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LK Advani led BJP's Hindu nationalism movement in 80s, 90s; espousing diversity today won't erase his past

In an age where the term "media" has become synonymous with only electronic media, and where news anchors seem to be uniformly under 40, perhaps BJP veteran LK Advani thought he could get away merely by publicly wringing his hands at the way his party now revels in calling its political rivals "anti-national". However, journalists who reported on the tumultuous 1980s and 1990s can only find Advani's supposed anguish hypocritical, for he is the man who made it perfectly normal to taint an entire community as "anti-national". What's a political rival compared to that?

It is important to recall those two decades because it was then, for the first time since Independence, that the terms "Hindu" and "Indian" were sought to be made interchangeable. At the centre of this movement was the man who now claims the BJP has never described those who disagree with the party as "enemies".

Advani will forever be associated with the campaign that led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, though he did not begin it. Another arm of the Sangh Parivar, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), had started the campaign in 1984. The movement gathered momentum in 1986, after the Rajiv Gandhi government enacted the Muslim Women's (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act. The Act nullified a 1985 Supreme Court judgment that had angered the male Muslim leadership by granting maintenance to an old Muslim divorcee, Shah Bano.

 LK Advani led BJPs Hindu nationalism movement in 80s, 90s; espousing diversity today wont erase his past

File image of LK Advani. PTI

But even before the BJP and RSS seized l'affaire Shah Bano to outrage against "Muslim appeasement", the VHP had started a nationwide movement aimed at uniting Hindus. Fed up of caste and police atrocities on them, a thousand-odd Dalits of Meenakshipuram in Tamil Nadu converted to Islam in 1981, followed by Dalits in four other districts of the state. This prompted the VHP's "Ekatmata (unity) Campaign", marked by processions that passed through Muslim areas and incendiary slogans. The campaign resulted in riots in 1982 in Pune, Solapur and Meerut, and in 1983 and 1984 in Hyderabad. In one unforgettable incident of the Pune riots, participants of VHP rallies carrying copies of the Manusmruti tore down the sign of a road that bore the name of Maulana Azad.

By now, the slogan "Is desh mein rahna hoga toh 'Vande Matram' kehna hoga" (if you want to live in this country, you have to say Vande Mataram') had made an appearance. It was accompanied by "Yeh desh Hinduon ka, nahin kisike baap ka". Both slogans made it clear that to this Hindutva group, Muslims were not citizens of India. When the first slogan was sought to be defended during the hearings of the BN Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry in the 1992-93 Mumbai riots case, Justice Srikrishna retorted that a group laying down conditions of residence for any citizen, let alone a community, was not just communal but also fascist.

It was during the VHP's campaign to demolish the Babri Masjid and replace it with a Ram Temple that the group began to portray Muslims as traitors. Equating Mughal emperor Babar to a foreign invader who had destroyed a symbol of India, it dubbed all "Ram drohis" "desh drohis" and added a few more slogans to its campaign:

"Is desh mein rahna hoga, toh Hindu banke rahna hoga" (if you want to live in this country, you will have to live as a Hindu)

"Gaddaron ki kya pehchan? Babri Masjid, Pakistan" (what is the mark of traitors? Babri Masjid and Pakistan).

In its processions, the VHP carried bricks meant to build the temple in Ayodhya. Listing the schedule of such programmes, a senior VHP leader had grumbled to this reporter: "No nationalist activity can be held in Muslim areas."

This campaign, too, triggered riots across the country — in Meerut and Maliana; Nashik, Panvel and Beed; Muzaffarnagar and Badaun; Hazaribagh, Sasaram and Bhagalpur; Kota; Indore and Mhow.

It was after the VHP had done the groundwork to build a consolidated Hindu vote bank through this violent anti-Muslim campaign — equating a Hindu god with the country and Muslims with traitors — that Advani, the then president of the BJP, jumped in. Thanks to him, "pseudo secularism" had become a common expression. That was his coinage after the Shah Bano controversy, used to describe the way the Congress and all other "secular" parties and intellectuals had "rejected" the country's Hindu heritage to appease minorities.

The BJP's manifesto for the 1989 general election declared that the party was wedded to "Desh and Dharma". Where did that leave India's non-Hindu citizens? The manifesto made it clear that the party had no patience with such questions, asserting that an end to the "minority complex" was "imperative" for national integration.

For the first time, the 1980s saw intolerance against minorities become respectable even in the national press. This started with the Meenakshipuram conversions, but Advani's onslaught on "pseudo-secularism" made it commonplace.

Under the former deputy prime minister's aggressive espousal of Hindu nationalism, the BJP's Lok Sabha tally went up from two to 86. Emboldened by their success, party leaders no longer held back from expressing what, till then, RSS leaders would only tell you in private.

Thus, Sunder Lal Patwa, the then Chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, described Christian missionaries as "traitors" at the first meeting of the National Integration Council in 1990. When the head of the Madhya Pradesh Christian Association wrote to the President of India for permission to sue Patwa, the chief minister challenged her to face him in "the court of public". In a state where minorities constituted nearly 28 percent of the population, the Bajrang Dal put up a board at the Bhopal Railway Station, which said: "Welcome to the capital of the Hindu Rashtra."

The climax of this onslaught on Muslims was Advani's rath yatra in 1990, aimed at building a Hindu vote bank to counter then prime minister VP Singh's implementation of the Mandal Commission Report, which granted reservation to Other Backward Classes. Amid inflammatory speeches and displays of weapons and blood, Advani spoke of the need to "restore national honour" by demolishing the Babri Masjid, a "symbol of slavery", and building a Ram Temple in its place. Unsurprisingly, the yatra left a trail of riots in its wake.

A file image of the Babri Masjid demolition. AFP

A file image of the Babri Masjid demolition. AFP

Between October 1990, when Advani was arrested, and 6 December, 1992, the day the Babri Masjid was demolished, the saffron party carried out a relentless campaign to equate Ram and Hinduism with the nation. The year 1991 saw former BJP president Murli Manohar Joshi take out an "Ekta Yatra" to hoist the national flag in Srinagar. Joshi had described his yatra as a successor to the many other processions that had been organised since ancient times "against terrorism", beginning with Ram's yatra against Ravan and those held by Adi Shankaracharya, Guru Tegh Bahadur and Swami Vivekananda.

Throughout the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign, Muslims were called "Babar ki aulad" (Babar's children), but they could, if they so chose, describe themselves as "Ram ki aulad, which is how Patwa always described them. At a Bajrang Dal recruitment drive in Mumbai in 1991, new members were given trishuls with the advice that they could use the weapon against "anti-national, anti-social and anti-religious elements".

As Justice Srikrishna put it: "Some speeches and slogans (in the months prior to the demolition) warned Muslims that dissent on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute would be an act of treachery, for which (they) would be banished from the country."

Ten years after it had declared its commitment to "Desh and Dharma", the BJP, in its 1998 manifesto, spoke of new commitments — to "one nation, one people, one culture"; to "Sanatan Dharma", which was "synonymous with Indian nationalism"; and to "Hindutva" or "cultural nationalism". It described the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, a movement aimed at establishing the dominance of Hindus over Muslims, as the "greatest mass movement post-Independence".

Advani was the driving force behind these concepts. Today, when he reminds the party's leadership about the BJP's traditional respect for "diversity" and "freedom of choice", does he expect them — or us — to believe him? By their continuous abuse of their rivals as "anti-national", the party is only taking what he started to its logical end.

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Updated Date: Apr 07, 2019 23:22:12 IST