Her photograph graces the altar in the family’s puja, wreathed with incense along with more ordinary idols. Her hair cropped short, her body bereft of the elaborate ornamentation that signifies divinity in Hindu iconography, Pragya Singh Thakur is an improbable object of worship.
For her followers, though, her savage, violent polemics have made her just that: she is the goddess of righteous wrath, upholder of the moral order, promising protection in a world where right and wrong have been upturned.
This is well known: charged with playing a key role in the Malegaon bombings of 2008—and acquitted of participation in several other terrorist attacks on Muslims—Thakur is among the most controversial figures on the Right of Indian politics. But behind this story, there is a larger one of communities buffeted by change, and of how violence became a legitimate language to deal with the anxieties it created.
Thakur was born in Madhya Pradesh’s Bhind in February 1970. Her father was an ayurvedic doctor of some local renown and a volunteer with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Her mother, family sources say, was a devout Hindu, a stay-at-home mother whose life centred on the family. Thakur has one sister with whom she now lives in Bhopal. Her circumstances were typical of the small-town bourgeoisie: conservative, pietist, and economically modest.
Being born into a family with strong RSS connections, perhaps, shaped her world view: Hinduism was not just a personal faith, but an overarching order. The ideas of Akhand Bharat and Bharatiyata—Greater India and Indian-ness, the twin of Sangh ideology—were deeply ingrained in her from the discussions she had with her father and other members of the Sangh.
From her teenage years, friends say, there was something that marked Thakur out from her peers. In the society in which Thakur grew up, deference is taught early: even young girls are encouraged to walk behind their male siblings. But she became known for in-the-face defiance—on more than one occasion, family lore has it, confronting and beating up boys who engaged in sexual harassment on the streets.
Educated at the Jiwaji University, Bhind, where she earned a postgraduate degree in history, and at the Vidya Niketan College of Physical Education, where she got a Bachelor’s degree in education, Thakur might, in other circumstances, have been fated to marry, and end up as a schoolteacher or petty bureaucrat.
Instead, she threw herself into politics. In 1992, she became part of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement by joining the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). Her often-inflammatory polemics casting India as a mother under predatory assault from Islam earned her attention. From leading the ABVP’s student wing in Ujjain and Indore, Thakur went on to join its national executive in 1996-1997.
There’s little doubt that politics helped Thakur evade the fate of so many young women in small-town India. Reactionary as the religious Right-wing might have been, the young politician cut her hair, and drove, often alone, on a scooter—graduating soon to a motorcycle. Her parents, despite their conservatism, do not appear to have opposed her choices: Thakur was, her friends say, a force of nature.
She was also not among the cohort of student politicians focussed on party careers. In 2002, she formed the Jai Vande Matram Jankalyan Samiti, devoted to the purported rescue of women who had eloped with Muslim men. Thakur was among the cohort of young politicians on the Right who invented the war against ‘love jihad’, a decade before the term became known.
To understand why this political project worked so well, one has to locate it in context. Like much of India, small-town Madhya Pradesh was going through profound cultural changes. A new generation of young women were entering the workplace for the first time, and making unprecedented choices about personal autonomy—choices which threatened the social fabric. The joint family was besieged. Economic change had also disrupted the traditional warp and weft of the small town.
Hindutva, in its most radical form, offered the illusion of rebuilding a familiar moral order from the debris of modernity—while, at once, allowing space for certain kinds of modernity as Thakur’s short hair and motorcycle signified.
Like many other on the Religious Right, though, Thakur was bitterly disappointed by the National Democratic Alliance government led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Instead of ushering in the Hindu state they had dreamt of, Vajpayee proved a consummate establishmentarian, committed to national consensus.
Even then-Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, who the Right radicals saw as a hero after 2002, crushed their hopes, emasculating figures like the Vishva Hindu Parishad’s Pravin Togadia—the kind of leaders who, figures like Thakur hoped, would usher in a new, muscular Hindu politics.
In 2007, with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in government, Thakur seemed to turn away from politics altogether, taking sanyas under Swami Avdheshananda Giri of the Juna Akhara, and adopting a new avatar: Purna Chetan and Giri.
2Precisely what happened in the years before she took sanyas isn’t going to be tried in any court—but is of profound consequence to Thakur’s story, and to India’s political destiny. In 2006, the Maharashtra police’s Anti-Terrorism Squad says, Lieutenant Colonel Shrikant Purohit set up the Abhinav Bharat Trust. Named after an anti-colonial terrorist organisation set up by Hindutva leader Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in 1904, this Abhinav Bharat too sought to overthrow the Constitution and set up a Hindu state.
The truth of what happened is still opaque. Purohit, for one, claims to have been working for military intelligence, infiltrating Right-wing circles wanting to use terrorism against Muslims. But Maharashtra prosecutors say Thakur attended at least two meetings, and introduced the group to Ramchandra Kalsangra and Sandeep Dange—now fugitives sought by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) for multiple bomb blasts, including at Malegaon and on the Samjhauta Express.
In September 2008, a bomb fitted on an LML Freedom motorcycle went off, killing six and injuring a hundred. Though the bombers had tried to wipe out the serial number on the vehicle, forensic experts were able to recover data that showed it belonged to Thakur. Thakur, who insists she had, in fact, given the motorcycle to another conspirator much earlier, is still being tried.
Part of the problem with the case is that those who knew the truth are either fugitives or dead. Key among them is Sunil Joshi, an RSS activist known to have been close to Thakur, who was shot dead in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh, in December 2007. In February 2011, the Madhya Pradesh police—under the authority of BJP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan—charged Thakur and four others for the murder. The case was transferred to the NIA, which alleged that the murder was committed because Joshi had sought a sexual relationship with Thakur. She was acquitted in 2017 with the trial judge accusing the investigating agency of bias.
Thakur has repeatedly broken down describing the torture she was subjected to by the Maharashtra police while she was in custody. “The agency and the police officers committed every sort of custodial violence against me,” she said, alleging that she was beaten up several times and, in fact, the policemen even threatened to strip her.
Evidence to back her claims—though torture is, sadly, routine in Indian policing—doesn’t exist. In 2008, when Thakur first made these allegations, then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ordered an investigation in response to protests by BJP leader LK Advani. The National Human Rights Commission investigated the case, but found nothing to suggest that she had, in fact, been tortured.
Fortune dragged Thakur out of this morass, and on to the political centre stage. The BJP had been toying with the names of Narendra Tomar, Uma Bharti and even thought about fielding the former chief minister of the state Shivraj Singh Chouhan to contest from Bhopal, a seat it has held since 1984.
“Had the Congress not decided to field Digvijaya Singh from Bhopal, Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur would not have been even a member of BJP,” one Sangh insider told Firstpost. The BJP’s decision has yielded rich tactical gains: a near-certain local victory has been transformed into a stage from which the Congress can be attacked at a national level for maligning Hindus by claiming that they are responsible for terrorism.
Digvijaya’s poll campaign has already been forced to respond by seeking to appropriate religion. The former two-time chief minister has offered land belonging to the Congress party in Hamidia, Bhopal, for construction of a Ram temple. His workers have also been distributing holy water from the Narmada to devotees.
Like so many goddesses, Thakur is Janus-faced, looking at once to both the past and future. Her statement crediting cow urine for curing her cancer is just one example. Her faith in ayurveda, friends say, is absolute. Yet, we know from the testimony of her surgeon in Lucknow, SS Rajput, that Thakur underwent a bilateral mastectomy to avoid recurrence of an early-stage cancer: her faith in traditional healing, clearly, was not so deep as to rule out accessing scientific healthcare.
For many in India, though, there is no contradiction here: the magical and the modern coexist. Thakur speaks to a social class that has embraced the modern hospital, so to speak—but is unable to leave the world of cow urine and magical incantations behind.
The support she enjoys inside the BJP seems self-evident. None other than Prime Minister Modi compared her ordeal with his own after the 2002 Gujarat riots. Yet, it’s well known that she is disliked by much of the party in Madhya Pradesh as well as the older leadership of the RSS.
Her new-Hindutva radicalism is seen as déclassé, even vulgar. Part of the reason for this is that Thakur is a complex goddess. Her representation as a figure of wronged, Hindu womanhood, fits well with the Hindutva narrative. There’s no doubt Thakur represents a Sangh ideal: one willing to sacrifice her life for Akhand Bharat and Bharatiyata. Yet, Thakur is no Bharat Mata figure: the aggression that is core to her politics also disqualifies her as an icon.
Thakur’s rise is thus the rise of a new kind of Hindutva leadership, born far from the sophisticated, reticent world of the patriarchs who rule the Sangh from Nagpur. Her election campaign is significant not just because of the criminal cases that dog her, but its meaning for politics in decades to come.
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