Some worrying questions have been raised by the Nupur Sharma episode
How did institutions react to this imbroglio which posed a threat to a woman’s life? Instead of dispassionate analysis, many exacerbated matters.
Can India stay a liberal society for long? Even at the risk of sounding alarmist, values such as pluralism, freedom of conscience, and free speech – the lynchpin of Indian civilisation – are under threat. The space for honest debate is getting restricted, and bigotry is being passed off as a service to secularism.
Former Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Nupur Sharma, responding to an insult to a Hindu deity by a fellow panellist in a TV debate, made controversial remarks about Prophet Mohammed. Soon, sans any discussion or trial, she was pronounced guilty of “blasphemy and hate speech” by an ecosystem, which ironically calls itself secular and liberal.
According to many Islamic scholars, blasphemy is an unpardonable offence, punishable by death. Numerous believers are willing to risk their lives to execute those accused of blasphemy. The extent of danger to Sharma’s life can be gauged by the fact that even those who supported her on social media — Kanhaiya Lal of Udaipur and Umesh Kolhe of Amravati — were attacked and killed by radicalised Muslims. This danger has now been registered even in the Supreme Court (SC), which has granted her interim protection from arrest.
Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, Pakistan, was shot dead by one of his bodyguards in 2011 because he suggested toning down the blasphemy law in an Islamic nation. Novelists Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen have been in hiding, fearing for their lives. Samuel Paty, a teacher in France, was knifed to death in 2020 after a student alleged that he showed his students offending cartoons drawn by Charlie Hebdo.
How did institutions react to this imbroglio which posed a threat to a woman’s life? Instead of dispassionate analysis, many in the media exacerbated matters. Pretending to be fighting against hate, several newspapers and channels, knowingly or unknowingly, unleashed hatred. The benighted system saw in Sharma a trope to be weaponised against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the ensuing kerfuffle, natural justice, rationality, and reason were obvious casualties.
Facing a serious threat to her life, Sharma moved the SC, seeking clubbing of multiple cases filed against her in various parts of the country. In its verbal observations, the apex court not only repeated the charges of blasphemy and hate against her, but also accused the beleaguered woman of being guilty of the gruesome beheading of Kanhaiya Lal. The SC’s bench of justices Surya Kant and JB Pardiwala said, “This lady is single-handedly responsible for setting fire across the country.” On her counsel’s repeated pleas that she had withdrawn her comments the next day and tendered an apology, the bench said, “It was too late in the day to withdraw”. When her counsel said that even if the first information reports were taken at face value, there was no offence as to what she said has been already said by the community’s religious preachers, the bench said, “The petitioner also shows her obstinate character and her arrogance that the courts are too small for her to go and appear.” On Tuesday, the top court took note of the death and rape threats against her and moved to grant her relief.
Even as Sharma faced sharp criticism in the SC and the media, huge rallies (many of them violent), were being taken out by enraged Muslims in India and Pakistan. One such frenzied rally was held on June 17 at Nizam Gate of Ajmer dargah. The enraged crowd shouted, “Gustakh-e-Nabi ki Ek Hi Saza, Sar Tan se Juda Sar Tan se Juda” (there is the only punishment for the insult to the Prophet, beheading). Was there any outrage against this call for violence with religious undertones? None. Now, investigators are exploring a connection between the rally and the Udaipur beheading.
Sharma is in hiding, maybe for a long time or even the rest of her life. There is silence among liberals over her plight. For many, her predicament is an opportunity to embarrass the Modi regime. However, this triumph will be temporary, for Sharma’s case eventually will become a precedent, allowing mobocracy and bigotry, on all sides, to overrun rationality and reason.
Balbir Punj is a former Member of Parliament and a columnist
The views expressed are personal