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February 8, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

A Kill Before Dying

One of the few iron rules of Indian politics is this: in every situation, there comes a point of no return. After that point is reached, no matter what you do, you have lost control of the situation.

A recent example was the ransacking of the offices of the Board of Control for Cricket in India by the Shiv Sena's thugs. Until then, most educated people had disapproved of the Sena's attempts to stop the Pakistan tour but the prevailing emotion was despair. Once the ransacking took place, however, the despair turned quickly to anger. There is a consensus that the Sena had finally gone too far and that action needed to be taken.

It was the ransacking -- and its aftermath -- that persuaded the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre that it had to walk out of its alliance with the Shiv Sena if it did not call a halt to the violence. And Bal Thackeray, for his part, recognised that his goons had finally gone too far. He disowned the assault, said it had nothing to do with him (even though the goondas shouted Shiv Sena slogans and were identified by the police as being Shiv Sainiks) and eventually called off his agitation when the Centre got tough.

Thackeray had the sense to recognise the turning point; not everybody else had been that shrewd. In 1987, the Bofors scandal was the turning point for the Rajiv Gandhi regime. The government was already reeling from the shocks of the Fairfax and Howaldswerke Deutsche Werit scandals, so it was extremely vulnerable when Swedish Radio alleged that Bofors had paid bribes to Indian politicians to swing the Howitzer contract. Yes, such was Rajiv Gandhi's inexperience (to say nothing of the stupidity of his advisers) that the government failed to recognise the significance of the Bofors issue.

I offer all this by way of a lengthy preface to why I think that the Hindutva forces (the Bajrang Dal, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Sangh Parivar -- call them what you like) have now reached their own point of no return in the agitation against Christian missionaries.

Until a week ago, most of us were horrified by the rape of nuns and the stoning of missionary institutions. But nothing has affected educated Indians as deeply as the burning alive of the Australian missionary, Graham Stains, and his two small children in Manoharpur in Orissa.

There has been some controversy over whether Stains was actually involved in converting tribals. The VHP's deputy chief loony, Acharya Giriraj Kishore, has claimed that Stains only used his hospital as a front for conversion. Gladys Stains has denied that her husband was trying to convert anyone. The ministerial team sent to Orissa last week by the BJP seems to have accepted Gladys Stains's version. According to the information provided to the government by the district magistrate, Graham Stains would visit Manoharpur only once a year and had nothing to do with conversions.

But even if we were to accept the version of the Hindutva loonies -- that Stains converted tribals -- I don't think that it would, in any way, lessen the shock, revulsion, anger and outrage felt by most Hindus.

What the VHP and its partners-in-arms a fail to recognise is that Hinduism is a very content religion. Hindus don't need to convert others, they have no evangelical zeal. Nor are Hindu gods jealous gods. In many Hindu families in Punjab, one son will be brought up as a Sikh while his brothers remain Hindus. Similarly, Hinduism is quite willing to accept that Jains, who revere Mahavir and the Tirthankaras, have a right to worship Hindu gods as well. The Hindu view of the world is a self-satisfied one in which the superiority of the Hindu religion is taken for granted and, therefore, the worship of other gods is not seen as a threat.

The Ayodhya movement marked, in Karan Singh's memorable phrase, the beginning of the semitisation of Hinduism. Assorted lumpen youths were gathered under a Hindu banner and made to behave in a manner more suited to Ayatollah Khomeini's Iranian rabble. Hindus took that -- up to a point -- because of anger at what they saw as the central government's pandering to the more fanatical elements in the Muslim community.

But even the Ayodhya movement collapsed when it went too far -- the destruction of the Babri Masjid. Hindus are not comfortable with the destruction of other people's places of worship.

This, alas, is a lesson that the loony Hindutva forces have failed to grasp. When they complain about Fire, most moderate Hindus see them as behaving like the Taliban. When they complain about conversions, they touch a chord (Hindus remain uneasy about any religion with a jealous god) but they run out of public sympathy once the complaints lead to violence.

The murder of Stains and his children must be seen in that context. What rational person would condone burning a man alive? Who can fail to be shocked and angered by the actions of a mob that burns two children for no crime other than being their father's sons?

That such an incident should take place is bad enough. That it should happen to a foreigner in India is even worse -- it belittles us as a nation. But that it should be done in the name of Hinduism is unforgivable. As far as the vast majority of Hindus are concerned, Acharya Giriraj Kishore has as much to do with Hinduism as did Ayatollah Khomeini.

Almost everywhere I have gone in the last week, there have been anger and dismay over the Orissa incidents. People finally feel that they have had enough. The Sangh Parivar has been condemned -- not because it is too Hindu but because its actions have nothing to do with Hinduism.

My guess is that the government has not recognised how deep the public anger is. Certainly it has reacted in much the same way as Rajiv Gandhi's regime did in the aftermath of Bofors. In 1987, when Swedish Radio said that bribes had been paid, the government denied that commissions (which had not even been mentioned by Swedish Radio) had been paid. When this denial failed to kill the story, the regime fell back on the destabilisation theory. The whole issue, it said, was a foreign conspiracy aimed at overthrowing the Rajiv Gandhi government.

In 1999, L K Advani responded to the murder by seeking to absolve the Bajrang Dal of responsibility (as home minister he should have said that he would wait for the results of the inquiry). When this evoked universal condemnation, even from the BJP's own allies, the government fell back on the Nineties' version of the old destabilisation story -- George Fernandes told the press that it was all the result of "a deep-seated (I think he meant rooted, not seated) international conspiracy."

It is not my case that Dara Singh, who allegedly killed Stains, was backed by the Bajrang Dal. Nor is it my case that there is no international conspiracy; perhaps there is, perhaps there isn't -- as of now, we don't know.

But then it was never my case in 1987, that Rajiv Gandhi took the Bofors payoffs (there is still not a shred of evidence linking him to the money) or that there was no international conspiracy behind the leak of the Bofors documents (several questions still remains unanswered).

My point is political. In 1987, Rajiv Gandhi failed to recognise that Bofors would eventually sink his government because Indians were not prepared to tolerate a prime minister who was perceived as corrupt (regardless of whether the allegation was valid). In 1999, the Sangh Parivar is done for because Hindus will not tolerate people who burn children alive in the name of Hinduism.

To react as the government has done is to repeat the mistakes of 1987. Unless the prime minister comes out strongly (okay: even more strongly) against the violence directed at Christians throughout the country and unless the BJP reclaims Hindutva from the loonies, this incident is the point of no return.

Vir Sanghvi

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