"The BJP strongly denounces insults of any religious personalities of any religion. The BJP is also against any ideology which insults or demeans any sect or religion. The BJP does not promote such people or philosophy.”
Employing these words, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in a statement issued on Sunday, 5 June, suspended party spokesperson Nupur Sharma and expelled their Delhi unit’s media cell head Naveen Jindal from the party’s primary membership.
This denunciation and the removal (suspension and expulsion) of the two leaders came (approximately 10 days) after Sharma made derogatory comments on Prophet Mohammad during a TV debate on Times Now, and (five days) after Jindal tweeted a similar remark about the Prophet.
It also arrived amid vocal disapproval and summoning of Indian ambassadors by Middle-Eastern countries.
The developments are reported to have panned out in the following order:
On 26 May: Nupur Sharma made the controversial remarks on Times Now
On 1 June: Naveen Jindal tweeted his controversial remark
On 4 June: The Grand Mufti of the Sultanate of Oman, Ahmed bin Hamad al-Khalili decried the comments and some markets in the Gulf pulled Indian products
On 5 June: BJP put out their statement and suspended Sharma and expelled Jindal. On the same day Qatar, Kuwait and Iran summoned Indian ambassadors
But even as Sharma and Jindal have, amid the intensifying clamour of criticism emanating from Islamic nations, been denounced and brushed aside by the BJP, it's worth noting that neither Sharma nor Jindal are the first BJP leaders to have spoken out similarly controversial commentary.
Unfiltered Communal Commentary
In an unabashed, undisguised and undeterred cloudburst of communal hatred, BJP MLA Baldev Singh Aulakh was quoted by India Today in 2021 as having said:
“The people of the Muslim community only eat and drink and produce children... Education, or upliftment of their children have never been their priority.”
Following his party’s win in the UP polls in 2022, Aulakh was quoted by Times Now as saying that the “bulldozer will run faster now" since Muslims, according to him, did not back the BJP.
Meanwhile, only days before Karni Sena chief Suraj Pal Amu (the same person who had announced a bounty on actor Deepika Padukone’s head in 2017) was named Haryana BJP spokesperson in June 2021, he was spotted fanning communal fires in defence of those who had allegedly lynched a 30-year-old gym trainer called Asif.
In a video that went viral on Twitter, Amu, surrounded by an audience of thousands, could be heard saying:
“Muslim brothers? What brothers? These (slur) are butchers…they say Section 144 is in place, arre impose whatever orders you want, who is ready to face cases? Raise your hands…every Hindu has the ability to enter your home.”
Meanwhile, Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam Mishra – famous for objecting to a host of things including scenes from 'A Suitable Boy' to a Dabur Ad showing a lesbian couple celebrating Karva Chauth – stoked controversy yet again when he directly blamed Muslims for the clashes that ensued in Khargone in April.
Amid escalating tensions over clashes during a Ram Naval procession, Mishra was quoted by NDTV as saying:
"If Muslims carry out such attacks then they should not expect justice.”Narottam Mishra
He also defended the state government's decision to (not await due legal process) go ahead and demolish homes of those who were alleged to have thrown stones at the procession. Mishra reportedly claimed that the demolition was being carried out only after it was established that the property being razed was illegal.
On being asked why all those accused of riots belonged to the muslim community, the minister, according to NDTV said:
"But who did the ghapla (offence)? You are not talking about that?"
Further, in an article claiming that Facebook had not acted against allegedly provocative posts by BJP MLA T Raja Singh and others, The Wall Street Journal had in August 2020 reported:
"T Raja Singh has said Rohingya Muslim immigrants should be shot, called Muslims traitors and threatened to raze mosques.”
In the aftermath of the report, Facebook reportedly termed him “dangerous individual” and banned his account in September that year.
Could it/Couldn't It? More Ambiguous Routes
While Aulakh, Amu, Singh and Mishra may be perceived as examples of those who were loud and clear, others may have (at least on the following occasions) chosen to be a bit more ambiguous.
In September 2021, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath used the Urdu term for ‘father’ in a seemingly pejorative sense, saying that rations distributed by the previous state government went only to those who say “abba jaan”.
Upset by the way the chief minister had used the term, netizens, however, started a campaign with the hashtag HamaareAbbaJaan, asking people to post a photo of their ‘Abbajaan’ and share their fathers’ stories to demonstrate “what parental love stands for”. They also said:
“It is sad that the CM of Uttar Pradesh thinks that a beautiful word like Abbajaan (beloved father) should be used as a dog whistle. It is an attempt to strip a section of citizens of the dignity and transform lovely words into abuses."
The CM subsequently defended his use of the term, saying according to PTI:
"I have not taken any names. They want Muslim votes, why should they shun it? Is it an unparliamentary word? It is not. No one should have any problem with it.”
But the campaign failed to deter the chief minister from using it again. Reacting to AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi’s demand for withdrawal of the Citizenship Amendment Act, the CM once again, in November that year, reportedly said:
"I am asking followers of 'chacha jaan' (uncle) and 'abba jaan' (father) to listen carefully that if attempts are made to vitiate the atmosphere of the state by inciting feelings, the state government will deal with it strictly.”
Months before he was appointed chief minister, Yogi Adityanath had, in January 2017, according to NDTV, also praised then US President Donald Trump for his temporary ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries, and had said, "Similar action is needed to contain terror activities in this country."
The Election Commission had banned BJP’s Anurag Thakur from campaigning for 72 hours in the run up to the Delhi Assembly Elections (2020), after he had garnered infamy for having allegedly chanted the first part of the inflammatory “Desh ke gaddaron ko” slogan.
This specific slogan, which in its entirety means “shoot the traitors”, had come into fore amid escalating tensions over the anti-CAA protests and ahead of the North-East Delhi riots.
On being asked about the slogan, Thakur had according to ANI, accused the press of lying and said, “You people should first enhance your knowledge. Half knowledge is dangerous. Matter is sub judice so I'm not commenting further.”
Thakur was Minister of State (MoS) for Finance and Corporate Affairs when the controversy had erupted. On 7 July 2021, he was made Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting.
But What is the Impact of Such Comments on Society? And What Does the Law Say?
While hate speech has not been defined in any Indian law, it is rife with dangers and also not legally permissible. Commenting on the dangers of hate-speech, the Supreme Court had said in its 2014 Pravasi Bhali Sangathan judgment,
"Hate speech lays the groundwork for later, broad attacks on vulnerable sections that can range from discrimination, to ostracism, segregation, deportation, violence and, in the most extreme cases, to genocide."
Also as observed by the Law Commission in a 2017 report:
“Where speech injures dignity, it will do more harm than simply offend its target. It would undermine the “implicit assurance” that citizens of a democracy, particularly minorities or vulnerable groups are placed on the same footing as the majority. While the right to criticise any group should continue to exist, speech that negates the right of a vulnerable group should be regulated.”
So how is hate speech restricted if it is not defined?
Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) penalises ‘promotion of enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony’
Section 295A, meanwhile, penalises ‘deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs’
Section 298 on its part penalises ‘uttering, words, etc, with deliberate intent to wound the religious feelings of any person’, and
Sections 505 (1) and (2) penalise publication or circulation of any statement, rumour or report causing public mischief and enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes
It is a different matter, however, that these legislations around hate-speech rarely appear to have much impact on legislators, themselves.
Even if an FIR or two is registered against powerful government people, those cases are often thrown out in courts of law.
When even that doesn't happen, protection from arrest is accorded or bail is quickly granted and those cases, barring exceptions, are left to gather dust in forgotten corners for years on end. The Supreme Court was recently informed that as of December 2021, nearly 4,984 criminal cases were pending in subordinate courts against sitting and former lawmakers. The figure had risen from 4,110 in December 2018.
Thus, profanities and propaganda targeted to alienate and ostracise entire groups of people appear to continue unchecked in a repeated, almost systemic, manner.
Returning to the issue at hand, however, summoned by the Qatar government, Ambassador Deepak Mittal said Nupur Sharma’s comments "do not, in any manner, reflect the views of the Government of India".
"These are the views of fringe elements," he added.
(With inputs from The Wall Street Journal, The Print, India Today, NDTV and TimesNow.)