8 July 2022

‘Loose tongues set the country on fire’ – why the West must wake up to India’s blasphemy problem

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In recent years here in Britain, we’ve seen a teacher forced into hiding, an MP murdered, a Christian woman slashed at speakers’ corner, and cinema chains pulling a ‘blasphemous’ film. Blasphemy may be off the statute books, but we have in existence a de facto blasphemy law – one enforced by the mob.

India is now in the grips of its very own blasphemy crisis – and it’s a ghastly affair. Last week an innocent Hindu tailor Kanhaiya Lal was hacked to death and beheaded inside his shop in Udaipur (Rajasthan state) by two men, who initially posed as customers. Lal’s gruesome murder was filmed and put online. The northern state of Rajasthan is on edge, fearing escalating violence the state immediately shut down the internet and stopped public gatherings. India has a serious dilemma – how best to deal with Islamic extremism in an intensely febrile environment and prevent social disintegration. Lal’s ‘crime’, in the eyes of his alleged murderers, was supporting ‘blasphemous’ statements of a suspended Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician Nupur Sharma in a social media post. Yes, slain for a social media post – let that sink in. The alleged perpetrators went on to publish a video in which they threatened Prime Minister Modi and justified Lal’s murder while brandishing cleavers. But despite the gravity of what’s happening in India right now, and the parallels with events in the UK and further afield in Europe, there’s been little coverage or interest in the British press. 

India’s predicament is unprecedented. It all stems from ‘blasphemous’ comments by Sharma about the prophet of Islam during a television debate in May, in which she responded to criticism of Hindu beliefs. Consequently, the Modi government faced a diplomatic backlash, with nearly 20 Muslim countries calling Indian ambassadors for an explanation. Sharma was suspended by her party and has since received death and rape threats, as well as multiple First Incident Reports (FIRs) – or criminal complaints filed against her under various sections of the India Penal Code. There have been protests and riots across India. Indian police are investigating a video in which a man offered a cash reward for cutting off Sharma’s tongue. While considering Sharma’s case to transfer all FIRs lodged against her to Delhi, a Supreme Court judge said she should apologise for her comments against the prophet and that her, ‘loose tongue set the country on fire’. Those hoping for a statement in support of free speech would have been disappointed. The National Investigative Agency (NIA), India’s top anti-terrorism agency, has been tasked with carrying out an investigation into Lal’s beheading, and the case of a chemist, Umesh Kolhe, who was stabbed to death for ‘blasphemy’ in the southern state of Maharashtra.

We can ill afford to neglect events in India. After all, these horrifying incidents aren’t happening in isolation. The consequences of blasphemy allegations to life and limb, are a global phenomenon – be it the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks, the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty, the Batley Grammar School affair and the recent censorship of The Lady of Heaven to name but a few. It doesn’t help that the ruling BJP don’t have the best of records when it comes to the treatment of minorities in India. Take its Union Home Minister, Amit Shah, who shamefully referred to illegal Muslim immigrants as ‘termites’. Moreover Hindu nationalist leaders have called on their followers to take up arms against the country’s Muslim minority. Remarks like these only serve to inflame tensions and perpetuate intra-religious hostilities. But Muslims aren’t alone in facing divisive rhetoric. Last year, farmers who were protesting controversial agricultural reforms, (which included Sikhs from Punjab) were smeared by right-leaning pro-government media outfits and some in Prime Minister Modi’s ruling BJP, who claimed the farmers are ‘anti-national’ or, worse, ‘terrorists’.

The West should care about what’s happening in India right now. Not least because of the sizable Muslim and Hindu communities here in Britain. As we know, global events, like rising tensions between Israel and Palestinians in the Middle East, can impact social cohesion here – as evidenced by an upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents. 

Lal’s killers will inevitably face justice, but the enforcement of blasphemy laws through the barrel of a gun (or cleaver) will likely continue to remain a problem in both India and the West for the foreseeable future. 

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Hardeep Singh is a freelance journalist and author.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.