EVER since his appointment as supremo of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), on March 10, 2000, K.S. Sudarshan has led Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to a merry dance on the Ram temple and other issues, using the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) as a decoy. He has riveted the RSS' control over the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by a simple expedient. He first asked the BJP regime to deal directly with the VHP. Predictably, the VHP raised its price. When Vajpayee ran to the RSS for its intercession, Sudarshan obliged; with seeming reluctance. In the process he extracted whatever he could. The choreography is impressive.
Not a day passes without either the "working" president of the VHP, Ashok Singhal, or its "international" general secretary Pravin Togadia hurling threats at Muslims. Singhal has threatened at least twice (September 4 and October 11, 2002) that the "successful experiment" in Gujarat will be repeated all over India. In the last one year, the frequency and intensity of the Prime Minister and his Deputy L.K. Advani's parleys with Sudarshan have increased. Madan Das Devi was formally made a liaison officer between the BJP and the RSS.
On November 9, 2002, RSS spokesman M.G. Vaidya asserted confidently that the Prime Minister was not above his party and the BJP president and the Prime Minister "should enjoy equal prestige". (The Statesman, November 10, 2002). Truce was declared on October 24 after a two-and-a-half hour dinner meeting at the Prime Minister's residence. Present were Advani, BJP chief M. Venkaiah Naidu, Sudarshan and his aides, general secretary H.V. Seshadri and Madan Das Devi. It was preceded by a meeting on October 15 between Advani and Venkaiah Naidu on the one hand, and Madan Das Devi on the other. The latest in the series was the meeting at the RSS headquarters on February 13, 2003, between Advani, Venkaiah Naidu, all the five general secretaries of the BJP - Pramod Mahajan, Rajnath Singh, Sanjay Joshi, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Amita Arya - and the RSS general secretary Mohan Bhagwat, Madan Das Devi and joint spokesperson Ram Madhav.
In its wake appeared a spate of reports in the press, which deserve notice. "The BJP will soon start bringing in RSS cadres into its organisation. The RSS will reciprocate by persuading the VHP to tone down its strident stand on the Ayodhya issue. The exercise will start after the RSS general council meeting beginning March 7." (The Hindustan Times, February 14). Indian Express reported the same day that "the Big Brother (RSS) has decided to step in to set the house in order." The Times of India reported that Mohan Bhagwat "will play a more active role in the internal affairs of the BJP" (February 17).
Totally erased are the dividing lines between the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the BJP and between the BJP and the RSS. Between now and the Lok Sabha elections next year, the RSS will be more assertive and Vajpayee will sing the Hindutva tune with greater zest.
Against this background Manjari Katju's able study of the VHP makes a very timely appearance. She is a Lecturer at the Department of Political Science and has conducted research at Cambridge and at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Her grandfather Shiv Nath Katju's close association with the VHP - he was its president in the late 1980s - probably helped in the extensive interviews she conducted.
The VHP was founded by the RSS chief, M.S. Golwalkar, in Bombay on August 29, 1964. Shivram S. Apte, an RSS activist, was appointed its general secretary. Appropriately, since it is the "World Hindu Council", it established branches abroad. In March 1981 the VHP formed the Marg Darshak Mandal, a forum of religious leaders, to advise it "on Hindu philosophical thought and conduct". In 1982, this Mandal set up the Dharma Sansad, a supreme deliberative body of religious figures; the VHP's parliament. In 1984, the first Dharma Sansad resolved to demand the site of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. Significantly, it set up soon thereafter the Bajrang Dal as its militant wing. On July 27, 1984, a Sri Ramjanmabhoomi Mukti Yagna Samiti was founded. At its initiative, a trust, the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas Manch, was set up on January 25, 1993, to construct a temple on the site of the mosque, which was demolished by the Sangh Parivar on December 6, 1992.
The author provides a detailed description of the VHP set-up and carefully analyses its ideology. She writes that this is a revised but "condensed" version of her doctoral thesis. One hopes the complete version will be published before long with the texts of the VHP's constitution and important resolutions.
Like any front organisation, the VHP is autonomous. It is independent of the BJP, but the RSS' control is firm. Which is where the author's interviews help. They bear quotation in extenso: "Girija Singh, a member of the VHP admitted that `the VHP is a part of the RSS. But, despite being a part of the RSS, it is independent in its working. For instance, in a human body the work of the hands is not done by the eyes... Similarly, the VHP is autonomous, that is, independent in its functioning but at the same it is a part of the RSS'.
"Deoki Nandan Agarwal, as a non-RSS member of the VHP, was more candid about the VHP-RSS ties: `The entire functioning of the VHP - decision-making and implementing - is in the hands of the RSS members who are in the VHP as organisational secretaries. The governing council and the board of trustees of the VHP are more or less ratifying bodies. They ratify the proposals of the RSS sangathan mantris (organisational secretaries).'
"Surya Dev Tripathi, an RSS member who looks after the work of the VHP in Delhi, forthrightly says that the VHP was formed as an RSS front for ideological dissemination: `If one has to spread one's ideology in every walk of life one has to open several fronts. That was the basic idea. That is why the RSS opened fronts in many directions such as the Mazdoor Sangh for the labour movement, the Vidhyarthi Parishad for students and the Jana Sangh in politics'."
From the very outset the VHP targeted industrialists. It is never short of funds. Its first plank was ban on cow-slaughter. That was in 1966. The Meenakshipuram conversions in February 1981 gave it another plank for agitation. Internally, there is a board of trustees, (Nyasi Mandal) of 101 members of whom 30 are from abroad. The governing council (Prabhand Samiti) membership is for life. Early in its career the VHP was not active or vocal. The altered clime of the 1980s emboldened it. Its month-long Ekatmata Yagna, organised from November 16, 1983, attracted national attention. Opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid in February 1986 gave the Sangh Parivar - the RSS, BJP and the VHP - just the opportunity they were desperately seeking amidst their dwindling fortunes. They have not looked back since. They had on March 31, 1984, resolved to take up the issue. In 1985 the demand was made more assertively. The government yielded.
The author perceptively poses an important issue which tends to be overlooked: "It would be interesting to probe the question of why the VHP selected Rama over a plethora of other divine beings in Hindu mythology that would also share similar attributes and similar popularity as him; for example, Shiva or Kali/Durga, or even Krishna? Some factors can be shown to have contributed to the VHP's selection of Rama and to indicate that it was not a random choice. The dispute over Rama's so-called birthplace was already a local issue of considerable importance when the VHP took up Rama and the cause of "Ramjanmabhoomi's liberation".
Note the contrast: "The traditional depiction of Rama in lithographs has been accompanied by a mood of tranquillity and serenity. Even in Tulsidas' Ramacharita Manas, which is more popular as a sacred text than Valmiki's Ramayana, it is calmness and tranquillity, which are associated with Rama - he rarely assumes an angry disposition. Why is it then, contrary to Rama's usual mythical attributes, that an aggressive picture of his is publicised by the VHP? In reply to this question an activist of the VHP said that this was done to arouse a burning fervour (josh) in the Hindus."
The VHP's fortunes were markedly on the rise under the RSS' leadership. Rajendra Singh, the RSS boss, told the author: "We gave VHP our excellent workers to help it in its commendable work of organising and awakening Hindu society and instilling a sense of discipline and oneness in it. Otherwise how could the VHP get trained workers in its early years? The sadhus and sants had become part of the VHP but they could not do everything on their own. They had to be escorted everywhere. There had to be someone with them to accompany them wherever they went. The RSS helped the VHP in all its activities."
RSS spokesman Ram Madhav said on February 24: "We are happy with the decision taken by the VHP." If the RSS decides on March 7 to support the campaign actively "all the Sangh outfits... will join the agitation. The government is put on notice."
The VHP has served as a forum for mobilising sadhus to promote the interests of the BJP. It propagated the fiction "that the sadhus within its Marg Darshak Mandal took all the decisions concerning its activities... For example, the sadhus expressed their opinion on matters like Kashmir. The Dharma Sansad, in which they dominate, is placed above the law and the country's Constitution". Who appoints members of the Sansad? The VHP, on the advice of the RSS, of course. Sadhus need constant appeasement, which is why the Dharma Sansad decided on February 23 to "gherao" Parliament.
In 1981 there were but 41 sadhus in the Marg Darshak Mandal. In 1992, there were 160 of them. At the Dharma Sansad held in Delhi in February there were 10,000 sadhus.
Both Vajpayee and Advani claim that construction of a Ram temple is a matter of honour. Strange, that this did not occur to them before 1986, nor to their mentors Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, Deen Dayal Upadhyay or Golwalkar. Certainly not to truly devout Hindus like Gandhiji and Rajaji. The fearless Editor of Janmorcha, a Hindi daily published from Faizabad, Seetla Singh rightly points out that "what is to be noted is that Rama came on their agenda in 1984. Rama was made a weapon by the VHP all of a sudden in 1984 after the Ekatmata Yagna years of 1983. It is a potent political symbol which helps the VHP politically."
The author tears apart the spurious logic of the VHP; its claim to defend Hindus' "rights", for instance. "The preoccupation with the defence of rights of the `Hindu community' is based on a majoritarian rationale with limited regard for the culture of rights: this culture stands for the recognition of differences between individuals and groups; the settlement of differences and disputes through discussion and debate rather than through violence; and tolerance of differences which cannot be settled, rather than seeking resolution through discussion and debate rather than through violence; and tolerance of differences which cannot be settled, rather than seeking resolution through coercion. The VHP's talk of `rights' is set in a paradigm of Hindu cultural hegemony. Rights have a meaning for it only as far as they politically consolidate the Hindus over the minority religious communities. As such, rights no longer remain rights but become assertions of cultural domination.
"Moreover, these `rights' are asserted as group rights - the group takes precedence over the individual. The VHP demands individual subservience to Hindutva, and that individual conduct be totally determined by group ideology."
Manjari Katju's study is a service to the truth. Her warning is timely. "Today, the VHP is setting the agenda of Indian politics, and Rama, Krishna, etc. have become the central issues of governance, overshadowing all popular struggles centred round livelihood. This is happening even when the real demands of food, clothing, clean drinking water, shelter and basic education have not been fulfilled.
"The VHP's conception of democracy as compatible with practices violating established procedures of the democratic Indian state are fascistic symptoms. This does not mean that the Indian state has become fascist, but the VHP has been making use of the atmosphere to accelerate the demise of Indian democracy."
The BJP government becomes restive when the VHP attacks its leaders. But it yields to the VHP - for fear of offending its mentor, the RSS.