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The Hindu Tea Party: Can Narendra Modi Ignore It?

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They are more Hindu than the so-called Hindu lunatic fringe, and they are growing in size and influence

HIS FOLLOWERS REFER to him as ‘bhai’, and they say it in a certain reverential tone that is typically reserved for gangsters who command utmost fear and respect. With his long hair and a vertical mark in crimson gleaming on the forehead, Dhananjay Jayram Desai, founder and president of Pune-based Hindu Rashtra Sena (HRS), could easily fit into the role of a don’s menacing sidekick in a Ram Gopal Varma movie. He is in jail, charged with inciting a mob that took the life of 28-year-old Mohsin Sadiq Sheikh in Pune on 2 June 2014. The victim was with a friend who pretended to be dead and lived to tell the tale. The HRS had unleashed this violence in response to the appearance of morphed and defamatory images of Chhatrapati Shivaji and the late Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray on social media. Desai was not at the scene of the crime, but witnesses attributed the fury of the killers to his call to ‘avenge the insult’ of those two icons of Marathi pride. The 36-year-old was first detained for allegedly distributing pamphlets with objectionable content but later arrested for Sheikh’s murder.

Unlike Desai, Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga of the Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena (BSKS), a New Delhi-based right-wing outfit, doesn’t shoot baleful glances at you; he comes across as a guy next door. Trained as a fashion designer, Bagga manages his family’s garment business, but he has also been hit by a calling to take up what he considers nationalist causes. Like Desai, he also likes to take the law into his hands. Bagga grabbed media headlines after his internet-savvy group claimed responsibility for beating up senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan in his chambers at the Supreme Court five years ago. The lawyer was punched and kicked on his chest repeatedly for allegedly backing Kashmiri separatists. Bagga is now a perpetual protestor, taking up one issue after another and blowing them out of proportion. He is just back from Srinagar, where he visited the politically volatile National Institute of Technology campus to present Indian flags to non-Kashmiri students.

Desai and Bagga run fringe organisations, the likes of which have crawled out of the woodwork across the country following the rise to power of the BJP at the Centre in 2014. Many of them are not only intolerant in their views but also bent on extreme violence, such as the ‘Gau Raksha’ activists of Jharkhand who brutally killed and hanged a couple of cattle traders a few months ago. Anonymous groups are also dime-a-dozen in this country now, many of which use ‘bomb ka badla bomb’ (a bomb for a bomb) as a justification to ‘strike back’ at minorities for well-known attacks on Hindu temples, like the ones on Akshardham Temple in Ahmedabad, Raghunath Mandir in Jammu and Sankat Mochan in Varanasi.

Many organisations that behave as though they are custodians of the Hindu faith despise the RSS for not doing enough for Hindus

While several commentators and opposition parties accuse the ruling Narendra Modi Government and the RSS, the fount of the Sangh Parivar, of sheltering and encouraging such entities— and some of them have alleged that these groups are actually radical wings funded by the Sangh—various others, including pundits who closely watch new political trends, point to the danger of failing to distinguish these lunatic fringe groups from those that owe allegiance to the RSS. An investigation by Open suggests that many of the organisations that behave as though they are custodians of the Hindu faith tend to engage in competitive Hindutva politics and despise the RSS for not doing enough for Hindus. “Political parties tend to have radical wings. But these are different and trying to project all of them as being controlled by an umbrella organisation like the RSS is a big mistake,” says a senior BJP leader. A veteran RSS leader agrees: “On most counts, these groups hate the RSS and the BJP more than they hate other political parties because they are irrationally rabid.”

The senior BJP leader concedes that such groups may have felt emboldened by the knowledge they have a party that espouses the Hindu cause in power. “But that is all,” says he, adding that these could be like the Tea Party outfits in the US that have put pressure on the Republican party there to field hardliners for election.

The Tea Party in the US came into prominence a decade or so ago through an electoral revolution of sorts that saw moderate Republicans swept out of power. According to Michael Kugelman, a keen India watcher and senior associate for South and Southeast Asia, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, US, “One could say the dynamic in India is more dangerous because the fringe factions use extra-judicial actions, not the ballot box, to showcase their clout.” He explains, “In India, the hardline fringes have been provoked by various factors of late, including Modi’s outreach to Pakistan.”

Unlike their US counterparts, representatives of the extreme right in India may not yet have acquired the electoral appeal to unseat Hindutva moderates. A climate conducive to such an outcome is still far, but then signs of it are not entirely absent, notes the BJP leader, who admits that the country’s majority community is caught in a “rage” thanks to perceptions that they have been cold-shouldered by parties that have been in power for long. For his part, sociologist Ashis Nandy maintains this could be an outcome of the ‘semiticisation of Hinduism’ since the mid 1980s. A sentiment that has gained hold over the past few decades among a section of Hindus is that as the majority community, their concerns have been overlooked for the welfare of minorities. “From Uniform Civil Code to acts of warming up to the Muslim clergy, governments of the day have appeased the minorities. That their grievances are never addressed is the common refrain among Hindus in this country,” the RSS leader offers. “Terror has no religion, our rulers have said. But the [erstwhile] Congress Government has meticulously created a phenomenon called ‘Hindu terror’ and that has antagonised various Hindu groups no end,” he claims.

Unlike their US counterparts, the far Right in India may not yet have acquired the electoral appeal to unseat Hindutva moderates

According to this RSS leader, Modi cannot crack the whip on lunatic fringe groups simply because most of them believe, as a Hindutva ideologue once stated, even the RSS and hardline groups such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal are ‘inefficient’ and ‘weak’ in tackling “the threat from minorities to Hindu society, including conversions and attacks on Hindu beliefs”, which, this leader adds, includes beef consumption, among other practices. “They believe that temples allegedly destroyed by invaders in the past belong to Hindus. They also want historians to correct discrepancies in the way our history books are written in which no invader is seen as what he actually was,” he says, “Their question is: if our liberals can feel proud of books that bare the extent of Spanish conquest and brutality in Latin America (referring to the book Open Veins of Latin America) why not tell the truth of India’s past and at least acknowledge past crimes?”

THE ‘RAGE’ AGAINST the RSS and others expected to ‘stand up’ for Hindus is starkly evident in Dhar, Madhya Pradesh. Vijay Singh Rathore, a lawyer and the leader of the Bhoj Utsav Samiti (BUS), is unhappy that Basant Panchami celebrations this year passed off peacefully. He expresses deep displeasure at the way Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan steered functions at the Bhojshala complex—described by the Archaeological Survey of India as the Bhojshala-Kamal Maula Mosque, and where both Muslims and Hindus offer their prayers. For many decades now, the district administration and the Madhya Pradesh government have taken care that the faithful of both communities do not access the site at the same time in large numbers. This has been done by allowing access to them on different days, Hindus on Tuesdays and Muslims on Fridays. Yet even these elaborate arrangements are inadequate on occasion. This usually happens due to peculiar calendar-related reasons, for there are years when the Hindu festival of Basant Panchami falls on a Friday. Such a Hindu-Muslim double occasion has taken place in 2003, 2006 and 2013. In the past, there has been communal violence.

“This Basant Panchami was peaceful. The administration was visible and the police did not let any untoward incident take place,” says Waqar Sadiq, the sheher qazi of Dhar. Sadiq is the cleric who leads Muslims to prayer at the Kamal Maula Mosque. “Some 15 days before Basant Panchami this year, Chouhan gave us an assurance that namaaz will take place with full security for those offering it. He has lived up to his promise,” says Sadiq at his home in Qazipura, a kilometre or so from the mosque.

Hindu revivalism has its roots in local frustrations. Such trends perhaps signal the rise of the Indian version of Tea Party groups

What is delight for Sadiq is humiliation for Rathore. “The district administration did allow us to carry out prayers. But secretly, they allowed namaaz to be offered on the roof of the Bhojshala. This is a Hindu monument; Muslims have no claim over it. You can call [this year’s festival] peaceful, but it has left us Hindus in anguish and turmoil,” Rathore fumes.

In recent years, Dhar has seen a proliferation of ‘fringe’ Hindu outfits. While Rathore dismisses claims that the BUS is one such, there is anger and resentment against ‘mainstream’ Hindu organisations such as the RSS. This year, for example, the local RSS office was attacked by BUS activists after the district administration allegedly released photographs of namaaz being offered on the Bhojshala’s roof.

On paper, Dhar presents a curious picture of competition between Hindu outfits—‘mainstream’ and ‘fringe’—vying for the same pool of Hindus. But there is more than what meets the eye. One local observer, who does not wish to be named as he fears for his security, says, “Rathore has political ambitions. His father was a Member of the Legislative Assembly from here. The father owed his success to focusing on the issue of ‘liberating’ the Bhojshala and that worked very well for him. Now the son wants to replicate the formula.”

Rathore denies the charge flatly: “I have been always associated with the Sangh, but it was due to peculiar circumstances in Dhar that BUS had to be created as a separate organization. My family has always been associated with the Sangh. It is incorrect and mischievous to say that I am engineering trouble at Bhojshala for personal and political gains. All I am doing is furthering the cause of Hindus here.”

The lawyer is, however, ill at ease to explain the many discrepancies in the story about the events at the Bhojshala this year. For example, he dismisses the attack on the local RSS office by BUS activists as being “misguided” and due to “exuberance of youth”.

Qazi Sadiq, however, does not buy any of this. “It is true that Dhar has been peaceful this year. But do remember that Hindus outnumber Muslims many times in the town. What gives us confidence is that officers like Sanjay Dubey (a former district magistrate of Dhar, now Commissioner, Indore Division) are at hand and they know the truth of what goes on here. If BUS people were to have their way, we would not be able to survive here,” he tells Open.

Nationally, of course, Dhar is synonymous with ‘Hindu revivalism’. The narrative is that when Muslims began offering prayers, there was no Bhojshala left but its ruins. In Dhar, the magnificent columns of the monument, sculpted in the fashion of Hindu and Jain architecture of western India, tell a different story. The Bhojshala stands and it has unmistakeable Hindu features, one that only some ‘eminent’ historians will deny.

But it is equally true that a mosque stands adjacent to what is a Hindu monument. Prayers have been offered here for long enough (the Qazi claims for 800 years) for any turn of the historical clock to be painful, if not violent. “Please take a look around this place. Look at the columns, look at the ceiling. Go to the cupola and see underneath and tell me what do you observe? After seeing all this, please tell me what does a mihrab (an arched Mecca- aligned recess in a wall that mosques have) signify in this place?” asks Gopal Sharma, a local Hindu activists as he shows us around the Bhojshala.

Most leaders of Hindu ‘fringe’ politics have taken a similar route: from being diehard RSS followers to its spiteful critics

“The truth is that we had to wage a battle to just get even basic things done here. A mutton market existed in the field adjacent the Bhojshala that permits the only way to its entrance. Successive state governments did not permit moving that meat market away. It is offensive to Hindu sensibilities to allow such activity in close proximity to what we consider a place of worship.”

“We don’t want Muslims to be deprived of their place of worship. But we want ours as well. The solution is simple: the mosque and the temple are distinct entities, each recorded separately in the revenue records. Let those distinctions be preserved and the faithful allowed to pray peacefully,” Sharma adds.

Such peeling of layers is not easy and may not even be possible. At a basic level, there is the law-and-order situation to consider. Then there are unstated, if plainly visible, political issues as well. The Bhojshala row is not just another local dust-up, it is tangled with the claims of Indian ‘secularism’. For now, the state government is being very careful—for obvious reasons.

It is these complexities of history that make Dhar, an otherwise peaceful agricultural district, a volatile place.

HINDU REVIVALISM OF the kind seen in Dhar—which is independent of the sort championed by the RSS and others—has its roots in local frustrations and feelings of being wronged. Such trends from across north India and elsewhere perhaps signal the rise of the Indian version of Tea Party groups.

Global trends suggest that despite long gestation periods, they endure. Worldwide, extreme politics takes time to emerge. Two of the best known examples—one on the left and the other conservative—Syriza in Greece and the much more diffuse but far more effective Tea Party movement in the US, had long gestation periods. In Greece, as in much of Europe’s Mediterranean periphery, political sclerosis emerged from a mix of three trends. One, a long run in office by a single party and individuals (the Papandreou dynasty); two, a socialist, mildly left-of-centre origin of the party which ultimately turned into corrupt machine politics; and three, a general state of disunity in the moderate Left. It took about a decade from the 2004 general election for Syriza to emerge as the ruling party of Greece. Originally formed as a coalition of like-minded Left parties, Syriza in the end turned into a unified party after many of its constituents exited the coalition.

What gave Syriza and its charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras traction in Greek politics was the quick economic erosion of the country in the wake of the 2008 global economic-financial crisis. In 2013, on the eve of Syriza’s march to power, Greece had a debt of 175 per cent of its GDP, way above that of the UK. Germany and France, the two powerhouses of the European economy, belonged to an altogether different economic world. With its European debtors asking Greece to severely restrict public expenditures— on pensions in particular—and also raise taxes, Greek politics moved decisively in an extreme Left direction. What made this sort of Leftist adventure possible in Greece and not Italy (which, too, had a huge debt, around 130 per cent of its GDP) was the far- worse shape of the Greek economy. Unlike Italy, which still boasts a manufacturing base, Greece was running on an empty tank. The toxic mix of unemployment, wiping out of incomes and rising taxes provided the fuel for Syriza’s success.

In the US, this move-to-the-extreme phenomenon has happened on the conservative side. Here again, it took almost a decade after the 2004 victory of George Bush Jr for the Tea Party to gain traction. Never a coherent party but a vague combination of local movements, the Tea Party has strong roots in the conservative Southern states of the US. In these states, workers—mostly White, blue collar and with a mix of different levels of education— abandoned the Democratic Party almost overnight in 2004 after a spate of assaults on their chances in the 1990s. The signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement virtually killed jobs in large parts of the US. The American scholar Tom Mertes described this as a rebellion against, ‘the Volvo-driving, latte-drinking, fromage-eating liberal elite…’

The contrast is interesting: in the Greek case, ‘fringe politics’ took an economic turn to the left. In the US, due to a different historical trajectory—the weakness of Left parties and cultural instead of economic polarisation—saw the same class of workers, hit badly by twists of globalisation, turn increasingly conservative.

The most pertinent question here is: where does this leave India? The country has a long history of ‘fringe group’ politics. It is just that Naxalites and Maoists are not described as such. Again, as in the European and American cases, this trend took almost a decade to show up, the main markers being the start of the first EMS Namboodiripad ministry in Kerala—Asia’s first elected communist government—and the split in the Communist Party in 1964. This was the economic turn in India’s move to extremism. It should not surprise any student of politics that the same destiny awaits conservative politics in the country. Again, one can safely say that it took a decade from the first BJP-led Government, the one formed by AB Vajpayee in 1998, for these ‘fringe groups’ to emerge. The first attacks on pub-goers in Mangalore by the Sri Ram Sene took place only in 2009.

What makes India unique perhaps is the presence of both Left and conservative extremists, albeit with a huge lag of time— roughly 35 years—between them. This needs some explanation. The rise of the ‘fringe’ Left owed its existence to exploitation of Tribals in remote parts of the country. There was also an urban fascination with these ideas because of the extremely limited opportunities the Indian economy offered its youth from the 1970s to the 1990s. By that time, the movement petered out in urban India even at the level of ideas, and is now restricted in a more or less lumpen form in states like Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.

The conservative fringe is following a similar path, but one that poses greater dangers for India. For one, the social base of both fringes overlaps—lower middle-class or the poor who lack the right educational credentials for high-paying jobs in a services-dominated economy. One cannot, of course, link the emergence of the conservative fringe in a Marxist fashion to an economy that does not generate jobs at a desired pace. But the effect, in terms of generating ‘fringe’ politics is similar.

IF ONE DIGS deeper, most leaders of Hindu ‘fringe’ politics have taken a similar route: from being diehard RSS followers to its spiteful critics. They often claim to be driven by an unendurable sense of isolation, ameliorated only through vitriolic outbursts.

As a teenager, Desai of the HRS was deeply affected by the 1993 serial blasts that rocked in the city of his birth, Mumbai, killing more than 250 people and maiming many more. It engendered a hatred for Muslims. He was influenced by the politics of the Shiv Sena and RSS; later, as a 14-year-old, he launched the HRS in the suburb of Vile Parle. In an earlier interview, one of its members said that Desai had received the blessings of Thackeray to start the organisation. In 2002, Desai moved base to Pune, and, disgruntled by the lack of initiative by political parties such as the BJP to take up the cause of Hindutva, he registered HRS as a political party. Its mission, according to Yogesh Pandurang Kupekar, head of its Mumbai branch, is to establish a Hindu Rashtra and to save and protect Hindus. “We are against those who have a problem saying ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ or ‘VandeMataram’,” he says. The organisation, which has several branches in Mumbai and Pune, openly calls for attacks on Muslims through Facebook and other social media. After the murder of Sheikh in Pune, a gloating message, ‘Pehili wicket padli’ (first wicket has fallen), was circulated on social media purportedly by HRS supporters.

Bagga of the BSKS has forgotten the number of times he has been escorted by the police to Tihar Jail, 6 km away from his residence in Delhi’s Narang Colony. He was a member of BJP Yuva Morcha from an early age. At 23, he was elected to this youth wing’s national executive, and even then he used to take part in protests. In 2011, he protested against Arundhati Roy and others who were organising a programme called ‘Azadi: The Only Way’ on regions demanding freedom from India. It enraged Bagga. Later, on 21 May that year, as Roy was launching her book Broken Republic at India Habitat Centre in Delhi, Bagga asked party leaders to let him protest at the venue. But BJP leaders refused. “I was sure that I have to oppose her,” he says. “Within hours, we thought of this name Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena and we protested there under the banner of our newly formed organisation.” It took a year from him to register the BSKS and today it has around 500 members. “I don’t give membership to those whom I don’t know personally,” he says.

Similar to the two ‘senas’ mentioned above, there are various other extreme groups of repute: the Dharam Jagaran Samanvay Samiti, Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha, Rashtriya Hindu Andolan, Shiv Sena Hindustan, Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, Hindu Dharma Sena, Hindu Makkal Katchi and Purvanchal Sena, among others. Though the Congress party alleges that all these outfits are handled by the RSS, a BJP leader refutes this, saying, “That is wholly untrue and they have clashed with RSS cadres in many places where they enjoy huge clout.” These are groups that have revolted against the screening of several movies including the Aamir Khan-starrer PK, vandalised churches, and demanded that Nathuram Godse’s statues be built across the country, besides making other atrocious demands of the Government.

Adarsh Sharma, the Rohini-based president of the Purvanchal Sena, had recently announced a bounty of Rs 11 lakh on the head of JNU Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar, who had incurred the wrath of right-wing elements through his speeches and reported sympathy for Kashmiri separatist groups. Sharma had claimed that Kumar’s home in Bihar was close to his in that state. “Our land does not produce such anti-nationals. This is why I have decided to do this,” he had said.

One of the most notorious ‘senas’ that started early is Pramod Mutalik’s Sri Rama Sene, which shot to fame after carrying out an attack on young women in a Mangalore pub some seven years ago. It has since played moral policeman and led protests against Valentine’s Day celebrations. Even in southern Karnataka, which has high levels of religious polarisation, Mutalik is seen as an extremely divisive figure. When he joined the BJP in March 2014, many Sangh leaders lashed out at the party brass for inducting him, and he was shown the door the same day he joined. “The [current] Central Government has not supported our cause in any way. In a way, there is little difference between them and the anti-Hindu Congress government in Karnataka. Although Modiji is headed in the right direction and is pursuing national goals, his government is operating under a secular agenda. No one gets special treatment from this government, not us, not the Sangh Parivar,” Mutalik tellsOpen.

It is no wonder then that Desai’s associates see a conspiracy by the BJP-led Maharashtra government of Devendra Fadnavis to keep the ‘youthful’ HRS chief behind bars.

Do Mutalik and HRS leaders sound outrageous and betray exaggerated self-importance? Perhaps. Yet, considering the new political trends buffeting the country, the explicit grouse that Modi and others in the BJP fold are guided by a ‘secular agenda’ could become grounds for the rise and rise of an Indian Tea Party. With pundits like Rabbi Michael Lerner and others advising even Democrats in the US to launch a ‘tea party of the Left’ to stay ahead of the game, Modi will need to work out how to keep challengers at bay.

(With Kumar Anshuman and Ritu Goyal Harish)