It is the BJP’s privilege on how to deal with its spokespersons that have allegedly exceeded the bounds of propriety in civil discourse. The action it has taken against Nupur Sharma is very likely an attempt to get her out of the firing line by ‘punishing her’ rather than have her targeted by Islamic fundamentalists. As citizens of India, however, there is a basic question that needs to be answered – how can any person or community appropriate the right to attack someone who has allegedly hurt their religious sentiments?
The Indian Constitution does not permit taking the law into one’s hands in this way and extends protection to its citizens. And who decides that sentiments have been hurt and what action is appropriate? Does some barely educated and ill-informed village cleric have the right to vent his frustrations on a subject like this? Also, what about the eco-system that programmes persons to believe that their lives and those of others are worth nothing in the pursuit of a retributive mission? It is this that has to be combated at every level through the many means at the disposal of the state. Otherwise, the power of the nation and constitution is greatly compromised and will be increasingly challenged by non-state entities.
So, while it is good to be respectful of religious beliefs to the extent they conform with democratic and modern values, an environment has to be developed in which there is, either, a concept of secularism that excludes religion from the public domain, or accepts an inclusive version that provides room for debate, disagreement, reform and even disbelief. India has not had a tradition of the first and favours ‘Sarvadharm Sambhav’. The latter requires a culture of tolerance that is often touted as ‘Ganga-Jumnee Tehzib’ but has increasingly floundered against emerging challenges.
The problem has, of course, been exacerbated by the existence of social media and the proliferation of news outlets. Many of these are either run by those with political and other agendas, or are downright unprofessional. The tendency is to nudge participants in debates towards more ‘dramatic’ and incendiary confrontations between some of the least representative and informed ‘contestants’. Official spokespersons of political parties and institutions get caught in the midst of it and, given the kind of muck that is thrown about, are not always qualified to give well articulated responses. Nupur Sharma’s fault is just that and she should not be under any kind of threat for this in the present day and age. It is the responsibility of the Indian state to ensure those who may have such designs be met with an appropriate and unyielding response.