From Hinduism to Hindutva at the Kumbh

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Like 1989, the VHP has used the occasion to rouse communal sentiment, which the BJP hopes will work to its advantage in Uttar Pradesh

In January 1989, as millions of Hindu devotees and thousands of sadhus gathered at the Sangam—the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers in Allahabad—to attend the Kumbh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), till then a nascent wing of the RSS desperate for mainstream appeal, was present in strength with a carefully crafted plan. Despite all its efforts, this extremist wing of the Sangh Parivar had not been able to gain momentum for its campaign to pull down Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid and incite Hindu-Muslim animosity. But as the 1989 Kumbh swelled in strength, so did the VHP’s aggression, setting off a political wave of saffron that culminated in the demolition of the 16th century mosque at Ayodhya on 6 December 1992. It was this wave that turned the BJP into a serious contender for power at the Centre.

It all began at a meeting of sadhus held in the VHP’s vast tented pavilion on the main road of Kumbhnagar in January 1989. It had large numbers of lay devotees in attendance, all swearing by the proposed Rama temple that the Sangh Parivar planned in place of the Babri Masjid. The meeting, which was presided over by Devraha Baba and addressed among others by Avaidyanath of Gorakhpur and Shankaracharya of Kanchi Jayendra Saraswati, swiftly converted India’s largest religious gathering into a political event, placing the Sangh’s communal agenda at the forefront of Indian politics.

Twenty-four years later, the ongoing Kumbh at Allahabad is once again set to go down in history as yet another event more political than religious in nature. As in 1989, so in 2013, it is mainly the VHP and its Sangh associates that are turning a religious spectacle into a wavemaker of Hindu communalist politics.

Although sporadic communal statements by VHP leaders began emerging as soon as the Kumbh began on 14 January this year, a couple of meetings held three weeks later—just as the religious event started reaching its peak—had an overtly political agenda in focus. The first meeting, held by the VHP’s Margdarshak Mandal on 6 February, was presided over by Avaidyanath. And the second, the VHP’s Sant Sammelan held the next day, by Jayendra Saraswati. Both had played motivational roles back in 1989.

While the Mandal’s meeting was addressed by BJP President Rajnath Singh, the Sant Sammelan was attended by RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat. And both of them echoed an old commitment, the main theme of the gatherings— the construction of a Rama temple on the Babri Masjid site. “The Rama temple should come up only on the Janmabhoomi. We are committed to that,” said Singh, “I only need your blessings so that we get enough strength to fulfil the desire of crores of Hindus.” Bhagwat sought to give the Sangh’s Ayodhya project a theoretical basis, equating India’s national ‘identity’ with the temple’s construction: “It is like a movement to establish the identity of the country, and we have to establish it.” VHP chief Ashok Singhal was even more categorical in his speech. “The court has already upheld the Hindu claim on Ramjanmabhoomi. There have been appeals challenging the order of the Allahabad High Court on the Ayodhya title suit, but Hindus can’t keep waiting till all legal disputes are resolved… Now this issue can be settled only through Parliament,” he said, “We have shown our strength once, with the Babri Masjid pulled down in five hours. The youth are ready to sacrifice [themselves to the temple], and until Hindu Samaj once again shows its strength, the Rama temple will not be built.”

The political overtones of the ongoing Kumbh were also clear in the communally charged slogans that could be heard frequently at VHP meetings and on the streets of Kumbhnagar. Here are a few examples: “Jo Rama ki baat karega, wahi desh par raaj karega” (Only those who talk of Rama shall rule the country); “Raaj wahi karega jo Ram mandir banvaega” (Only those who get the Rama temple built shall rule the country); and “Rama Lalla, hum aayenge, Sansad mein kanoon banwaenge” (Rama Lalla, we will come, and in Parliament we’ll make a law).

There were many more, some of them marked by an unmistakable hatred of India’s religious minorities. In Kumbhnagar, the administration took no notice, not objecting even to hoardings with slogans aimed at stirring up passions. ‘Hindu rashtra banaenge’ (We will forge a Hindu nation), said one. ‘Hindu dharma khatre mein’ (Hindu religion in danger), said another.

Equally significant in turning the Kumbh into a political event was the unrestrained flow of hate speeches delivered by the VHP’s Praveen Togadia, who took it as an opportunity to speak out against Muslims in a manner he couldn’t so far, gasping for breath only if the question of Narendra Modi’s candidacy for prime ministership came up (apart from Muslims, Togadia is known to hate Modi too).

The issue of Modi’s candidacy does not just set the current Kumbh apart from the one in 1989, it gives it extra frisson. For, besides the Ramjanmabhoomi issue, another question spun into play among sadhus and lay devotees—at VHP meetings and beyond—was that of Modi’s potential as India’s PM. This part of the debate did not enthuse Togadia, but did resonate with many others.

For all the deliberations in Allahabad, it is still not clear whether this Kumbh can achieve what it did for the Sangh Parivar 24 years ago. Yet, coming after a series of communal flare-ups in Uttar Pradesh and ahead of the BJP’s do-or-die grab for power in the next general election, its significance cannot be overstated.

Over the past year, UP, a key state for the Sangh Parivar’s electoral strategy, has had nearly 50 communal incidents, over a dozen of which have been particularly worrisome. This year’s Kumbh, now nearing its end, is likely to worsen Hindu-Muslim tension in the state. This would suit a Sangh Parivar keen to deploy the Ramjanmabhoomi issue as an electoral ploy. It was once the BJP’s core political agenda, but was softpedalled to attract ideologically disparate allies for a coalition, the NDA, at the Centre.

Now, as the BJP looks for a revival in UP, which has as many as 80 Lok Sabha seats, the issue could give it the appeal it is desperate for. The Rama temple’s potency in the state has been borne out by the party’s record of performance there. The BJP has done well whenever it has stuck to its core agenda. The party won 41 Lok Sabha seats in UP in 1991, 49 in 1996 and 52 in 1998. For the snap election of 1999, it softened its position on Ayodhya— on account of coalition compulsions— but still pulled off 29 seats to retain its No 1 status in the state. Since then, however, the BJP has had a drastic slide. It won merely 10 seats in UP in 2004 and 12 in 2009.

The BJP sees the Kumbh, an event that comes along once every 12 years, as a revival opportunity in UP, one that it does not want to lose. So, while the BJP and its Hindutva posterboy Modi may keep airing soundbytes of ‘development’ and ‘good governance’ for the benefit of voters who are impressed by it, the Sangh Parivar and its ground forces are working on quite another way to assure the BJP victory. If the Kumbh of 1989 had paid them such good dividends, why let this one remain religious?