UNDERMINING INDIA

Print edition : January 30, 1999

The campaign of hate, intimidation and violence by the Sangh Parivar that escalated with the assumption of power by the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre last year has peaked, undermining social solidarities and plunging the nation towards anarchy and chaos.

SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in New Delhi

IN theological discourse it is the cleanser, the destroyer, the medium of righteous retribution. In real life it kills and maims and is the weapon of choice for the riotous rabble and the lynch mob. Fire embodies the virulent pathology of a society besieged from within by the forces of hatred. For the mob that converged on a vehicle in a remote village of Orissa and transformed it within minutes into a hellish inferno, the grisly murder of a Christian missionary and his two young sons was fair and just retaliation. The injuries that had been inflicted upon their faith demanded that the most hideous fate be visited upon the agents of Christian proselytisation.

On the morning of January 23, Graham Stewart Staines and his two sons aged nine and six, Australian nationals who had made India their home, fell victim to the cycle of violence that began with the assumption of power by the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre last year. Not since the Ayodhya demolition of 1992 and the blood-letting that followed has the country been undermined in this manner in its own eyes and diminished quite so badly in the global perception.

Expressions of shock and outrage have since emanated from highly placed quarters in the BJP and the Government, though each has sounded more hollow than the previous one. At every opportunity that has presented itself since the graph of violence against Christians began rising, in both rhetoric and deed, leaders of the ruling coalition have failed to exercise their authority in the cause of sanity and order. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee visited the riot-torn district of Dangs in Gujarat but chose not to censure the administration that had been derelict or condemn the Hindutva cabal that had wrecked a tradition of amity and social solidarity. He mildly admonished the miscreants for taking the law into their own hands and tacitly held the victims responsible for their suffering, by calling for a "national debate" on religious conversions.

Home Minister L.K. Advani has consistently overlooked powerful evidence that the flock he marshalled and nurtured through the Ayodhya campaign is now back in the fray with a vengeance, their focus shifted to a new set of imagined grievances. Having facilitated his ascent to power, they are not inclined to sit back and allow him to fulfil his self-appointed destiny as the Home Minister who will resurrect the authoritarian glories of the Sardar Patel era. The hoodlums who were in the vanguard of Advani's challenge to the authority of the Indian state during the Ayodhya movement today mock at his authority, pitilessly exposing his abject enslavement by forces he was instrumental in releasing.

Neither fidelity to fact nor sensitivity to public opinion was apparent in Advani's recent statement that by far the largest part of funds received from independent donors abroad went towards Christian missionary activity in India. In a situation fraught with tension, his intervention had the intended effect. It subtly lent legitimacy to the campaign of intimidation that the satellite entities in the Hindutva constellation - the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal - have embarked upon, supposedly to stop conversions to Christianity.

At Baripada in Mayurbhanj district of Orissa, mourners at the funeral on January 25 of Australian missionary Graham Stewart Staines and his sons Philip and Timothy, who were burnt alive at Manoharpur in Keonjhar district.-BIKAS DAS / AP

In an intervention astonishing for its maladroitness and its rejection of a truth apparent to the whole of India, a truth that will be out quickly enough in the police investigation, Advani on January 25 disingenuously denied that the Bajrang Dal was involved in the bestial murder of Staines and his two little boys. The Union Home Minister, implying that he should know by virtue of both his sensitive office and his political experience, went on record to say that "I am not aware that the Bajrang Dal was involved in it".

Advani added: "I have different views in this matter, you may disagree with them. But as far as I know the Bajrang Dal or any other organisation connected with the RSS has no criminal background." The Bajrang Dal, he said, "has already clarified its stand".

In pronouncements well-remembered from the Ayodhya campaign, Advani had repeatedly characterised the secular state as an illegitimate construct, since its governing virtue was the denial of the unique cultural inheritance of the Indian nation. "Cultural nationalism" was the antidote he and his advisers within the BJP devised for these ills of the polity. As it travelled down the hierarchy from the leadership to the mob, the lofty rhetoric that Advani employed underwent a mutation. The intent to restore the primordial sense of India's cultural unity stood transformed into a brutal threat to extirpate the adherents of other religions and to efface their cultural symbols.

These were the slogans that were used to inflame passions and prime the Hindutva mobs for their climactic assault on the Babri Masjid in December 1992. But with the then Central Government being paralysed by indecision and the tide running strongly in his favour, Advani and his leadership coterie professed ignorance about these slogans, claiming rather that the crowds he mobilised were animated by an authentic cultural fervour.

Official waffling and equivocation were foretold in the circumstances of the BJP's pursuit of power, which unleashed forces of hatred and fostered a culture of cruelty towards those deemed alien to the uniquely Hindu ethos of India. These forces are not easily restrained although the interests of the leadership have shifted to the pragmatic imperatives of survival in office. In comparison, the BJP had a much easier time dealing with its truculent ally from Mumbai.

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee.-VIVEK BENDRE

THE Shiv Sena earned political legitimacy from the BJP's decision in 1990 to establish an electoral alliance with it - a decision for which Advani and his close associate Pramod Mahajan bear primary responsibility. The partnership survived while Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray blazoned his arrant disregard of the law across the pages of his newspaper, exhorting his flock to wreak a horrible vengeance upon the city's Muslim population in January 1993. Neither was it unsettled by Thackeray's infamous defence of Mahatma Gandhi's assassin during campaigning for the 1995 Assembly elections.

The price of this indulgence was only borne recently when Advani had to make his way to Mumbai and virtually prostrate before Thackeray to ensure that he would not disrupt the Pakistan cricket team's tour of India. It was an abject humiliation for the Home Minister who laid claim to Sardar Patel's mantle.

Yet the BJP's own flock, which has imbibed the supposed threat to Hinduism as a part of its indoctrination, will not be so easily appeased. Specific excesses that they commit may invite the half-hearted censure of their leaders. But the leadership cannot repudiate the world-view that engenders these acts of violence. If anything, like Vajpayee and Advani, they can only reinforce it with their pronouncements at critical junctures.

The Hindutva cabal has shifted its attention from the physical locus of an Islamic place of worship, which has since been demolished, to the more generalised threat of religious proselytisation. But even when localised in its aims to a specific site in Ayodhya, the Hindutva project was always much more ambitious. As a Minister in the Congress(I) Government in 1992, Rangarajan Kumaramangalam was a key intermediary in the negotiations with the VHP over the Ayodhya dispute. His recollections of that experience were fortunately put on record well before he followed the opportunistic instinct to join the BJP and assume a Cabinet berth under Vajpayee.

In response to questions posed by its Muslim interlocutors on the circumstances under which the Hindu claim to the site of the Babri Masjid originated, the VHP had this to say: "Was it not necessary... that the Muslims, who in the elections of 1946 had voted overwhelmingly in favour of Partition but decided to stay back in truncated India, should do some soul-searching about their earlier role... and disassociate themselves from the medieval ideology of religious intolerance, exclusivism and vandalism... (and join Hindus) in removing the physical remains of that medieval ideology... at three holy places - Ayodhya, Mathura and Varanasi?" Instead, the VHP went on, Muslims continued to "pursue the same path of religious exclusivism and separatism" even while "enjoying the benefits of India's liberal and secular Constitution." The Hindu claim to the Babri Masjid, beginning with the "appearance" of the Ram idols in the shrine in December 1949, "was a natural outcome of this state of affairs."

Union Home Minister L.K. Advani with Shiv Sena president Bal Thackeray in Mumbai on January 21. Following this meeting, Thackeray "suspended" his party's programme of agitation against the Pakistan cricket team's tour of India.-VIVEK BENDRE

Kumaramangalam's conclusion was very clear: the Hindutva project would not abate with the supplanting of a place of worship at Ayodhya. Its clear-cut aims were to overturn and destroy the foundations of the secular state itself, to shred the Constitution and obliterate all belief systems deemed 'alien'.

A SENSE that power was imminent, that extremism would only compromise its chances of acquiring the ultimate prize of state power, deterred the Hindutva combine from further adventures after the Ayodhya demolition. But with its accredited representatives now running the Central Government, it sees no further reason to observe these restraints.

Vinay Katiyar, former chief of the Bajrang Dal and senior VHP functionary, puts the rationale for the current phase of action in the following terms: "For many decades, we have been working towards integrating the Hindu Samaj into one united entity. And the struggle against foreign isms, fashions and ideologies that seek to convert vulnerable sections of our society into alien faiths has been an important part of this activity. We noticed one disturbing trend during the last one year. The operations of the Christian missionaries on the conversion front had intensified and acquired a new vigour. Our inquiries and assessments revealed that an important factor behind this was the emergence of Sonia Gandhi as the most important leader of the Congress. As patriots we had to counter the rise of foreign ideology in a new form and that is all that you are witnessing now."

The processes under way now are, in other words, consonant with the doctrine of "social cleansing" that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has propounded. Formulated in concrete terms in the 1960s, this strategy identifies Muslims as the principal enemies, followed closely by Christians. The third enemy is the Indian intellectual and cultural elite, which is influenced by "foreign isms, fashions and ideologies".

It is known that the strategy was forged at a conference in Mumbai in August 1964 under the aegis of the RSS. This is where the VHP was established as a militant vehicle of religious propagation. The tasks that were entrusted to the organisation included the "consolidation and strengthening of Hindu society," the "protection and dissemination of Hindu spiritual and ethical values," and the "establishment of links among Hindus living in different countries." The proposed method was to create an ecclesiastical order, complete with its own liturgy, scripture and institutional hierarchy. Individual priests manning shrines across the country were to be coopted into a network of VHP sponsorship. In another conscious reversion to the medieval model of religious organisation, VHP activists, themselves drawn to a great extent from the RSS, were designated as the lay order which would impart the necessary momentum for social consolidation on religious lines.

The jeep in which Staines and his sons were burnt alive.-ASHOK PANDA / THE ASIAN AGE / AP

Political analysts characterise the procedure as one of "stigmatisation and emulation". A perception of threat from an alien cultural influence is created in the minds of the target population, who are then reclaimed by the native and indigenous culture through methods that were in others' hands decried as a mortal danger to the national culture.

Katiyar admits that the programme, though conceived well over three decades ago, only began to gather momentum in the 1980s, especially after a number of Dalits in Meenakshipuram village in Tamil Nadu embraced Islam in 1980. The VHP journal Hindu Viswa stated in July 1981 that such a missionary organisation was necessary because "in Bharat, religious conversions pose a grave threat to national security and integrity." With reference to Pakistan, the journal said: "Large portions of our motherland are now a foreign land to us because Hindus in those places were converted to alien faiths on a large scale." Today Katiyar estimates that the VHP programme of religious propagation has managed to recruit around 50,000 volunteers to its cause all over the country.

The first batch of 100 volunteers in the missionary order was trained and dispatched to various parts of the country in July 1982. These volunteers, or pracharaks as they were termed by the VHP, were to train local activists and thus increase the strength of the force. Six months after the order was started, its strength rose to 600 and by early 1983 the order had over 1,000 members. Once the size of the volunteer group rose beyond this threshold, the VHP redesigned the scale of its operations and undertook a special campaign to boost its financial resources.

Sangh Parivar insiders have revealed that the missionary order started with a basic capital of Rs.5 crores, which was collected during the course of a three-month special campaign launched in January 1983. The note prepared for the campaign said that the missionary order would work among untouchables, tribal people and the rural poor, groups considered especially vulnerable for conversion. "Re-conversion" of Muslims and Christians was identified as a major aim of the VHP during this period. According to Katiyar, the programme has had more successes than reverses, especially after the return of two Muslim sub-groups in Rajasthan in 1986.

Members of the Christian community demonstrating outside the Supreme Court in New Delhi on January 25 to protest against the killing of the missionary and his sons.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

A note on strategy and tactics prepared for the missionary order spells out the scope of its activities. Among the routine activities are "keeping a close watch" on Muslim and Christian missionaries, planning and executing campaigns against their activities and ultimately preventing the conversion of vulnerable sections to non-Hindu faiths. The note endorses the use of force, saying that volunteers should not "desist from physically preventing conversion as most of the conversions from Hinduism are forced."

Recent incidents in Gujarat and other parts of the country show how steadfast the VHP has been in following these tactics. The twisted vision of a nation restored to pristine cultural purity can inspire acts of macabre intensity, as the murder of Graham Staines and his sons shows.

Throughout its short history, the operations of the Hindu missionary order have involved physical violence as an integral element of strategy. The objectives have been manifold - stopping missionary activity "liberating" land and property from the hands of Muslim and Christian missionaries and "cleansing Muslim and Christian populations from specified areas." In some places the minority population is socially ostracised and forced to migrate elsewhere in search of livelihood and social sustenance. Several areas in the towns of Ayodhya, Kanpur and Etah in Uttar Pradesh, as well as Bahia, Kappadang and Bardoli in Gujarat, have been cleared of minority populations. A number of riots have taken place in these towns during the last two to three decades and each round has seen the displacement of a section of the minority population.

This range of activities would be classified by the VHP as routine. There is then another category of social interventions that the missionary order resorts to - yatras and yagnas, such as the Ekatmata Yatra, which have emphasised the need for developing a pan-Hindu identity. As the official literature of the VHP puts it, "measures to incorporate weaker sections such as Dalits and tribals into the Hindu mainstream" are an important activity within these programmes. These "incorporation measures" take the form of functions such as 'Ram Bhojan', where people of all castes sit together for a feast in a symbolic step suggesting the eradication of untouchability.

In the context of these activities, which have an air of custom and habit about them, the recent upsurge of violence is but natural. The reasons are not far to seek: the Hindutva cabal has maintained a keen eye on the national political situation, not missing a chance to raise the pitch of its activities at the least hint that the political response will be weak and infirm. The country witnessed this aspect during the P.V. Narasimha Rao regime, when a Congress(I) that had connived at the restoration of the Ayodhya dispute to centrestage found itself unable to evolve a response of sufficient strength to stop the Hindutva mobilisation in its tracks.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad working president Ashok Singhal.-R.V. MOORTHY

In comparison, the situation today is many times more lethal. Hindutva forces, who battened on the communal and chauvinistic appeal of the Ayodhya campaign, have established their sway over the instruments of the state. Sonia Gandhi's ascent to the leadership of the Congress(I) has sharpened the paranoia of the lunatic fringe about the subjugation of the Hindu ethos. The VHP missionary squad has spread itself out in sensitive areas and often entered into a cosy cohabitation with criminal elements, whose services they are able to recruit for coercive operations against supposed enemies.

HAVING climbed to power on the back of the VHP, the BJP leadership is in a state of moral paralysis. Clearly, they would rather devote their attentions to the twin challenges of keeping a wobbly coalition together and attending to the tasks of governance. This has heightened apprehensions that the BJP leadership may be seeking to distance itself from the basic social agenda that brought it to power. But these shifts in emphasis are not available at the convenience of the BJP leadership. The BJP leadership today finds itself skewered by the mood of intolerance that it has been instrumental in creating. And the initiative today has passed into the hands of the lunatic fringe, which can by precipitating recurrent crises and confrontations keep BJP leaders in perpetual thrall, as the recent words and deeds of Vajpayee and Advani in particular illustrate.

Curiously, the Congress(I) itself seems afflicted by a stupor of moral confusion just when it should be mounting a spirited counter-offensive. After a recent conclave the Congress Working Committee adopted a resolution attacking the BJP for its sponsorship of the current phase of communal adventurism and went on to put forward its credentials as the better custodian of Hindu cultural interests. "Hinduism is the most effective guarantor of secularism," said the CWC resolution, asserting further that the attacks on minorities were "a serious affront to basic Hindu values and beliefs."

Obviously, the Congress(I) is again experimenting with the risky strategy of countering the programmatic majority communalism of the BJP with its own pragmatic variant. It also seems to suggest a mood of insecurity within Congress(I) ranks, that the party's chances of regaining power may be compromised by the foreign origins of its leader. This sense of hesitancy may seem grossly misplaced as the BJP presides over an unparalleled upsurge in the politics of hate, undermining social solidarities and plunging the nation towards anarchy and chaos. And the purveyors of intolerance who have occupied the apparatus of governance are certainly in no position to apply the anodyne.

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