Toning down rhetoric that hurts religious sentiments is a step in the right direction

Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi
Past few days, India faced backlash from several countries, including in the Gulf over unacceptable remarks from a ruling party spokesperson. The importance of the Gulf region to the Indian scheme of things is such that the Modi government, that built very good relations with countries there, acted against erring spokespersons – Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal – and tried to buy peace.
For the time being, the government seems to have contained the adverse fall out of the anger of the Gulf countries. More importantly, the strict and swift decision within a few hours of the explosion of Arab anger also had a direct impact on the high decibel television debates that some believe were fanning trouble.
A prime-time anchor on a popular television channel even spoke out against his competitors, without taking names, that he will never allow any remarks that could create fissures in the society and add to the polarizing of the atmosphere. Its ugly manifestations (of objectionable remarks either made by newsmakers or anchors themselves) on highlight the urgency with which the television media must self-regulate in the overall national interests.
Without getting into the merits and demerits of the action against the BJP spokesperson, it can be easily seen that it is the first time that the country’s largest, and in fact even the world’s biggest, political party has admitted to wrongdoing by its members and punished them for it.
Now, clearly action against a BJP leader has not gone down well with the party cadres and leaders and the supporters of the party, but by and large the leadership has reasons to believe that this prompt action shores up the image of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and may even be helpful politically.
It not only sent a strong message to its leaders and office bearer to mind their language when speaking on public forums, especially on television channels and issued strict guidelines of dos and don’ts. Now, as has been the case with other BJP leaders against whom action was taken by the leadership even Nupur has also found that instant outpouring of support to her began to slowly dry up.
But the opposition is not impressed, and questions as to why criminal action was not taken against the spokesperson whose remarks hurt India, in terms of its image and posed potential economic loss as well if the situation went out of hand. The opposition went hammer and tongs against the government for the action it described as too little and too late. Now, as the opposition seemed to have begun running away with the narrative, what with many Muslim countries joining the tirade against India for the remarks made by members of the ruling BJP, the government stepped in with action.
FIR was filed against Nupur, but also booked were Asauddin Owaisi and journalist Saba Naqvi on allegations that their actions too hurt religious sentiments. Now, this seemingly balanced approach in booking different persons can give the ruling party a chance to smother opposition’s onslaught on the issue.
Already, the direct impact of the government action is seemingly on BJP spokespersons who have been given strict guidelines on what they can say and what they must avoid. In fact, in a couple of influential English language television channels, the BJP did not send their representatives for debates on hate speech and freedom of expression. Now, optimists in the media are hoping that there will be lesser noise on television debates, which may become more informative and help the viewers understand the issues rather than confuse them.
The swift action of the government, to some extent, is due to the external pressures. The oil rich Gulf region, for economic reasons, is very important for the country, and India imports the majority of its oil needs from this region. And even more important because of the huge number of Indians and people of Indian origin who work in the region and make remittances to India that add to the foreign exchange kitty as well. Now, if the tension escalated, all this would have been at a risk.
As Muslim countries stepped up pressure, the government had to act against the erring spokespersons, who remarks even some BJP leaders maintained went against the Prime Minister’s slogan of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas. The government went as far as to dismiss the erring spokespersons as “fringe” and that it had respect for all religions.
What is significant is that the government action came close on the heels of RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat's attempt to tone down the conflict arising in the society around religious matters. His message to the cadres and countrymen and women was that the courts would decide on all cases relating to Gyanvapi masjid, but the Hindus should stop looking for a. temple under every mosque.
The message to supporters to tone down rhetoric on religious matters from the BJP and its ideological partners in the Sangh parivar surely has the potential to calm down political tempers in the country, and also save the country from international criticism if anything went amiss.
Now, there is a clear cut realization across the cadres of the BJP that domestic political rhetoric can have damaging global ramifications and hurt India’s image as a mature democracy and an emerging economic power. Any damage to India’s image will also have an economic cost to pay, for us as a nation in lost opportunities of foreign investment and trade and business in a globalised world.
The government’s promise of a life of dignity and freedom for all citizens is welcome as is its assertion that India respected all religions. But, opposition is quick to point out that it is the silence of the leaders of the BJP to bigotry and unacceptable remarks for the past few years that is responsible for the situation that has arisen today.
The government and the BJP now have to walk that extra mile to prove the opposition wrong with its intent and actions on the ground. Yes, if it does discover any “plot to discredit the government and defame India as the reasons for the sudden anger in the Arab world,” the government sure has every right to get to the bottom of it. But, toning down rhetoric and assuaging the sentiments of the Gulf nations is sure a step in the right direction.
Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country. He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer and Hindustan Times.  He can be reached on [email protected] and Twitter handle @kvlakshman