Sunday, December 06, 1998
SECTION: Features

Minority baiting

Date: 06-12-1998 :: Pg: 25 :: Col: e

The growth of Hindutva politics, being fine tuned and perfected over the last two decades, is not an artificially created phenomenon. Secular forces must get together to launch a vigorous campaign highlighting the unity that underlies our diversity, says V.SURESH.

Rape of four nuns in Jhabua (Madhya Pradesh) is only indicative of 'Hindu outrage' and the anger of patriotic Hindu youth against anti-national forces... the missionaries should pack up and leave... the VHP will not shut (our) eyes to the activities of these traitors.

(VHP Central Secretary and former BJP MP B. L. Sharma's statement on the rape of nuns)

THEY first came for the Muslims.

Thousands were killed; a religious monument was destroyed. Muslims were declared to be anti-nationals and traitors and asked to leave the country. They came to power. The attacks on Muslims suddenly stopped.

They next came for the Christians.

Four nuns were raped in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh. In Bihar, a padre-teacher was forcibly stripped naked, paraded and made to walk 16 kilometres while being beaten throughout, all under the gaze of the District Collector and the Superintendent of Police. In Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar, Bibles were burnt, churches ransacked, cemeteries desecrated and coffins exhumed. Christian missionaries were declared to represent "anti-national forces" working against Hindu interests in the country and asked to leave the country.

In the last few months, the nation has been witnessing a buildup of communal hatred and anger against the minority Christian community all over the country. If language is at all indicative of intent, then another round of bloodshedding to reclaim ``Hindu pride'' is on the cards. Terms suchas ``traitors'', ``anti- national forces'', ``patriotic Hindu youth'' all remind us of the buildup preceding the black events of December 6, 1992, when the Babri Masjid was demolished by frenzied mobs right in front of the eyes of the nation and world.

It took four years from the Rath Yatras and Shilanyas launched by the VHP-RSS-BJP in 1988-89 to build up such a crescendo of religious fervour that by 1992, the Babri Masjid demolition could be achieved. Is the latest round of hate politics against Christians part of a plant by the Hindutva forces to reclaim the vast properties owned by Christian institutions? We cannot rule out the sudden cropping of historical works claiming that churches were built on the sites of ancient temples. The RSS-BJP- Hindu Munnani claim that church in Pondicherry was actually constructed over the ruins of a temple is still fresh in our memory.

A major controversy has risen as to whether the rapists of the four nuns belonged to the VHP or any of the various Hindutva front organisations. It does not matter whether the rapists acted on the orders of the VHP or the RSS. What is crucial is, that with the steady build up of propaganda against Christians and Christian missionaries, especially in the tribal areas, this kind of violence was to be expected. If not in Jhabua, it would have erupted in some remote corner of M.P. or Bihar or Orissa or Gujarat or U.P.

The politics behind this process is clearly exposed by the responses of the different constituents of the Hindutva brigade. Former BJP MP and VHP Central secretary B. L. Sharma `Prem' blatantly justified the attack (interestingly several days later he reportedly denied having made such statements). BJP official spokesman Venkaiah Naidu refused to specifically condemn the statement made by VHP leader, choosing instead to issue a general statement, ``We condemn all such statements made by anybody''. Thus while one group was belligerent, the other was conciliatory. While one justified the violence as the anger of ``patriotic Hindu youth'' (are Christian youths any less patriotic?), the BJP distanced itself. As the political component, it cannot afford to be identified with hate politics or its derivatives.

Hindutva politics has been fine tuned and perfected over the last two decades. There are three components to this politics: the ideological, the political and the violent face. While the propaganda war is launched by the RSS and the VHP which form the ideological thrust of Hindutva politics, groups like the Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena, the Hindu Munnani, Hindu Makal Katchi represent the striking arm. These are the groups which mobilise the youth and which are involved in violent attacks on the lives and properties of the minorities. The BJP is the political component, capitalising on this hate propaganda.

The caste basis of this three-fold strategy underlying Hindutva politics is equally interesting to study. While the ideological thrust is championed largely by the upper caste leaders, the striking force is led by the middle and lower rung or the backward castes. These people not only provide numerical strength to the saffron brigade but also lead in militant and violent articulation of Hindutva politics. The BJP, on the other hand, represents in many places, the upper-middle caste belonging mainly to merchant communities and traders, who provide the funds. Gujarati and Marwari traders in the southern states, in particular, have played an important role in bankrolling BJP politics.

An important aspect of the division of tasks among different segments espousing Hindutva politics is the ``principle of deniability''. According to this axiom, what is not known specifically can always be denied. Once specific knowledge is denied, how can others demand accountability and responsibility for the actions of other Hindutva groups, although they may belong to the same broad grouping? Thus, while the BJP shares the platform with the Bajrang Dal, Sadhu Sammelan and so on, and actively contributes to the spread of divisive politics can always deny specific knowledge of events, being only a contributor, and not a participant in the event. This is politics of convenience and opportunism at its best.

Advani and other senior BJP leaders took this stand when confonted with their role in the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Despite the venomous propaganda being documented through newspaper reports and on television and film footage, these leaders got away with murder. How can history forgive their role in this divisive propaganda?

What is worrying now, as during the events just prior to the demolition of the Masjid in 1992, is that the orchestrated attacks are happening when the BJP is in power in the Centre and in many States. The Supreme Court proceedings in the Babri Masjid case clearly reveal that the BJP leaders do not hesitate to even mislead the apex Court. After that can we still repose trust in the BJP leaders?

There are several dimensions to the attacks on Christians, especially missionaries working in the tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and the North East. Propaganda was the main tool.

New terms were coined. The term ``adivasi'' (meaning original inhabitant) used to refer to tribals was rejected, to be replaced with a RSS coinage, the ``Vanvasi'' (forest dweller). The choice of terms was not merely euphemistic. Apart from the fact that the term ``adivasi'' could not be used to build up a separate ``identity'', accepting it would necessitate granting them special status in law as ``indigenous people'' and thereby entitle them to the protection in International Law and U.N. conventions, of the ``Rights of Indigenous Peoples.'' Vanavasi was a delightfully value free term, with no connotations as to origin of the people.

There is a religious angle to the issue also. Till now, adivasis were considered to belong to Nature, who worshipped spirits. Animistic religions fell outside the pale of orthodox Hindu society. This status has been accepted and incorporated into the government policy as it deals with tribal issues in the country. The RSS however, has been claiming Adivasis to be HIndus, and conducting ceremonies to purify them and bring them into the Hindu fold.

Such has been their fervour that they have not only assimilated values and beliefs belittling their own gods, goddesses and belief systems but also incorporated Hindu concepts of ``pollution'' and ``purity into the tribal societies. As was pointed out by Pradip Prabhu of the Kashtakari Sanghatana recently, the activities of RSS missionarie in Mokhada and Jawahar talukas of Thane District in Maharashtra have resulted in the outbreak of untouchability practices amongst the Warlis and other tribal groups by which all those families who eat non- vegetarian food, or practice traditional adivasi religion are shunned by others who have replaced their traditional idols with Rama, Lakshmana and Hanuman!

RSS, VHP, BJP and Shiv Sena leaders do not tire of crowing from roof tops about how the states ruled by the Hindutva based parties are free of communal clashes. Ironically, far from revealing the quality of their administration, their statements only reveal that the communal violence was artificially created.

Interestingly, it is these claims about the ``illusory communal peace'' (vis-a-vis Muslims) made by the BJP and Shiv Sena that exposes the fact that since the Muslims and their groups have more or less been cowed down, the next target are the Christians. Having built up a political cadre across the country based on the divisive and religion exclusive polemics, the Hindutva parties require new targets.

While other political parties, the Congress in particular have not been beyond fomenting communal forces and instigating conflicts, the Hindutva brigade has given a new thrust to the politics of creating divides and thereby consolidating political votebanks. In doing so, the Hindutva groups have shaped the nature of political discourse and have been calling the shots.

While there is need to challenge the growth of divisive politics, there is equally an urgent need for re-evaluating and re- contextualising the role of religion and politics, both in the colonial as also post-colonial period. It will be shortsighted to view the growth of militant and violent Hinduism as an artificially created phenomenon. While the plurality of our society will not make homegenising the entire country into a single framework an easy task, there are nevertheless points of commonness and contrasts in the ways different communities have viewed and experienced each other over the last 100 to 200 years across the country.

In the last two decades we have witnessed the rise of militant fundamentalist organisations amongst Islamic and Christian sects. While it is true that some of these have sprung as a consequence of majority fundamentalism, it is equally relevant to note that they have shown scant respect for plurality of views whether within their own religions or among other religions. On a different plane, is the activity of many service institutions, especially religious educational ones, which openly exhibit biased and partial practices vis-a-vis members of other communities. The practice of claiming minority status whenever exploitative practices have been challenged in these institutions, the claim for immunity from accounting for their activities and finances on account of being a minority institution and so on are issues which need to be publicly debated. Failure to do so will only add substance to the propoganda machines of the Hindutva brigade.

A much more serious issue demanding attention and discussion is that political and secular forces deal with the issue of religion and religious identities instead of negating it altogether. Such an attitude has resulted in the Hindutva forces appropriating and monopolising all the cultural and religious symbols and values of our tradition and culture and distorting it for divisive purposes. It is time the secular forces seriously re-examined these issues and build a vigorous political campaign highlighting the unity that underlies our diversity, and building on the strong and enabling aspects of our traditions and culture. This is the only way our country can ensure that another round of collective blood letting is avoided.

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Dr. Alexander Harris
Last Days Harvest Ministries