Mr. Modi has an opportunity to restore faith in harmony and secularism in the country. But there is little of hope that filters through his current strategy of silence on most issues of concern to the country, other than in a few public speeches where rhetoric and slogans substitute for substance opines Dr John Dayal.
Several political columnists have in recent weeks noted how elements of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, professing a right wing ultra-nationalist and Hindu majoritarian political ideology, have moved from the fringes where they were for decades, to the centre stage of the national discourse in India after Mr. Narendra Modi came to power in May this year in the wake of a massive electoral victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP.
The BJP is unabashed about its links with the RSS and the expanding group of organisations it has spawned, collectively known as the Sangh Parivar. Mr. Modi is himself a former RSS leader, as are several of his Cabinet colleagues. Some ranking RSS officials have in recent weeks been inducted as general secretaries of the BJP, leaving absolutely no one in any doubt of the seamless fusion of the political party and the Sangh which styles itself as social and cultural organisations.
RSS Chief Mr. Mohan Bhagwat has repeated asserted that everyone in India is Hindu, including Muslims and Christians, because this is the land of the Hindu people and civilisation. The Sangh ideologue MG Vaidya said on 19th May, three days after the election results, that they can now tackle issues such as the building of the Ram temple on the site of the Babri mosque they demolished in 1992 Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Mr. Ashok Singhal, said “if [Muslims] keep opposing Hindus, how long can they survive?”.
Mr. Seshadri Chari, former editor of RSS mouthpiece Organiser and member of the BJP national executive, who enjoys a deserved reputation as a sober and reflective commentator, is quoted in the Outlook Magazine saying says that Hindus have always been a majority in India but the manifestation of majoritarianism has been reflected in the cultural and social field. “Now it is reflected in the politics of the country. A large number of foot-soldiers in the RSS-BJP do believe that the political Hindu has arrived.”
This was apparent in the absolutely poisonous and acrid discussion that took place in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament two days before Independence Day, when the BJP’s lead speaker, Adityanath, the deputy head of religious cult in Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, got away with demonising the Muslim community and others. The Congress was ineffective in rebutting him and his colleagues, and so were the others in pinning down the very aggressive and very big BJP group in the Lok Sabha. The Lok Sabha debate, the fielding of Adityanath as the key speaker for his party, and the applause he received from the leaders and other members on the BJP benches, set to rest any polite talk that Mr. Modi’s political high command distances itself from the lunacy of the Sangh Parivar.
That in itself would not been much of an issue where its lax electoral laws turn a blind eye to many religious groups – including Sikhs, Muslims and even Christian apart from Hindus – intervening in the political process with registered political parties that contest and win elections, and occasionally even control state governments.
The crisis comes, as it has this time, when rogue elements choose to challenge the law and indulge in targetted mass violence assuming, and seemingly correctly, that the new dispensation will stop them. One group even set up a “Hindu Helpline” to assist anyone from the majority community who is being harassed by Muslims.
The rash of violence against Muslims in north India, and increasing incidents of coercion and assault against Christians in Central and north India, has alarmed religious minorities in the country.
The figures of communal violence, and actions that fell just sort of violence, are not officially declared, but estimates of cases since the BJP victory announcement on 16th May 2014 range upwards of 1,000, most incidents taking place in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra which face elections later this year to state legislatures. Reputations of Mr. Modi, his Gujarat lieutenant and now the new BJP president Amit Shah, and the RSS, are at stake..
The violence against Muslims has been well recorded. The anti-Christian violence has gone under the radar. Taken together, they indicate a massive drive to saffronise the countryside, villages, small towns and tribal areas away from the big towns which were the foci of violence in past years. Bastar in Chhattisgarh is the new flashpoint.
The Christian leadership has expressed alarm at the sharp rise in hate campaigns by the Sangh’s political and cultural organisations. This threat of purging Christians from villages extends from Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh to now Uttar Pradesh, to the borders of the national capital of New Delhi. Condemning the threat of Shuddhhikaran, [purification], they say it in real terms means forcible conversion to Hinduism.
There has been no response from the state and federal governments yet to the June 2014 dictat by several village Panchayats in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, to ban the entry of Christian workers in their areas. The Panchayats decided only Hindu religious workers will be allowed into the village areas in the Tribal belt, and only Hindu places of worship could be constructed henceforth. This decision is of course entirely illegal, and violative of the provisions in the Constitution of freedom of expression and of movement.
The coercive methodology of branding every Tribal as a Hindu has led to much violence in several central Indian states, including the pogrom in Kandhamal in Orissa in August 2008. Such threats by Sangh Parivar groups were largely heard in a big way during the early years of the NDA government of Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee, especially in the tribal areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan. In the Dangs, more than two dozen village churches were burnt down on Christmas eve in 1998, followed by the gruesome burning alive of Australian medical missionary Graham Stuart Staines and his young sons Timothy and Philip in Manouharpur in Orissa in January 2009. Many other murders followed, including that of a Catholic priest, Fr. Arun Doss, in that region.
The Prime Minister and his Minister for Home Affairs, Mr. Rajnath Singh, have not sent out strong signals that the rule of law will be enforced, and religious minorities and their freedom of faith will be fully protected. Mr. Modi’s announcement in his Independence Day oration asking for a “ten-year moratorium” on all forms of sectorial violence has muddled the civil discourse. Human rights and religious minority groups have questioned him on why he sought a ten-year hiatus, and did not appeal for an end to violence against religious and caste groups. One cynical explanation is that the BJP seeks peace for the ten years when it hopes to rule the country in increasing strength, but may face a difficult election ten years from now.
Mr. Modi has an opportunity to restore faith in harmony and secularism in the country. But there is little of hope that filters through his current strategy of silence on most issues of concern to the country, other than in a few public speeches where rhetoric and slogans substitute for substance.
(John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council. www.johndayal.com )