Indian Gov’t Scrambles to Contain Backlash to Anti-Islam Comments

The price of broadcasting bigotry . . .

The leadership of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is finding itself between a rock and a hard place, trying to contain the continuing fallout from recent anti-Islam statements by party spokeswoman Nupur Sharma and key media operative Naveen Kumar Jindal. Sharma has since been suspended, and Jindal expelled from the party. Nevertheless, more than a dozen Muslim-majority countries have now lodged formal complaints with New Delhi, some demanding an apology. Last week, the outrage erupted within India. Over the weekend, two Muslim teenagers were shot and killed during protests in the state of Jharkhand, and authorities in Uttar Pradesh razed the homes of Muslim residents they accused of instigating riots.

Race to contain ‘increasingly noxious’ rhetoric . . .

In an attempt to rein in inflammatory rhetoric by other party members, including those coming to Sharma and Jindal’s defence, the BJP issued an internal communique urging the use of “measured language” and avoiding discussion of religion. But observers question the effectiveness of such efforts. According to Al Jazeera’s Listening Post, the country’s airwaves feature “nightly shouting matches” between news commentators, and competition for viewers has encouraged a race-to-the-bottom dynamic with “increasingly noxious on-air rhetoric.” It was one such program that ignited the current scandal. Given that anti-Islamic sentiment has seeped so far into the media bloodstream, it will be a significant challenge for the Indian government to bring it under control.

Future fallout?

New Delhi may soon be grappling with another dimension of the crisis. Last week, a threat was issued by Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) to carry out suicide bombings in retaliation for the remarks of Sharma and Jindal. AQIS has failed to gain traction within India, even amid the rise in anti-Muslim religious bigotry under the tenure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But that will be cold comfort to a government that finds itself pressured by the Hindu nationalist right-wing on one side and the need to restore calm internally and repair its reputation abroad on the other.