India’s top court has slammed a former spokesperson for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party for making controversial comments on the Prophet Muhammad, saying she had “set the country on fire.”
The derogatory comments made by Nupur Sharma during a television debate a month ago sparked protests in which two demonstrators were killed and triggered an outcry across over a dozen Islamic nations.
Sharma, who made the comments while she was the spokesperson for the BJP, was suspended from the party soon after New Delhi faced diplomatic protests from several countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The BJP distanced itself from Sharma, saying her views did not represent the views of the party.
In unusually strong comments, two judges on the Supreme Court said that "the way she has ignited emotions across the country, this lady is single-handedly responsible for what is happening in the country." The court asked her to apologize to the nation and said, “she and her loose tongue has set the entire country on fire.”
The observations were made as the judges turned down Sharma’s request to consolidate multiple cases that have been filed against her in courts across the country.
As the controversy erupted, Sharma had withdrawn her comments. But the judges said that "she was too late to withdraw, and that, too, she withdrew conditionally, saying ‘if sentiments were hurt.’"
Political analysts and opposition parties have often blamed right wing Hindu activists linked to the ruling party and BJP politicians for a rising tide of hate speech targeting the country’s Muslim minority since the party took power in 2014. The BJP says it does not discriminate against any minority.
“The comments by the court against Sharma are meant to check hate speech, but they do not address the bigger picture, which is the entire climate of hate that is being promoted for the last seven or eight years,” says Niranjan Sahoo, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation. “She is not alone in being responsible for the rise in hate that we see. She is only the symptom of a larger malaise, a small fish in the larger ocean of inflammatory speech.”
Political analysts and opposition politicians have also criticized the BJP for not pursuing any legal action against its former spokesperson.
The court also linked Sharma’s comment to the murder of a Hindu tailor in the northern city of Udaipur in Rajasthan on Tuesday that has sent shockwaves through the nation.
He was brutally killed on camera by two men who said they were "avenging an insult to Islam."
In two videos posted online, two Muslim men brandished a meat cleaver while claiming responsibility for killing the tailor, who had backed Nupur Sharma in a social media post. They also issued a threat against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in their video.
Rajasthan’s chief minister, Ashok Gehlot, told reporters the case is being investigated as a "terrorism-related incident" rather than a communal one.
The incident has raised fears of deepening communal tensions in the aftermath of the killing. On Friday, thousands of Hindus marched in Udaipur, demanding protection for Hindus.