The Nupur Storm

Badmouthing has evolved into a new trend in politics but it always remained an internal sovereign issue till a ruling party spokesperson breached an invisible line and hurt the Muslim feelings the world over. New Delhi continues to manage the backlash but it remains to be seen whether it changes the real politics

Atthe peak of a crisi in the Middle Esat over adverse and abusive commentary by a BJP spokesman, visit of Iran Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian on June 8, 2022 was a relief. Prime Minister had a detailed discussion with teh visiting dignitory.

Days ahead when the Muslim world had started responding to the abuse that a Delhi TV channel broadcast live, Bhaderwah hills reported an interesting incident. Vasuki Nag Temple, located in remote hills, far away from the habitation, saw somebody barging in. Apart from dislocating the robes of the deity, the intruders had attempted opening the donation box but failed.

As the images of the temple paved their way to social media, there were protests and the police quickly acted and registered a case. The investigation is on and it is too early to say if the intruders were thieves or a gang keen to disturb the community amity. People, however, felt convinced by the police response and the tensions ebb faster than expected.

Every time, there are communal tensions, the first region that has historically remained sensitive is the Chenab Valley. Kishtwar and Bhaderwah are the two main towns with mixed populations that have had a history of getting impacted first in such situations. As the Vasuki Nag temple tensions ebbed, the managers started breathing easy.

But, it was not to be. On June 9, Thursday, there were protests by Muslims against the adverse commentary by Nupur Sharma, a BJP national spokesperson. It was meant to be peaceful. It remained so. But minutes before the symbolic protests were supposed to conclude, two men made fiery speeches with communal overtones. By that time, they realised, they were contributing adversely to the situation, and the clips had been broadcast by Delhi media. Police, as usual, registered a case, an open FIR having the possibility of involving people beyond the identified duo. There have been some arrests as well as the curfew restrictions remain in vogue.

Using these clips, some people reacted on social media in response and it triggered a crisis. People came out peacefully and sat in a protest and demanded the arrest of the individual who had used social media to flare up communal tensions. With the Friday gathering barely a night away, authorities imposed curfew restrictions. Fearing the crisis may spill over to the highway town, the administration in Ramban also issued prohibitive orders on any assembly in the main town. On Friday, most of Kashmir observed a peaceful but spontaneous strike, apparently against Sharma’s uncharitable, blasphemous and abusive language against the prophet of Islam.

The Media Darling

With her utterances, Nupur Sharma may have lost her job but she has ensured her place in the footnotes of history. Not an ordinary character and obviously not the “fringe” element, as Rahul Gandhi pointed out, Nupur has been part of the BJPs core team. The most sought-after spokesperson of the ruling party, she had acquired a reputation of being direct, unambiguous and someone who knew better how media works and what is required in a rating race.

BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma who was sacked by the party over her derogatory remarks against the Prophet of Islam, more than a week after the controversial debate

A Delhi University law graduate, Nupur, 37, is a 2008 Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) campus president, who flew home from the London School of Economics in 2011 to join BJP’s media wing for the 2013 Delhi assembly polls. She was the party candidate against Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. Since 2020, she is a BJP “national spokesperson”. Referred to as “lioness” by her followers and used-to abusive language in debates, her unmaking was the outcome of a May 27, debate on the controversy over Varanasi’s Gyanvapi mosque, in which a “fountain” is being seen as “Shivalinga” by the rightwing.

Nothing happened within a few days as her speech clips dominated social media. It led to protests in Kanpur where more than three dozen Muslims were injured as the police started searching for 1000 more.

A few days later, things started moving quite fast as the allies on the other side of the Persian Gulf started ferociously reacting to the statement. So far, as many as 16 Muslim countries have strongly reacted to the development by summoning Indian diplomats and conveying their displeasure. This includes the OIC.

Axed, Expelled

Understanding the costs and consequences of retaining Nupur, BJP axed her and also her colleague Naeen Kumar Jindal, who had shared a tweet.  Police registered a case against her as well.

“During the thousands of years of the history of India, every religion has blossomed and flourished. The Bharatiya Janata Party respects all religions,” a 3-paragraph statement, attributed to BJP general secretary, Arun Singh said, insisting his party is against “any ideology which insults or demeans any section or religion” and the party does not promote such people or philosophy. “India`s constitution gives the right to every citizen to practise any religion of his/her choice and to honour and respect every religion. As India celebrates the 75th year of its independence, we are committed to making India a great country where all are equal and everyone lives with dignity, where all are committed to India`s unity and integrity, and where all enjoy the fruits of growth and development.”

Post-sacking, Nupur “unconditionally” withdrew her commentary insisting it was not her “intention to hurt anyone’s religious feelings.” It was too late already.

The Backlash

Nupur dominated the social media scene in most of the Gulf countries to the extent that the Indian expatriates started feeling job insecurity and had apprehensions of social boycotts. In various countries, major stores withdraw Indian-made goods and in certain cases, Indian workers were sacked and flown home.

Arab News quoted a former IFS officer, who served in the Gulf saying that the Modi government must realise that “it cannot continue to do what it wishes at home with impunity and still enjoy good relations with the Islamic world.” Abuse apart, former diplomat Talmiz Ahmad said that attempts were made to erase the country’s Islamic heritage. “There is a long tradition of other countries not interfering in the domestic affairs of another country, but when you get into abuse of the holy prophet, it is a no-go area,” he said. “At some point, people abroad will say: Enough is enough. I believe this time has come. You cannot persecute a certain community at home and also pretend you have a high moral stature abroad. It doesn’t work like that.”

There were voices suggesting that Delhi should behave as Paris did when it faced a similar crisis in the Muslim world but the BJP knew the costs. More than 85 lakh Indian expatriates are working in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). They send around the US $35 billion remittances home, on which nearly four crore people depend as the main source of survival. This foreign exchange covers nearly half-year outgo on fuel purchases.

India has a surging trade of more than US $87 billion with GCC countries. While Riyadh is the second major oil exporter to India, Qatar supplies 40 per cent of India’s natural gas.

However, MEA data for 2020 suggests of the 13.6 million Indians living offshore, 3.41 lakh are in UAE, 2.59 lakh in Saudi Arabia, 10.29 lakh in Kuwait, 7.79 lakh in Oman and 7.56 lakh in Qatar. The USA has the highest diaspora from India at 12.80 lakh.

The condemnation was not Gulf-specific. Strong reactions came from Indonesia, Malaysia (two key members in ASEAN), Pakistan, Afghanistan, Jordan, Maldives, Iraq and Libya as well.

Iran FM Visit

The only silver lining was that when Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited Delhi, Tehran pulled down the statement from its website that was harshly critical of India. Seemingly this happened after the NSA, Ajit Doval assured Hossein that “offenders will be dealt with, at the government and related levels, in such a way that others will learn a lesson”.

“Pleased to meet PM Modi, FM Jaishankar & other Indian officials to advance our bilateral strategic dialogue,” Hossein wrote on Twitter. “Tehran & New Delhi agree on the need to respect divine religions & Islamic sanctities & to avoid divisive statements.”

Shutdown in Lal Chowk on June 10, 2022, against the abusive and blasphemous remarks on Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) by a BJP spokesperson. KL Image by Bilal Bahadur

“We have made it pretty clear that tweets and comments do not reflect views of government,” MEA spokesman, Arindam Bagchi was quoted as saying. “This has been conveyed to our interlocutors as also the fact that action has been taken by the concerned quarters against those who made the comments and tweets. I really do not think I have anything additional to say on this.”

The Follow Up

“The recent incident has highlighted the undeniable danger of unconstrained domestic extremism harming India’s policy objectives,” Happymon Jacob, who teaches foreign policy at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, told reporters, insisting India’s foreign policy should not be undermined by hate speech and communal politics. “India needs the West Asian states more than they need India.”

The crisis, for the first time, has literally forced the seasoned voices from diplomacy to talk. There are voices insisting that the hurt will take a long time to heal. There is aggressive diplomacy in work and the ruling party has indicated that its leaders will have to follow a Lakhman Rekha. Even though India’s official stand on the crisis and the quick BJP action has been welcomed by all, the tensions shall remain at play for some more time.

“This is going to be harmful to us. We need to understand that such things give an incorrect impression of India on the roads. The employers in these Islamic nations are local people and not the government. They can get swayed by this and may stop recruiting Indians and opt for more Pakistanis,” Anil Trigunayat, former Indian envoy to Jordan, Libya and Malta, was quoted as saying. “These countries will nevertheless still continue to invest here with their sovereign wealth because India is a huge and growing market. In purely economic terms, there will not be much change, unless, of course, we fail to put a restraint on this.”

A huge contingent of forces deployed in Bhaderwah. (File image from 2019)

The real issue, however, is if at all there will be some course correction in the way politics is transacted on the ground. Will the rightwing put to rest its ‘othering’ strategy and offer a level playing field to every citizen as the constitution guarantees? Will the rightwing follow the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat’s recent sermon that people must stop hunting idols in every mosque? Is there a possibility that the Maharashtra Chief Minister’s latest speech reaches the right corners and makes people think about what is happening on the ground? This is something that remains to be seen.

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