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Asia Times, January 31, 2002

Militant Hinduism takes center stage again

By Sultan Shahin

NEW DELHI - Militant Hindu fundamentalists have started playing dangerous political games again, ostensibly to shore up their support in state assembly elections - the winning of which is considered crucial for the stability of the central Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. But this could lead to serious religious conflict with the largest minority community of Muslims and undermine the alliance of secular and fundamentalist parties in the central coalition, thus destabilizing the very government they are trying to protect.

In a bid to garner upper-caste Hindu support in the forthcoming elections in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), the fundamentalists have embarked on a movement to build a temple on the site of the 16th-century mosque they demolished just a little over nine years ago in the UP town of Ayodhya in full view of international television channels. The demolition lit a communal conflagration throughout the country and beyond, lasting several months and taking a toll of several thousand lives.

A delegation of militant Hindu leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP - World Hindu Congress) met Prime Minister Vajpayee this week to remind him that his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had come to power with an agenda to construct a Hindu temple by demolishing the Babri mosque, and that this inalienable fact should not be forgotten by the government. (The VHP and BJP are part of the Sangh Parivar - the family of Hindu fundamentalist organizations spawned and led by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). The VHP has now been given the task of temple construction as the BJP, being the party in power at the center and in several states including UP, has to function at least overtly within legal limits.)

The central BJP-led coalition government has officially distanced itself from the Ram temple movement under pressure from its secular allies, without whose support it cannot run the government. But the BJP has constantly equivocated on whether this divisive and illegal movement that proposes to defy specific orders from the highest court is part of its agenda or not. It speaks in several voices and constantly changes its stand, thus causing confusion in the minds of its own followers as well.

Vajpayee's strategy of winning the election merely by creating war hysteria aimed at Pakistan has not worked. The VHP leaders have said they could consider postponing the building of the temple only if there is an actual war. Mere threat of war and mere talk of using all and every weapon (including nuclear weapons) will not do. Even strong statements like the demand made by Vajpayee on Monday, that Pakistan should return the part of Kashmir under its occupation as a precondition for dialogue, has not helped matters.

All material preparations have already been made and the prefabricated temple only needs to be erected on the site of the demolished mosque. The VHP is adamant that it will begin the construction of the temple at Ayodhya after March 12, regardless of the court verdict prohibiting it, and its impact on the stability of the government. It will gather a million activists at the mosque site on that day. (The BJP, led by its then president and now Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani, had gathered 600,000 activists for the purpose of the demolition of the mosque in 1992.)

The VHP led what it called a Chetwani Yatra (Warning March) from the UP capital, Lucknow, to New Delhi last week. It was not clear for whom the warning was meant. But the yatra ended at the door of the prime minister. Vajpayee has referred the matter of the temple to the Law Ministry, in effect asking it to find a way to defy the law lawfully.

Scholars who have studied RSS philosophy are not at all surprised at this attempt to defy the law of the land. An article in the Hindustan Times (January 29), for instance, quotes RSS founder Guru Golwalkar's views about the constitution of India from a collection of his writings, Bunch of Thoughts: "Our Constitution is just a cumbersome and heterogeneous piecing together of various articles from various Constitutions of western countries. It has absolutely nothing which can be called our own. Is there a single word of reference in its guiding principles as to what our national mission is and what our keynote in life is? No!"

Indeed, the BJP-led government has instituted a body to review the constitution, despite the constraints imposed by the fact that the government is in coalition with secular parties which swear by the same constitution. The present RSS chief, K S Sudarshan, argued in Bangalore on Sunday that there is nothing wrong in changing the constitution drafted by Babasaheb Ambedkar (a Dalit leader of the independence movement who led millions of "untouchables" to convert to Buddhism).

These extraordinary developments have made a section of the mainstream media worried about the fate of the nation. India's second-largest-circulated newspaper, The Indian Express, hopes that the Law Ministry will point out to the VHP the absurdity of its position of stretching a legal point too far. The ministry must point out to the VHP the untenability of its demand for permission to begin construction of a temple on the disputed site. "The process of justice cannot be reduced to quibbling of this schizophrenic kind; it must be tempered by a larger, and coherent, perspective. Basically the process of the resolution of the Ayodhya dispute, if it is already afoot, must proceed at its own pace. It cannot allow itself to be disturbed by the nuisance value, fast diminishing, of a bunch of hoodlums."

In an unusually hard-hitting editorial, north India's largest-circulated newspaper, the Hindustan Times, also expressed its apprehensions: "The Sangh Parivar speaks in so many voices that it is never easy to decipher its real intention. It is not clear, for instance, what the VHP's latest antics mean.

"Is it serious about constructing the temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya or is it just a ploy to boost the BJP's election prospects in Uttar Pradesh? Prima facie, its latest activities may seem to be in keeping with its pledge to start the construction work on March 12. But even in the midst of all the fiery speeches, there are still muted hints that the deadline is not sacrosanct. It is also not impossible that the parivar comprising the BJP component of the government and the rest of the saffron [the color of the RSS flag] brigade is contemplating a somewhat devious plan involving the transfer of a portion of the disputed land to the builders. The move to refer to the law ministry has led to this speculation. However, it may also be nothing more sinister than a time-honored delaying tactic."

"The point," the paper adds, "is not so much about the games which the Sangh Parivar may be playing, as their unhappy consequences. It is a matter of deep regret that one organization, with its dubious claim to speak for the entire Hindu community, is allowed to hold the country to ransom with its provocative postures. Some of the speeches made by their leaders should have landed them in jail straight away for violating the simple norms of decency, not to mention abusing a particular religious group [Muslims].

The paper concludes by reminding the BJP government of its constitutional responsibility: "As may be expected, neither the Centre nor the BJP government in UP has acted against their brazen defiance of the law. Instead of persistent pussy-footing with the objective of keeping the hotheads in the parivar in line, the government should make it absolutely clear that any organization trying to disrupt peace will be sternly dealt with. As a member of the same saffron family, the BJP may find it easier to hedge its bets, but it must remember that its primary loyalty is to the Constitution of India and the law of the land."

The Chetawani Yatra has not been as successful as the VHP, BJP and other members of the Sangh Parivar may have hoped. According to the Times of India, the yatra took on a distinct anti-minority [anti-Muslim] hue. And yet, as newspaper reports from UP seem to suggest, the common people are largely unmoved by what they perceive as nothing more than an election gimmick. No more than 4,000 people joined the march at any point.

The Times of India commented: "Weighed down by inflation, corruption and criminalization [of politics], the common villager of UP has little time for an issue that has been raked up over and over again by the VHP. It peaked in December 1992 when the Babri mosque was demolished and for the past nine years now the people of this poverty-stricken state have heard little else from sections of the BJP and its front organizations but the promise to construct the temple."

The paper thinks that those who at one time allowed development and their rights to be overshadowed by the politics of Ayodhya have become wiser and do not appear to be eager to allow non-existent issues to dominate the political scene.

An influential newspaper, Asian Age, seeks to understand the attitude of the common man and paints a rather depressing picture of the setting in which these dangerous political games are being played. It says: "The common voter in UP is now so disillusioned, that he has given up even hoping that the next government in power will actually work for his well being and progress. He, thus, allows issues like terror, security, secularism to color his vote in the belief that on this front the political parties might be able to deliver more than they have done insofar as hospitals, drinking water, roads, electricity are concerned.

"Over the years UP has been unable to move forward on any front that can bring it into some level of competition with other states in India. Even social evils like child marriage have not been eradicated, and remain the norm in the eastern districts of the state. Scavenging, although punishable under the law, is still a practice encouraged by the upper caste dominated administration of Uttar Pradesh."

The Indian Express takes a more serious view of the situation and is not prepared to excuse it as mere electioneering. In an editorial of January 30, "Lunacy at Large", it asks: Are we a theocratic state? "What the people of this country want most of all," it says, "is the freedom to carry on with their lives without being dragged into atavistic campaigns that disrupt lives and foment lasting and debilitating animosities. We have time and again criticized Pakistan for allowing itself to be under the thrall of the mullah and madrasas, of allowing religious fundamentalism to set its political agendas. But what are we doing about our own variation of similar entities - in this case sants [saints] and sadhus [holy men] who live in a world and time-frame that has very little to do with modernity. Do we allow them to take us back in their indigenously crafted time machine?"

 

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