The arrest of Praveen Togadia has temporarily halted the VHP's provocative trishul distribution campaign in Rajasthan, but will the Congress(I) government deal firmly with the Hindutva forces?
IN an unanticipated but decisive move, the Rajasthan government has put behind bars Praveen Togadia, the international general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). The Congress(I), which has been at the receiving end of late for projecting a "soft Hindutva" image, appears to have thus at least temporarily redeemed itself through the Ashok Gehlot government's action, which followed an aggressive campaign by the VHP and the Bajrang Dal over a period of some two years.
The VHP had planned a State-wide trishul (trident) distribution programme, obviously with an eye on the elections to the State Assembly that are due in November. Togadia was picked up on April 13 on the orders of the district administration in Ajmer after he delivered an incendiary speech and displayed trishuls at a provocative `trishul deeksha' ceremony organised by the VHP, violating orders under Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). A day earlier, 650 trishuls were confiscated from the VHP office in Ajmer. Togadia was remanded to judicial custody until April 30. He was booked under Section 121-A of the IPC, which states that "whoever within or without India conspires to commit any of the offences punishable by Section 121, or conspires to overawe, by means of criminal force or the show of criminal force, the Central government or any State government, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine."
The First Information Report cites portions from Togadia's speeches, which called upon those who were present to "raise your trishuls and pledge that you will worship Bhagwan Shankar and Ma Durga, that you will build the Ram temple, that you will destroy Pakistan and make India a Hindu Rashtra." Togadia challenged Chief Minister Gehlot to arrest him. He was lodged in the Ajmer Central Jail after the Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate rejected his bail application on the grounds that it was not in her jurisdiction to hear the case and that only the Sessions Judge would hear it. Now the matter is in the Sessions Court of Ajmer.
According to S.R. Bajwa, counsel for the State government, the government invoked the second part of Section 121-A, which referred to conspiracies to overawe by means of criminal force or show of criminal force. The other charges, according to counsel, involved Sections 153-A (promoting enmity between classes) and 153-B (imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration). These Sections deal with creating hatred and disaffection between two groups, insults, provoking any group to stop owing allegiance to the Constitution of India or the sovereignty of the country and actions that create insecurity among a particular group. Counsel said that all of Togadia's utterances in the speech in Ajmer attracted Sections of the IPC. His speech was tape-recorded, and the government had the transcript. Togadia has been booked also under five other Sections of the IPC, including 505 (making statements causing public mischief) and 295-A (insulting religious beliefs of any class).
The VHP called for a bandh on April 14, which hardly evoked any response in the State. Shops remained open even in areas considered to be strongholds of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The VHP then threatened to launch a national agitation against Togadia's arrest. Significantly, the BJP has not formally protested against Togadia's incarceration. Neither has the party supported the VHP's call for a nation-wide agitation. BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan and State president Vasundhara Raje Scindia made only the usual remonstrations.
On April 8, a week before the `trishul deeksha' ceremony, the State government had issued a notification regulating the distribution, acquisition, possession and carrying of double- or multi-bladed sharp or pointed weapons but exempted from the purview of the order religious institutions, religious functions and religious processions where such weapons were traditionally used. The notification, issued in the "public interest" and after taking into account the "prevailing conditions in the State of Rajasthan", pointed to the government's political will in handling the issue. What remained to be seen was how it would go about enforcing the notification. The government has been empowered to issue such a notification under Section 4 of the Arms Act, 1959, and a Home Ministry notification issued in 1962.
In effect, the notification implied a ban on carrying or distributing weapons like trishuls. Gehlot made it clear that the trishul was not a religious symbol. While the trident of Siva was an object of respect, the three-pronged knife distributed by the VHP was a deadly weapon. He said that reports of some sections of the people reacting adversely to the VHP's trishul distribution had appeared and these were a matter of concern for the government. In such a situation, no person or organisation from any religion will be given the licence to destroy communal amity and vitiate the atmosphere, he said.
The Chief Minister could have stopped the trishul distribution process right at the start. In September 2001, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal launched a `trishul deeksha' and a jalabhishek programme in the Sawai Bhoj temple at Asind in Bhilwara district (Frontline, October 26, 2001). Gehlot had then demanded a ban on the Bajrang Dal in the context of the Central government's ban on the Students Islamic Movement of India. But the Bajrang Dal was not banned and the State government lapsed into lethargy even as the VHP and the Bajrang Dal slowly began building up their movement. The district administration in Bhilwara saw the act of distributing metallic trishuls as being part of a "membership drive".
Two months before the ceremony in Asind, a 16th century mosque located inside the Sawai Bhoj temple complex was demolished (Frontline, August 31, 2001). Interestingly, before and after the Asind incident, some mazaars, or burial grounds, were desecrated in Jahazpur town, also in Bhilwara. The September 25, 2001, trishul distribution ceremony was, therefore, clearly an attempt at communal mobilisation.
In Jahazpur, a Congress(I) councillor, Gopal Chand Khatik, floated an organisation, the Hindu Sangathan Manch, which was renamed the Hindu Manch. Congress(I) members in the town participated in events organised by the VHP and the Bajrang Dal. On September 8, violating prohibitory orders, a trishul deeksha ceremony was held in Jahazpur, but the administration condoned it. Nearly 150 persons were given trishuls in the presence of Togadia.
The Rajasthan unit of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) recently compiled a detailed report on the various occasions when trishuls had been distributed in the State. The report stated that after the Gujarat carnage in 2002, more than 6,000 trishuls were distributed in Rajasthan, and after the BJP's electoral victory in Gujarat, the pace of activity increased. The PUCL remarked that there was an immediate need to bring the trishul under the purview of the Arms Act and prevent its distribution. The VHP, the report stated, was distributing trishuls in Sikar, Nagaur and Bikaner districts where Hindutva forces were weak.
According to the PUCL, it was in 1998 that the VHP launched its programme of trishul distribution in Rajsamand, Kishangarh and Ajmer districts, where 304 trishuls were distributed. In 1999, trishuls numbering 27 were distributed in Tonk district. While the VHP did not distribute trishuls in 2000, in 2001 about 1,126 of them were distributed in Ajmer, Bhilwara, Udaipur, Chittorgarh and Banswara districts. More than 800 of them were distributed in Ajmer and 195 in Bhilwara district. On a single day in October 2002, more than 2,000 trishuls were distributed in Jhalarapatan in Jhalawar, the constituency of Vasundhara Raje. In December that year, when attention was focussed on Gujarat, Togadia and other senior VHP leaders distributed 2,580 trishuls in Rajasthan. According to the report, there were 21 incidents of communal violence and riots in Rajasthan in 2002 as compared to five incidents during the previous year. The selection of the time and place for trishul distribution in 2001 and 2002 had a clear link with previous communal incidents and tensions engineered in particular areas, the PUCL report observed.
Tension has been building up in Rajasthan over the past few years and several organisations had drawn the attention of the State government to the distribution of trishuls. Togadia's arrest is bound to send a strong message to the VHP, but it remains to be seen whether the Gehlot government will continue to act firmly with the Hindutva brigade.