The Taste With Vir: Did Nupur Sharma do anything wrong? What about free speech?
In this week's ‘The Taste with Vir’, Vir Sanghvi answers questions about what stand those who support free speech should take, regarding Nupur Sharma’s derogatory remarks on Prophet Muhammad, about people making fun of the Shivling and the waves of Muslim anger
Last week, as violent protests broke out over Nupur Sharma’s remarks on the Prophet, it became clear that the issue was not going to go away. The government may have finally contained the diplomatic fall-out but the domestic consequences are still unfolding.
For anyone who considers himself or herself a free speech liberal, what has happened is troubling. For all of the last week, I have been asking myself questions about what stand those of us who support free speech should take.
I have come up with some answers. They are probably not conclusive but for what it is worth, here are some of the answers I have come up with.
Q. Did Nupur Sharma do anything wrong?
A. For the last few days, social media has been full of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters arguing that Nupur Sharma’s remarks were fine and that she has been victimised.
Well, here is what she did wrong.
a) She was the official spokesperson of the BJP. The BJP’s stated policy is that it respects all religions. To speak about the Prophet in such disrespectful terms clearly breaches that policy. From the BJP’s point of view, she broke the carefully nurtured code by which the BJP says it is not against Islam, it is only against jihadis, pseudo-secularists and those who destroyed temples centuries ago. Her words demonstrated contempt for Islam. This is against the public stance of the BJP.
More cynically: the BJP’s strategy has been to keep the communal pot simmering, never letting it boil over. Nupur Sharma ignored that strategy and crossed a line.
b) There is tacit agreement among responsible politicians in India that, in the interests of maintaining communal harmony, nobody will speak contemptuously about religions on public platforms. The likes of Yogi Adityanath come dangerously close to breaking that consensus but they usually stop just short. The anti-Hindu, anti-Muslim, anti-Christian etc remarks are usually made by fringe politicians, not by official spokespersons of the ruling party.
Q: Was she provoked by people making fun of the Shivling?
A: Whatever the provocation, there is no doubt that her remarks went beyond the political consensus on restricting criticism of religions. But, it is not even clear that anybody of consequence made fun of the Shivling, let alone Shivji.
Various Hindu bodies claimed that a fountain at a mosque in Kashi was actually a Shivling. Several people were sceptical of this claim and pointed to other structures that could be mistaken for Shivlings. These remarks, made as jokes, were to emphasise what people saw as the absurdity of seeing Shivlings in every mosque.
This was not just the view of so-called ‘anti-Hindu secularists’. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat also objected to this endless search for Hindu symbols in every mosque. “Why look for a Shivling in every masjid?” Bhagwat said at an event in Nagpur on June 2.
To claim that people who made fun of the search for Shivlings in every mosque were being contemptuous of the Shivling or Shivji does not follow.
It certainly does not provide any justification for Nupur Sharma’s remarks about the Prophet.
Q: What about the right to free speech?
A: This is a difficult one. Let’s accept that when it comes to matters of religion, India has long restricted free speech. Films have been censored because of protests from religious groups and books (most notably The Satanic Verses but also Aubrey Menen’s Rama Retold) have been banned for fear of hurting religious sensibilities.
Judged on that basis, what Sharma said was at least as offensive as the things that have got books and films banned before and got individuals into trouble.
Except that, for anyone who believes in free speech, India’s record in this area is nothing to be proud of. In my view, we should never have banned The Satanic Verses. We should never have allowed Hindu extremists to drive MF Hussain out of this country.
I may be an exception; most Indian liberals do not always agree with me. I retweeted the Charlie Hebdo cover and have spoken out against all abridgement of free speech on religious grounds. In the West, this would not be out of the ordinary: It is hard to find educated people who supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie or believed that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was justified.
But in India, we put very strict boundaries on free speech in matters of religion. For instance, the Congress was in power when MF Hussain was hounded out of India. The government did not lift a finger to help him.
In my view, what Nupur Sharma said was deeply offensive to Muslims. But the law does not exist to protect people from being offended. In fact, free speech would be pointless if you excluded the right to offend people. (If nobody is ever going to be offended, then why do you need to protect free speech?)
Besides, this is a slippery slope. Once you support moves to censor or punish people because of their views on religions, where does this end? Tomorrow Yogi Adityanath’s police force may well start picking up people for “anti-Hindu statements.” (If it isn’t already happening.)
The BJP is right to suspend Nupur Sharma. She violated the party’s stated principles and went far beyond her brief as a spokesperson. It should have done so the day after she appeared on TV and not waited till an international uproar forced it to act.
But, contrary to what many liberals say, I am not convinced that she should suffer legal consequences or penalties.
Q: What about the waves of Muslim anger?
A: Three points.
One: just because people are angry, it does not follow that the law has to bend to their will. Muslims have every right to be angry or outraged. They are entitled to protest. But once their protests turn violent, the law must act against those indulging in violence.
Two: These protests are not spontaneous. For several days after Nupur Sharma made her remarks, there were no protests. The protests only begun after the government of India gave in to protests from Muslim countries and suspended Sharma. This is no spontaneous outpouring of anger.
And three: There is no doubt that those asking for the beheading of Nupur Sharma or asking for her to be put to death have no place in a civilised society. The law must act against them.
For those who say that prominent Hindus leaders have also, in the past, incited violence against Muslims, the only answer possible is: Yes, that was terrible too. The Modi government has been attacked for refusing to act against those leaders. But the government’s failures in those cases do not justify threats of beheading in this case.
There is no doubt that the ruling party has engendered a climate that ‘others’ Muslims and there is also no doubt that minorities are deprived of their rights and treated appallingly in many Indian states. But threatening to behead people will not change that.
Q: And finally, what will this do to the communal situation in India?
A: That's complicated. The Modi government knows that the Muslim world is now watching. So, it will tread carefully in the future. BJP spokespeople will be told to stick to the old line: Attack Muslims, not Islam itself.
But this is more dangerous. If these protests do not end soon, if the calls of beheading are not swiftly controlled or ended, then the BJP could benefit.
It will point to these reactions and suggest that Indian Muslims are violent fanatics and try and appeal to Hindu prejudices. A pliant media will pick this line up and feature obscure, angry fundamentalists each day, using them to caricature all Indian Muslims.
So, it is best to let the matter lie. Nupur Sharma has been publicly humiliated and suspended. The Modi government has had to bow to the Muslim world. Anything more could backfire — especially if it involves violence.