Why hardline Hindutva is a national security issue

“The country should be taken over by the army”, railed Hindutva leader BL Sharma ‘Prem’ at a 26 January, 2008 meeting in Faridabad, near New Delhi.

“It has been a year since I sent some three lakh letters, distributed 20,000 maps of Akhand Bharat on 26 January, but these Brahmins and traders have never done anything and neither will they do. I do not talk of casteism. It’s just that they don’t have the potential; they don’t have the aptitude for this kind of feelings”.

“It is not that physical power is the only way to make a difference, but it will awaken people mentally”, Sharma concluded. “I believe that you have to light a fire in society, at least a spark”.

Five years on, as Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi prepares to lead the Bharatiya Janata Party into a bitterly-contested election, he might well to reflect on those words with care: small children and arsonists play with matches, not responsible politicians committed to Indian democracy.

The BJP’s new Parliamentary Board and Central Election Committee includes some of the most venomous voices in Indian politics. There is Amit Shah, a former Gujarat minister who is being tried for murder. There is like Varun Gandhi, with a disturbing record of incendiary speech.  There is Uma Bharati, who has said she feels no regret at the demolition of the Babri Masjid—and event which sparked off riots and terrorism that claimed the lives of over 2,000 Indians.

Right wing Hindu groups have been blamed for their role in the 2006 Malegaon blasts. Reuters

Right wing Hindu groups have been blamed for their role in the 2006 Malegaon blasts. Reuters

For figures consigned to the margins by a party leadership that was firmly focused on alliance-building, this is a triumph.  Praveen Togadia, Modi’s one-time ally-turned-enemy, has been exulting, promising to “declare Gujarat a Hindu state by 2015”.

It’s no secret why the BJP has acted as it has: shoring up their right flank makes sense. The hard core of Hindutva cadre will be critical to its electoral performance.  Election strategists believe centrist voters, who have in the past shown themselves to be repulsed by religious chauvinism, are even more repulsed by the Congress’ corruption.

There is a larger issue, though: the rise of hardline Hindutva could pave the way to violence the country simply cannot afford. For this reason, what is happening in the BJP is a national security issue.

Sharma’s remarks in Faridabad help understand why.  From the tape-recordings of their conversations the group maintained of its discussions, we know Hindutva hardliners began meeting to plan a new course of action soon after 2002.  The group included Sudhakar Dwivedi, RP Singh, Ramesh Upadhyay and Shrikant Prasad Purohit—men the National Investigations Agency now says were involved with a series of terrorist attacks against Muslims.  The men had hailed the rise of Modi, seeing the communal killings in  Gujarat as a stepping-stone to the construction of a Hindu state.  Modi’s development agenda, however, pushed him into confrontation with the hardliners—leaving the them disgusted.

From 2003, the hardliners thus drifted away from democratic politics and into a new cult of the bomb. That summer, Naresh Kondwar and Himanshu Phanse of the Bajrang Dal were killed in a bomb-making accident in Nanded. Bajrang Dal operatives linked to the Nanded cell, the police discovered, were also responsible for the bombing of mosques at Purna and Jalna in April, in which 18 people were injured. In a 2006 interivew, former senior Maharashtra police officer KP. Raghuvanshi noted that the Nanded incident could have “frightening repercussions.” He acidly observed that the “bombs were not being manufactured for a puja.”

In June, 2008, Hindu Janajagruti Samiti operatives were held for the bombing of the Gadkari Rangayatan theatre in Thane. Later, in October, 2008, Bajrang Dal-linked Rajiv Mishra and Bhupinder Singh were killed in a bomb-making accident in Kanpur.

Madhya Pradesh-based Sunil Joshi and Pragya Thakur, the National Investigation Agency has alleged in ongoing trials, set up networks which carried out a series of lethal attacks—among them, in Malegaon, at the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad, the Ajmer Sharif shrine in Rajasthan, and on the Samjhauta Express.

The group’s ambitions went further than bombings, though.  In the 2008 meeting, Purohit laid out plans to overthrow the constitution.  His new draft constitution rejected diversity, and called for “a singular cultural binding”. It rejected the idea of democratic governance, saying instead that a “decision once taken by the leader shall be followed at all the levels without questioning [his] authority”. It called for “one party rule”, allowing for “any Hindu on earth will be an honorary member”. Members of the group also called for the assassination of top BJP leaders, seeing them as enemies tying down the more-radical Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

It’s little understood that such ideologies, like other shades of political violence in India, have deep historical roots.  The name the Hindutva terrorists chose for their group, Abhinav Bharat, invoked the memory of an organization set up Named after a group set up by the Hindutva ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in May 1904 to wage war against imperial Britain. In one manifesto, the original Abhinav Bharat’s followers promised to “shed upon the earth the life-blood of the enemies who destroy religion.” Later, the radical right journal Yugantar argued that the murder of foreigners in India was “not a sin but a yagna [ritual sacrifice]”.

Words like these inspired figures Edinburgh-educated Pandurang Bapat, who obtained a bomb-making manual from a Russian engineer in 1908.  He was suspected suspected of involvement in the Alipore bomb case — an attack on a British magistrate by Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki which missed its target, and killed two women.

For the most, these actions achieved little. “Indian terrorism,” scholar Walter Lacquer has recorded, “was relatively infrequent and on the whole quite ineffective: more often than not, the Indian terrorists managed to kill some innocent bystander rather than their intended victims.”

Bapat soon turned to education, hoping it would prove more effective at throwing out the British than terrorism. So did Savarkar’s close associate, Hindutva ideologue BS Moonje. In 1937, Moonje founded the Bhonsala Military School in Nashik—an institution to which two men charged with the Malegaon bombings were linked.

For decades now, the proximate costs of competitive communalism have been evident. In a 2003 article, Pakistani scholar-diplomat Husain Haqqani warned that “the rise of Hindu extremism serves as a catalyst for recruitment by extremist Islamists in South Asia.” Haqqani’s claim is borne out by facts. The Mumbai riots of 1992-1993 helped Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence find recruits to carry out the subsequent bombings. The Lashkar-e-Taiba used images of communal violence in India to raise cadre—and the Indian Mujahideen, perpetrators of the worst urban terrorism campaign India has seen, invoked Gujarat.

The even more severe existential costs of communalism, though, have been just as stark.  Hate-politics has created deep internal fissures, which in turn have bred a pernicious politics of identity. Political pathogens have ethnic-religious swamp, crippling our polity. India simply cannot progress if its ethnic and religious communities are at war with each other.

Ever since last year, there has been a subterranean, but steady, uptick in communal politics—provoked by politicians hoping in to cash in on religious chauvinism in the elections. It has to end.

India has been locked, too long, in a competitive cycle of hate.   The BJP has done neither itself, nor the country, any favours.