India has gained international attention over the past decade for its impressive economic growth but also more recently (and less positively) because of the growing tensions between Hindus and Muslims in a country of 1.4 billion people who belong to a wide variety of ethnicities and religions. Several anti-Muslim incidents and communal clashes in India, where 80 per cent of the population is Hindu and 14 per cent Muslim, have made the headlines in recent years and spilled over into diaspora communities in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. The explosive controversy surrounding Indian politician Nupur Sharma’s anti-Muslim remarks during a nationally televised debate in May 2022 provides a flash-point opportunity to analyze how anti-Muslim attitudes are perceived and discussed among Indians on social media. 

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

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

Religion and identity among top 50 words

Considering the fast pace that events unfolded around the Sharma controversy, we mined tweets using the hashtags #NupurSharma” or “Nupur Sharma” for three weeks, from June 8 to June 27, 2022, when public discussion on the topic peaked at more than 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 due to the prevalence of English on social media in India and the inherent difficulty of parsing the diversity of Indian languages.

Our initial frequency analysis revealed some of the main expressions used on Twitter to comment on the Nupur Sharma controversy. The top five words demonstrated 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 per cent were directly associated with religion, with the most commonly used words being “Prophet,” “Hindu,” “Muslims,” “Prophet Muhammad,” and “religious.”

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