By Praful Bidwai
Sadhvi Pragya Thakur’s arrest and the questioning of Hindutva extremists for the Malegaon blasts point to the need for action against majoritarian extremism.
When this column (Frontline, October 6, 2006) raised doubts about the police account of the terrorist bombings, which killed more than 30, in Malegaon in northern Maharashtra, many readers questioned this writer’s motives and the validity of his argument that the attacks were in all probability executed by Hindutva fanatics.
Two years on, the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) has arrested Sadhvi Pragya Thakur. In Madhya Pradesh, Mahashtra and Gujarat, a number of other Hindutva extremists have been detained for interrogation. They have reportedly found solid evidence of the existence of an elaborate, well-ramified terrorist network, which they suspect was involved in several recent bombings in different States, including the blasts in Malegaon and in Modasa in Gujarat in September.
A relook at terror
If the police succeed in substantiating their allegations, the government will have to radically revise its view of terrorism, which it sees primarily, if not solely, as the work of extremist organisations such as the Indian Mujahideen, the Students Islamic Movement of India, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Harkat-ul-Jihad al-Islami, many of them linked to Pakistan/Bangladesh.
The government will also have to go after or ban Hindutva groups such as the Bajrang Dal, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Sri Ram Sena and, above all, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), which mentors them and to which they are affiliated. At the centre of the recently discovered Hindutva extremist network are, allegedly, Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, her accomplices Shyam Banwarilal Sahu and Shivnarayan Singh Kalsangar and others such as Sameer Kulkarni and Ramesh Upadhyay, a former Army officer.
Even more important are the organisations to which they belong, including the Hindu Janajagaran Manch and the Sanatana Ashram in Panvel and the Bhonsala Military School in Nashik run by the Central Hindu Military Education Society, established in 1935 by B.S. Moonje – a Hindutva zealot and former Hindu Mahasabha president – who was close to RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar but well to his right.
The terrorist involvement of some of these organisations was detected in 2006 when the ATS of the Maharashtra Police investigated an accidental bomb explosion on April 6 in the house of RSS member L.G. Rajkondwar in Nanded, not far from Malegaon. Bajrang Dal activists Naresh Rajkondwar and Himanshu Panse were killed while attempting to fabricate a bomb along with fellow-extremists.
The ATS filed a charge sheet in August 2006 in which it established the existence of a Bajrang Dal-centred terrorist network. This network was responsible for terrorist bombings in November 2003 at a mosque in Parbhani in Maharashtra’s Marathwada region and in August 2004 at mosques in Jalna and Purna in the same region. The bomb that went off accidentally at Nanded was apparently meant to be used at a mosque in Aurangabad.
The Marathwada-based extremists were trained in bomb-making near Pune, in Goa and at the Bhonsala Military School, where an RSS camp coached more than 100 participants in the use of firearms and in martial arts.
According to the ATS, this operation was part of a large conspiracy to target Muslims and create an impression that Muslim extremists would kill other Muslims to provoke disaffection, widen the communal divide and stoke extremism. This would play straight into the hands of the Hindutva forces, which would attribute all acts of terrorism, including diabolical ones directed at Muslims, solely to Muslims.
The September 2006 bombings in Malegaon outside a crowded mosque after the Friday prayers fit this pattern to a T. Ironically, the police held Muslims responsible, ignoring all material evidence and important clues: the victims were exclusively Muslims observing Shab-e-Barat, or remembrance of the dead, in an adjoining graveyard; the bicycles in which the bombs were planted had Hindu names painted on them.
The police overplayed the “telltale” use of RDX explosive although only one of the three forensic laboratories detected its presence. The Union Home Secretary, no less, had ruled RDX out. But RDX is no Muslim monopoly. It can be procured by any determined group.
Shortly after the explosion at Nanded on April 6, the Secular Citizens’ Forum and the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in Nagpur and the Movement for Peace and Justice in Nanded collected photographs that, according to them, showed a bomb-fabrication operation run by the Bajrang Dal. The pictures proved that the local police tried to cover up Bajrang Dal-VHP involvement by planting firecrackers to suggest that the blast was not caused by bombs. They also ignored the planting of false beards to suggest that the perpetrators were Muslims. They played down the fact that a second bomb was recovered from the same place.
The activists specifically warned of an imminent attack by Hindutva militants but were ignored. Soon thereafter, Malegaon happened. The Nanded case was transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
According to anti-communalism activist Teesta Setalvad, who moved a Right to Information application to get hold of the CBI’s charge sheet, the CBI considerably diluted the terrorism-related charges and presented the Nanded explosion as an isolated incident unconnected with the Sangh Parivar and delinked from a larger conspiracy. It then pleaded its “inability” to proceed with the investigation.
Since then, Sangh Parivar activists have been implicated in other explosions that took place while bombs were being fabricated in places as varied as Kanpur and Tenkasi, besides Nanded again. There have been any number of instances of Bajrang Dal activists distributing trishuls – four million in Rajasthan alone, according to former Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot – forming anti-Muslim suicide squads, and training members in the use of firearms. They have brazenly owned up to the recent ethnic cleansing operation against Christians in Orissa and to intimidating other minorities.
The Indian state’s response to these manifestly illegal and obnoxiously communal activities has been soft, if not supine. This has encouraged the most vicious and aggressive Hindutva forces to step up their offensive, thus further alienating our already threatened and beleaguered minorities.
The government’s reluctance to bring Sangh Parivar fanatics to book is premised on the belief that Hindu extremists are somehow more “patriotic” and, therefore, less evil than Islamist extremists. This is a Hindu-majoritarian, anti-secular view. It presumes that Hindus, by virtue of being the majority, are quintessentially more committed to the Indian nation than Muslims or Christians, and hence deserving of sympathy.
This repugnant presumption profoundly misrepresents and seriously violates India’s civic nationalism, which is based on the modern concept of equality of all citizens irrespective of their religion or ethnicity. It is incompatible with our Constitution’s foundational values. In reality, the Sangh Parivar is not committed to the Indian nation but to the “Hindu nation”, in which the minorities must accept a subordinate, second-class status.
Powerful refutation of this presumption was offered by the barbaric burning alive of Graham Staines and his two children in Orissa by Bajrang Dal activist Dara Singh; the Gujarat pogrom; and other gory episodes of violence against Indian citizens and offences against India’s plural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious foundations.
Militant majoritarianism has held sway in India over the past 20 years and created great fear and insecurity among Muslims. Hindutva’s rise has deeply affected official thinking and given India’s counter-terrorism strategy an Islamophobic edge. A significant number of police and intelligence officials, both serving and retired, have embraced hard or soft Hindutva. Muslim alienation from the government has never been greater. This is especially so where Muslims have been harassed or treated with suspicion, as after the Batla House episode.
The lion’s share of the responsibility for this unacceptably deplorable state of affairs rests with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), many of whose members seamlessly walk in and out of the front organisations of the RSS, and whom the RSS uses at will. Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, for instance, was a leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) for nearly a decade and campaigned for the BJP during the last Assembly elections in Gujarat. Her associates have a similar relationship with Sangh Parivar organisations.
It simply will not do for the BJP to pretend that it is unconnected to these organisations and individuals or, more egregiously, that there can be no “Hindu terrorist” because Hinduism is inherently tolerant and incapable of a fundamentalist interpretation. Indeed, Hindutva embodies intolerance in its most malignant form.
The Indian state will further damage its already frayed secular credentials unless it stops being pusillanimous and musters the courage to take on the Sangh Parivar while protecting the minorities. It must ban the RSS, the Bajrang Dal, the VHP and other extremist groups; prosecute BJP and ABVP members who have links with them; and cleanse its police, security and intelligence apparatuses of communally inclined personnel. No less important, it must set up a high-level commission on the Gujarat pogrom and other recent communal atrocities to punish the guilty.
The ruling coalition has failed to reaffirm a secular agenda in a credible way. Unless it acts with determination and despatch, Hindutva hatred and prejudices will undermine interreligious harmony and tear this society asunder.
© 2008, Frontline.