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Beyond a ban

Print edition : Jan 22, 2000 T+T-

With its decision to allow government employees to participate in the activities of the RSS, the BJP Government in Gujarat has shed all its secular pretensions.

V. VENKATESAN

THE lifting by the Gujarat Government of the ban on its employees participating in the activities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has raised several questions. The decision, seen as the BJP Government's latest act of genuflection before the Sang h Parivar, came on the eve of a three-day State-level Sankalp Shibir event organised by the RSS on the outskirts of Ahmedabad from January 7.

On January 4, the Keshubhai Patel Government amended the Gujarat Civil Servants Conduct Rules, 1971, following a positive response from the Centre to a "clarification" sought by the State Government whether it could delete the RSS from the list of organi sations which are barred to employees of both the Central and State governments. Besides the RSS, the Centre's list includes the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Hindu Mahasabha, the Anand Marg, the All India Muslim Majlis-E-Mushawarat, the Sati Pati Creed, th e Mass Movement (Madhok faction) and about 25 other outfits. Although many of these organisations have been requesting the Centre to remove their names from the list, the Government has not revised the list after 1986.

In response to a query from the State Government, the Centre had said in July 1999 that the Unlawful Activities Prevention Tribunal, in its report submitted in 1993, had not found anything unlawful in the activities of the RSS. Although the Tribunal had submitted its report seven years ago, no government, either in the States or at the Centre, had considered lifting the ban on government employees participating in RSS activities. The Tribunal was headed by Justice P.K. Bahri, whose sympathies for the Ra m Janmabhoomi movement are no secret. Justice Bahri had upheld the ban imposed on the VHP by the P.V. Narasimha Rao Government in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, but quashed a silimar ban on the RSS and the Bajrang Dal.

Unsurprisingly, the Union Home Ministry headed by L.K. Advani chose not to dissuade the Gujarat Government from lifting the ban. Fr. Cedric Prakash, president of the Gujarat chapter of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights, accused the Centre of co mplicity in the matter. According to him, the BJP could not have had the RSS' name deleted from the list of unlawful organisations because it was heading a coalition government at the Centre, whereas it faced no such constraints in Gujarat.

With the latest move, the Keshubhai Patel Government seems to have shed whatever little secular pretensions it may have had earlier. In December, the Chief Minister proclaimed success in persuading some Hindutva groups to call off a rally they had propos ed to hold in Ahwa against conversions but his Government withdrew a notification seeking to bar religious groups from taking out processions when other groups celebrate their religious festivals.

According to Haren Pandya, Gujarat's Minister of State for Home, his government's decision does not apply to officers belonging to the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service who are governed by the All India Services (Conduct) Rules, 1968. These rules bar civil servants from participating in any overt political activity or movement. Fr. Cedric Prakash, however, feared that the government's move would encourage their covert participation in RSS activities. If the lower-level official s are free to identify themselves with the RSS, their superiors would only follow suit, at least covertly, he argued.

The State Government seems to have only legitimised what was a covert activity. Some senior civil servants in the State told Frontline that government servants used to participate in RSS camps earlier despite the ban. Now, with the new move, even magistrates would be free to attend RSS camps and identify themselves with its objectives. There will not be any restriction on police personnel joining the RSS either, a possibility that is bound to communalise the law-enforcement agencies.

Amarsinh Choudhary, Congress(I) leader and Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, threatened to launch an agitation if the decision was not rescinded. Former Chief Minister Shankarsinh Vaghela, now a Congress(I) MP, said that the decision showed up th e BJP's real agenda. The BJP, he said, wanted to saffronise the whole country.

Congress(I) Working Committee member Rajesh Pilot described the move as "official institutionalisation of communalism". He feared that soon the all-India service rules would also be amended along the same lines.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) condemned the government's move to "infiltrate and communalise" the whole administration in the State. The CPI(M) Polit Bureau said: "By stating that the Central ban on employees' participation in RSS activities rem ains, the BJP-led Centre has only indirectly approved the State Government's move." This, seen in the context of the Sangh Parivar's recent moves (the Uttar Pradesh Government's decision to enact a law seeking to ban building of places of worship without prior permission and the RSS chief Rajendra Singh's statement that Hindus behaved as cowards during the recent plane hijack) poses a grave threat to national unity and the secular fabric of the polity, it said.

CPI general secretary A.B. Bardhan said that it was clear that the BJP would resort to such moves wherever it was not constrained by its allies. The CPI's Central Secretariat said: "This would communalise the police force and make it totally partisan in tackling any communal outbreak, particularly in Gujarat where the police already have a poor record of protecting the minorities."

Home Minister Haren Pandya justified the government's decision saying that the RSS had proved its credentials as a nationalistic, patriotic, non-political organisation and there could be no harm in government employees associating themselves with it.

The RSS is expected to use the government's decision to woo government employees. A government employee said that any resistance to the RSS' overtures would only displease the political masters.

The Sankalp Shibir was part of the RSS' ambitious expansion programme in the State where Hindu fundamentalism has taken root. The Sangh Parivar has a vast network, touching almost every village and town in the State, which has come in handy for the BJP d uring election campaigns.

With a considerable level of patronage from the government, the RSS mobilised more than 25,000 people for a route march through thickly-populated and sensitive areas on the outskirts of Ahmedabad on January 8. The march was the first public display of st rength by the RSS in the State. A large number of schoolchildren joined the march.

The line separating the RSS and the government was virtually blurred with the participation of Ministers in the RSS function. The Chief Minister himself appeared in khaki shorts. Union Home Minister L.K. Advani participated in the concluding ceremony. Ev en Governor Sunder Singh Bhandari visited the camp to "meet his friends" Provocative speeches against "anti-Hindu forces" were made at the camp. The inaugural address of Rajendra Singh and the speech by senior RSS leader H.V. Seshadri castigated the BJP- led National Democratic Alliance Government for having succumbed to pressure from the hijackers of the Indian Airlines aircraft. Building a Ram temple at Ayodhya, they made it clear, was very much on the RSS' agenda.

The State Government had made elaborate arrangements for the camp, by providing drinking water, food, electricity and laying roads, a fact which was acknowledged by the RSS at the concluding ceremony.