Cover Story

In communal overdrive

Print edition : October 03, 2014

Modi paying floral tributes to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar on his birth anniversary in the Central Hall of Parliament House on May 28. Photo: KAMAL SINGH/PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Yogi Adityanath at a rally in Gorakhpur in January. The selection of Adityanath, who was elected to the Lok Sabha from the constituency in May, as the BJP's chief campaigner for the byelections in Uttar Pradesh appears to be aimed at perpetuating communal polarisation. Photo: PTI

Amit Shah, BJP president. Photo: ANINDITO MUKHERJEE/REUTERS

Activists of the Hindu Sena protesting against the "Aalishan Pakistan" lifestyle exhibition at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi on September 11. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

The nationwide telecast of Modi's Teachers' Day interaction with schoolchildren on September 5 is part of the image build-up with a new orientation. Photo: VIJAY VERMA/PTI

After the resounding victory in the Lok Sabha elections, the Sangh Parivar is gearing up for the next big game, to achieve total Hindutva dominance of the country’s political and social space. This is evident from the rising communal tensions across the country.

ON September 11, 2014, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) sent out a media release stating that Narendra Modi had “recalled Swami Vivekananda’s message of universal brotherhood, delivered in his soul-stirring address at World Parliament of Religions in Chicago on 11th September 1893”. The release quoted the Prime Minister as saying: “Had we followed Swamiji’s message, history would never have witnessed such dastardly acts as we saw on 11th September 2001 in USA…. Let us remember the words of Swami Vivekananda and dedicate ourselves to furthering the cause of unity, brotherhood and world peace.”

Even as the media release was being prepared, Modi’s acolytes in various Sangh Parivar outfits were virtually turning Vivekananda’s message of unity, brotherhood and peace on its head. In the communally sensitive Bhagalpur district in Bihar, activists of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), once called the ideological sword arm of the Sangh Parivar, were on the rampage, destroying markets, stoning and damaging vehicles, blocking road and rail traffic, and targeting the minority Muslim community.

They were apparently incensed by a report that a minor Hindu girl had eloped with a minor Muslim boy. While the VHP and its partners in the Hindutva combine, such as the Bajrang Dal and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), described the incident of elopement as a conspiracy to advance “love jehad”, police investigations indicated that it was the culmination of a romantic involvement in school.

A day before the PMO released Modi’s message, Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, witnessed a unique display of dedication to “further the cause of unity, brotherhood and world peace”. This performance, again by Sangh Parivar outfits and activists, was under the leadership of Yogi Adityanath, Lok Sabha member from Gorakhpur, who was handpicked by BJP president Amit Shah to lead the BJP’s campaign in the byelections that would take place on September 13 for 11 Assembly seats and one Lok Sabha seat. And the occasion was a campaign meeting to introduce Ashutosh ‘Gopal’ Tandon, the BJP’s candidate for the Lucknow East seat. A major part of the MP’s speech consisted of a diatribe against Muslims and organisations representing the community. Epithets such as “love jehad” were used liberally and Muslims were blamed for driving the population explosion in the country and adding to the misery of the people.

The participants in the meeting took out a procession through areas populated by Muslims, shouting provocative slogans. One slogan went like this: “Yogi atom bomb hai, kaun takrayega, kis mein hain dham” (Yogi is an atom bomb, who can challenge him, does any one have the strength to do so)? Reports from other election-bound constituencies in Uttar Pradesh showed that Adityanath’s campaign speeches there, too, were aimed at creating and aggravating Hindu-Muslim polarisation. So much so that, the Election Commission directed the State government to lodge a first information report against the MP for attempting to escalate communal tensions. Given his track record of aggressive pursuit of Hindutva complete with physical violence and intimidation, the selection of Adityanath as the chief campaigner, it appears, was aimed at perpetuating the polarisation during the byelections.

But it is not just the election-bound constituencies of Uttar Pradesh or Bhagalpur that have witnessed communal violence and campaign engineered by Hindutva forces. As reported intermittently in the media, in the past three months almost all the States have seen systematic and sustained efforts to perpetuate communal violence and marginalise religious minorities (see report on page 10). A clear pattern is visible in the reported instances of assaults and intimidation in the States although the issues taken up in each State are tailored to suit local situations. The issue of “love jehad”, rumours about protection given to alleged terrorists by Muslims living in a particular area, propagation of perceived attacks on temples and other religious places, stories about alleged seizure of property from Hindus, innuendoes about efforts at conversion by Christian missionaries and Muslim activists, all form part of the tactics of intimidation and aggression. The net result is the social marginalisation of religious minorities with significant material losses to them.

Sangh Parivar insiders do not admit it in so many words, but interactions with some of them in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and with close observers of Hindutva-oriented organisations in different parts of the country confirm that this phase of growing violence and intimidation at the ground level, coupled with the idealistic postures adopted by Modi, mark a new stage in the Sangh Parivar’s strategy to assert its all-encompassing Hindutva hegemony over the country’s political and social space. Obviously, this was to be the next item on the Parivar’s agenda after securing a big majority for the BJP in the Lok Sabha. In other words, the strategy for the early days of the Modi raj.

A senior Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) activist from Uttar Pradesh told Frontline that it was natural for the Sangh Parivar to come up with new strategies after the resounding success of its election strategy, which primarily involved the projection of “development man” Modi along with the resolute pursuit of Hindutva politics through various means. The projection of Modi as the development man was an enterprise jointly advanced by the Gujarat government, a number of corporate entities and international lobbying and publicity agencies. The “pursuit of Hindutva politics through various means” was of course a reference to the communal polarisation that was brought about through the Muzaffarnagar riots in Uttar Pradesh in 2013 and the related vitriolic campaigning in north India. The senior activist added that the new strategy would essentially aim at consolidating the political gains made in the Lok Sabha elections and extend this at the level of the larger society, both politically and socially.

The broad contours of this new strategy, as deduced from interactions with Sangh Parivar activists at different levels of the organisational structure, involve the advancement of the 2014 election strategy with certain new emphases and nuances. At the level of components, it would continue to revolve around the personality of Modi on the one side and the pursuit of aggressive Hindutva politics on the other. The projection of “development man” Modi and the manner in which the message was propagated generated widespread appeal among the middle classes, especially the educated middle class. “A visionary nation builder” would be the new nuance to showcase Modi’s personality.

The recalling of Vivekananda’s speech with emphasis on humanitarian values, the nationwide telecast of the Teachers’ Day interaction with students, and the “extempore” Independence Day speech are all part of the image build-up with a new orientation. “Modi could well be presented as a combination of Gandhiji, Nehru and Sardar Patel. A leader who represents noble values , has a vision for development and is decisive and resolute,” a middle-level RSS activist from Lucknow said rather wryly.

The second component of the strategy is what one is witnessing in the communal violence and intimidation tactics unfolding across the country. Sangh Parivar insiders said that the pursuit in this direction would not be overtly political but would aim at overall social hegemony. The perception that one gained from the interactions was that much of the political results expected from the pursuit of Hindutva politics had been achieved through the 2014 elections and that a repetition of this in election-bound Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana would not be difficult. But success in consolidating social hegemony, they felt, would have a long-standing effect both in the regions where political gains had been made and in those where the party was yet to succeed politically.

The Sangh Parivar leadership is apparently satisfied with the political and social impact of the new strategic initiatives. The assessment, reportedly, is that both the personality-oriented promotion of Modi and the social hegemony-oriented Hindutva campaign have helped not only consolidate the existing demographic and regional support base of the Sangh Parivar but add new social classes and geographical regions, such as Tamil Nadu, Odisha, West Bengal, Kerala, and Jammu and Kashmir, to the base. The assessment also includes a commentary that those who get influenced by the “visionary nation builder” image of Modi could be gradually converted into accepting the Hindutva-oriented social hegemony theme. Making a specific reference to Jammu and Kashmir, a senior RSS activist told Frontline that the BJP had managed to raise its tally in the State Assembly from one in 2002 to 11 in 2008 and that this time around, the climate created by the Modi government at the Centre along with the impact of the new tactics could well ensure a commanding tally. “This would also mean the emergence of Hindu domination in Kashmir,” he added.

Evidently, the RSS and its associate organisations rate the current period as one of the best in its entire existence. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar had conceived political Hindutva as the creation and development of a pan-Hindu political identity. After many trials and reverses, the Sangh Parivar affiliates now feel that they have almost succeeded in creating a pan-Hindu political identity. The perception that caste divisions in Hindu society were a stumbling block in creating this political identity was prevalent even then among the advocates of the idea. Both Savarkar’s own Hindu Mahasabha as well as the RSS had sought to overcome caste divisions by organising all-community food festivals in different parts of the country. However, this was not good enough to overcome the mass appeal that the Congress had then.

Post-Independence, Hindutva advocates sought to adopt an aggressive posture by championing slogans such as cow protection and linking them with Hindu sensibilities. This, too, did not help in developing a nationwide presence. However, with the imposition of the Emergency in 1975 and the consequent united opposition struggle against it leading to the electoral defeat of Indira Gandhi in 1977, the Hindutva plan moved a little ahead. The RSS facilitated this by allowing the Jan Sangh to merge with the Janata Party, which had ideological influences ranging from the Right to the Left. However, the Janata experiment was short-lived, essentially because the RSS sought to retain its Hindutva identity even within the Janata Party.

It was this parting of ways that led to the formation of the BJP. In the mid- and late-1980s, the Sangh Parivar sought to carve out a domineering political space for the BJP by using the Ayodhya Ram Mandir agitation. Though this led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, the Sangh Parivar could not sustain the political gains it had made from the movement. As in 1977, it once again followed a compromise formula, this time through the medium of coalition politics. This worked in the late 1990s and helped party leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee head a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government from 1998 to 2004. From there to 10 years of politics in the opposition space to the Modi-driven single party majority in 2014 was indeed a great leap forward. Obviously, it is this historic victory that has triggered the Parivar’s drive to push for total social and political hegemony.

Commenting on the social hegemony thrust as well as the reported assessment of the Sangh Parivar, the Lucknow-based political analyst Sudhir Panwar told Frontline that marginalisation and alienation were the principal outcome of this thrust. “After a point of time you do not require active violence to displace a community from an area or region. Perceived violence itself aggravates marginalisation and alienation, leading to the exodus of a community from an area. The exodus is towards an area or region where the community has numerical strength and can feel a sense of safety. This in turn could lead to ghettoisation, further marginalising the marginalised.” Panwar said one saw this phenomenon in the 2002 Gujarat riots and that one could see it now in western Uttar Pradesh.

Given the way things are unfolding, a repetition of these trends is already visible, although in varying scales, in different parts of the country. In Chhattisgarh, 50 gram sabhas (village panchayats) have passed resolutions seeking to ban the entry of non-Hindu individuals and organisations into their villages and prohibiting the practice, propagation or preaching of any other religion except Hinduism in its various forms as being practised by the tribal people of that region. The resolution also meant that Christian families living in these villages would not have access to the public distribution system. Reports also indicate that private shopkeepers have been warned against selling goods to Christians. In Haryana and parts of Uttar Pradesh, Sangh Parivar outfits have initiated exercises to reconvert families that had converted to Islam centuries ago.

In step with the Hindutva social hegemony theme, activists of the VHP and Bajrang Dal in Delhi recently laid siege to Pragati Maidan, an exhibition centre in the capital where international trade fairs and book fairs are held. Their singular demand was to scrap the lifestyle exhibition titled “Alishan Pakistan”, which was on there at the time. The argument was that the exhibition sought to “glorify Pakistan and its products” and that “this has greatly hurt the sentiments of our citizens”. The demonstrators called for a “total boycott of all Pakistani products in the country” and warned “the business community to keep a distance from Pakistani products in general to further the great national interest”.

These drives, in the form of selective administrative measures and agitation and mass action, are perceived by a number of Sangh Parivar activists as the beginning of new historic achievements for Hindutva, both as a political ideology and as a social system. “The attainment of single-party majority at the Centre marked one historic milestone in the Hindutva journey. But the journey that began under the ideological guidance of Savarkar would be complete only with the total social hegemony of Hindutva. The new phase will primarily aim at the attainment of this hegemony,” the senior RSS activist from Lucknow said. The moves to tinker with school textbooks as well as the spirited efforts to advance a Hindutva-oriented historical perspective also form part of this drive.

In the run-up to the 2014 elections, the Pakistani feminist poet Fahmida Riaz’s tongue-in-cheek yet impassioned poem on the rise of Hindutva in India had circulated in social media platforms. A rough translation of the first few lines of the Urdu poem goes like this:

“You turned out to be just like us;

Similarly stupid, wallowing in the past,

You’ve reached the same doorstep at last.

Your demon [of] religion dances like a clown,

Whatever you do will be upside down.”

Fahmida Riaz’s allegory about reaching the same doorstep and being similarly stupid was an obvious comparison to the state of affairs in Pakistan since the birth of the nation. Her poem was interpreted as a poetic expression of her disillusionment with Indian democracy as it seemed to ape Pakistan’s regressive religion-oriented political practices. The developments across India on the Hindutva front seem to be moving this poetic expression into the realm of reality.

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