A common enterprise

Print edition : January 24, 1998

The high command of the BJP, the RSS, and the VHP, who in fact overlap to a significant degree, engage in a direct coordination of rituals, agitation and political manoeuvring.

THE Sangh Parivar is playing a monstrous fraud on the Indian electorate generally and on Muslims in particular. Its attempts to suggest that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) differs from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad(VHP) are as dishonest as they are desperate. Everyone knows that the two are partners in a common enterprise run by their parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). "I am Atal Behari Vajpayee and I am different from Mr. Ashok Singhal, Working President of the VHP. Ask the VHP about its stand on Kashi and Mathura. Our stand is clear. Kashi and Mathura are not on our agenda. Full stop." Vajpayee said in Lucknow on December 30, 1997. He added:"Everyone knows that the VHP and the BJP are different organisations."

In that very city only the day before, Singhal had said, "It is time to catch Muslims by their necks and tell them where their place lies." He added: "Kashi and Mathura are ours. If the Muslims want to avoid further humiliation, they should hand over those shrines quietly" (The Telegraph; December 31, 1997; emphasis added, throughout).

Vajpayee did not denounce these remarks. Formal dissociation became necessary only because of the barbaric nature of the remarks. These two issues provide a good test of the BJP's sincerity - its relationship with the VHP and its stand on Kashi and Mathura, not to forget its stand on Ayodhya.

On both, the BJP and its partners in the Parivar stand exposed. Their own words suffice to damn them. On December 29, the day on which Singhal was fulminating in Lucknow, BJP president L. K. Advani spoke at Tirupati, the temple town. He denied reports that had quoted him as saying that Kashi and Mathura were very much on the BJP's agenda. The Hindu reported: "He took the occasion to affirm 'categorically and unequivocally' that Kashi and Mathura were not on the agenda of the BJP. He, however, said that Kashi and Mathura formed part of the BJP manifesto, while the dominant issue in the elections would be stability and good governance. He hastened to add that it did not mean that the two temple issues were put on the backburner but said that just as each election had its own 'key issues', it was 'stability' this time." Get votes in the name of stability to implement a communal manifesto.

There is something significant and sinister when a person uses a set expression repeatedly to fend off an awkward question; more so if several persons declaim it in chorus over a period of time. Soon after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, several figures in the BJP kept prattling the same metaphor apropos Kashi and Mathura - "not on the agenda." On one occasion Advani did qualify that - "at this point of time" (February 28, 1995).

Vajpayee gave the game away completely in a very recent interview to The Times of India (January 8, 1998): "When asked to elaborate on that oft-repeated phrase, 'not on our agenda' and whether that indicated a permanent time-frame, the BJP leader said, 'It means that they (Kashi and Mathura) are not on our agenda for the time being. Nobody can say what will happen in future. But as I have said in my interview, they are not on our agenda. Full stop'." Nothing could have been more explicit. It is a unilateral and temporary self-restraint. It is not a permanent commitment to Muslims or to the country as a whole. Advani once recalled that even Ayodhya emerged "on the agenda" only in 1989, on the eve of the elections, in the BJP's Palampur resolution. "They (Kashi and Mathura) are not on the agenda. Ayodhya, to begin with, was also not on the agenda" (Sunday, March 16, 1997). The hint is clear, indeed all three are on the ultimate agenda. The aftermath is noteworthy.

VHP leaders Ashok Singhal and Vishnu Hari Dalmia with Atal Behari Vajpayee.-

On January 1, 1998 in Lucknow, Singhal poured scorn on Vajpayee's denial. He "knew very well the meaning of such statements... the decision of the Sangh Parivar was final and binding."

He also said: "Advani has already spilled the beans on the BJP's stand on the two shrines at Kashi and Mathura." A day earlier (December 31) he had said in Ayodhya: "There is no difference between the BJP and the VHP on the temple issue. Their language might be different, but ideologically we are one." On January 9, he pledged that "there won't be any conflict between the two arms of the Sangh parivar in this regard," as The Indian Express quoted him.

RSS supremo Rajendra Singh's speech on January 10 made the situation crystal clear. He justified the BJP's ostensible shift in emphasis from Ayodhya, Article 370 et al. "If you are ill, you don't take a bath. But that does not mean that this will be the arrangement forever, in all the circumstances". The Sanghites had not been sidelined in the BJP as some people imagined. "If that were the case Atalji and Advaniji and many others would not have been at the helm of the party's affairs." He added: "If the BJP comes to power, they will remove the difficulties put up unnecessarily by their predecessors and the people will build the Ram Mandir."

The unity of hearts is richly illustrated in an issue of the Parivar's organ Organiser, of January 4, 1998. "VHP for a Rambhakta Government at Centre" says one headline, while another says "Muslims should forgo their claim on Ayodhya, Kashi & Mathura - Prof. Rajendra Singh." Both headlines appeared on the same page. Another page carried the BJP's resolution on "Mandate for a stable government".

As with the VHP, so with the RSS. Vajpayee says: "The two are independent organisations with separate identities". (India Today; December 29, 1997). This, from one who wrote not long ago that "The Sangh is my soul" (Organiser; May 7, 1995). Advani is more explicit. "The RSS has a kind of moral authority which I believe is health-giving for the BJP" (Outlook; August 6, 1997).

We have a detailed and authoritative exposition of the triangular relationship from Advani at a BJP camp in Coimbatore on March 17, 1990 (vide The Telegraph of May 17, 1990 for the text). He recalled that the Jan Sangh faction broke away from the Janata Party in 1980 on the dual membership (with RSS) issue: "So while in the case of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh the linkage was only ideological, in the case of the BJP the linkage was both ideological as well as historical. With such a closer link from its origin in 1980 till today we are about to complete 10 years of existence. There has been a conscious effort on the part of the Swayamsevaks who are working in the BJP to make each one understand the ideological base to which we belong, and our connections with the sister organisations like the VHP, the ABVP, the BMS, the Seva Bharati and the Kalyan Ashram which are all based on the inspiration from RSS... We have to intensify our efforts, we have to project the viewpoint of the RSS, which is not being reflected, so that with the instrumentality of the BJP in politics it gets more acceptance...."

This puts paid to all the talk about "separate" organisations. It is a clear admission that the BJP is but a political instrument of the RSS and so is the VHP, one of its "sister organisations". Incidentally, in this very speech Advani declaimed that India's "culture is essentially Hindu culture." The BJP rejects the concept of India's "composite culture".

Yet Rajendra Singh told the Tribunal on VHP on oath that he had "little knowledge of the working of VHP and Bajrang Dal" (vide this writer's article, "A touch of gloss"; Frontline, September 10, 1993). He said that he learnt of that from newspaper reports. As S. B. Chavan told Parliament on December 21, 1992, the crucial decision on the Babri Masjid was taken at the RSS' Ujjain conclave in October 1992. Advani confirmed the RSS' lead role. "It is fortunate that the entire Ayodhya movement is headed by the RSS" (The Indian Express; February 4, 1991).

THERE is an air of deja vu about all these efforts. The people of India were treated to the spectacle of "distancing" in 1996, as Virginia Van Dyke noted in a brilliant article on "political sadhus" (General Elections, 1996; Economic & Political Weekly, December 6, 1997). Based on field work in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, she discusses in detail "the relationship between the VHP sadhus and the BJP". She notes that "the use made of political sadhus by the BJP underwent a restructuring in 1996 as the BJP consciously distanced itself from the VHP." Earlier, there was even a "VHP quota" for the party ticket. Singhal's remarks show that the VHP has not been discarded like a squeezed lemon. The BJP has "consciously" distanced itself from it by mutual agreement among the two "sister organisations" and the parent, the RSS. There is a division of labour organisationally as well as personally. "While Vajpayee was charming interviewers on television news shows and countering the image of the BJP as a rabid Hindu party, Advani was touring in his Suraj Yatra and trying to whip up some enthusiasm for Hindutva, claiming that the Ram Mandir was still on the BJP agenda."

Advani will, one hopes, not demur to this. He said once that "studies on the working relationship between the RSS and the BJP have been done, unfortunately, in large measure by foreigners. In the Indian media, any writing of all this is absurd, even amusing." Evidently, he has little respect for swadeshi scholarship in this field.

Let me therefore quote only "foreigners". Walter K. Andersen and Shridhar D. Damle said in their able work The Brotherhood in Saffron that "it is questionable if the BJP could survive politically without the RSS cadre and the cadre will not stay unless the leadership of the party stays firmly in the hands of the "brotherhood". Christopher Jaffrelot's superb work The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India notes how "a division of labour... took shape between Advani and Vajpayee," how the RSS "pushed it (the VHP, which it had founded) to the forefront in the framework of a new electoral strategy which had taken shape as early as 1979," and, more pertinently, that "the VHP network operated in symbiosis with the RSS... the official union of the VHP with the BJP only came about later, but for a long time there were already unmistakable organic links between the two organisations at the local level, where the triple network of the RSS, the VHP and the BJP worked with ever-increasing vigour as the (1989) election approached."

Jaffrelot's view is supported by RSS supremo Balasaheb Deoras' announcement in Mumbai on August 23, 1989 that the VHP "will play a major role in reviving the self-respect of the Hindus," as The Times of India reported. He was commemorating the founding of the VHP in the city on August 29, 1964.

Recent works by foreign scholars hold the same view. Prof. Richard H. Davis, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Yale, has contributed an incisive essay on the iconography of Rama's chariot to the book Making India Hindu, edited by David Ludden (Oxford; Rs. 495). The VHP's Ekatmata Yajna was launched in 1983 and its move then was to "liberate" the temples in 1984. It played a very important role in Advani's rath yatra in 1990. "The procession was planned jointly, with the VHP leadership setting the stage and offering strategic advice behind the scenes. What is most interesting from an iconographical point of view is the way in which this double agency engendered a two-level message throughout the event. "Hard-core" and "soft-core" imagery occurred side by side.

"The hard-core imagery, for which the VHP and related groups were primarily responsible, was religious, allusive, militant, masculine, and anti-Muslim. Making much use of Rama as paradigm, it played out themes inherent in the primary terms of the mobilisation. The BJP and Advani placed themselves often in the position of trying to reframe this imagery or put a softer spin on it.... This message-doubling held advantages for both parties. For the VHP and kindred groups, the participation of the BJP ensured coverage of the procession by major media, enabling them to project their message to a much larger audience than had been previously possible. The BJP, on the other hand, was able to disavow the more militant imagery as originating from the VHP and so attempt to maintain its electoral respectability, while at the same time profiting from the undoubted power and commitment that militant imagery evoked for some." The Bajrang Dal came to the fore in this venture.

His essay examines "the Sangh campaign as an enormously successful mobilisation in which an aggressive, risky and adept manipulation of cultural symbols through a variety of mass media provoked wide-spread popular response, transformed the marginal VHP into a major religious-cultural organisation, and generated considerable electoral gains for the BJP. The organisers put forth a complex message calculated to appeal to differing audiences, found ways to pose difficult dilemmas for the ruling authorities, and advance themselves as a viable alternative to the current political powers." This is precisely what is afoot currently - different messages to different groups.

The Ram temple issue was an artificial creation of the VHP at the instance of the RSS. "Until then, the controversy over the Ayodhya site had been largely parochial and largely forgotten. The VHP's task was to advance the liberation of Rama's birthplace as a compelling issue of national significance. Their problem was that the VHP itself remained a small, peripheral religious organisation with limited resources and cadres." It was the RSS other wing, the BJP, which lent it respectability in 1989.

Peter Van der Veer expresses the same opinion in his work Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India (Oxford; Rs. 395): "The temple-mosque controversy did not evoke strong feelings between 1949, when the image of Rama was installed, and 1984, when the VHP started its agitations. By transforming the mosque in Ayodhya from a local shrine into a symbol of the "threatened" Hindu majority, however, the VHP has been instrumental in the homogenisation of a "national Hinduism". Vajpayee dubbed the issue a matter of "national honour".

The author holds that "the political success of the BJP depends squarely on its alliance with two Hindu nationalist movements, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an organisation of religious leaders, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant youth organisation. This alliance allows it to use religious discourse and mass-scale ritual action in the political arena. The party's programme stresses Hindutva. The term Hindutva equates religious and national identity: an Indian is a Hindu, an equation that puts important Indian religious communities, such as Christians and Muslims, outside the nation. The argument for the term stresses that Hindus form the majority community in the country and that, accordingly, India should be ruled by them as a Hindu state (rashtra)."

In 1989, the BJP made Ayodhya an "absolutely central" issue. "At least from this point onward - and probably already in 1986 - the political agenda of the BJP cannot be separated from that of the VHP. There is a direct coordination of rituals, agitation and political manoeuvring by the high command of the BJP, the RSS, and the VHP who in fact overlap to a significant degree. Vijaya Raje Scindia is a vice-president of the BJP and a leader of the VHP; Lal Kishan Advani and Atal Behari Vajpayee are leaders of the BJP, but have a background in the RSS; an important leader of the RSS, Manohar Pingle, has the VHP in his portfolio. Significantly, the VHP leadership also draws extensively on the experience of retired members in the higher echelons of the Indian bureaucracy, such as former directors-general of police, former chief judges, and former ministers; it is not simply an 'extremist' organisation, far removed from the mainstream of Indian society. Obviously, the support of persons with strong links to the bureaucracy is critical in the planning and execution of mass-scale demonstrations." The book contains a detailed description of the founding of the VHP.

Finally, Prof. Stanley J. Tambiah of Harvard has written a most instructive work on ethno-nationalist conflicts and collective violence in South Asia (Leveling Crowds; Sage; Rs. 450). In a chapter on "Hindu Nationalism; the Ayodhya campaign and the Babri Masjid", he writes: "The RSS, BJP, and VHP, which aspire to power at the Union centre and in state governments, claim to be movements sponsoring causes with national significance, exemplified by the very concept of Hindutva. The building of a new temple to Ram in Ayodhya was portrayed as an all-India Hindu nationalist cause. For these movements, Ayodhya was an axis mundi and a locus classicus, a condensed symbol signifying the whole."

He holds, as every scholar does, that the demolition of the Babri Masjid was jointly planned by the RSS, the BJP, the VHP and the Shiv Sena and records the bloodbath that followed.

All these are "foreigners" and scholars of impeccable credentials. Advani should accept their findings. Regardless, their researchers - and the record as people in India know it - suffice to expose the deception which the BJP is practising so brazenly and sedulously about its separateness from the RSS and the VHP.

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