Has India’s mainstream media decided to pay mere lip service to the Constitution’s fundamental values of secularism and liberalism while ignoring daily attacks on them by the Sangh Parivar, an extremist organisation in which the Bharatiya Janata Party is deeply embedded? Going by the media’s silence on several recent developments, that does seem to be the case.
For instance, no newspaper noticed the irony of a representative of the Sangh Parivar—the very current that inspired the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi—being invited to the unveiling of his statue in London. By all accounts, this event was organised mainly by the Tories, who never had any love lost for the Mahatma, with an eye on the Gujarati vote in the coming British election.
Earlier, in October 2012, Britain’s prosperous Gujarati businessmen lobbied the Cameron government to reach an odious rapprochement with Narendra Modi, who had long faced global isolation because of his role in the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom. The rapprochement happened a year before he emerged as the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate. It was rationalised on the ground that Gujarat offers “dynamic and thriving” opportunities in “business” (yes), and “education” (really?)!
The Sangh Parivar has long sanitised and appropriated icons of the Freedom Struggle, in which it never participated itself, having collaborated with the colonial state instead.
They include Sardar Patel, the Right-wing conservative who nevertheless banned the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh; C Rajagopalachari, a pro-business liberal, but strongly secular and pro-peace to the point of accepting self-determination for Kashmir, a position the Sangh loathes; and Bhagat Singh, a self-avowed atheist and a member of the radical-socialist Hindustan Republican Party.
Again, many newspapers criticised the Sangh Parivar’s more hysterical campaigns against Love Jihad and Ghar Wapsi, and for building temples to Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse. But very few trenchantly criticised the premises on which they are based, or noted the effect they have had in debasing the national discourse or making the religious minorities insecure.
Many commentators went along with the Parivar premise that all Indian Muslims and Christians are converts from Hinduism (not true), and therefore the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has the right to reconvert them (which it doesn’t, thanks to the Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of conscience). Celebrating Godse isn’t only morally repulsive. It totally vitiates the political climate.
The Parivar has further poisoned the climate by unleashing three offensives: attacking Christian institutions; pushing majoritarian and pro-RSS policies in BJP-ruled states; and making communal appointments to the Indian Council of Historical Research. The Parivar’s Long March through the Institutions will prove more damaging to secular democracy than Ghar Wapsi.
Christian institutions have come under vicious attack especially since RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat accused Mother Teresa a month ago of using charitable work as a cover for religious conversion. In Delhi, five churches have been attacked in nine weeks, and two convents broken into.
A 71-year-old nun was raped in West Bengal and a church was vandalised in Hissar in Haryana. Christians have also been subjected to aggressive reconversion drives in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh.
BJP MP Subramanian Swamy added insult to injury by saying that churches and mosques, unlike Hindu temples, are not holy places, but mere buildings that can be demolished at will. ML Khattar, Haryana Chief Minister, no less, defended the Hissar attackers by claiming that the church priest was trying to lure Hindu men to his faith by promising them brides, as if that justified crass vandalism!
Not to be left behind, VHP joint general secretary Surendra Jain called the 1857 anti-British revolt an anti-Christian war and said similar wars would be waged if Christians didn’t stop conversions. He defended the Hissar demolition and asked whether a Hanuman temple would be allowed in the Vatican. Worse, he said sexual exploitation of nuns was part of Christian, not Hindu, culture; the Pope is so worried about it that he is promoting gay sex. (The Times of India, March 16.)
Disgusting as it is, this anti-Christian tirade impelled former Punjab police chief Julio Ribeiro to write, “I feel I am on a hit list” and ask why Mr Modi isn’t stopping the attacks when he could do so “in a minute”. Mr Ribeiro’s intervention, which highlights the prevalent insecurity among the minorities, will have a massive impact.
BJP-ruled governments are subverting democracy in multiple ways: lifting the ban on their employees from joining the RSS (Chhattisgarh), making the teaching of the Bhagwad-Gita compulsory in schools (Haryana), punishing possession, sale or consumption of beef with five years’ imprisonment (Maharashtra), and instituting a 10-year prison term for slaughtering cattle (Haryana).
Allowing government employees to join the RSS makes nonsense of the principle of a politically impartial bureaucracy, which is at the heart of a minimally civilised rule-of-law society. The RSS is NOT a social or cultural organisation. It’s a highly political entity. It lays down the BJP’s political line and nominates its key organisational personnel.
Gujarat similarly lifted the RSS ban in 2000, but reversed the step under Vajpayee’s orders. Yet the move sent a signal to the bureaucracy and police whose dreadful impact became visible in 2002.
Haryana is imposing the Gita, which a nominally secular state must not—even on Hindu pupils. It’s unconstitutional to impart religious instruction in state schools. But the BJP isn’t stopping at these. It’s taking the proselytisation drive even to posh private schools like Ryan International, whose managing director is the BJP Mahila Morcha secretary. Its staff and students are being recruited into the BJP on pain of salary cuts or other punishment. Such a drive cannot be voluntary, by definition.
Take beef. Surveys show that three-fourths of all beef sold is consumed by Hindus, especially poor, mainly Dalit, Hindus. Not only is beef a great and cheap source of protein for the poor. Banning the slaughter of old and unproductive cattle will deprive huge numbers of butchers of their livelihoods, increase the already high pressure on pastures, and further degrade the environment.
The whole idea that the majority’s food preferences should be imposed upon the rest is profoundly undemocratic. Regardless of whether Hindus in ancient India ate beef, no pious upper-caste Hindu should be forced to eat beef, or even watch cows being killed. But equally, no Muslim, Northeastern tribal, Christian or Dalit should be deprived of the choice of eating what they like.
Take the Modi government’s new appointments to the ICHR. It has broken the long-standing convention of reappointing members who have completed one term (of the maximum of two they can hold), and purged the Council of accomplished secular-minded scholars.
The 18 new appointees, barring a couple, are close to the RSS and Akhil Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana, an obnoxiously obscurantist group, some of whose members believe the Taj Mahal is a Hindu temple, and the Ramayana is a historical, not religious-mythological, text! Among the new members are physicist MD Srinivas, and Michel Danino, who has translated Sri Aurobindo’s works, written about the “lost river” Saraswati, and made fantastic claims about science in ancient India.
The new aggression shown by the Parivar and its BJP’s own Right-wing seems to be related to a larger understanding reached between the BJP and the RSS, which became evident at the Sangh’s just-concluded Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha (ABPS).
The RSS has, at least for the moment, decided to set aside its differences with the BJP on Jammu and Kashmir, the Land Acquisition Ordinance, and raising foreign investment in insurance, etc, to back the ruling dispensation solidly.
These differences aren’t trivial. Some actions of the PDP-BJP alliance are directly at odds with the RSS’s core positions on Kashmir, but the very fact that the alliance is in power, and could give the BJP entry into the Valley, is a coup for the Sangh. Similarly, the Bharatiya Kisan Union has problems with the land Ordinance, but the RSS has told it not to oppose it
The RSS believes that with the BJP in power with a majority, it has a unique opportunity to mainstream itself by capturing social and state institutions—not piecemeal, but comprehensively—and by opening up issues long considered settled, such as Hinduism’s socio-cultural primacy, religious conversion, etc, which will help it redefine India as a Hindu society.
The RSS needs the support of state power to do this and grow. So it will back the BJP’s strongly pro-corporate neoliberal economic policies. The BJP, in turn, will give the Parivar a good deal of freedom to push its ultraconservative-sectarian social agenda. That’s why Mr Modi has done nothing to restrain the Parivar, barring issuing a weak, vague statement against inciting religious hatred.
The Parivar is no “fringe”; it’s now an almost equal partner of the BJP. The plain truth is, despite the strenuous efforts of some confused, and some very devious, elements to give it an aura of semi-respectability, the BJP remains an extremist party, with a hardline, expansionist, proselytising agenda. Its Hindu-supremacism is a menace to democracy.