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.