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RELIGION-INDIA: Secular Fabric Under Threat

Praful Bidwai

NEW DELHI, Nov 4 2008 (IPS) - Police in India have unearthed a well-organised terrorist network inspired by intensely Hindu-chauvinist ideas, which they suspect, has been involved in a series of bombings since 2003, primarily targeting mosques and intended to kill Muslims.

The discovery follows investigations into two bomb blasts on Sep. 29 at Malegaon, an industrial town in central Maharashtra, notorious for strained Hindu-Muslim relations and periodic communal (or inter-community) violence. Seven people were killed in the latest explosions.

At the network’s centre are various organisations and individuals affiliated to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its parent body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). They are tied together by adherence to the ideology of Hindutva (Hinduness or Hindu-supremacism), and are collectively called the Sangh Parivar (RSS family or cabal).

Also implicated are three retired officers of the Indian army, and a serving colonel, belonging to the intelligence corps. At least two of them are connected with the Bhonsala Military School, a Hindutva-inspired institution established in 1937 at Nashik in Maharashtra.

The most prominent of the suspects arrested by the police for the bombings is Pragya Singh Thakur, a 38 year-old saffron-clad woman who calls herself a Sadhvi (the feminine for sadhu).

One of the bombs that exploded in Malegaon was planted on a motorcycle owned by Thakur and loaned by her to prime accused Ramji. She has reportedly confessed to this. The police also claim Thakur was unhappy at the relatively low number of fatalities in the blast and wanted to know from Ramji the reason for this.

Thakur has a strong RSS background and was an office-bearer of the BJP-sponsored students’ union, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad for nine years, and more important, of the militant women’s outfit, Durga Vahini.

The BJP has been badly embarrassed by the disclosures, which have shocked the secular public. But after initial hesitation, the party has decided to brazen things out and take the stand that Parivar activists are being framed.

The police have gathered evidence exposing the myriad connections between the RSS, the BJP, and their front organisations, estimated at more than 100 in number, which are active in fields as diverse as labour unions, indoctrination and education, lawyers’ organisations, semi-religious groups, relief and service delivery, and specific targeting of India’s religious minorities, which make up 18 percent of its population of a billion plus people.

Among the better known of the Sangh Parivar organisations are the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (world Hindu council) and Bajrang Dal (violent vigilantes named after the monkey warrior-god Hanuman), Vidya Bharati (which runs thousands of Hindutva-oriented schools) and Adivasi Kalyan Ashram (which actively proselytises among indigenous people).

Groups like Durga Vahini, Rashtriya Jagaran Manch, Sanatana Sanstha and Abhinav Bharat are less well-known but often more active in militant ways.

These groups have been involved in a spate of attacks on Indian Christians across seven states, after first erupting in eastern Orissa last Christmas. Affected states include southern Karnataka and Kerala, central Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra and western Rajasthan and Gujarat.

The Catholic-Christian Secular Forum (CSF), an influential non-government organisation (NGO) has demanded, in an open petition to the government that the Bajrang Dal- which it holds mainly responsible – be banned for attacks that are ‘’unconstitutional and threaten the secular fabric of the country’’.

According to published CSF estimates, over 50 Christians have been killed, 4,000 houses destroyed and dozens of nuns raped.

‘’The State of India has abdicated its responsibility and duty to protect Indian Christians, by not taking the [concerned] state governments [ruled by the BJP] to task and failing to protect the life and personal liberty of Indian citizens,’’ the CSF petition charged.

In the Malegaon bombing case, police say they have irrefutable evidence that three key individuals, Thakur, Abhinav Bharat, Sameer Kulkarni and former army major Ramesh Upadhye, were conspirators. They were also probably responsible, along with other RSS-Bajrang Dal activists, for recent bombings outside mosques in four other towns in Maharashtra and Gujarat.

The police are also looking for evidence of their possible involvement in recent mosque bombings, as in Hyderabad in May 2007, in Ajmer in October 2007, and possibly on the Samjhauta Express train to Pakistan in February last year.

Police believe that Hindutva activists have been training themselves in bomb-making and other violent skills for many years with help from former military officers and institutions like the Bhonsala Military School.

In April 2006, two RSS-Bajrang Dal activists were killed during a bomb manufacturing operation at Nanded, also in Maharashtra.

According to the Maharashtra police’s Anti-Terrorism Squad, the Nanded operation was part of a larger criminal conspiracy to create the impression that Muslim extremists would not hesitate to kill other Muslims. The motive was to sow disaffection, widen the communal divide and help Hindutva forces blame Muslims for acts of terrorism.

Similar cases of parivar activists’ involvement in other bomb-fabrication operations has recently come to light through accidental explosions in Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and again in Nanded, Maharashtra (in February 2007).

“This is not the first time that Hindu fundamentalists have been implicated in acts of violence,” says Tanika Sarkar, a professor of modern Indian history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and author of several books and scholarly papers on the Sangh Parivar and the Hindutva movement.

“But this is probably the first time that an underground network operating on a large scale across different states, which has actually planted bombs targeted at Muslims, has been unearthed,” Sarkar told IPS.

Sarkar added: “These Hindutva-inspired terrorists are no less dangerous and indefensible than terrorists inspired by jehadi Islam. But the difference is that the first kind of terrorism has a wider base because the Hindus are a majority in India. It also enjoys official sanction and state patronage, unlike jihadi militancy.”

Sarkar argues that majoritarian extremism tries to pass itself off as inspired by nationalism, and that this is a major fallacy. It is as pernicious as minority extremism. The BJP stands isolated on the issues of its links with Sadhvi Thakur. It first denied that she has had anything to do with the BJP, the RSS or ABVP in recent years.

However, Thakur campaigned for the BJP in the last two legislative assembly elections in Gujarat, in 2002 and 2007. She also has close links with high BJP functionaries, including Madhya Pradesh state Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan.

The BJP’s prime ministerial nominee LK Advani tried to distance the party from Thakur, and said the law should be allowed to take its own course.

But last week, the RSS intervened and demanded that the BJP staunchly defend Thakur and other suspects. Party president Rajnath Singh now says that there can be no such thing as a “Hindu terrorist” and those who believe in Hindutva can never be attracted to extremism because Hinduism is inherently tolerant.

“This is hogwash,” holds Sarkar, “because Hindutva is nothing if not a concentrated expression of intolerance, which believes in forcibly asserting and imposing Hindu primacy or supremacy on a society that is deeply plural, multicultural and multireligious.”

The BJP claims to be uniquely concerned about and determined to fight terrorism, and makes security a central plank of its politics. Its hypocrisy and double standards on terrorism have shocked secular liberals in India. They are anxiously watching the United Progressive Alliance government’s moves.

“The discovery of this network throws up a major challenge to the Indian state,” says Zoya Hasan, an eminent political scientist, who is currently a member of the National Commission on Minorities. “The state has been tainted in the past by its perceived softness towards majoritarian and Hindu-communal groups. For instance, a Congress government allowed the Babri mosque to be demolished by the Hindutva forces in 1992.

“If the ruling United Progressive Alliance government rises to the challenge and pursues the investigation and prosecution in the present case through to the end, it will have made a major contribution to the reaffirmation of secularism in India,’’ Hasan said.

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