Nupur Sharma: Indian firebrand caught in row over Prophet remarks

Protesters demand the arrest of Bharatiya Janata Party member Nupur Sharma, in Kolkata, India, on June 7, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Her incendiary remarks on Prophet Muhammad sparked outrage from the Islamic world and a diplomatic furore, but Nupur Sharma has long been a firebrand mouthpiece for India's Hindu nationalist government.

The 37-year-old has been a regular fixture of TV news debates, distinguishing herself as a zealous and combative advocate for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's agenda.

Her stature had risen in concert with the fortunes of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which in the past decade has established itself as India's dominant political force by championing Hindu identity.

But last week she set off a global backlash after commenting on Prophet Muhammad's relationship with his youngest wife during a broadcast debate.

Several Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East swiftly called in their Indian ambassadors to lodge protests, and her remarks were blamed for inciting violent clashes in one Indian state.

Sharma issued a public apology and said she had received death threats in the wake of her television appearance.

Her party also went into damage control, suspending Sharma for expressing "views contrary to the party's position".

"The BJP strongly denounces insult of any religious personalities of any religion," it said in a statement.

But by suspending her, experts say the party has made Sharma a scapegoat for a broader political culture that has long dealt in anti-Islamic rhetoric.

"The party uses these hotheads to drive their agenda, but when they go overboard they are forced to pull back," Delhi-based analyst Parsa Venkateshwar Rao said.

"It's a cat-and-mouse game that they play. The party top brass allows the spokespersons to raise the temperature, and when they feel it is going out of control they get into action."

Student mob leader

Until last week, Sharma was seen as one of the rising stars of a party that critics say has often targeted India's 200-million-strong minority Muslim community.

A trained lawyer who attended the London School of Economics, she had unsuccessfully contested a state election for the BJP in 2015.

She first joined the party's youth wing while studying at the prestigious Delhi University, where she was elected student union president and became infamous for leading a mob of students to storm a seminar hosted by a Muslim academic in 2008.

BJP spokesman Nupur Sharma (centre) had allegedly made comments about the Prophet Muhammad during a TV debate. PHOTO: NUPUR SHARMA/FACEBOOK

Later that day, she appeared on a television show to stridently defend her actions and those of a fellow student for spitting on the teacher - who had been charged and acquitted of a terror attack on India's Parliament.

"I am not going to apologise," she said. "I'll take a stand. The whole country should spit at him. Who invited him to the university to speak on terrorism?"

'Overstepped her mark'

Since coming to power nationally in 2014, Modi's government and the BJP have been accused of championing discriminatory policies towards followers of the Islamic faith.

It proposed a controversial law that granted citizenship to refugees in India, but not if they are Muslim, while state BJP governments have passed laws making it harder for Muslims to marry outside their religion.

Party leaders have also remained silent on the vigilante attacks on Muslims over the slaughter of cows - a sacred animal in the Hindu tradition.

India has bristled at criticism from abroad on issues of religious discrimination, with the foreign ministry last week issuing a statement to say the country "values religious freedom and human rights".

Sharma's sidelining from the party was not a result of her beliefs, but because her comments on Islam had "overstepped her mark", said Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of Caravan magazine.

"She was at the centre of what the party's future ideas would be for a young leader," he told AFP.

"This is just a little damage control. The kind of Islamophobia on which they practise their politics will not change."

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