The suspension of BJP Spokesperson Nupur Sharma for offensive targeting of Prophet Mohammad is a victory for civility. That the government was forced to suspend its spokesperson and disown her in the wake of reprimands by Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iran is a reminder that targeting minorities with impunity, and hate speech with official sanction, will have repercussions for India’s global reputation. It was not human rights lectures from great powers like the United States, but the power of illiberal states like Qatar, that humiliated India. The sheer cretinism of the BJP was called out and how.
The moral scandal of this episode is also the fact that it took Qatar and Kuwait to get the government of India to respond. The intrinsic vileness of speech, the criticism from Indian citizens, and the violence instigated in the name of speech was not enough to move the government. It also showed the ways in which the political Opposition has failed both minorities and the cause of civility. But, in the end, all that worried the government were short-term reputational costs. Even here, India may have lost the plot by trying to be too clever by half. No one will believe that a spokesperson was a “fringe” element; the insincerity in the government’s response is palpable. The BJP spokesperson’s comments were not fringe; they drew on deep reservoirs of Islamophobia that are now becoming common sense in political and elite circles.
This kind of speech has happened far too often for the government’s apology to be credible. This is not the first time the BJP has had to back track. For instance, Member of Parliament Tejasvi Surya was on a previous occasion forced into a seeming apology, but it did not change the culture of the party. This time, the humiliation is unprecedented. This episode might lead the government to reflect on its conduct and the poisonous culture it has spawned. Exemplarity is not everything, but it does matter in international relations. But there is reason to be pessimistic that this short-term blow on behalf of civility will be weaponised to endanger both free speech and communal harmony in the long run.
To understand why this tactical reprieve should not make us complacent, we have to understand the BJP’s long-term strategy. It is what might be called a “heads we win, tails you lose strategy.” The strategy is this. Say things with impunity about minorities, show your toughness by baiting Islam. Convert tractable political disputes into a whole-scale ideological attack on Islam or Muslims. If you get away with it, you claim credit for showing the strength of Hindus, for a kind of tough bravado. If, on the other hand, there is a reaction of any kind, a push-back, you turn around and claim victim status. If impunity succeeds, you gain power. If impunity fails, you convert that into fodder for a feigned victimhood on which Hindutva thrives. And that is exactly how the BJP will play this humiliation in the broader poisoning of civil society.
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Political discourse around speech in India is like quicksand, where pretty much every argument is drawn into the vortex of communalism. We have to take a longer-term view here. In this instance, the fact that the speech in question was made by an official spokesperson of the party, and widely propagated, unchallenged, by India’s communal and supine television media, made the vile remarks on Prophet Mohammad particularly dangerous. But we would be digging our heads in the sand if we did not recognize this political fact: The easiest way to grow Islamophobia globally is by using speech about Prophet Mohammad either to claim that defenders of free speech are hypocritical, or provoke some kind of violent reaction, as happened in Kanpur. That was the script the BJP intended. Almost all turning points in generating anti-Muslim sentiment, from Rangila Rasool to Satanic Verses, from Charlie Hebdo to the Danish cartoons, have played out to the same script. And the reaction, each time, paradoxically both weakens liberalism and strengthens Islamophobia simultaneously. There is nothing about the current national humiliation that will change this script.
This requires that the follow-up to this episode does not just exult in a short-term victory but displays moral and political sophistication. Nupur Sharma’s case was an easy case, because of the official status of the spokesperson. In this case, except in Kanpur, the push-back was entirely in the realm of opinion and condemnation, which is where it should be. But you can be sure about two things. More baiting using the Prophet will come, this time with more plausible deniability. We will also get more instances, and demands, to protect alleged offenses against other religions, where definitions of blasphemy and hate speech will be stretched and relevant moral distinctions about the context of utterances will be obscured.
The purpose will be to make speech an object of competitive mobilization and drive home one point: To re-instigate the view that there are double standards, that Hindu gods are victims left to fend for themselves, while the whole world rushes to defend the Prophet , using state power. So liberals will have to be careful about how to handle this trap. They will have to learn to take a more consistent stance on blasphemy and hate speech and have the courage not to valorise legal instruments like FIRs and arrests as an answer to every social pathology. The condemnation of bad speech will be strengthened, not weakened, by a more robust and consistent protection for free speech.
A good regime on speech requires three things. Maximal legal protection for speech possible. A political culture that resists competitive communal mobilization. Strong social norms that have a sense of delicacy and judgement, where we understand that the enjoyment of freedom sometimes also requires the good sense not to use it, especially for destructive ends. India does not have any of the three.
Its legal culture and application of state power in speech cases is arbitrary. Its political culture is stoking communal passions using speech. It does not have a social culture which increasingly does not understand that setting ourselves up as saviors of gods and prophets might be an even deeper blasphemy, that the best way to deal with offensive people is to treat them as utterly banal and irrelevant and make them marginal. This is even harder to do when majoritarianism is so ascendant. Ultimately, the project of reconciling freedom and harmony is one that Indian citizens will have to craft. A grudging concession to geo-political vulnerabilities is not a substitute for that larger conversation.