Spreading its wings

Print edition : January 16, 1999

The Shiv Sena's latest act of vandalism in Delhi signals its aggressive plans to feed off alienated far-right elements in the BJP in order to build a meaningful all-India presence.

PRAVEEN SWAMI

THE digging up of the cricket pitch at the Ferozeshah Kotla Grounds in New Delhi by Shiv Sena activists on January 6 and its threats to disrupt the new bus service from New Delhi to Lahore signal an aggressive programme of horizontal expansion. Shiv Sena strategists hope to feed off alienated far-right elements on the Bharatiya Janata Party's fringes in order to build a meaningful all-India presence.

It was perhaps characteristic of the Shiv Sena modus operandi that the digging up of the Ferozeshah Kotla pitch was achieved with tacit official support. Journalists were informed in advance of the party cadre's plan. At least one television crew reached the area an hour before the arrival of the Shiv Sena activists. For reasons the Delhi Police have not explained, no guard had been placed at the Kotla ground despite intelligence warnings issued six days earlier. Two dozen Shiv Sena activists scaled the Kotla's boundary wall at 10-30 p.m. and proceeded to use pitch markers to start digging.

Delhi Police officials say that they received a call from the Delhi and District Cricket Association about the vandalism only at 11-10 p.m. But Sub-Inspector Tarkeshwar Singh, who was assigned the call, took his time to drive to the grounds. Once there, he and constable Susheel Kumar chose to stand by and watch. Both have been suspended, but the damage was done. Four activists from the Shiv Sena's New Delhi youth wing, Manmohan Pawar, Deepak Pawar, Rajendra Singh Raja and Krishan Kumar, were arrested, but only after they fulfilled their mission.

Repairing the pitch at the Ferozeshah Kotla Grounds, Delhi, damaged by Shiv Sena activists on January 6 as part of their protest against the Pakistan cricket team playing in India.-SANDEEP SAXENA

Whether this official inaction was by accident or by design remains unclear, but it seems reasonable to assume that the Delhi Police had at least some reason not to want to stop the Shiv Sena activists right away. The Shiv Sena's own leadership, on whom the BJP depends for the survival of its coalition government at the Centre, made no secret of its endorsement of the vandalism. Writing in the party organ, Saamna, Shiv Sena president Bal Thackeray described the digging up of the ground as an act of "true patriotism". Shiv Sena member of Parliament Madhukar Sarpotdar, for his part, claimed that no crime had been committed in the first place, since no one had been hurt or injured.

Sarpotdar's position, given his famous statement before the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission that it would be legitimate to attack innocent Muslims in reprisal for attacks on innocent Hindus elsewhere, was perhaps unsurprising.

The BJP's response was more intriguing. Although some party leaders issued ritual condemnations, with former MP and cricketer Kirti Azad even describing the incident as "an act of cowardice", the top leadership was more careful about what was being said. Party spokesperson J.P. Mathur described the incident as "a prank", while Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Pramod Mahajan made it clear that it would have no impact on the party's relations with the Shiv Sena.

Four activists arrested for the act, being taken to the court.-SANDEEP SAXENA

The BJP's inability to respond aggressively to Shiv Sena mobilisation is intriguing for more than one reason. Thackeray first came out against the India-Pakistan cricket series in mid-December, asking "staunch Hindus" not to "allow the feet of Pakistani cricketers to touch your sacred land." "This is my Government," he continued, "I do not worry about the consequences." Following Thackeray's use of abusive language against Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Defence Minister George Fernandes, the State BJP responded with a warning that it "was not alone obliged to retain the alliance."

Thackeray, who had not anticipated that his cricket polemic may lead to a major rift in the alliance in Maharashtra, rapidly backed off. In response to the State BJP's note, Thackeray suggested that both alliance partners "throw away the ball so that there will not be any question of who threw the ball in whose court". "There was a deal worked out," a senior Maharashtra BJP leader told Frontline, "that no match would be played in Mumbai, and that the matter would rest there." He said: "While the BJP could not tolerate attacks on the Prime Minister by an ally, we could not bring down the alliance either."

Things began to change within weeks, for reasons that had nothing to do with Maharashtra politics. The full-blown dissent within the Sangh Parivar over Vajpayee's conduct of policy, underlined by the BJP-Vishwa Hindu Parishad conflict over the anti-Christian violence in Gujarat and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-BJP clashes on economic policy, opened space for the Shiv Sena. With the BJP divided and bogged down in internal dispute, Shiv Sena strategists saw an opportunity for their party to emerge as a centre for the hard core of Hindutva backers. It would project itself as an authentically Hindu party determined to execute its agenda irrespective of the compulsions of government.

Shiv Sena cadres in North India, despite their numerical insignificance, were asked to mobilise aggressively. Jai Bhagwan Goel, the party's leader in New Delhi, played a key role in subsequent events. The agitation began with attacks on movie theatres screening Deepa Mehta's film Fire in New Delhi. Even a theatre in Patiala was attacked, indicating that the Shiv Sena had become a focal point for fundamentalist Hindus who were unhappy with the BJP's accommodation of the Shiromani Akali Dal. The Kotla vandalism, guaranteed to generate publicity, was the latest in this series of mobilisations.

WHAT will be the impact of such actions? In October 1991 Shiv Sena activist Shishir Shinde led the destruction of the cricket pitch at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai. Shinde is now a member of the Maharashtra Legislative Council, and his principal comment on the Delhi vandalism is that he had done a better job, using engine oil to ensure that the pitch could not be relaid easily. Shinde's actions were part of a sequence of communal actions that paved the way for the Mumbai riots of 1992-1993 and the coming to power of the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance. Shinde, who is facing 16 criminal cases, including that for his Wankhede outrage, may never be punished if the Maharashtra Government's plan to withdraw 1,000 cases, largely against Shiv Sena activists, passes legal scrutiny.

As Kirti Azad pointed out on Zee India television, the Shiv Sena's objectives are remarkably similar to those of Kashmiri secessionist groups who disrupted an India-West Indies cricket match in Srinagar in 1983. The group seeks to amplify its power through high-profile actions that project a power it does not actually possess. Although the Shiv Sena's core electoral base in Maharashtra itself may be disintegrating, the tensions within the Sangh Parivar have given it new opportunities to seek a wider constituency than it has ever had in the past. Even if its chances of success appear limited for the moment, the dangers are evident.

Indian officials arrive at the Wagah border, near Lahore, during the test run of the New Delhi-Lahore bus service on January 8. Regular bus services between the countries, being resumed after 50 years, is scheduled to start on January 20.-K.M. CHAUDHURY/ AP

It is in this context that Goel's threat to disrupt the cricket match, and attack the Delhi-Lahore bus service, which will pass through Ludhiana, Jalandhar and Amritsar without halt en route to the Wagah border and Lahore, needs to be taken with the utmost seriousness. The Shiv Sena, Goel said, would use "all means possible" to prevent the bus service from functioning normally. Punjab Director-General of Police P.C. Dogra told Frontline that all possible measures had been taken by his force to secure the bus route, and that "vandalism will not be tolerated in this State." He has the support of political forces ranging from both factions of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal to Simranjit Singh Mann's peripheral group, but the ability of a small group of determined activists to cause damage remains.

Meanwhile, the future of the cricket tour itself remains uncertain. The Shiv Sena's Wankhede Stadium adventure led to the cancellation of the tour, and many people believe that the same could happen again. "What will they do if 5,000 sainiks buy tickets for the matches?" Goel asked on January 7. There are no real answers. While Prime Minister Vajpayee and Union Home Secretary B.P. Singh have both asserted that the visiting Pakistan cricketers will be provided all security, whether these assertions are backed with action remains to be seen. The Shiv Sena's contempt for the laws and the Constitution has traditionally gone unpunished in Maharashtra. Now, it seems, this is poised to receive the same treatment nationwide.

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