The storm that two disgraced BJP spokesmen have caused because of their reckless comments about the Prophet of Islam has now begun to cause harm within India. Last week anger erupted outside mosques after Friday prayers in cities across the country. This is a fire that could burn down the edifice that Narendra Modi has so carefully constructed using the pillars of welfarism and nationalism. In the advertisements that promote his government’s achievements, he says that he has worked for the nation’s good like a ‘member of the family’. Did he not notice that there were almost no Muslims in this family and that his party spokesmen just made this brutally clear?
If religion had not become part of our political discourse, none of this would have happened. But, because it has, we have a situation in which BJP spokespersons appear to have been encouraged to demean Islam. Wiser spokespersons would have known that to mock the Prophet of Islam was opening the doors to a discourse that can only end badly because then why should Hindus mind if the response is for Muslims to start mocking Hindu religious practices and gods? We may not have books that ordain punishments for unbelievers, but we have a caste system that kept a huge swathe of Hindus outside temples because priests decided that they were ‘untouchable’.
What is essential as Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal may have discovered is for the official spokespersons of political parties to stay away from religious commentary. If this lesson has been learned from the shame and embarrassment their words have caused India, then some good may have come from this ugly incident. This seems unlikely, though, if you keep in mind that for months now, BJP spokespersons have been intentionally spreading hatred against Muslims and Islam. In achieving this end, they have been assisted by friendly, private news channels and by that vast theatre of absurdity and abuse that is offered by social media.
They have used it mostly to make the case that Indian Muslims are all traitors because they put religion above the nation. No opportunity has been missed to make this case. When COVID arrived in Delhi, preachers from Islamic countries were blamed for bringing it with them to a religious conference. Many spent months in jail. When the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) caused Muslims to protest a discriminatory amendment, they were called traitors. When Article 370 was abrogated abruptly and without consulting the Kashmiri people, those who protested in the Valley were also called traitors. The list goes on and on.
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The campaign against Muslims and Islam by BJP officials has been most effective on Twitter and has a pattern. As someone who routinely points out that gathering in a mob to lynch some middle-aged Muslim farmer shows despicable cowardice, I am routinely bombarded with pictures of Hindus who have been killed by Muslims. The first tweet will usually accuse me for not speaking up when the victims are Hindu and then will come a barrage of tweets that attack me personally. The message I get is that if I continue to say that targeting a huge minority ceaselessly will end up harming India more than the Muslim community, then I am a traitor. The harm that it has done to India is now apparent.
The attack on the Prophet by spokespersons of India’s ruling party has angered the leaders of Islamic countries with whom we do a great deal of business and from where Indian workers send half of our total remittances. These workers are among our poorest citizens. They already suffer discrimination and horrible working conditions but are forced to continue living their sad, lonely lives because it is not possible for them to earn that well in the home country in the jobs they do. After this episode, will they face more discrimination? Will some countries ban them from entering?
Clearly the Government of India was unprepared for the outrage that has come from nearly every Islamic country, or the fallout would have been more deftly handled. The Vice President of India was in Qatar when the insult to the Prophet started to cause a furore in the Islamic world. A banquet that was meant to honour him was also cancelled, ostensibly over a Covid incident. Surely, the poor man could have been given some advance warning. Then came that description of official spokesmen of the ruling party as ‘fringe elements’, which will go down as one of the silliest responses in diplomatic history.
The finale has been abject apologies from India on behalf of the BJP, but will the BJP learn any lessons from shaming Bharat Mata in this way? Will it tell its spokesmen to avoid attacking Islam in the manner they have so far? Will they turn down the hate campaign against Muslims that has now begun to create riots across the country? If these things happen it is possible that a small amount of good can come from this very unpleasant episode. But Nupur Sharma is on record saying that after she made her remarks about the Prophet, she was assured by senior BJP leaders that they would support her. This means that the campaign of hatred against Muslims will continue until it reaches a point when it causes another international embarrassment for India. What it will do to the fabric of Indian society is another story altogether.