The agenda

An old dream and a new horse to flog

Print edition : March 18, 2016

Afzal Guru being escorted to an anti-terrorism court in New Delhi in December 2002. His hanging remains a deeply contested issue. Photo: B. MATHUR/REUTERS

Sangam, Allahabad, U.P., 1991: The VHP's Ashok Singhal at the "immersion of ashes" ceremony for kar sevaks said to have been killed in police action during the first kar seva in Ayodhya in 1990-91. Journalistic investigations located four of these "martyrs" and established that the Sangh Parivar list contained several people who had never gone to Ayodhya. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Georgi Dimitrov, the legendary Bulgarian leader who was put on trial by Hitler's regime in Germany on charges of having played a role in the burning of the Reichstag in February 1933. Later, it became evident that the arson was planned by the Nazis to frame communist leaders. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The burning of the Reichstag in 1933. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The rhetoric of nationalism is being used by the ruling dispensation to deflect attention from pressing problems and to chase the Sangh Parivar’s old dream of creating a pan-Hindu identity.

As the proceedings concluded in the Lok Sabha late in the evening on February 24, the dominant mood in the parliamentary office of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was one of smug satisfaction. Throughout the evening, the House had debated issues relating to the University of Hyderabad and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), including Rohith Vemula’s suicide and the arrest of a number of JNU students, including Students Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar, on charges of sedition. The near unanimous opinion among those gathered at the parliamentary office was that the performance of the party leaders had lived up to the exhortations of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah to go all out on the controversies relating to the Central universities. Praise was particularly showered on the emotional theatrics of the actor-turned-politician Smriti Irani, Union Human Resource Development Minister, and the staid support given to her by Home Minister Rajnath Singh. All in all, the verdict was that party leaders had served well the plank of the larger Hindutva revival being pursued by the BJP and other Sangh Parivar outfits and pitted nationalism versus sedition. “Nationalist fervour is reverberating across the country in the wake of these developments, and undoubtedly this is strengthening the hands of the government and the party,” said Bhupender Yadav, Rajya Sabha member of the BJP from Rajasthan, to Frontline.

Though it is not openly admitted, the revival of the Hindutva plank in the name of nationalism versus sedition is perceived across the Sangh Parivar as an important political and ideological achievement in the early months of 2016, particularly in view of the significant reverses suffered by the BJP in the Assembly elections in Bihar and Delhi in 2015. The Grand Alliance consisting of the Janata Dal (United), or JD(U), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Congress was victorious in Bihar, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won the elections in Delhi.

In the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had mixed aggressive communal polarisation through widespread riots in northern India, particularly in western Uttar Pradesh, with promises of a new development paradigm. After the BJP’s resounding success in that election, the party and its Sangh Parivar associates resorted to the strategy of generating low-intensity communal conflicts during the Bihar and Delhi Assembly elections. There were attempts to build up a communal frenzy through concentrated attacks on places of worship belonging to minority communities, and the issue of cow slaughter was highlighted. But the strategy and related tactics boomeranged on both occasions. In this context, the debate on nationalism versus sedition is perceived to have brought a much-needed boost to the Hindutva plank.

Indeed, several student organisations and political parties have voiced suspicions that the incidents leading to the intense and acrimonious debate on the issue had been manipulated by Sangh Parivar outfits. Leading this view is the AAP, which has come up with videos showing activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the Sangh Parivar outfit in student politics, shouting anti-national slogans.

AAP leader Ashutosh has stated that these ABVP activists had created the mischief and blamed it on others such as Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid. The BJP and other Sangh Parivar outfits have refuted the claim, saying that the AAP video was doctored. There are at least four video versions of the events, with the proponents of each version claiming that theirs is the true depiction (see separate stories).

‘Track record of subterfuge’

Samajwadi Party (S.P.) leader and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, speaking to Frontline, pointed out that Sangh Parivar outfits had a track record of using subterfuge in order to advance the Hindutva plank. He said: “You look into history, and you would see how Sangh Parivar leaders and activists smuggled the idols into the Babri Masjid in the middle of the night in 1949 to revive the Ayodhya controversy. Again, in 1990-91, after the first karseva in Ayodhya for the Ram Mandir during the tenure of Mulayam Singh Yadavji, they claimed that hundreds of Sangh Parivar activists were killed in police action. They even had the gumption to come up with a list of so-called martyrs during that karseva. Finally, it was exposed as bogus when journalistic investigations located four of these so-called martyrs alive and established that the Sangh Parivar list contained several people who had never gone to Ayodhya and had died of other causes such as road accidents and terminal ailments [“When the ‘dead’ came back”; Frontline; May 24, 1991]. Recently, a section of the Patel community in Gujarat has claimed that the Godhra train burning that led to the violence against a minority community in 2002 was engineered by sections of the BJP. Really, this track record is worrisome and is reason enough to raise serious doubts on what exactly is happening now, too, though there is no concrete evidence either way.”

M.A. Baby, Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), pointed out that the manoeuvres used in the current controversy are strikingly similar to the ones employed by the Nazis under Hitler and Goebbels.

He said: “The JNU developments remind one of the burning of the Reichstag in February 1933. The Nazis branded this as the work of the Communist Party of Germany. The party’s activists, including the legendary Bulgarian leader Georgi Dimitrov, were arrested and put on trial. Later it became evident that the arson had been planned and ordered by the Nazis to implicate the Communist Party, its leaders and activists and to eliminate them physically and politically. What we are seeing now in India, on the basis of the JNU issue as well as other oppressive measures of the BJP and its government, is a modern replay of the Reichstag strategy of the Nazis.”

Shivanand Tiwari, a former Rajya Sabha member of the JD(U), said that the Sangh Parivar’s proclamations of its commitment to nationalism were laughable. “These are the people who sided with the British when Mahatma Gandhi gave the ‘Quit India’ call in 1942. Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the predecessor of the BJP, was part of a Muslim League-led government in Bengal and he wrote a letter to the British government at the Centre saying that at the time of war, repressing agitations [such as the Quit India movement] with force is the right of any government. With such an ignominious history, these people are now calling themselves champions of nationalism.”

Notwithstanding the scepticism about the ruling party’s nationalism campaign, the debate has given a fresh lease of life to the BJP and the Sangh Parivar as well as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by it.

In addition to the electoral reverses in Bihar and Delhi, the NDA government found itself cornered over its economic and political failures in the last few months. Now the nationalism debate has provided an opportunity for the Sangh Parivar machinery to energise its cadre and distract public attention from serious problems plaguing the country.

Of course, the opposition to the rhetoric of nationalism, and especially to the indiscriminate use of force by security forces and goons of the Hindutva brigade against students, teachers, journalists and other common people, has brought together secular political organisations as never before. Left parties, the Congress, the S.P., the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the AAP have taken up the issue spiritedly. Political observers, including those inclined towards right-wing politics and Hindutva, feel that this rallying in favour of democratic rights has considerable impact among the youth of the country. Still, the nationalism rhetoric has generated a formidable energy among the Sangh Parivar cadre.

Divisive tactics

“Historically, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar have used the binary debate of ‘nationalist’ versus ‘anti-national’ as both an offensive and defensive political tactic, contingent upon the situation. The Sangh Parivar has used its aggressive nationalist discourse to polarise political debate for both short-term and long-term gains. However, the government’s knee-jerk responses in various situations have made it clear that the BJP intends to use this hyper-nationalist discourse for short-term gains in the next three and a half years of its tenure. It remains to be seen whether such polarising tactics result in long-term consolidations for the Sangh Parivar or not,” said Aryama, a New-Delhi based political scientist. “Rising unemployment, economic distress across vast stretches of the rural hinterland, price rise, recent electoral failures, and a policy paralysis, also indicated many times by the Reserve Bank Governor Raghuram Rajan, had put the government on the back foot. Following Rohith Vemula’s suicide, the government was also perceived as anti-Dalit. The increasing social cleavages, worsened by the economic distress, perhaps forced the BJP to deflect public attention from the major issues, even at the cost of civil liberties ensured to Indian citizens in the Constitution. The nationalist posturing of the state against critical students of JNU, one of the most premier universities of India, has to be looked at in this context,” he added.

The Hindutva orientation of the debate is evident from the manner in which the bigwigs of the BJP have taken a stand against JNU students. Consider this statement by Smriti Irani to the media on the day of Basant Panchami: “I only want to say that today is the day of worship of Goddess Saraswati. Saraswati blesses every family that whatever they speak is for progress and strengthening the nation. Let Mother India be praised. The nation will never tolerate an insult to Mother India.” Rajnath Singh added: “Anyone who raises anti-India slogans or tries to put a question mark on the nation’s unity and integrity will not be spared.” Later, he went on to link JNU students with Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist group.

The hyper-nationalist rhetoric by BJP leaders has encouraged mob violence in various parts of the country. The families of the students facing sedition charges have received threats. A JNU faculty member, Vivek Kumar, was attacked in a seminar in Madhya Pradesh. The attack on journalists and Kanhaiya Kumar at the Patiala House courts in New Delhi is also directly linked to the rhetoric. Many Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) activists whom Frontline spoke to claimed to have been campaigning against the “JNU traitors” in colonies of New Delhi. Frontline witnessed some loudspeaker campaigns in a few South Delhi colonies. “The RSS shakhas across Delhi have given a call to barge into JNU when the occasion demands. JNU has, for many years, been the hub of anti-national activities. It is time it was shut down,” an RSS pracharak told Frontline.

Repercussions outside Delhi

The aggressive nationalist posturing has had its repercussions outside Delhi, too. The Jagdalpur Legal Aid group (JLAG), a team of three women lawyers which took up false cases against Adivasis in Bastar, Chhattisgarh, has been at loggerheads with the Chhattisgarh police because of the nature of its work for many months now. Recently a mob attacked the JLAG office with stones, and the lawyers were asked to vacate their rented homes by their landlords. In a similar incident, Malini Subramaniam, a journalist with the website scroll.in, has had to leave her accommodation in Jagdalpur in Bastar. She was intimidated by a mob. Her car and home were attacked with stones. She also faced intimidation by the Chhattisgarh police. Malini Subramaniam has been reporting about police excesses in Bastar and has written about many false police cases against Adivasis in Bastar. She alleges that she was threatened because of her honest journalism. The attack on the social activist and AAP leader Soni Sori from Chhattisgarh is also perceived to be linked to the new Sangh Parivar adventures against political and ideological opponents.

These moves are facing stiff resistance from opposition political parties and large sections of the academic community. But social and political observers feel that the BJP’s polarising tactic has succeeded in deflecting public attention from the Modi government’s failures. The JNU controversy seems to have helped the Sangh Parivar in four ways. First, the BJP’s efforts to brand all dissenting sections of society as anti-national have found some traction among the common people. Parties such as the Congress, the RJD, the JD(U) and the BSP have come together to support JNU students.

BJP leaders have been clubbing all of them, irrespective of their ideologies, as lesser patriots. This branding of a united opposition as anti-national helps the BJP’s patriotic public image and also works as a deterrent for criticisms of the NDA on policy issues in the Budget session of Parliament.

Second, this polarising manoeuvre has helped the BJP to corner the dissenting voices among Dalit political groups. Rohith Vemula’s suicide had helped Ambedkarite groups to mount a strong campaign against Hindutva’s divisive ideology. The BJP was being perceived as antithetical to Dalit interests. However, the JNU controversy has shrouded this political campaign to a great extent. “After we were targeted for going after Dalit students in the University of Hyderabad, we proved to the world that we were not against Dalits by arresting Kanhaiya, a Bhumihar [a dominant upper caste] from Bihar,” the RSS pracharak told Frontline.

Third, the attack on JNU over the articulation of Kashmir’s interests has helped the BJP to pressure the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). After the death of PDP leader and Chief Minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, the BJP and the PDP had failed to form the government over the “Agenda of Alliance”. The two parties have been engaging in endless rounds of talks without resolving the contested issues. The BJP projected the PDP as being adamant on certain issues. Political observers believe that the government’s crackdown on JNU students who were protesting against the execution of Afzal Guru may also be a manoeuvre to intimidate the PDP.

Afzal Guru’s hanging was seen as unjust by many sections of the population in Kashmir. The PDP proclaimed Afzal Guru a martyr. In view of its alliance with the BJP, the JNU crackdown can have negative repercussions on the party’s political future. The National Conference, the PDP’s chief opposition, has already been branding the party as “traitors”. The powerful Hurriyat Conference has also been accusing the PDP of betraying the Kashmiri people. In such a hostile political environment, the PDP can redeem itself only by projecting itself as the main negotiator for Kashmiri interests with the Indian government. It can do so only by forming the government and being seen as bargaining for Kashmiri interests.

Last, the clampdown on JNU will also help appease the traditional Sangh Parivar constituents, which are brooding over Modi’s non-conventional style of governance and open espousal of corporate interests. The RSS perceives JNU as the main breeding ground of communists, one of its three chief enemies apart from Muslims and Christians. Ever since the university’s inception, the RSS has published many articles on “anti-national activities in JNU”. The government has now given a new lease of life to this targeting of JNU. K.G. Suresh, senior fellow of the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), founded by the current National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and widely seen as sympathetic to the Sangh Parivar’s ideology, has been writing articles against student politics at JNU.

In June 2014, a month after Modi’s government was installed, Suresh wrote in The Pioneer in an article called “Too serious to be brushed aside”: “These academics, masquerading as liberals and feminists, have been engaged in nefarious and anti-national activities by maligning India through their statements, lectures, publications, protests and demonstrations, seminars and symposia through organisations which receive liberal funding from hostile foreign agencies.” He went on to insinuate that JNU students were likewise engaged in anti-national activities but failed to validate his accusations with evidence. He specifically mentioned the Democratic Students’ Union (DSU) as guilty of anti-national activities and alleged that it was funded by Pakistan.

The government, like Suresh, has failed to provide any evidence against the students who are facing sedition charges. The cultural event that the ABVP targeted was organised by some former members of the DSU. Most students told Frontline that the DSU was an extremist group when it came to leftist political thought but that the government was wrong to brand its student leaders as terrorists. “The DSU is a group of students which, like all others, professes a stream of politics. It may be called extremist but definitely not anti-national,” said a student of JNU.

Clearly, the current political manoeuvring by the BJP and other Sangh Parivar outfits is moving ahead according to a plan. It seeks not only to overcome the immediate social and political effect of the electoral reverses in Bihar and Delhi but also to revive the original Sangh Parivar dream of forging a unified pan-Hindu identity. There has been a realisation in the Sangh Parivar since the late 1990s that this pan-Hindu identity project has suffered repeated reverses on account of the class, caste, and gender divisions in Indian society.

The eruption and spread of the violent agitation in Haryana, Rajasthan and western Uttar Pradesh on the demand for Other Backward Classes (OBC) status and reservation to the Jat community was perceived by many, including in the Sangh Parivar, as yet another instance of the persistence of factors that limit pan-Hindu consolidation.

In fact, Sangh Parivar insiders say, many top leaders of the BJP and the RSS were surprised that a caste-oriented agitation could spread so fast in an atmosphere charged with the emotions generated by the nationalism-versus-sedition debate. However, the pursuit of “nationalism” is clearly seen as the new path to pursue to achieve the objective of consolidating the pan-Hindu political constituency. The immediate strategy is to clamp down on all dissenting voices and then use the resulting social and political climate to overcome class-caste-gender divisions that have hindered the development of the pan-Hindu identity.

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