India’s liberals cannot derive much satisfaction from the strong protest statements made by the foreign offices of the Gulf Arab states, and by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) or the Al Azhar University in Cairo, over the remarks about Prophet Muhammad by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) former spokeswoman, Nupur Sharma. She has now been suspended. If anything, protests by the Arab governments weaken the case of Indian liberals.
Indian Muslims, too, are placed in an embarrassing position by this unwanted expression of support and solidarity. The fight against the Hindutva ideology that’s being furthered by the BJP cannot be sustained by support from Arab polities, where liberal freedoms are shaky. Indian liberals also cannot cite the condemnation registered by illiberal Arab governments to say that the Modi government and the BJP’s intolerance is unacceptable.
The fight against the Hindutva ideology that’s being furthered by the BJP cannot be sustained by support from Arab polities, where liberal freedoms are shaky.
It is easy to point a finger at Muslims for their sensitivity to the remarks made about Prophet Muhammad, but devout Hindus in India and abroad have displayed the same sensitivity towards their religious symbols. Sikhs in India have not been far behind either.
Followers of Hindutva treat every Muslim as a fanatic, and they feel the need to push Muslims into a corner in the name of the secular laws of India.
Nupur Sharma is not a ‘fringe’ element. She is the poster woman of domineering and militant Hinduism, the new political creed of the majority of Hindu voters.
The BJP now cannot expect to taste electoral victories without the sting of militant Hindutva it has set in motion.
Can India Afford Full Liberties?
In an ideal situation of liberal freedoms, a statement made against Prophet Muhammad cannot be criminalised, however distasteful it might be. On the same grounds, any statement against Hindu gods cannot be criminalised either. The rule holds good for other religions, too, such as Sikhism and Christianity. But the situation on the ground requires that these statements about each other’s core religious beliefs are restricted and penalised to maintain public peace and order. We must accept that we are not yet a mature democracy and that we cannot afford full liberties. In India, fanatics in each religious group may want to attack other religious groups verbally and otherwise, but they want their own religious symbols to be protected.
Of course, often, we find religious conservatives arguing that they will not attack others’ religious sentiments and they do not want themselves to be attacked. It can be considered an uneasy truce among the devout from different religions.
It is easy to point a finger at the Muslims for their sensitivity to the remarks made about Prophet Muhammad, but devout Hindus in India and abroad have displayed the same sensitivity towards their religious symbols. Sikhs in India have not been far behind either.
Ordinary Muslims have largely been respectful towards other religions, including those from the sister faiths of Jews and Christians, as well as from Hindus, Jains and Buddhists, who are from different families of faiths altogether.
There is no one group that can be exclusively identified as Muslims – there are Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Afghans, Berbers, North Africans, etc. Orthodox Islam, going by the Quran, and the sayings of the Prophet, says that no religion or no god can be ridiculed. The concept of idolatry was confined to Arabia and the Kaaba. So, the practices of Muslims differed as their armies spread far in the first century from 632 when the Prophet passed away, and 732, when the Arab armies reached Spain in the West and Sind in the East.
Liberty Is the Keyword
The Turks in India were busy establishing their political kingdoms in India for the next 600 years, and some of them destroyed temples as part of their zealotry, which is not sanctioned by Islam. But this is a quibble. The Turkish troops professed Islam and their desecrated temples as part of their faith. But the policy changed when they settled down to rule in India. So, many temples were destroyed, and many temples were left standing. And thus, many Muslims have to carry that burden today.
But Muslims have changed, the historical conditions have changed, and the Muslims have come to a fresh understanding on the issue of multiplicity of faiths.
The world transformed radically with the advent of modernity in 19th and 20th centuries’ Europe, which has become the civilisational paradigm for the rest of the world; liberty has become the keyword. The Charlie Hebdo case in France has indeed turned out to be the test case. The French satirical magazine had time and again taken a stance of its own to attack Prophet Muhammad, and it provoked fanatics – not Muslims in general – to indulge in retaliatory murders of Charlie Hebdo journalists.
Hindus are Turning Militant
In India, freedom of belief, including that of lampooning others, is axiomatic. But modern Hindus are turning militant, and BJP’s Hindutva is riding on this wave of militancy. With Hindutva keen to make Hinduism the dominant religion, friction with other faiths becomes inevitable.
But other countries will formulate their policies towards a Hindu India differently from how they see a modern, secular India.
Followers of Hindutva treat every Muslim as a fanatic, and they feel the need to push Muslims into a corner in the name of the secular laws of India. Hindutva zealots are not interested in the egalitarian spirit of secularism as much as using secular laws to snub Muslims, as revenge for the tyranny of ancient Muslim kings in the country. The spirit of vengeance that informs the spirit of Hindutva makes for a war-like confrontation with other faiths. Militancy is the main plank of Hindutva, and the BJP and Prime Minister Modi cannot distance themselves from it. They can win elections on the promise of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’, which has now become the proverbial opium of the Hindu voter, at least across the Hindi heartland.
Nupur Sharma, then, is not a ‘fringe’ element. She is the poster woman of domineering and militant Hinduism, the new political creed of the majority of Hindu voters.
Modi has not won elections on the basis of his developmental programmes – neither in Gujarat as Chief minister nor in the Lok Sabha as Prime Minister. And thus, he cannot expect to taste electoral victories without the sting of militant Hindutva.
(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist. He tweets @ParsaJr. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)