A social media analysis of the Nupur Sharma controversy

India has received international attention over the past decade for its impressive economic growth, but also more recently (and less positively) for rising tensions between Hindus and Muslims in a country of 1.4 billion people belonging to a broad variety of ethnicities and religions. Several anti-Muslim incidents and intercommunal clashes in India, where 80 percent of the population is Hindu and 14 percent Muslim, have made headlines in recent years and spilled over into diaspora communities in Canada, the YOU.K. and the US The explosive controversy surrounding Indian politician Nupur Sharma’s anti-Muslim statements during a nationally televised debate in May 2022 provides a flashy opportunity to analyze how anti-Muslim attitudes are perceived and discussed among Indians on social media.

The controversy began during a televised national political debate on May 26, 2022, when Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson Nupur Sharma made insulting remarks about the founder of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, and his relationship with his third wife, Aisha. Sharma’s comments, which quickly went viral on social media, sparked massive public backlash, condemnation, backlash and protests in both India and several Islamic countries, including the United Arab Emirates, with which India signed a free trade agreement only months earlier. Even India’s Supreme Court criticized Sharma for her comments. soon after, Adding fuel to the fire, Delhi BJP media chief Naveen Jindal echoed Sharma’s sentiments on Twitter. On June 5, the BJP suspended Sharma and expelled Jindal.

Opponents of Nupur Sharma
Critics: Activists from the Muslim Non-Governmental Organization Tamilnadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK) hold banners and chant slogans during a protest against India’s former Bharatiya Janata Party spokeswoman Nupur Sharma over her comments about the Prophet Muhammad in Chennai on June 10, 2022. | Photo Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images.

India has one of the largest internet consumer bases in the world. Twitter, with almost 23.6 million users in India, was analyzed for this Dispatch to explore the public discourse on the controversy. Using frequency and content analysis of Twitter users’ online posts, we found remarkable levels of support for Sharma, despite public and diplomatic condemnation of her comments.

Religion and identity in the top 50 words

Given the rapid pace at which events surrounding the Sharma controversy unfolded, we mined tweets using the hashtags #NupurSharma” or “Nupur Sharma” over three weeks, from June 8 to June 27, 2022, when public discussion on the topic reached a peaked at over 600,000 tweets. After scrubbing the data for retweets and duplicates, our analysis focused on 32,859 English-language tweets. We focused on English-language tweets because of the prevalence of English on social media in India and the inherent difficulty of to dissect the diversity of Indian languages.

Our first frequency analysis revealed some of the key phrases used on Twitter to comment on the Nupur Sharma controversy. The top five words showed an emphasis on politics, religion and identity: “BJP”, “India”, “Prophet”, “support” and “Hindu”. A review of the top 50 words showed that at least 22 percent were directly related to religion, with the most commonly used words being “prophet,” “Hindu,” “Muslims,” ​​”Prophet Muhammad,” and “religious.”

Growing support for Hindu nationalism

Since the Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, it has propagated Hindu nationalism, staying true to the roots and goals of his BJP party to build a nation based on Hindu ideals and way of life. Before joining regular politicsModi was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary organization closely affiliated with the BJP. During his tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat State from 2001 to 2014, Modi and his state government accused by critics (but later acquitted by India’s Supreme Court) for not doing enough to stop the riots in Gujarat in 2002, which killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. Under Prime Minister Modi’s leadership, the country has also made significant progress small increase in anti-Islamic rhetoric and hate crimes, including conferences calling for a “Hindu nation”. Given this context, while blatant, Sharma’s remarks during the televised debate came as no surprise to many analysts, as they broadly seemed to reflect the BJP’s long standing stance and rhetoric on minority religions. Even social media users didn’t shy away from pointing out the possible connection to the attitude of the larger party.

“Nupur Sharma’s comments are not those of an overenthusiastic party worker with a blind hatred of non-Hindus. Her response reflects the sentiment at the highest level of the BJP party and is not that of a blind Modi supporter misinterpreting his call for nationalism.” – @user? (June 8, 2022)

Furthermore, we found that support for Nupur Sharma was palpably high on social media, with the term ‘support’ appearing more than 3,000 times in our dataset. A trigram analysis[i] found 791 trigrams showing clear support for the former BJP spokesman, with the top three being “I support Nupur”, “we support Nupur” and “I support Nupur Sharma.” In comparison, opposition to Sharma occurred only 44 times.

“Rise above party lines and call, write emails, tag on social media your (Hindu) MP, MLA, ministers and ask them to support Nupur Sharma, a Hindu woman who is being abused by Vidharmis around the world. It is time to TAKE STAND FOR HINDU WOMEN.” (June 13, 2022)

“Let’s be united, we support Nupur Sharma. I support Nupur Sharma… #IsupportNupurSharma” (June 13, 2022)

Some “netizens” believe that Sharma has been unfairly punished for criticizing Islam and claim that many people in India have “mocked” Hindu gods with impunity. Social media users particularly pointed to comments and tweets from Muhammad Zubair, the editor of the fact-checking website AltNews. Zubair was one of the first to publicly criticize Sharma for her comments about the Prophet during the televised debate. As a result, in the coming weeks, Sharma’s supporters accumulated several tweets, dating back to 2018, made by Zubair that referred to Hindu gods, seers or BJP leaders. Right-wing Hindu activists has filed cases in New Delhi and Uttar Pradesh over Zubair’s social media content for allegedly harming Hindu community sentiments, and Zubair was arrested on 27 June 2022. disinformation targeting minority communities played a major role in our dataset and its name also appears in the most commonly used words in the tweets we analyzed (see Figure 1).

Supporters of Nupur Sharma
Supporters: Citizens hold a banner during a demonstration in Ahmedabad on June 12, 2022, in favor of former Bharatiya Janata party spokeswoman in India, Nupur Sharma. | Photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP via Getty Images.

The reactions of Indian ‘netizens’ to the BJP are remarkable. While the trigrams surrounding the BJP are varied, there was visible dissatisfaction with the party over its handling of the Sharma controversy. Many users’ tweets suggest that they were not happy with the BJP’s sanctions against Sharma. Some key examples were ‘Islam by BJP’, ‘extremist group BJP’, ‘cheated by BJP’ and ‘disgrace to BJP’. Some netizens felt that the BJP’s actions against Sharma, most likely taken as a result of the diplomatic crisis that followed her remarks, were very different from their actions against other senior political and religious leaders who have historically incited violence and promoted intolerance against minority communities.

Indian Politics and Social Media

Hindu nationalism has seeped into the daily online and offline lives of people in India. There is a growing trend of combined support for Hinduism and nationalism, which is generally demonstrated by supporting the BJP government and quashing criticism and dissent against the BJP’s administration and leadership. While Twitter users in India represent only a fraction of the country’s 1.4 billion population, our analysis revealed a clear support for Hindu nationalism that even trumped support for the BJP, which has been criticized for its sanctions against Sharma. The use of social media by Hindu nationalists as a means of propaganda is well documented academic research and media to research. The public opinion expressed on social media in support of Sharma reflects that propaganda machine, which has successfully built a support base that puts religion above political interests. Understanding India’s growing Hindu nationalism and its divisive, populist politics helps those outside its borders better understand this growing and dynamic Asian superpower, which will play a more central role in the context of the Indo-Pacific strategies that many countries are pursuing. , including Canada, are currently following. develop. Social media, especially Twitter, provides a side window into Indian society, revealing currents and narratives under the daily headlines that reflect a country in deep transition.

Note: All tweets quoted above have been edited for grammatical and spelling errors. The usernames have been withheld to protect user privacy.

[i] Trigram analysis tokenizes and unites words into groups of three. By analyzing the words that precede the most commonly used words, we can better understand what exactly people support.


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