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COVER STORY

Bulldozing the idea of India

Print edition : May 20, 2022 T+T-
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Bulldozers being used during an ‘anti-encroachment drive’ in the violence-hit Jahangirpuri area of Delhi on April 20. This demolition drive was unapologetically communal.

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Activists of the Rashtra Rakshak Samuh cover the signboard at Allahabad Railway Junction with a banner ‘Prayagraj’ as Uttar Pradesh government Cabinet approved renaming of the city, on October 17, 2018.

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Protest in Jawaharlal Nehru University on April 12 against the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad’s attack on students over serving non-vegatarian food during Navaratri. The Sangh Parivar’s communal campaigns included imposing vegetarianism during Ram Navami.

Hindutva forces are on a full-fledged communal offensive in the run-up to the general election in 2024 and Muslims are bearing the brunt of it.

“KAAM JAARI HAIN” (IT’S WORK IN PROGRESS). At the Digamber Akhara in Ayodhya in 1993, Mahant Ramachandra Paramahans made this pithy statement in the Hindutva campaign armoury forcefully before the media. He was the chairman of the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas, a trust set up and controlled by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) to plan and oversee the agitation and propaganda relating to the Babri Masjid-Ram mandir dispute and ultimately guide the construction of the Ram mandir. Paramahans went on to explain that the Hindutva sectarian project, based primarily on an anti-Muslim campaign, had been going on since 1923, the year Vinayak Damodar Savarkar presented the Hindutva political treatise to the world. According to him, the project had traversed a mixed political terrain making small, medium and large gains and suffering some reverses over decades. He said that in pursuit of the project, the Sangh Parivar had employed different strategies, ranging from aggression to moderation and even subjugation.

Paramahans died in 2003, but nearly two decades later, his “Kaam jaari hain” phrase is doing the rounds again in Sangh Parivar circles across India, especially in north Indian States, and is being discussed with a rabid communal fervour. Indeed, the context in which Paramahans first presented it in 1993 was entirely different from the current political and electoral context in which the Sangh Parivar finds itself. The tone and tenor of the references to the phrase and the emotional and political quotients are starkly different.

It was first used in 1993, just a few days after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the fountainhead of the Ram mandir agitation, suffered an unexpected electoral defeat in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. The elections were held barely six months after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. Sangh Parivar leaders were convinced that the mosque’s demolition had unleashed a “Hindutva emotional tiger”. As a result, they believed, the saffron party would return to power easily.

Also read: The spectre of an ideological state

However, the election results shocked the Sangh Parivar as the sociopolitical alliance of Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBC) formed by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) upstaged the BJP. It was against this background that a group of media representatives, including this writer, met Paramahans at the headquarters of the Digambar Akhara. Paramahans’ “Kaam jaari hain” expression was in response to a pointed query by this writer on the unexpected electoral shock. At that point of time, it meant retreating from aggressively sectarian Hindutva positions and making efforts to attract the non-upper caste sections of Hindu society and the political organisations that represented these communities to the Sangh Parivar and its political arm.

Ambedkar among the pantheon of gods

One of the biggest manifestations of this occurred in December 1993 at a function organised in Ayodhya by the VHP to mark the first anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. A new face was added to the pantheon of gods adorning the big screen that formed the backdrop of the stage. For the first time in the VHP’s history, alongside the usual figures of Ram, Sita and Lakshman was a picture of the Dalit icon Bhimrao Ambedkar. Clearly, the Sangh Parivar was pursuing a strategy to split the consolidation of Dalit communities behind the BSP; the Ayodhya function was one of the many programmes in the plan.

Nine years later, in 2002, Frontline caught up with Paramahans shortly after the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat, driven by the Sangh Parivar with the connivance of the Narendra Modi-led BJP government in the State. This communal genocide happened in the early run-up to the Assembly elections that year. Paramahans said triumphantly then that the “work in progress” was entering a new and aggressive phase. The BJP’s massive victory in that election under Modi’s leadership justified his triumphalism.

Also read: Ambedkar’s warning

The nuances of the phrase differed between 1993 and 2002. The emphasis in 1993, following the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, was on the combination of realpolitik considerations aimed at garnering new social and political allies and the cautious advancement of the Hindutva agenda. The 2002 drive was marked by a barbaric Hindutva assault aimed at communal polarisation in order to win an election. Two decades later, India is witnessing an all-out communal aggression after winning four out of the five States that went to the polls in February-March 2022.

Demolition squads

The bulldozer has become a hideous symbol of this communal aggression. It made its first appearance during the campaign for the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, where the S.P., the principal opposition, led by former Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, put up a spirited fight against the ruling BJP and Chief Minister Adityanath. The bulldozer was employed to target the properties of alleged mafia dons belonging to the Muslim community. This community-specific demolition drive naturally acquired communal overtones. It became a rallying point for the BJP, helping it overcome the challenge posed by the S.P. and its allies, which had primarily built up a significant social and political coalition comprising large sections of the OBCs, Most Backward Castes (MBC), the predominantly agriculture-oriented Jats, and Muslims. In a public acknowledgment of the bulldozer as a political symbol that helped stem the tide, BJP workers moved through the streets of Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, sitting on bulldozers on March 10 even as the election results were being announced.

Following this, the “work in progress” expression took on a new meaning. Bulldozers were used to demolish buildings, properties and houses across several States such as Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka by the ministries in charge of law and order in the States, including the Union Home Ministry in Delhi. This post-election demolition drive was unapologetically communal, and even the fig leaf of anti-mafia operations put forth in Uttar Pradesh did not come into play. In Delhi and Madhya Pradesh, the majority of those who bore the brunt of the bulldozer attack were the poor among the minority communities.

Also read: Hindutva Laboratory 2.0

These demolition expeditions were accompanied by macabre communal campaigns across opposition-ruled States such as West Bengal, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. The new components to the campaign included imposing vegetarianism during Ram Navami and compelling people, particularly opposition political leaders, to recite the Hanuman chalisa (a devotional hymn), all of which resulted in tumultuous social situations in many States. Large sections of the mainstream media became supplicant associates of the Sangh Parivar in this campaign. Along with this, many BJP-ruled States, including Assam and Madhya Pradesh, initiated aggressive steps to make Hindutva-oriented changes to the educational curriculum.

Changing place names

Another front that has been opened in this vicious game plan is in the form of changing the names of several districts, towns and villages in north India. This devious plan had been in the works since the first term of the Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh in 2017. Thus, Allahabad was renamed Prayagraj and Faizabad was changed to Ayodhya.

Adhesh Gupta, president of the Delhi BJP unit, presided over a function in which BJP municipal councillor Bhagat Singh Tokas placed boards at Delhi’s Muhammadpur ‘declaring’ that its name had been changed to ‘Madhavpuram’. The very next day, on April 28, Gupta shot off a letter to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal asking him to rename 40 villages in the national capital. Gupta claimed that all these 40 villages had “Mughal-era” names and could not be accepted because they reminded people of the “sadness and pain of slavery” of living under the Mughal rule. Many of the villages that Gupta wants renamed are iconic historical locations such as Hauz Khas, Saidullajab, Sheikh Sarai, Lado Sarai and Najafgarh. In his letter, Gupta also claimed that he was only responding to the opinion of people living in these villages.

A long list has been prepared jointly by BJP leaders and bureaucrats since the early days of Adityanath’s second innings in Uttar Pradesh. These include Sultanpur, Mirzapur, Aligarh, Firozabad, Agra, Farukkabad and Mainpuri districts. There were proposals to change the names of Ghazipur and Basti districts during Adityanath's first term. The new proposals are to rename Sultanpur to Kush Bhavanpur, Aligarh to Harigarh, Mainpuri to Mayan Nagar, Firozabad to Chandra Nagar, Badaun to Vedamau, Farrukhabad to Panchal Nagar, Agra to Agravan, Muzaffarnagar to Luxmi Nagar, and Mirzapur to Vindhya Dham.

Also read: Politics of renaming

Mukesh Rajput, the BJP’s MP from Farrukhabad district, said that the area was called Panchal in ancient times and that it had been the capital of the Panchal region. Adityanath himself is on record saying that the Badayun region was famous for the study of Vedas in ancient times.

The final authority in changing names is the State government. So far, the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party government has not taken cognisance of the local BJP unit’s demands. However, the situation is different in Uttar Pradesh as it is the ministry itself that is driving the name-changing spree.

Jignesh Mevani’s arrest

Amidst these multi-pronged assaults and campaigns, Jignesh Mevani, Gujarat’s popular Dalit leader and an MLA supported by the Congress, was arrested twice in a week , first in the name of an inappropriate tweet against Prime Minister Modi and then on the basis of an allegation that he had misbehaved with a woman police officer. One of the first political moves by Modi after the victory in the four Assembly elections was to launch the campaign for the Gujarat elections later this year. According to political observers from the State, the BJP leadership has identified Mevani’s forceful articulation of issues and mass appeal and they may use criminal cases to keep him out of the campaign.

Frontline spoke to a dozen Sangh Parivar insiders from the north Indian States of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand to find out the reasons behind the new wave of sectarian assaults. Their collective refrain was that two primary factors had led to the all-out aggression using administrative and political instruments. The first was to further marginalise the minority Muslim community at the social and political levels across India using the return of the Adityanath government in Uttar Pradesh as an encouraging sign. The second was to try and bring back the OBC and MBC communities of Uttar Pradesh who had sided with the S.P. and its allies, increasing the opposition coalition’s vote share by 13 percentage points. The S.P’s own vote share in the coalition increased by 10.50 percentage points.

Also read: ‘It is part of a Brahmanical agenda’

According to these insiders, if the voting trends in the Assembly elections were translated into Lok Sabha seats, the S.P. alliance would be ahead in 24 seats. The vote tally in another 16 Lok Sabha seats is such that the scales can be tipped in favour of the opposition if it is able to campaign more aggressively and garner more votes from its core support base. As a result of the S.P’s performance in the Assembly elections and the threat perception it has created, the communally polarising campaign has to start early and in real earnest, with national-level operations, the Sangh Parivar insiders said.

They went on to say that the campaign for the 2014 May Lok Sabha election, which brought the BJP and Modi to power with a single-party majority, began as early as in 2012 December. A key component of this campaign was the communal riots in western Uttar Pradesh and adjoining areas in August-September, 2013. These riots aggravated communal polarisation in the 2014 election, and evidently a similar strategy is being evolved as part of the new “work in progress”.

BHU controversy

Several instances across the country demonstrate that this plan has had a considerable impact. An incident at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in the last week of April is a stark case in point. Hindutva student organisations protested on campus against an iftar party organised in one of the hostels and attended by Vice Chancellor Prof. Sudhir K. Jain. They burnt the Vice Chancellor’s effigy, and the university was forced to issue a statement on the controversy. Chander Shekher Gwari, the university’s assistant information and public relations officer, took to Twitter to state that the iftar was not organised by the Vice Chancellor, but by some students and teachers, and that they had invited him. The Vice Chancellor, he said, attended it as the head of the BHU fraternity. According to the statement, the tradition of organising iftar in BHU dates back more than two decades.

Even in 1993, when he first said “Kaam jaari hain”, Paramahans underscored that the crux of the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva politics was to “unleash the political tiger embedded in the demographic advantage that Hindus have in India that is Bharat and convert that into political, social and cultural hegemony”. He used to refer to the Sangh Parivar’s own operations in Ayodhya as a pointer to what Hindutva politics wanted to do in India.

Also read: Portrait of a propagandist

He said: “When the VHP first started focussing on Ayodhya as an important organisational destination in the early 1970s, Ayodhya was projected as a twin town of Faizabad and its hallmark was so-called secularism. But we have changed that in a matter of two decades. Sometimes through the method of step-by-step functioning and sometimes employing a flurry of fast-forward movements. These included enhancing our geographical space in the town by bringing more and more religious institutions under our banner, either by buying their property or by persuading them to ally with us. There were also mobilisations, campaigns, kar sevas, and finally the demolition. But this is work in progress. The identity and supremacy have to be strengthened further and we are working on that. In fact, before reaching this point of success, too, we have gone through several operational levels characterised by success, partial successes, partial failures and major reverses. But the net result is that the project has moved on.”

Paramahans supplemented the above statement in 2002, with the observation that the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat was the beginning of a new phase in the “work in progress”. Indeed, that movement and the aggressive communalism that has taken different shapes over the past few decades have given the BJP and Sangh Parivar allies two consecutive single-party majorities in the general elections of 2014 and 2019. What India is witnessing is clearly the early run-up to the 2024 election. The Sangh Parivar’s clear target is the dismemberment of secular India and its democratic constitution, but the frenetic nature of the current campaign and the reasons for that, as Sangh Parivar insiders say, point to the spoilers of this plan, as reflected in the spirited electoral performance put up by the S.P. and its allies. The central question before secular polity as a whole, and the organisational components in it, is how far they, both individually and collectively, can strengthen trends such as the S.P’s performance in Uttar Pradesh.

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