India has been thrust into a diplomatic firefight with Islamic nations due to a controversy ignited by BJP spokespersons’ remarks on the Muslim prophet Muhammad. The furor began after two spokespersons of the ruling party, the BJP, made derogatory references to Islam and Muhammad, forcing New Delhi into urgently trying to appease neighborhood Islamic nations and hardline Islamists that demanded nothing less than punishment for both, particularly whom they deemed to be the serial offender, one Nupur Sharma. The fact that it was a Hindu woman insulting Islam must have come as particularly galling. Responding to blatantly offensive and Hindu-phobic insults against a Hindu deity during a television debate on the flagship Times Now television channel, Sharma made the cardinal mistake of rebutting said insult by referring to the deemed inappropriateness of the Muslim prophet’s relationship with six-year-old Aisha.
Predictably, on Sunday, Qatar, Iran and Kuwait summoned India’s Ambassadors and expressed their strong protest and condemnation of the allegedly controversial remarks. On Monday, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, the Maldives, the UAE, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman and Afghanistan had also joined in. As Indian Express reported, “the BJP suspended its national spokesperson Nupur Sharma and expelled Delhi media head Naveen Kumar and amid protests by Muslim groups, the party also issued a statement aimed at assuaging the concerns of minorities and distancing itself from these members.”
Trying desperately not to upset the minority clique in the largest democracy in the world, and to retain cordial relationships with bullying Islamic satraps, BJP’s general secretary Arun Singh in a statement said, “BJP strongly denounces insult of any religious personalities of any religion.” The Indian Embassy in Doha and Kuwait subsequently issued statements clarifying that the comments “did not reflect the views of the Government of India”, and called those posting offensive tweets, as “fringe elements”, reported The Hindu. The report added that “an official dinner in honor of the visiting Indian Vice President Venkaiah Naidu to be held by the Deputy Emir of Qatar Abdullah bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani was also canceled on Sunday evening.”
The Indian Embassy, meanwhile, issued a statement that: “In line with our civilizational heritage and strong cultural traditions of unity in diversity, Government of India accords the highest respect to all religions,” read the statement, adding that “Strong action has already been taken against those who made the derogatory remarks.” New Delhi, however, slammed the statement made by the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), calling it “motivated, misleading and mischievous”.
Meanwhile, Nupur Sharma, the BJP’s suspended spokesperson, received threats of murder and rape and has seen her effigy hanging in parts of India, particularly Karnataka and despite being given police protection has had to plead with her critics that her home address not be disseminated across social media. Islamists are not requesting a prison sentence, or a harsh word or two against her, but her beheading.
While stone pelting, arson, rioting and looting predictably followed Friday prayers in India, Al Qaeda’s Indian subcontinent unit (AQIS) quietly threatened to carry out suicide attacks across India, such was the apparent insult of exercising freedom of speech in 2022. Amid this firestorm, Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian held apparently ‘urgent’ talks with external affairs minister S. Jaishankar in Delhi on his first official visit on Wednesday and met prime minister Narendra Modi the day after.
This is remarkable not least because in a liberal, secular society such as India, as compared to the Islamist nations that are criticizing it, her citizens must not allow religious bigotry and mob rule to override freedom of expression, which is what Ms. Sharma was exercising, no matter how ‘offensive’ the content a Muslim might find said content to be.
Interestingly, the Left in India as well as professed lovers of freedom of speech around the world have remained mute in light of Islamist bullying, choosing to remain silent while two government employees are in fear of their life for daring to utter words. For them the fact that Islam was so blatantly insulted is more of a crime than the myriad of death threats hurled toward both politicians.
That silence is motivated by fear – not only fear of reprisals, such as succumbing to the street violence that has already gripped India, but also fear of being labelled an ‘Islamophobe’ or a ‘racist’ or a ‘Hindu fascist’ for daring to challenge those who protest against any critique or rebuke of Islamist doctrine. India does not possess a blasphemy law, but liberal cowardice has ensured that its threat is no longer illusory, it remains a second-tier legal system within a country where the majority is non-Muslim.
Despite an allegedly ‘right-wing’ and ‘nationalist’ and ‘populist’ government at the helm through Modi’s governing BJP who allegedly crushing Muslims underfoot since 2014, Indian society still readily gives in to the censorious demands of Islamist hardliners and extremist fringes that are not willing to accept a formal apology from either spokesperson but wish to take matters into the arena of lynching and physical violence. From India to Israel the consequence for criticizing Islam is the same.
This year will mark the 75th year of India’s partition after booting out the colonial forces of the British Empire, and much like the United States, no one in India has the right to dictate what other people can think, say, critique or analyze. Whether it is discussing foreign policy, the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, the Koran, alleged hate speech or alleged blasphemy, the dignity and absolute sanctity of free expression must be preserved, respected and fought for. That is what separates modern, enlightened societies from those lorded over by barbarians.