July 10, 2022

On the Supreme Court Comments in the Nupur Sharma Case

Brinda Karat

IT is a sign of the times, that a justice of the Supreme Court finds it necessary to defend the court against what he termed personal comments against judges attributing motives to them. This is in the context of the comments made by a two-member bench in the open court. The kind of pressure on judges if they make comments not liked by those in power has been clearly seen in the Nupur Sharma case. The minister of state for home affairs tried to be too smart by half with his comment that even if he does not like the comments made he will not comment but take it up in the appropriate manner, giving the message loud and clear – the government was  “unhappy”. This was followed by an open letter by several former judges and ex bureaucrats literally condemning the Supreme Court and demanding that the remarks be withdrawn. Where were these dignitaries hiding when lawlessness results in the huge miscarriage of justice such as in the demolition that took place in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh? Hopefully, at least in this case, the judges concerned will be defended by their colleagues.

Will the welcome, though belated comments of the Supreme Court on Nupur Sharma and her statement against the Prophet lead, at least now, to the logical step of her arrest? In a scathing indictment, the bench in open court said “The way she has ignited emotions across the country… This lady is single-handedly responsible for what is happening in the country.” It was on her petition to club all the FIRs filed against her, that the Supreme Court made these comments. She was forced to withdraw her petition. Even weeks after her statement on national television and even after several FIRs have been filed against her, Amit Shah’s police, so prompt in arresting and harassing Mohammed Zubair, are missing in action as far as Ms Sharma is concerned. The audacity of those in power to extend protection to their own, seemingly has no limits.

It is hardly a secret that Mohammed Zubair was  arrested and subjected to multiple acts of harassment by the Delhi police functioning under the home ministry, because he had shared the clip of  Ms Sharma’s comments on TV, a perfectly legal and logical step by a journalist committed to expose the truth and hate mongering. The police have tried to mask this vindictive action against Zubair by fishing out a tweet made by him in 2018 quoting from a film made by Hrishikesh Mukherjee.  For four years after Zubair’s tweet no “religious sentiments” were hurt, there was absolutely no grievance from any quarter and now suddenly some manufactured social media account files a complaint on this old tweet and the Delhi police swings into action.

Nupur Sharma had in an interview to OpIndia, a right wing news portal, named Mohammed Zubair blaming him for the trolling she was being subjected to including death threats. It is for the cyber crimes cell to trace the sources of the death threats she has reportedly received, and to take action against them. Certainly no one can countenance threats of violence and action must be taken to stop them. But how is Mohammed Zubair to blame? He just shared what she herself had said on national television for which she later apologised. Now the Supreme Court says her apology was half hearted and that she should apologise to the whole country. It also commented that it had seen the full video and also strongly criticised the tenor of the programme itself. Will the judges also be accused of encouraging death threats? And demonstrations organised against the bench?

The same news portal that provided Nupur Sharma a platform to name and blame Zubair,  has come out openly in a dangerous and deliberate twist to the comments of the court. Soon after the comments, the write up from its editorial desk states:  “The SC has not stopped at just blaming one woman for violence and murder committed by religious fanatics in the name of Islam” …(no where does the Supreme Court mention violence, murder, fanatics or Islam)  and further “In other words, Justice Surya Kant made it clear that for him, it is Sharma’s fault that she spoke in a manner that ‘provoked’ the Islamists, not the Islamists’ fault who have declared openly to behead anyone who they deem as ‘blasphemous’ (words being attributed to the court which it never spoke) and finally “Since the Supreme Court has declared that the Udaipur murder, where a Hindu man was killed for just sharing a social media post in Sharma’s support, is Sharma’s fault, it seems that if Sharma herself becomes a victim of violence that Islamists have declared for her, the Supreme Court of this country might actually say that she deserved it” (OpIndia.com). This is just a bunch of lies to provoke people on communal lines. Surely a case should be filed against such a news portal for deliberately communalising the comments of the court. This is more than criminal contempt of court – it is directly provoking a communal response. The question arises not because these are great influencers, but because of the political patronage and finances received by such outfits through liberal advertisements from BJP ruled governments.

Unfortunately, the court’s comments in open court are not reflected in the final order permitting Nupur Sharma to withdraw her petition. However an important point is made by the comments which goes beyond the Nupur Sharma case to a more general context of the direct link between hate speech and its consequences. Earlier the Delhi High Court in a recent order had been more explicit in drawing the links between hate speech and the subsequent violence. It had said “Hate speeches are the beginning point of attacks against the targeted community that can range from discrimination to ostracism, ghettoisation, deportation and even genocide.” This was in a petition filed by this writer against top BJP government and elected functionaries for hate speech. The petition was dismissed because the required sanction for prosecution was not given by the government. That is being appealed against. But the point to be noted is the links drawn by the court between hate speech as the “beginning point” of subsequent developments.

There is no doubt that today the “normalisation” of hate speech as part of the political agenda of the ruling regime backed by a clutch of media houses has seriously vitiated social relations between communities. The “normalisation includes the irresponsible and deliberate silence of top leaders either to condemn hate based provocative statements or their refusal to make appeals for peace and harmony. The barbaric and brutal killing of Kanhaiya Lal and the subsequent release of the most chillingly inhuman video, in a terror act by Muslim extremists reportedly linked to international terror groups, was widely condemned across the political spectrum. The killers were arrested in swift action by the Rajasthan government. However the widespread outrage was sought to be taken advantage of by BJP led groups who marched on the streets of Udaipur shouting slogans in support of Nupur Sharma and carrying her photographs. Did a single BJP leader condemn this? In such a volatile situation the chief minister of Rajasthan made an open request to the prime minister to make an appeal for peace and harmony. But his request was met with a deafening silence. The prime minister did not speak a single word.  On every single occasion when the flag bearers of the sangh parivar make hateful speeches, the top political and government leaders remain silent. It is not just words but also actions of those in power that have created an environment of hate and suspicion between communities in a diabolical effort of polarising minds and hearts. While the Supreme Court has rightly made this strong criticism of Sharma, the news channel concerned as well as the Delhi police, it is those in power who must be held responsible for the creation of an environment where such comments can be made at all.

It is a truism that one fundamentalism strengthens the other. But we are seeing the ghastly effects of this across India. While the bulldozer of toxic majoritarian communalism rampages against constitutional guarantees, the reach of Islamicists and their rabid groups make inroads into a beleaguered community. This is a nightmare that India has to deal with, that India has to awaken from by banishing the darkness that enables its creation. In this, the courts have an important role to play and sometimes, though too rarely, their incisive comments help clear the way such as those made in the case of Nupur Sharma. An appeal has been made to the chief justice by Sharma’s supporters for the “withdrawal of the comments against Sharma.” It will be a sad day if this happens. The truth cannot be expunged.