In India, a controversial candidate is testing religious divisions

Pragya Singh Thakur. Photo by Shuriah Niazi.

Pragya Singh Thakur. Photo by Shuriah Niazi.

BHOPAL, India — Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur stood outside her local voting booth Sunday in her signature saffron orange robes, with strings of wooden prayer beads dangling over her chest. She lifted her index finger to show reporters a dark ink line over her nail, the mark of having voted in India.

Then, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate expressed her confidence in her party’s victory – over much more than just votes. Thakur called this year’s contest between Prime Minister Narendra Modi from BJP and his opposition Rahul Gandhi from the Indian National Congress Party a “dharma yudh”, or war of righteousness.

Thakur is a controversial candidate to say the least. She became the face of right-wing Hindu extremism after her arrest for allegedly aiding a 2008 bomb blast (known as the Malegaon blasts) that killed six Muslims and injured over 100 people. She’s currently out on bail.

Those critical of the BJP argue that since Modi’s election in 2014, mob lynching of minorities like Muslims and Dalits have increased. India dramatically escalated tensions with Muslim-majority Pakistan by bombing Pakistani territory after a terrorist attack that killed 42 Indians. And the BJP government hid economic data that showed a 45-year high in unemployment in 2017.

Bhopal, where Thakur is contesting election, is the capital of the central state Madhya Pradesh, one of three states where the BJP lost its rule to the Congress party in state assembly elections earlier this year, considered a benchmark for the national Lok Sabha or parliamentary elections.

Indian voters must decide whether to vote on party lines for prime minister or on local issues, if they conflict. Voters choose a local parliamentary candidate, and those candidates choose the prime minister.

The BJP has been holding Bhopal’s parliamentary seat, where about 450,000 of the 1.8 million voters are Muslim, since 1989. Thakur will take on Congress veteran Digvijaya Singh.

Thakur’s provocative speeches and inflammatory remarks against Muslims often make headlines. Critics say the BJP's aim behind fielding her is to divide voters on religious lines and garner Hindu votes.

Ayan Mohammed, a Muslim shopkeeper in Bhopal, said the BJP tries to polarize voters on religious lines before parliamentary elections and it had done so during the previous polls as well.

“By fielding a known hate monger and persecutor of Muslims, the ruling party has given a clear message that the destroyers of Muslims are the true nationalists,” he said. Thakur running “must have stirred up the hardcore Hindutva types and would further alienate the Muslim community, besides diverting people’s attention from key issues like joblessness, agrarian crisis, etc.”

After the Malegaon blasts, the BJP accused Congress of raising false accusations of Hindu terrorism. And during the ongoing national elections, top BJP leaders have accused Congress of labeling Hindus as terrorists.

At a recent election rally in Wardha, Maharashtra, Modi said Congress labelled peace-loving Hindus as terrorists. He said there is not a single incident of Hindu terrorism.

The dispute between the BJP and Congress over the “Hindu terror” label during the poll campaign had its origins nearly a decade back when the then home minister and senior Congress leader P. Chidambaram allegedly invented the phrase “saffron terrorism” against the backdrop of the Malegaon blasts and other attacks at some prominent Muslim sites.

“There is a recently uncovered phenomenon of saffron terrorism that has been implicated in many bomb blasts of the past,” Chidambaram reportedly said while addressing a conference of senior police officials in August 2010.

Senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh, pitted against Thakur in Bhopal, has also faced accusations of having used the term “Hindu terror.” He has denied the charge and insisted that he only mentioned “Sanghi terrorism”, referring to terrorism by fundamentalist Hindu organizations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – the ideological organization behind the BJP –  and never coined “Hindu terrorism”. He said terror activities could not be defined on the basis of religion.

Despite his clarifications, hardliner Hindus see Digvijaya as an anti-Hindu.

Modi has said fielding Thakur is an apt response to those who described Hindus as terrorists and linked a whole religion and culture to terror, and BJP president Amit Shah said Thakur is innocent and was falsely implicated in the Malegaon blast case. The court said the motorcycle used to plant the bomb was registered to Thakur. 

In Bhopal’s predominantly Muslim locality of Mangalwara, the atmosphere is tense. Many Muslims expressed apprehension that the community could be targeted over petty excuses if Thakur wins locally and if Modi wins nationally.

Iram Khan, who teaches history at a college in Bhopal, said the BJP’s choice of Thakur as their candidate for Bhopal was a clear case of the Modi government’s double standards on terrorism.

“Anti-minority faces like Pragya [Thakur] are assets which help the BJP to secure Hindu votes,” she said. “It is ironical that on the one hand the Indian government desires the whole world and the UN to designate Pakistan-based terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed’s chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist and on the other the BJP has nominated a shamelessly prejudiced and divisive person as a candidate for the Bhopal seat.”

Thakur has also claimed that she was tortured during her stay in jail by former Mumbai Anti-Terrorist Squad chief Hemant Karkare, who died in action during the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008. She then claimed that she cursed Karkare and he died because of his karma and that curse. Even the BJP distanced itself from Thakur’s statement, forcing her to apologize since Karkare is seen as a martyr for sacrificing his life while fighting terrorists.

Addressing a public meeting in Bhopal recently, former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister and senior BJP leader Shivraj Singh Chouhan defended the decision to field Thakur. He said that Congress committed three sins: they defamed saffron, linked Hinduism with terrorism and tortured a daughter of India (Thakur).

“So BJP fielded Sadhvi Pragya [Thakur] against Digvijaya Singh and we are proud of her,” he said.

Meanwhile, Congress leader Digvijaya Singh has said he was being called anti-Hindu by the BJP just to incite voters against him. He reiterated that he himself is a Hindu.

“How can a person criticize his own religion? I am a staunch Hindu and I love and respect my religion,” he said. “My focus is on development of Bhopal and I do not want to win elections by inciting religious passions.”

Thakur raked up yet another controversy by stating that she was proud of having participated in the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. When the election Commission of India (ECI) issued her a notice in this regard, she said that she did not intend to create any differences, hatred or tensions, and that the statement was the voice of her soul and she believed in good for everyone. But her reply was found to be unsatisfactory and the ECI has ordered a case against her to be registered. Undeterred by the ECI action, Thakur dubbed Digvijaya Singh a terrorist while addressing a public gathering in Sehore, near Bhopal. Congress has said it would complain again to ECI in this regard.

With communal passions incited and possibility of voters getting polarized on religious lines, it is going to be a tough battle for Digvijaya Singh to win a seat. Results will be announced May 23.