Square One


[Article originally appeared in The Caravan.] On the morning of April 18, 2008 a young woman, holding her two-year-old daughter, was inconsolably mourning the death of her husband. Friends and family had arrived to the funeral at her home near the Central Ordinance Depot in Jabalpur, where the body of Praveen Balotya, a 25-year-old who had died of tuberculosis, lay. Suddenly, there was commotion. A bunch of youngsters descended and tried to pull the body out of its coffin.

Balotya, a Brahmin by descent, had chosen to become Christian in 2006. The activists of a local Rightwing group, the Hindu Dharam Sena (HDS), led by its chief, Yogesh Agarwal, demanded that they be shown the ‘certificate of conversion’ before they would allow the funeral to proceed according to Christian rites. Left with no option, a sobbing Benjlive Minj Balotya went into her house to look for the affidavit that her late husband had signed.

In the meantime, the police got a whiff of the simmering tension and a jeep full of policemen rushed to the spot. But Agarwal carried on with the noisy protest, and Inspector Mohammed Azim Khan of the Ranjhi Police Station ordered his policemen to baton charge them. The police action left Agarwal and his associate, Arvind Baba, with fractured bones, but the widow was finally able to perform Balotya’s last rites according to his wishes.

What happened on April 18 was not an isolated incident in Jabalpur. Attacks on the minority Christians are commonplace in the city, located in the geographic centre of India in the Mahakaushal region in Madhya Pradesh, where the Rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been in power since December 2003. Jabalpur has been plagued by at least three such attacks every month since the beginning of 2006, thanks to the HDS.

The high incidence of anti-minority attacks in a city barely one-fifth the size and with a population one-tenth of Delhi is alarming, but what is more worrisome is that the scenario in Jabalpur echoes a trend in several other parts of the country. In their effort to gain prominence in the Hindu nationalist movement, splinter groups from the Sangh Parivar are revising their battle strategy from ‘communalism’ (the inciting of divisive socio-political concerns between religious communities for electoral gains) to ‘fundamentalism’ (fighting to protect Hinduism against perceived threats from Muslims and Christians).

Jabalpur is one of the cities where the September 29, 2008 blasts in Malegaon in Maharashtra were planned. According to investigating agencies, the accused in the case, Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, Dayanand Pandey, and Lt Colonel Shrikant Purohit and Sameer Kulkarni of the Rightwing group Abhinav Bharat (AB) – which was formed by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in 1905, disbanded in the 1950s, became active again in June 2006, and led till 2007 by his historian granddaughter, Himani Savarkar, when it was effectively reborn as a militant Hindu outfit after she lost control of it to hardliners – met in the city to plan the explosions in the Muslim-majority areas of Malegaon town which killed eight and injured over 80. Sadhvi Pragya, on whose motorcycle the RDX was placed, has a rented house in Jabalpur.

The HDS’s Yogesh Agarwal, who has numerous criminal cases pending against him, is a disciple of Mayaram Jaswani, vice-president of AB and a suspect in the Malegaon blasts case, said Atul Singh, the additional superintendent of police (ASP) of Jabalpur. Jaswani, whose house the Jabalpur police raided in October last, is also close to Kulkarni, one of the alleged masterminds of the blasts.

Surrounded by hills and gorges, Jabalpur (Jabal in Arabic means ‘mountain’) boasts a picturesque setting. Ruled by the Gond and Maratha dynasties and the Mughals between the 13th and the 18th centuries, Jabalpur is a Hindu-majority city with a sizeable presence of Muslims. In the early 20th century, ‘Jubbulpore’ was the headquarters of an army brigade under British rule. Even today, the Indian armed forces occupy a large portion of the city, the economy of which primarily revolves around the four ordnance factories and three regimental centres, the biggest army concentration in any Indian city aside from Delhi.

The tranquillity and the slow pace of life here that one would normally associate with a small city seems to be the prerogative of the Hindus alone, as both the Muslim and the Christian communities are being targeted by local Hindu nationalists.

Jabalpur witnessed one of the worst anti-Muslim riots in 1962, which led Jawaharlal Nehru to set up the National Integration Council. While the Christian community is small by the standards of large Indian cities, it has a visible presence with its numerous churches and educational institutions run by Christian organisations.

While Jaswani, a native of Jabalpur, specialised in opposing Hindu-Muslim marriages, Agarwal concentrates on Christian conversions, said ASP Singh, sitting in his office in the police headquarters in Malgodam area near the Jabalpur railway station. Almost all of Agarwal’s associates are below the age of 25 and mostly unemployed.

The way the mere mention of Yogesh Agarwal’s name terrorises the Christian community in Jabalpur, one would expect the chief of the HDS to appear as physically intimidating as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) demagogic leader, Pravin Togadia. But the contrast is sharp: Agarwal is fair-skinned, clean-shaven, barely five feet and a few inches tall, with a medium-built and soft-spoken.

Wearing a red sweatshirt with blue jeans and sports shoes, and a cap with a black skull over a saffron-coloured band round his forehead, Agarwal sits on the sofa in the living room of his ground floor house in Gali Number 7 in Jabalpur’s Sadar Bazar area. (Agarwal wanted the meeting to be at his office in Gali Number 3 but later insisted that we meet at his residence. The outfit allegedly ran another office near the St Paul and Peter Church in Sadar but shut it down in October last year after the AB leaders were arrested in the Malegaon blasts case.) The entry to Agarwal’s living room is through a small door in a showroom, Balaji Jewellers. Sitting next to Agarwal is Pradeep Kumar, a dark, lanky youngster with a twirling, deluxe dacoit moustache, Veerappan-style.

“I started Dharam Sena in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in 2005 under the guidance of the Dharam Jagaran Vibhag of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to consolidate Hindu youths,” says Agarwal, in his early 40s, gushing with pride. “But I realised soon that the Sangh (Parivar) didn’t believe in violence. Even Chief Minister Shivraj Chouhan (of Madhya Pradesh) is not bold enough.”

Disillusioned with the RSS’s ‘tepid’ leadership of the Hindu nationalist movement, Agarwal started his own, independent group in 2007, adding “Hindu” to the name of the outfit he claims to have formed.

“I am fighting conversion of Hindus to Christianity by fraud and allurement. A lot of foreign money comes for the conversion business in Jabalpur,” he says, claiming, “My informants are none other than some local Christians.”

Asked if the census, the only official data-gathering mechanism of the Indian State, reflected an increase in the Christian population in the region, he says disingenuously, “Most of the new converts are crypto Christians. Even otherwise, 99 percent of those who claim to be from Christian families are also converts, in one sense. Maybe it was their father, grandfather or great grandfather who converted.” But are they not converting of their own will? “They are brainwashed by Christians,” he replies promptly.

Agarwal, however, seems ignorant about those he calls “devils” (namely, Christian workers and evangelists). Asked to name a few groups that were offering monetary incentives for conversions, Agarwal remains silent for a while. “Almost all of them are doing this,” he replies, hiding his lack of knowledge.

“A victim of conversion is sitting here,” he says, asking his associate, Pradeep Kumar, to share his experience.

“I had gone to the railway station to enquire about the arrival of a train on May 2, 2007,” says Kumar. “A Christian named Anthris Soni came to me and handed me a leaflet. ‘Read it and your life will be saved,’ he said. But I told him I was not interested. He still insisted that I read it. I lost my temper and scolded him, and a crowd gathered there. We finally handed him over to the police.”

After narrating the story, Kumar wants to leave. “Sure, you can go now,” says Agarwal. “Where should I sign that whatever I have said is true?” asks Kumar, making his dubious testimony more questionable. (A news clipping concerning the incident Kumar spoke of had a picture of a Christian priest displaying currency notes before the camera, but there was no mention of the alleged offer of money in Kumar’s testimony.)

Agarwal then gets up and takes out a bundle of six A4-size diaries from the cupboard to his right. These diaries have clippings from local Hindi newspapers on the numerous attacks he has launched. “Look at this one,” he says, pointing to one of the cuttings. “I beat this priest because he was converting Hindus.” Going through the diaries one by one, Agarwal identifies many of his victims. It is as if the use of violence doesn’t need to be defended; a given, it has a self-evident justification.

Asked how he sees himself, Agarwal, that old generic identifier with a smile, said, “I am a social worker.” Does he have political ambitions? “No, not at all. I am just serving the people,” he says. “I did try to contest last year’s assembly elections, but that was just in reaction to Inspector Khan’s attack on me [referring to the April 18 incident]. But on the Sangh Parivar’s request, I withdrew my name from the contest.”

Visibly pleased with the questions posed to him about his political ambitions, Agarwal says, “Please don’t mind that I am not properly dressed today. I always wear pure white pajama and kurta.”

The Hindu Dharam Sena shares a lot in common with other Sangh Parivar splinter groups known thus far – such as Abhinav Bharat, which operates mainly in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, and Sri Ram Sene, which recently became infamous for its violently misogynistic moral policing in the city of Mangalore in Karnataka.

Those who run these groups are people who had been active members of various Sangh Parivar outfits and found the conglomerate too ‘mild’ to be able to establish a Hindu nation. While Agarwal was with the VHP before forming the HDS, Pramod Muthalik founded the Sri Ram Sene in 2006 after having been sidelined by the Bajrang Dal, the VHP’s youth wing, for his ‘extreme’ views. (If something is extreme for a group known for militancy, it must be ‘ultra extreme’.) Muthalik had been associated with the RSS since 1975. In 2004, he was made convenor of the Bajrang Dal for south India. He later joined the Shiv Sena before setting up his own outfit.

Similarly, Malegaon blasts accused Lt Col Purohit and other hardliners in Abhinav Bharat, which weaned away workers from the VHP to plan terrorist attacks to fight Islamist terrorism, reported The Times of India on November 7, 2008. VHP leader Pravin Togadia met Purohit in a hotel in Mumbai in August 2008, urging him to close down AB, (advice that wasn’t taken, according to the newspaper). In fact, AB members even plotted to kill senior RSS leaders they thought were not doing enough for Hindu nationalism, said Hindustan Times on November 21, 2008.

Despite their explicitly violent nature, some of these groups seem to be growing in number. While the HDS held a motorcycle rally of more than 1,000 supporters in the Dhanwantari Nagar area of Jabalpur on February 23 this year, the Rajasthan unit of the Shiv Sena is reportedly contemplating a merger with the Sri Ram Sene in the state. Speaking to reporters in Belgaum (Karnataka) on February 24, Muthalik claimed that he was being invited by like-minded organisations from across the country to start his outfit’s units in their states for the “protection of Hindu culture”. “We have received invitations from states like Delhi, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Goa, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and some other states to open state units there. A meeting will be held to discuss the issue on March 29 in Delhi, where setting up of the executive council for the Sene and opening of various branches in different states will be discussed,” he said. Even shorn of political bluff-making and manoeuvring for coalition vantages before the general elections, Muthalik’s confidence, which comes after Union Home Minister P Chidambaram had told the media on February 9 that the Sri Ram Sene was a “threat to the country” and that the government was watching its activities, is a pointer to Rightwing splinter groups, linked by common cause, searching among themselves for common ground.

Numerous other splinter groups might be covertly operating in the country, which is perhaps the reason why, in its recently revamped website, the RSS no longer has a list of organisations that were “inspired” by it. The Abhinav Bharat website, on its part, is at pains to not mention anything political it might be affiliated with (although its blog says it all), with no mention of members other than trustees. It informs the reader that the “organisation which is being investigated for its alleged involvement in Malegaon blast case is an unauthorised and illegal user of the term ‘Abhinav Bharat’ and therefore an imposter”.

One such splinter group is the Kashmiri Hindu Liberation Army (KHLA), whose motto is to “Hinduise the politics and militarise the Hindus”. Their website (www.hindurashtra.org) has pictures of Hindus holding AK-47s in their hands and wearing uniforms similar to that of the Indian Army. A note on the homepage greets you with, “Welcome to the website of the brave soldiers of Hindutva Brotherhood and Kashmiri Hindu Liberation Army.” The website, which was created on July 28, 2005 and apparently removed from the web after the arrest of the Malegaon blasts accused, advocates the “establishment of a single-party, militarised government based on the divine laws of Hindu Dharma (Religion), and Hindutva ideology”.

The KHLA, however, continues to send emails carrying articles against religious minorities, mainly Christians and Muslims, to its supporters through a Google group named Hindu Raksha. According to an email communication with an apparently related group, some of the leaders of the KHLA are based in Mumbai.

With the emergence of splinter groups, it seems Hindu fundamentalism has made a comeback in India, a resurgence that resembles the Hindu nationalist movement’s initial days.

Hindu nationalism originated between the late 19th and the early 20th centuries in British India. It was started in reaction against the colonial state, the then perceived threat of Christian conversions by British missionaries and the political mobilisation of Muslims during the Khilafat movement (1919-24). In the 1920s, when independence from the British rule was a foreseeable prospect, the ideology of Hindu nationalism was codified by ‘Veer’ Savarkar, who wrote the pamphlet Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? Not religious by nature or calling, but an ideologue, Savarkar dreamed, like tens of thousands of others, of what India should look like following its independence. He argued that the Aryans in India had formed a ‘nation’ thousands of years ago and that the Hindus of his time embodied that same nation. Therefore, he advocated a nation that would be united by ethnicity, race and culture. A considerably large number of people adopted this dream.

The dream of an exclusivist Hindu nation, as opposed to the ideology of non-ethnic nationalism of the Indian National Congress and feared by the Muslim League was taken forward by the likes of the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS with the help of a highly charged cadre. India and Pakistan were partitioned along religious lines in 1947, but the former alone chose to become a secular nation by adopting a progressive constitution.

The Hindu nationalist movement made use of the demographic fluidity and post-Partition religious hardening that came in the years after Independence. In 1951, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS), the BJP’s previous incarnation, was set up to be the political arm of the RSS to implement the Hindutva agenda. During the Emergency (1975-77) declared by Indira Gandhi, the BJS joined other political parties to form a joint force against the Congress under the aegis of the Janata Party, which ruled from 1977 to 1980. However, in the general elections in 1980, the BJS performed badly, which led to the formation of the BJP by the BJS members under the leadership of the RSS.

A ‘secular’ Congress being the biggest hurdle on the Hindu nationalist road to supremacy, the BJP tried to gain an edge over its opponent in the 1980s by overtly espousing the cause of constructing a temple to Ram at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya (where, the party alleged, Ram was born and his temple destroyed by Mughal emperor Babur in the 16th century) in Uttar Pradesh. Many scholars believe that the leaders of the BJP were hungrier for power than for ideological success, whereas the Sangh cadres, less educated than their leaders and footsoldiers of the communal strategy of the BJP, were religious fundamentalists.

The Ramjanmabhoomi issue finally gave power to the BJP at the Centre in 1998, but through a coalition, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), where a majority of the parties were not Hindu nationalist. Given that India had entered an era of coalitions and ideological loose-bonding, the BJP, on its part, cleverly chose not to institutionalise Hindutva as aggressively as other members of the Sangh Parivar would have desired lest it lose the crucial support of its allies. As a result, the party could implement none of the issues it had used to motivate its cadres: the construction of a Ram temple, the implementation of a uniform civil code (abolishing the provision of separate laws concerning civil matters for religious communities), a national anti-conversion law and the abolition of Article 370 of the constitution (which grants a temporary special status to Jammu and Kashmir).

In the 2004 general elections, the BJP’s coalition lost to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Contrary to what many political analysts believed – that the vote was either in favour of secularism and development or against the non-inclusive economic policies of the BJP – the RSS blamed its political wing’s defeat on the dilution of the Hindu nationalist ideology. And most of the cadres believed so too.

Perhaps it is this perception of ‘betrayal’ by the BJP and the RSS’s slackness in disciplining its political arm that angered sections of the cadres. Within three years of the BJP’s defeat, they set up various splinter groups.

However, the breakaway groups are still in transition, in the process of detaching themselves from the Sangh Parivar. And the Sangh Parivar is yet to formulate an umbrella strategy to deal with all the splinter groups. At the moment, while most leaders of the Sangh Parivar distanced themselves from Abhinav Bharat after the names of its leaders became included in the Malegaon blasts case, the BJP continues to be sympathetic to other splinter groups.

Although the Sri Ram Sene continues to defend its attacks on “loose and forward women” in BJP-ruled Karnataka – causing anger and resentment in the hearts of the people at a time when the 15th Lok Sabha elections are just a few week’s away – Chief Minister BS Yeddiyurappa has been slow to act against the Sene’s violent moral policing, which even LK Advani was finally forced to condemn on live television. It is likely that this leniency does not reflect his outright support to the extremist outfit but his reluctance to deal harshly with the prodigals of the Sangh family, which he has been associated with since 1970.

Similarly, the Hindu Dharam Sena’s February 23 rally in Jabalpur was flagged off by a saffron-coloured pennon waved jointly by its chief, Yogesh Agarwal, and the RSS’s Shiv Narayan Patel. There was no lack of camaraderie there. The HDS’s clout is also evident in the fact that although Agarwal had separated from the Sangh family in order to create the HDS, Inspector Khan, who had dared to take strict action against the activists involved in the April 18 anti-Christian melee in Jabalpur, was soon transferred out from the Ranjhi Police Station.

ASP Atul Singh admitted that Khan was transferred due to political pressure on the state home ministry. The ASP said that the HDS still had internal linkages with the Sangh Parivar. In its order (8753/2008) on November 11, 2008, the Jabalpur High Court noted that Khan’s transfer amounted to victimisation of the police officer for having carried out his duty to control the Hindu Dharam Sena, which had long posed a challenge to the police in maintaining law and order in the city.

Also, in June 2006, the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) sent a team to ascertain communal tensions in Jabalpur. “The Christians were in tears and submitted before the Members [of the Commission] that never in the history of this district, such persecution and tirade against the Christians were witnessed… but only five cases were registered against the miscreants who attacked the Christians. One person, Yogesh Agarwal, was named in all the five FIRs [first information reports]… Surprisingly… whenever somebody made a complaint against the miscreants attacking the Christians, a case of conversion to Christianity was immediately registered against the complainant. The NCM members found this as a planned move to terrorise the Christians and it was apparent that the administration was playing into the hands of miscreants,” said the commission’s report.

Given that the process of separating the splinter groups from the main body and of building a common strategy among various groups is still incomplete, the worst of the action might be yet to come. The Sangh Parivar, with its massive and time-tested momentum in vote-driven politics, acts only according to the mood of the people, organising violence or practicing restraint accordingly. But the breakaway groups, both testing the waters and aware of the benefits of the media coverage of overkill, seem to care little about the political fallout of their actions; they seemingly see little reason to practice mainstream restraint or take a legal or democratic route to their objectives.

“For most of these splinter groups, objectives are more important than the way to achieve them. And those who do not believe in the constitution can divert to anything.” Even to terrorism? “I wouldn’t be surprised,” replies ASP Atul Singh.

Asia, ReligionVishal Arora