BJP’s “Image” & Nupur Sharma’s Comments!

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The repeatedly tried measure by certain master-strategists of provoking communal tension, dividing votes along religious lines, polarising vote-banks for electoral gains appears to have backfired considerably this time. Yes, this refers to socio-political and diplomatic reaction to Nupur Sharma’s objectionable comments. Till recently, Nupur- former BJP spokesperson- was hardly known in national and international circles. Now, her “popularity” is reportedly increasing daily.

Impact of her comments is apparently being more unnerving for several BJP-stalwarts than they probably expected. It is not the first and only time that certain “fringe elements” of saffron-brigade’s political wing have gone overboard in literally displaying communal venom against Muslims and their beliefs. This communal formula has been frequently tried by BJP to polarize Indian voters along “religious” lines. Speeches delivered during electoral campaigns and other means of communication in the Hindi belt tend to deliberately exercise anti-Muslim tirade. Diplomatically, these have spelt little or no trouble for BJP leaders. Nupur’s comments, however, have not been spared criticism of Arab world.

All the importance accorded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to boosting his “image” has probably suffered a strong shock. He is apparently fairly apprehensive about it having been considerably deflated at home and abroad, particularly among Arab leaders. With respect to politicking at home, what is probably proving to be a major irritant for him and other BJP leaders is the “publicity” earned by Nupur in this game. They are probably also extremely alarmed about “popularity” and “support” gained by Nupur in fairly active social media outlets, regarded as mouthpieces of right-winged sections linked with saffron brigade. This is not what Modi and his key circle were probably prepared for.

Diplomatically, Modi cannot afford to loudly and openly express support for Nupur. Neither can he take risk of strongly criticizing Nupur. Not surprisingly, she has been suspended and not expelled from BJP. Please note, she has only been suspended while BJP’s media head of Delhi unit, Naveen Kumar Jindal has been expelled from the party. The outrage provoked by Nupur’s “comments” probably prompted Jindal to post a tweet along similar lines, which was later deleted by him. However, his tweet led to limited reaction compared to that received by Nupur’s comments. The same may be said about support for Nupur being displayed by right-winged social media, apparently linked with saffron brigade. If several Muslim countries had not issued statements regarding Nupur’s comments, it is possible, BJP may not have taken any action against her and/or Jindal.

Given her academic background, it is difficult to accept that Nupur was unaware of the impact that her comments could have. Rather, the nature of aggressive debates on certain channels appear to be directed in this direction, that of causing social disturbance. Besides, then as BJP spokesperson, participation in television debates for this purpose was apparently a part of her responsibility. Once this disturbance dies down, it wouldn’t be surprising if her suspension is withdrawn.

Modi and BJP-stalwarts, as mentioned earlier, are at present probably alarmed by increasing popularity of Nupur and support displayed for her among their own cadre. They probably want this to fade away. It isn’t surprising that comments from her haven’t received any coverage following her so-called apology via tweet. She wrote, “If my words have caused discomfort or hurt religious feelings of anyone whatsoever, I hereby unconditionally withdraw my statement. It was never my intention to hurt anyone’s religious feelings” (June 5). Interestingly, she has withdrawn her statement, which has received coverage as her “apology.”

With respect to “support” displayed for her on ground of her “freedom of speech” and so forth, there is a difference between freedom of speech and exercising the same aggressively in a provocative manner. Democracy and freedom of speech do not permit their abuse and/or aggressive use. Similarly, right to worship and freedom of religion does not permit, constitutionally, practice of violence and/or abuse of anyone on religious grounds. Secularism, as per constitutional norms and dictates, permits practice of one’s religion but does not allow targeting others (irrespective of their religion, caste, class or any identity).

Socially and constitutionally, just as Nupur has erred, there is also something amiss about nature of Muslims’ protests which suddenly rose against her in certain parts of country following Friday prayers on June 10. Cleric of no religion can claim to be representative of his/her entire religious community. Each religion is divided into too many groups, including caste, region, literacy, economic status as well as political linkages among numerous others. It is practically impossible for these divisions to disappear for several generations, maybe even centuries.

There is no proof, as yet, about who organized June 10 protests of certain sections of Muslims. No key Muslim cleric of the country had issued any statement asking Muslims to protest. Also, protests – as indicated by video clippings – do not display participation of prominent clerics.

On his part, Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid Syed Ahmed Bukhari categorically stated that he was unaware of who the protestors were and which party they were associated with. Describing protestors as “outsiders” who had suddenly surfaced and started shouting after namaz, he said the police should investigate as to who they were. A call for shutdown on Friday was apparently circulated on social media the preceding evening (June 9). Shahi Imam had reportedly been contacted by several people about it, seeking his opinion. He had advised them against participation in it. It may also be noted, in apparent response to Muslims being asked to protest, another Muslim cleric responded by saying that Muslims must protest democratically by staying indoors, in houses and in mosques and not coming out on roads.

Against backdrop of such statements specifically issued by Muslim clerics, probably taken aback by calls on social media provoking Muslims to protest, the question arises as to who really planned and initiated such a move?

With key clerics having chosen to distance themselves from these protests, the role of political elements from engineering the same cannot be ignored. The possibility of right-winged elements having deliberately planned protests for media-coverage, to provoke communal violence, political gains and/or similar factors cannot be sidelined. It is possible, if parliamentary elections were not forthcoming, “strategies” of this nature may not have been manipulated. While there is no doubt about political agenda behind that of Nupur’s comments, the “religious” nature of Muslims’ sudden protest demands attention. Here, the reality of there being no political and/or religious group which can claim to represent Muslims across the country cannot be ignored. In fact, the same may be said about about Hindus. This is supported by existence of numerous parties along regional, caste and other leanings- ideological as well as ethnic.

BJP stalwarts have apparently been quite taken aback by reaction to Nupur’s comments. One is of course the negative criticism earned in international circles. Perhaps, Modi needs to be more on guard about international leaders and media keeping a close eye on negative “news” in India. Though saffron-brigade has seldom refrained from using anti-Muslim card, public display of anti-Islamic beliefs may be expected to earn criticism from Islamic countries and loss of diplomatic image for Modi.

BJP-stalwarts were apparently not prepared for “popularity” and “support” gained by Nupur in their own socio-political cadre together with substantial media coverage. The support displayed for her by Gautam Gambhir, Kangana Ranaut and Sadhvi Pragya also marks this reality. This certainly is equivalent to ringing alarm bells about their strategy of their own puppets going overboard in voicing communal jargon and their being left speechless by their (puppets’) “success”. Chances of BJP-stalwarts welcoming such “success” of other party-members are fairly limited. Clearly, BJP-stalwarts cannot always gain on all fronts by unwarranted use of cards targeting religious beliefs, identities and so forth.

These points are strong warning signals for BJP stalwarts about their communications strategies having certain limits. They apparently need to be more alert about Lakshman Rekha needed by “communal” communication strategies. Constitutionally, Lakshman Rekha is probably also being crossed by some protestors- whether against or in support of Nupur’s comments. The same may be said about reported use of bulldozers and biased approach targeting minorities. The reality that there has no change in certain leaders’ anti-Muslim attitude is marked by nature of their bulldozing property particularly belonging to Muslims in Hindi belt. This too needs a Lakhsman Rekha!

 Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. She has come out with several books. These include:— Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019); Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006). 

Originally published in Mainstream


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