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The Rediff Special/ Darryl D'Monte

Beware the Hindu Taliban!

When the Bharatiya Janata Party ushered in its coalition this year, many argued that the party, once in power, would be compelled to restrain itself when it came to dealing with minorities. In Maharashtra, the BJP-Shiv Sena government stated that its record in preventing communal conflagrations was better than that of its Congress predecessors: there have been no riots during its regime. The ruling party at the Centre has not taken any steps to build the temple at Ayodhya, although it has by no means given up its vow to do so.

But recent events demonstrate that whatever its protestations to the contrary, the BJP has a clear agenda, which is to push towards the “Hinduisation” of society. The denial by the intrepid chief minister of Delhi, Sahib Singh Verma, that he ordered churches in the Union territory to be removed from the list of religious places because they “served wine” will simply not be taken at face value.

Whether the move was motivated by sheer communal intolerance or to favour liquor traders is besides the point. The BJP government in Delhi was insensitive to the feelings of a minority community and threatened the fundamental right of Indians to practise a religion they profess. The fact that the prime minister himself had to scotch such a move speaks for itself.

If one was to single out a state in recent times, Gujarat is perhaps a harbinger of the trend towards saffronisation. Bibles have been burned in Christian schools. Near Rajkot, the freshly-buried body of a Christian was exhumed and left outside its grave. Muslims have been expelled from an area after two Hindu girls eloped with Muslim youths. It is not just minorities which are being targeted but anything which smacks of being non-Gujarati (read Hindu) or “Western.”

On July 20, over a hundred armed persons attacked students and faculty in the campus of the Centre for Environment Planning and Technology in Ahmedabad, which is one of the country’s premier architecture colleges. They started beating up students and faculty, threatening to burn the library. Ostensibly, they were doing this in retaliation against the ragging which is inflicted on freshers. One student was severely stabbed and three abducted and released later that night.

An equally disturbing aspect was that the police was indifferent and, according to the students, hesitant to book the culprits although it was given sufficient evidence. The campus has been closed for a fortnight and security arrangements are now being made. Earlier last month, the BK medical college was also the scene of campus violence.

What is apparently irksome to some self-appointed custodians of law and order, if not of morality, is the freedom which academic institutions such as CEPT and the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad enjoy. These do not conform to the regimentation which is unfortunately the hallmark of most colleges in the country and the BJP government in the state has fostered an environment in which hooligans believe that they can get away with such attacks. In a complaint to the police commissioner, the students have pointed to the cultural plurality that they have always promoted on the campus.

Indeed, education has always come in for a great deal of attention from the BJP. The Indian Council for Historical Research which, the BJP claims, has traditionally been packed with left-leaning academics, has witnessed a “purge,” with historians of a more “Indian” bent of thought brought in. Spokespersons for the BJP, like the columnist and now Rajya Sabha MP Arun Shourie, have been vitriolic in their attack on these academics because they realise that the way history is written can have a profound impact on the shape of any society.

One has to recall the efforts of the same elements during the Janata regime between 1977 and 1980 to re-write history text-books published by the National Council for Education Training and Research. One would like to see what historians the Sangh Parivar can trot out to challenge the credentials of such authors as Romila Thapar and R S Sharma. It would have to do better than patronise historians of the ilk of P N Oak, who has argued that the Taj was a Hindu monument…

If one sees the writing of Shourie over the years, which have acquired the patina of scholarship for his painstaking quotations from texts, however selective, the ideology of the BJP becomes self-evident. His first book attacked Indian Communists as having extra-territorial loyalties during the freedom struggle. Was it accidental that the two Left parties represent the only truly secular front against Hindu chauvinism today? He then trained his guns at Muslims, followed it with a book condemning Christian missionaries for being solely obsessed with conversions today and his latest invective is reserved for Dr Ambedkar. As the most sophisticated exponent of Hindu communalism, he has to demolish all other religious or ideological tendencies to assert the superiority of the majority community.

While the coming to power at the Centre and several states has doubtless emboldened those who subscribe to hardline Hinduism to assert themselves – witness the decibel level of the supporters of the Godse play in Mumbai – the writing was already on the wall for some years. In the Chhotanagpur plateau in Madhya Pradesh and parts of Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has launched a Ghar Vapsi campaign to bring Adivasis “back” into the Hindu fold, unmindful of the historical fact that their animist beliefs long pre-date Hinduism.

Among other things, this means giving up their traditional diet of beef. A long documentary by two Mumbai film-makers titled Fishers of Men captures this misguided venture. In Surguja district of MP, an 88-year-old Jesuit missionary and a nun were sentenced to six months’ rigorous imprisonment for converting 94 tribals to Christianity in 1988, though were allowed bail. During the Janata regime, communal forces tried to pass the anti-conversion bill, which was responsible for alienating the entire Christian community in the country from the ruling party.

At the heart of these controversies is nothing less than the right of citizens to retain their religious and community identities and not be forced to join the so-called “mainstream.” Although Mr Vajpayee represents the moderate face of the BJP, Mr Advani does not. He has gone on record to state that the nuclear tests are proof that the party means what it promises on other issues such as the building of a temple at Ayodhya, and the introduction of a uniform civil code.

Indeed, some commentators have drawn a parallel between communalisation and the militarisation of society, with many references to Nazi Germany. The concept of a homogenised society under the majority community, nurturing a sense of grievance over the past 'injustices' of a specific minority group (Muslims), is all too familiar. The reinterpretation of history is central to such ideological manipulation.

The thrust towards a strait-jacketed society is evident in the Delhi administration’s inept attempt – again thwarted by the central government – to force school girls to wear the salwar kameez instead of skirts (ignoring the fact that boys’ shorts were not very 'Indian' either!). Not that the Maharashtra government has given up cleansing youth of such bad western habits as rock music.

In the months ahead, there will be assaults against all citadels which resist the Hinduisation of the country, whether these are places of religious worship or the clergy and followers of a minority community or academic and cultural institutions, including museums.

Without sounding alarmist in any way, it is necessary for all forces to unite against these forays. Failure to do so will invite a take-over by fundamentalists and plunge the country back into a medieval age – reminiscent of the intolerance practised in Afghanistan, Pakistan and many other neighbouring countries. The plurality of this society, far from being a scourge, is precisely its strength and we have to everything within our power to preserve it.

Darryl D'Monte, former resident editor, Indian Express and The Times of India, will contribute a regular column to these pages.

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