How Nupur Sharma’s Episode Reveals Islamophobia and Wider Religious Discrimination in India

The former official spokesperson of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Nupur Sharma, made inflammatory comments about the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in the context of his marriage to Aisha in a televised debate. The comments sparked widespread protests among Indian as well as Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims. It also led to a diplomatic crisis for India. The Supreme Court of India told Sharma that “her loose tongue has set the entire country on fire,” requesting that she apologise to India.

The incident itself was surprising, not because a member of the BJP government insulted Muslims so openly, but because the government actually attempted to distance itself from the associated sentiments. Modi and the BJP government have been notoriously silent bystanders to Islamophobia across India, whether perpetrated by the authorities or by the general public. This silence has helped to normalise anti-Muslim hatred and to embolden Islamophobic voices with impunity.

Just like other incidents of Islamophobia, Indian Muslims responded to Sharma’s remarks by exercising their democratic right to protest. But it was not the voices of Muslims raised in unison that caused the BJP to distance itself from Sharma and apologise; it was the international pressure. The Indian ambassadors in Qatar and Kuwait were summoned, asking for an apology from the Indian government. People across social media have been demanding that Indian products be banned or boycotted. Even the UAE, which recently agreed to increase bilateral trade to over $100 billion through the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) with India, came out to condemn Sharma and the BJP. Thus, the fear of risking international relations with these affronted nations was the catalyst for the BJP to act, not the pleas from Indian Muslims, who constitute an already marginalised community.

The significance of this incident lies in how it exemplifies, firstly, wider national and international Islamophobia and, secondly, that Islamophobia in India is comparable with other forms of discrimination, especially against Christians.

Instead of responding to Indian Muslims protesting with an apology, the authorities began to demolish Muslim-owned houses and properties in the state of Uttar Pradesh, claiming that residents had earlier been given the notice to appear before hearings or vacate their properties, despite residents refuting this claim. But this unlawful practice is not solely a response to these protests, and Amnesty International had condemned it earlier in the year in April, with the Chair of its India board, Aakar Patel, saying that the demolition of houses largely belonging to Muslims could “amount to collective punishment, in violation of International Human Rights Law.” Patel also reminded the state of its “duty” to protect everyone, including minorities.

The significance of this incident lies in how it exemplifies, firstly, wider national and international Islamophobia and, secondly, that Islamophobia in India is comparable with other forms of discrimination, especially against Christians. Regarding national Islamophobia, the response of the BJP to this incident was to attempt to distance itself from the sentiments of Sharma’s remarks, but this has proved wholly unconvincing. In a statement, the BJP said that it denounced “insults of any religious personalities of any religion” and that Sharma represented “fringe elements”. But one is left wondering how Sharma, having only “fringe” views, could have been elected to represent the BJP as its official spokesperson.

Moreover, it is difficult to characterise Islamophobia as a fringe sentiment in the party when there have been instances in the past when BJP members have openly dehumanised Muslims, incited, and were even involved in the murder of Muslims. But such Islamophobia is more pervasive in Indian politics than in the BJP. A member of the Hindu Mahasabha called on Indian Hindus to take up arms and commit genocide against millions of Muslims in December 2021.

This latter incident, alongside other factors, has been described as indicative of early signs of genocide in India by Dr Gregory Stanton at Genocide Watch. Stanton defines genocide as a “process” rather than an “event,” drawing on Genocide Watch’s “10 Stages of Genocide” to identify that five of these stages have occurred in India. As Genocide Watch succinctly states, the “ones he identified are classification (distinguishing between people as ‘us vs. them’ and ‘othering’ them), symbolization (identifying people by the clothes they wear or calling them abba jaan), discrimination (the Citizenship Amendment Act), dehumanization (calling them termites and foreigners who should go to back to Bangladesh) and polarization (accusing them of ‘love jihad’ and discriminatory laws against conversion and inter-marriage) [sic].”

The Sharma incident is also symptomatic of a wider international, not just national, Islamophobia and apathy. Despite the substantial diplomatic backlash after this incident, there had not been the same reaction by foreign officials despite the fact that communal tensions and Islamophobic hate crimes have increased since the BJP assumed power in 2014. It is important to note the timeline of all of the above events, such as the fact that Stanton’s warning of early signs of genocide in January precedes the signing and enforcement of CEPA between the UAE and India in February and May, respectively. Similarly, India and the UK only concluded the fourth round of talks for a free trade agreement on 27 June. This suggests that concerns for the welfare of Indian Muslims are secondary to economic considerations.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also highlighted an apathy towards the suffering of Muslims in general, not just Indian Muslims. While the response by Western governments and people towards Ukrainians has been admirable, it has revealed a disparity in sympathies for white non-Muslims as compared with non-white Muslims. The warmth with which Brits are opening their homes to Ukrainian refugees is much greater than when Syrian or Afghan refugees, for example, needed and continue to need homes and support. Indeed, many Afghans remain in danger in Afghanistan purely because they served alongside the British and are stranded, awaiting relocation to safety in the UK. Double standards between the treatment of Ukrainian and Afghan refugees, for example, appear to vindicate the idea that the colonial mindset, that white, Christian lives are most valuable and important, remains alive and well throughout the UK and Europe at large.

Finally, the Sharma incident and wider national Islamophobia in India are comparable to the mistreatment of other minorities, especially Christians, and the polarisation of communities. One of the major issues in relation to the treatment of Indian Christians is conversion. A report by the Evangelical Fellowship of India from December 2021 recorded 39 incidents against Christians in Karnataka, a state in the southwest of India, alone that year during a fact-finding mission. This organisation concluded that discussions around introducing a so-called anti-conversion law in the state had encouraged non-state actors to target Christians. A similar law had allegedly been used against Muslims in response to incidents of “love jihad”, forced conversions to Islam through marriage, in Uttar Pradesh.

A second major issue is the use of laws by the Indian authorities to quell dissent among Christian and Muslim human rights activists alike. A recent example from the Christian community is the death of Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old human rights activist and Jesuit priest who died in custody awaiting a trial for alleged terrorism in 2021. Swamy had been arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act for his alleged connection to caste-based violence in 2018. This Act has been described as a repressive law used to charge and intimidate dissenters, including Kashmiri activists like Khurram Parvez, who remains detained.

In sum, while the Sharma blasphemy incident garnered a substantial domestic and international backlash, it is only symptomatic of a much wider national and international Islamophobia and apathy, defining free trade agreements and European responses to Muslim suffering. The manifestation of Islamophobia in India is similar to that of anti-Christian sentiment, which is having a polarising effect on communities across India by separating people into “us vs them”.

Mary Hunter

Mary Hunter is a Postgraduate Research Fellow at The Centre for Army Leadership and also at the London Institute of South Asia. She regularly writes articles on Pakistan and its diaspora in the UK and is currently undertaking a PhD on Islam in Pakistan.

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