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Reuters, March 06, 2002

India's Hindu groups: three bodies, one soul

By Sugita Katyal

NEW DELHI, March 6 (Reuters) - They are often tossed into the same bowl in the alphabet soup of Indian politics.

Though three separate groups, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) all spring from the same Hindu revivalist platform whose goal is to build a Hindu temple on a site sacred to both Hindus and Muslims.

The temple dispute has led to the nation's worst religious violence in a decade and confronted the Hindu-majority nation's ruling BJP-led coalition with its biggest crisis since taking office in October 1999.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or National Volunteer Corps, which came into existence in the western Indian city of Nagpur in 1925, is the ideological parent of the other two groups.

A social and cultural organisation, it was established with the avowed objective to make officially secular India a Hindu rashtra or Hindu nation but it is not a political party.

The secretive RSS is widely accused of harbouring a deep-seated bias against the country's minority Muslim and Christian communities. RSS leaders deny this, but say they are opposed to special treatment for any religious community.

Leaders of the RSS have in the past also extolled the achievements of ancient India -- from calculus and nuclear physics to advanced chemistry and aeronautics -- saying it was a pity Indians had forgotten their home-grown geniuses.

The life of the RSS shakhas or cells revolves round a daily martial arts drill where khaki-clad members, including many teenagers, learn the principles of obedience to RSS superiors.

Volunteers are often the first to arrive for disaster relief at places hit by cyclones, floods or quakes -- they were prominent in relief efforts during the killer earthquake in Gujarat last year.

The group was banned for two years after Mahatma Gandhi's assassination in 1948 because Nathuram Godse, the man who killed Gandhi, was a former RSS member.

From the same Hindu fundamentalist background, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is a political party that began its life in 1951 as the Jan Sangh, the political wing of the RSS.

SOUGHT TO REUNIFY INDIA, PAKISTAN

In its early years, the Jan Sangh argued for reuniting India and Pakistan in pursuit of its central objective of an Akhand Bharat or Undivided India, a slogan it abandoned later.

The Sangh, which fought for protection of cows, sacred to Hindus, in its early years, was a regional player in the sixties.

It reorganised itself as the BJP in 1980 after splits emerged in the country's opposition and rose to national prominence on the back of a pledge to build a temple dedicated to Hindu god king Rama on a site where a Muslim mosque was torn down in 1992.

The destruction of the mosque triggered the country's worst communal riots since the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947, killing about 3,000 people.

Though a part of the larger Sangh parivar or family of groups linked to the RSS, the BJP put the temple and its policy of Hindutva or Hinduness on the back burner after it took power at the head of a multiparty coalition in 1999.

Over the past few years, the BJP, which has risen from just two seats in India's parliament in 1984 to 180 today, has sought to shrug off its communal label and distance itself from the RSS.

But the influence of the RSS is still evident in recent efforts by the BJP-led government to "saffronise" education and rewrite history texts to glorify the country's Hindu past. Saffron is regarded as a holy Hindu colour.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) or the World Hindu Council is the religious wing of the RSS which was set up in 1966 as a non-political group "to consolidate and strengthen Hindu society." It has a huge following worldwide because it was set up to strengthen the Hindu fraternity globally.

Today the VHP almost has a one-point programme: to build the Ram temple in the northern town of Ayodhya at the site where the 16th-century mosque once stood. Many Hindus believe the Babri mosque was built on the birthplace of Rama.

The fiercely Hindu group also opposes religious conversions in India, saying Christian missionaries bribe poor tribal people with money and medical care to change faiths.

 

BBC, Thursday, 7 March, 2002, 16:33 GMT
Profile: The Vishwa Hindu Parishad

By Rajyasri Rao
BBC correspondent in Delhi

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) was founded in 1964 by a group of senior leaders from a hard-line Hindu organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to give Hindus what they believed would be a clearly defined sense of religious identity and political purpose.

Its founders felt the need to present Hinduism in a rigorous though simplified form which would be comparable to most other world religions.

The superiority of other faiths was believed to stem from their being far less diffuse and more uniform than Hinduism.

But its critics call the VHP a hardline Hindu outfit with unmistakably close ties to its parent organisation, the extremist RSS, whose objective to 'Hinduise' the Indian nation, it shares.

Central to the RSS ideology has been the belief that real national unity and progress will come only when India is 'purged' of non-Hindus, or, when members of other communities subordinate themselves 'willingly' to 'Hindu superiority.'

Linked groups

The VHP has tended to tone down the rhetoric of Hindu supremacy and even make an occasional distinction between fellow (Muslim) citizens of the present and (Muslim) 'marauders' of the past.

But the ambition of establishing a resurgent Hinduism by inculcating what some historians call a carefully constructed common 'Hindu spirit' is very much central to the VHP.

This is also something it shares with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which currently leads the Indian Government at the centre.

Earlier known as the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), the BJP was established in 1951 as a political wing of the RSS to counter rising public revulsion after the revered independence figure Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a former RSS member.

Some commentators say the party came close to obliteration in the 1960s with the Congress led by the charismatic and secular Jawaharlal Nehru, leaving little room for hardline communal politics.

But a political emergency announced by Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, in 1975 enabled the BJS leaders, Atal Behari Vajpayee and LK Advani among them, to gain near stardom after serving brief prison sentences.

But it didn't really emerge as a political presence until the early 1980s.

A series of events in that decade including the mass conversion of lower-caste Hindus to Islam pushed the BJP's close affiliate, the VHP, to the forefront.

Historians say the VHP-led Hindu right considered the mass conversion of "dalits" or lower-caste Hindus to Islam to be an unforgivable insult.

The dalits, for centuries beholden to the upper castes, outraged Hindu hardliners by daring to convert at all, and moreover, convert to Islam.

The VHP saw this as a serious threat to its notion of Hinduism.

It proceeded to whip up Hindu support for a re-defined communal force, organising a series of religious meetings, cross-country marches and processions through the 1980s.

This phase coincided with the launch of an electoral strategy by the BJP to corner and hold on to the "Hindu" vote.

Temple controversy

Following the success of their campaign, senior VHP leaders announced at a religious meeting in 1984 their programme to "liberate" a site in Ayodhya from an ancient mosque to make way for a temple to the Hindu god Ram.

Analysts say this announcement heralded a turning point in the history of the Hindu nationalist movement.

The VHP has since then claimed that the site belongs rightfully to Hindu worshippers who believe that the mosque stood on the birthplace of the god, Lord Ram.

Although the claim does not stand up to substantial archaeological or historical scrutiny, the VHP and BJP are seen to have made possible the creation of a shared Hindu symbol that cuts through most divisions in Hindu society.

 

Hindu Fundamentalism Index

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