding, India’s global image and the country’s ties with the Arab world, where nearly 8 million Indians are employed, have taken a huge beating. By distancing itself from the comments of the BJP’s spokespersons, the government of India may have done some damage control but its stature as a diverse, secular, and pluralistic democracy stands diminished on the global stage.

The condemnation of hate speech for the sake of international optics is no remedy to the injury caused to India’s secular fabric by repeated instances of hate speech and religious bigotry. The government may be mistaken if it thinks it has resolved the problem with two suspensions, given the fact that targeting of Muslims by ruling party members and right-wing organisations has been happening for a long time and the same has been allowed to go unpunished and uncensored. While the BJP’s polarising agenda has worked in its favour in state and national elections, it has had its international ramifications in a highly-connected world.

Domestic politics does not exist in isolation or is disconnected from the world. No matter Prime Minister Modi’s claim of India as a plural, inclusive, and democratic nation on his visits abroad, the fact is that open minority-baiting by a section of the BJP under the prime minister’s watch exists. The communal juggernaut that has been set rolling in India has not only dented India’s secular image, but bigotry and hate speech has been mainstreamed and normalised by the BJP’s spokespersons, TV anchors, and the so-called “fringe elements” of some of the right-wing organisations.

(The writer is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist. He tweets at @ali_chougule)

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