Gyanvapi Mosque to Nupur Sharma: A saga of double-standards and selective liberalism – Sandipan Deb

Nupur Sharma

Sandipan DebUnder no law of any modern country did Nupur Sharma insult the Islamic faith. To put it very simply, she said that all religions can be easily mocked. Governments of many countries—most of them officially Islamic—have condemned what she said. But no one has disputed what she said. Everything that she mentioned are from holy Islamic texts. So what exactly are they objecting to? – Sandipan Deb

The Nupur Sharma incident and the violence that has followed should give us much food for thought. And I have a few questions, even though I know that the incident will not affect the BJP’s electoral fortunes in any way.

Let us stick to the facts. And let us start with what we have seen in the last two months, ever since a court ordered a survey of the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi to find whether there had been a Hindu temple under it. Legal processes have their own logic, and rightfully so, but surely, anyone who is not severely visually challenged can tell from any picture of the mosque that it had been built over a temple? One of its four walls is obviously that of a temple, with intricate Hindu carvings, and much older than the other three walls.

But when the story leaked that the surveyors had found something in the mosque’s basement that could possibly be a Shiva Lingam, many politicians and so-called public intellectuals reacted in a bizarre fashion. They laughed at the very concept of a Shiva Lingam and derided it. They made hurtful remarks about the faith of Hindus.

What exactly did Nupur Sharma say? After being goaded repeatedly by a Muslim politician on the show, she said that she could also, if she wanted, comment about Islam. She then gave a few examples. Under no law of any modern country did she insult the Islamic faith. To put it very simply, she said that all religions can be easily mocked. Governments of many countries—most of them officially Islamic—have condemned what she said. But no one has disputed what she said. Everything that she mentioned are from holy Islamic texts. So what exactly are they objecting to? Her tone of voice? Tone of voice in a news television talk show? Wow.

There are many issues here, and the most important possibly is freedom of speech. Of course, Sharma was not speaking as just another Indian individual like me or my retired uncle—she was on the show as an official spokesperson of the BJP, and if she deviated from her brief, her party has every right to take action against her. But how is it that politicians from non-BJP parties laugh at Hindu gods and there is no punishment at all—even criticism—from their bosses? Some time ago, a singer-actor in Bengal posted a comment on social media that Shiva Lingams should have condoms put on them. She was rewarded by Trinamool Congress with a ticket to contest Assembly elections last year—she lost, and is now the president of the young wing of the party.

Yes, freedom of speech is fundamentally about the freedom to offend. But there must be some sort of equality of this freedom. Right now, in India, it seems that freedom to offend is a one-way street.

It’s all right to abuse Hinduism and Hindu beliefs, but not all right to question any other religion, even if you are only quoting from their holy texts. And the concept of “Islamophobia” is now so all-encompassing that there seems to be a well-funded international project on to varnish the bigot Aurangzeb’s image as a moderate secular ruler. Aurangzeb, if alive, would himself have been aghast.

There is much revelling about the Government of India “succumbing” to international pressure on Nupur Sharma. Almost all of these countries who complained—and most of them anyway did so after Sharma had been suspended, just marking attendance like many of us did in college—are either or all of the following: Zero democracy, no human rights, no free speech, no freedom of religion, theocratic. Qatar, which took the lead complainant role, is an Islamist state thriving on South Asian workers—nearly 15 per cent of the country’s population, most of whom live in conditions close to those of medieval bonded labour. And a well-known Indian journalist even retweeted a post from the Taliban government of Afghanistan—where girls are not allowed to go to school—condemning Sharma. This should have been hilarious, except that it is not. Not by a long shot.

One, Sharma’s life is in danger. The government has provided her security, but that cannot be for ever after. Some deluded man from somewhere may decide, 15 years from now, to seek his place in delusional heaven. Dozens of rape and death threats have been issued, and also bounty moneys for whoever gets to kill her. Let me give you a sense of the horror we are facing. Last week, on a TV talk show with six participants, the scientist and author Anand Ranganathan asked a simple question: “How many of you condemn the statement that anyone insulting the Prophet should be beheaded?” Three Muslim and/or Leftists did not condemn this. What does that tell you about the people around you?

Two, supporters of the BJP and the government say that it’s playing a long game—one step back to take two steps forward when the time is right. Sure, but it has also set a dangerous precedent. Now some half-witted comment by a random Bajrang Dal goon in Meerut can be publicised and tagged to the Qatar embassy in Delhi and a hue-and-cry will ensue and the Indian government will be expected to react. While it is certain that on the Sharma issue, India has told Qatar, Kuwait and others to cool off, it does not end here. The genie is not going to go back into the bottle.

Section 295A in the Indian Penal Code addresses this issue—”deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage reli­gious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or reli­gious beliefs”. The BJP has acted, but how many state governments can we expect—law and order is a state subject—to move against any of the people who have been mocking Hindu gods? Or come down heavily on the seemingly coordinated arson and violence to protest against Nupur Sharma’s comments?

We don’t know. Ketaki Chitale, a Marathi actor, has now been in jail for a month for allegedly uploading a social media post that criticised Sharad Pawar. And a few days ago, West Bengal police reached Goa and arrested a stoned-out anarchist called Roddur Roy because he posted a video mocking Mamata Banerjee. He has previously posted obscene videos on Hindu gods, Narendra Modi and pornographic parodies of beloved Tagore songs. But you can’t laugh at Mamata. This is the schizophrenic state of freedom of the India we live in. – Firstpost, 13 june 2022

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of Financial Express, and founder-editor of Open and Swarajya magazines.

Gyanvapi Mosque