Saffron mobilisation

Published : Jan 02, 2004 00:00 IST

The Sangh Parivar launches shrill campaigns in Bangalore and Bababudangiri and the ruling Congress(I) fails to counter them politically and administratively.

in Bangalore

FOR the conglomerate of political parties and organisations that comprise the Sangh Parivar in Karnataka, December 2003 will be seen as a watershed in the advance of the politics of Hindutva in the State. Two major mass campaigns by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal - the Virat Hindu Samajotsava in Bangalore and the Datta Jayanthi at the Bababudangiri shrine in Chikmagalur - were held in the first week of the month. Both campaigns, into which months of strategic planning and organisation had gone, were built around a set of provocative demands relating to Hindu self-assertion and identity, but with a distinctly regional flavour. This dual show of saffron strength in Karnataka received a huge boost with the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) election victories in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.

The purpose of the campaigns was to "unite" Hindu society against perceived threats from internal and external "enemies" who are conspiring to weaken it. The campaign rhetoric was familiar enough. Perpetrators of Islamic terrorism (the external threat) have willing agents within the country (the internal threat) to execute their designs. Violence in defence of `Hindu honour', resorted to by a resurgent Hindu society, is not only necessary but must be celebrated. The Ram temple must be constructed in Ayodhya, and the Bababudangiri shrine in Karnataka must be made a Hindu place of worship. Both the campaigns were cemented by hate speech and offensive humour that targeted minority groups in the country and the secular forces that back them (see box).

The ruling Congress(I)'s response to the challenge posed by this aggressive Hindutva campaign has been politically and administratively weak and uncertain. Neither as a political party nor as a party in government did the Congress(I) act to bring an element of reassurance to those sections of the populace who had reason to feel threatened by this strident and hostile campaign. In the case of the Hindu Samajotsava, the mobilisation for the event had started weeks in advance with a systematic public contact campaign by the VHP and other Hindutva organisations in Bangalore. As the day drew near, the city was ablaze with saffron. Buntings, flags and banners festooned the streets and sidewalks, while intimidating slogans called upon the faithful to unite.

The Samajotsava drew an estimated crowd of 50,000. Praveen Togadia, the international general secretary of the VHP, who pulls no punches in his public speeches, was the star speaker along with Vishvesha Tirtha Swamiji of the Udupi Pejavar Math and other heads of religious outfits. The speakers exhorted Hindus to unite and restated the demand for a Ram temple in Ayodhya. Togadia, his usual style somewhat restrained by time and place, nevertheless issued the ominous warning: "I don't want to repeat Gujarat in Karnataka".

IN the recent past, Togadia was restrained on two occasions from entering and addressing public meetings in Dakshina Kannada and Bijapur by the respective District Magistrates. He challenged the ban in the High Court and had the order stayed. Political observers say that such administrative actions are ineffective. Togadia's inflammatory speeches have given the administration several opportunities for booking cases against him for disturbing public peace but they have chosen not to act.

The State government's response to the Bababudangiri issue is even less understandable as there are several court rulings that could have empowered the government with the necessary legal and constitutional ammunition to have halted this communally divisive public campaign. Its refusal to do so has been seen by the leaders of the Souharda Vedika, a platform of secular parties, organisations and individuals, is spearheading the opposition to the Sangh Parivar's campaign, as a deliberate `soft-Hindutva' approach designed to woo the Hindu vote in the next elections.

Elections to the State Assembly, due next year, are now part of the political calculations of the Congress(I) and the BJP. It is certainly one of the reasons for the sudden upswing in the activities of the Sangh Parivar in the State. By building a support base on an unadulterated Hindutva platform, the BJP is only following the time-tested tactic it employs when out of power, that is, using its fraternal organisations to raise a potentially volatile issue, around which it can then build a political campaign. It evidently expects to reap the political dividends in the elections, although there is no certainty that their extensive mobilisation will necessarily translate into votes.

The Sangh Parivar is determined to transform the Bababudangiri shrine, a Sufi dargah that has for centuries been a place of common worship, into a Hindu temple complete with idols and Brahmin priests. Bajrang Dal leaders have now articulated three demands: the `Datta puja' with idols be allowed at the shrine; a Hindu priest be appointed at the shrine; and the tombs of Sufi saints at Bababudan be evicted.

For the last six years, the Bajrang Dal has used a pliant administration to enforce its writ for three days in a year when it conducts the Shobha Yatra and Datta Jayanthi celebrations. The Shobha Yatra is a religious procession taken out in Chikmagalur town, followed by the Datta Jayanthi festival, during which `devotees' - largely unemployed youth from coastal districts where the Sangh Parivar has a strong base - are mobilised and taken by bus and lorry to the shrine. Slogans that glorify violence and threaten the minorities accompany these festivities. Idols are installed within the precincts of the Peetha and a `yagna' is performed by Hindu priests and leading lights of the Sangh Parivar.

These practices, according to activists of the Souharda Vedike, are in direct contravention of an order issued by the Chikmagalur District Court on February 29, 1980, subsequently upheld by the Karnataka High Court and the Charitable Endowments Commissioner, stating that the management and religious practices in the shrine should remain as they existed prior to 1975. According to this set of codified practices, the only person allowed to conduct prayers at the shrine is the Mujavar, a Muslim priest appointed by the Shakhadri or the manager of the shrine. The Bajrang Dal is now seeking to institutionalise its newly constructed set of practices on a permanent basis in the shrine.

This year's Datta Jayanti celebrations saw an unprecedented mobilisation by the VHP and Bajrang Dal, once again made possible by the permission granted by the district administration and the security it provided. The Souharda Vedike was denied permission to hold a `communal harmony convention' on the same days in Chikmagalur city. Vedike leaders made several appeals and submitted a memorandum to the Chief Minister demanding that the government ban the Sangh Parivar from conducting the Datta Maale, Shobha Yatra and Datta Jayanthi. The function, they said, were "incendiary and provocative acts which have no religious significance". When the government failed to do so, and, instead, banned the Vedike's proposed meet, the Vedike and the Sangh Parivar were set on a collision course.

By December 6, the State government began preventive arrests of Vedike leaders and activists in Hassan, Shimoga, Dakshina Kannada and Chikmagalur districts. In Hassan, the "Souhardadege Namma Nadige", a walkathon taken out by numerous progressive organisation to express solidarity with the Souharda Vedike campaign, was stopped by the police and 75 of its members were arrested, including the noted woman writer Bhanu Mushtaq, and the State secretary of the Communist Party of India(Marxist) G.N. Nagaraj.

On the night of December 6, two van-loads of Vedike activists who were on their way to Belur from Bangalore were stopped by police near Halebid and asked to return to Hassan. The group of around 50 persons, included the noted playwright Girish Karnad, and other well known figures of Karnataka's cultural, artistic and literary world like Arundati Nag, G.K. Govinda Rao, G. Ramakrishna, A. Ramdas, A. Parthasarathy, Shudra Srinivas, Vijayamma, K. Marulasiddappa, D. Saraswathi, A. Savita and V.Vanaja. "There were no prohibitory orders in Hassan district. We were stopped in the middle of the night by the police and asked to return to Hassan," said Sheila Ramanathan, a Bangalore-based lawyer. "The police told us that they were doing this for our safety and to protect us from the Sangh Parivar groups. Is it not the business of the police to provide us protection?" she asked.

Under the watchful eyes of dozens of police personnel, Vedike activists, along with members of the Democratic Youth Federation of India, organised a human chain the next morning in the centre of Hassan town followed by a public meeting. On the same morning, a group of around 500 Vedike activists who had smuggled themselves into Chikmagalur town, assembled and held a meeting in the heart of the town. The police arrested all the participants at the meeting including Gowri Lankesh, the feisty woman editor of Lankesh Patrike, who has carried on a spirited battle in the columns of her newspaper against the campaign to communalise the Bababudangiri issue.

The arrested persons were lodged in the open-air jail in Chikmagalur in what Lankesh later described as "abysmal" conditions. It was the intervention at the highest level in the State government obtained by Vedike leaders in Bangalore that secured the release of the arrested activists on the night of December 8.

"We arrested them under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure for violating prohibitory orders issued by the government," said K.R. Srinivas, Deputy Commissioner, Chikmagalur. Asked why the Bajrang Dal was given permission to conduct their programme and not the Souharda Vedike, he said that the Datta Jayanti was a tradition that was in existence for the past six years. "We cannot allow a parallel rally with a different ideology on the same day in the same place," he said. "But we have made some changes this year. For example, we have not allowed the Bajrang Dal to take out its procession on the main Mahatma Gandhi road, on which there are three mosques. We have also ordered that the public meeting at the Datta Peetha summit should be held 2 km away from the shrine."

Even these minor restrictions imposed by the district administration have angered Bajrang Dal leaders. At the public meeting near the Bababudangiri shrine attended by an estimated 35,000 people, K. Sunil Kumar, State convener of the Bajrang Dal, announced that the Bajrang Dal would see to it that a puja is performed every full moon day at the shrine to keep the movement alive. Bajrang Dal convener for south India, Pramod Mutalik, announced that even if they had to defy government orders, the Shobha Yatra would be held on Mahatma Gandhi Road and the public meeting at the Azad Maidan.

The role of the Congress(I) government has been criticised sharply by Vedike leaders. "This is a Bajrang Dal government in disguise," said A. Ramdas, a Professor of English in Mysore University, and a prominent campaigner for secularism, in a public speech. With the disarray in the ranks of the non-Congress(I) and non-BJP parties like the Janata Dal (Secular), and a relatively small Left presence in the State, the Congress(I) is still the only organised political force that can challenge the politics of the Sangh Parivar. The forthcoming elections will most certainly reflect the fast-changing political equations in the State.

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