www.sacw.net > Communalism Repository | 18 August 2008

Hindutva Movement and Politics: The case of Vishwa Hindu Parishad

by Geeta Puri

[Text of Prem Bhasin Memorial Lecture, delivered by Geeta Puri at Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi (February 9,  2008)]

I consider it a great honour and privilege for the opportunity given to me to deliver the annual‘Prem Bhasin Lecture’. Premji, as he was lovingly known to his comrades and admirers, was one of the finest exponents of democratic socialism in India. He was the noble product of the great freedom struggle. He served the cause of democratic socialism with rare dedication, ideological commitment, grit and clarity, representing the values of humility, simplicity and dignity in his emotional and intellectual personality. His writings spread over the pages of Janata bear testimony to the fact that he had ardently believed that  without each other both democracy and socialism are incomplete, rather empty. He also persuasively articulated the notion of democratic nationalism—egalitarian, federal, decentralised—and abhorred all forms of communalism and bigotry as inimical to both democratic socialism and nationalism.

      I have chosen to speak on the rise of the Hindutva movement by focusing on the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a powerful member of the Sangh Parivar which is spearheading ideological Hindutva campaigns in religion and politics.

      My paper is a humble tribute to the great democratic socialist and nationalist, Prem Bhasin, and to his fond and sterling memory. The topic of today’s discussion is “Hindutva Movement and Politics—The Case of Vishwa Hindu Parishad”.

      The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), founded in 1964 with the inspiration and organisational backing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has not only emerged as one of the powerful members of the ‘Sangh family’ along with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but has also become the ideological initiator of a ‘Hindu Unity’ movement in the consolidation of an assertive, nay, aggressive, ‘Hindutva’ platform in the religious and cultural domains of the Hindu society. The RSS-blessed VHP’s massive social and cultural enterprise has not only influenced the post-1984 evolution of the RSS-inspired BJP’s Hindutva politics, but also energetically endeavoured to put Hindutva on the top of India’s political and cultural agenda. The ‘Hindu Unity’ plank of the VHP has been achieved by an unprecedented politico-religious unity of almost all the heads of different religious centers and establishments of Hindus located in different parts of the country, the systematic launching of the social reform programmes, though without assaulting the caste-based hierarchical Hindu social order,  the tireless contributions of the RSS cadres and the total and complete acceptance of ‘Hindutva’ ideology by the post-1984 BJP in resolving its massive ‘identity crisis’ in the wake of its debilitating 1984 electoral defeat, resulting in the building and expansion of the VHP’s social and organisational base.

      The VHP’s un-self-conscious projection of its claim that it is a non-party and even non-political forum for Hindu consolidation is only half true, in the technical and formal sense, as is the claim of its originator, the RSS. But in reality, the crusade-like campaigns of the so-called non-party and non-political VHP, especially in the post-1989 phase of the Indian politics, has not only unfolded a party-centered and a highly politicised ‘Hindu agenda’ for the realisation of the RSS’ political goal of ‘Hindu Rashtra’, but has also ardently attempted to transform Hinduism as ‘faith’ in its sublime spiritual sense to Hinduism as an ‘ideology’ for the purpose of capturing political power on the one hand, and transform pluralistic Hinduism into a monolithic religion on the other. The VIPS-led movement for the politicisation of Hinduism, in the name of ‘Hindu Unity’ is also meant to reconstruct Hindu nationalism as an ideological alternative to the freedom struggle-nurtured secular nationalism and historically evolved composite culture.

      This paper examines the origin and evolution of the VHP, its expanding orgasnisational base, influence and appeal, its selection of religious and political issues, particularly the emotive ones to consolidate the orthodox, traditional, and conservative and obscurantist forces. The BJP, the political arm of the RSS, lent its powerful political support to the VHP’s ‘Hindu Unity’ project in uniting these forces with the modernised elites located in the bourgeoisie, bureaucracy, landed and professional interests, the Hindu-inclined sections of the organised working classes, economically and emotionally vulnerable lower-middle classes and several layers of peasantry, especially those amongst the latter, who have developed closer socio-economic ties and linkages with the urban classes and the upwardly mobile sections of the Scheduled Castes and the backward classes who are increasingly gaining the social acceptability and confidence of the upper castes and are willing to be identified with the VHP-led movement for Hindu resurgence and awakening.

The VHP was founded in Mumbai on August 29, 1964 with Swami Chinmayanand as its President. Shivram Apte was nominated its General Secretary. One hundred and fifty leaders and eminent Hindus engaged in social reform were invited to participate in the deliberations. It was decided to hold a world convention of Hindus at Prayag (Allahabad) during the Kumbh Mela of 1966 to formally launch the VHP. It was also decided that the VHP would be a non-political organisation and no office-bearer of any political party shall be simultaneously a functionary of the Parishad, perfectly echoing the organisational norm of its provider, the RSS. The 1964 statement of the VHP’s objectives was indeed expressed in non-party and non-political terms and it articulated a comprehensive reform programme in the Hindu social order. But the study of the evolution of the VHP in the past four decades   would bring out a palpably political character of its Hindu agenda. We will examine the political implications and ramifications of the VHP’s Hindu agenda after we have alluded to its organisational origins and original goals which were listed as below:

  1. to take steps to arouse consciousness, to consolidate and strengthen the Hindu society;
  2. to protect, develop  and spread the Hindu values of life-ethical and spiritual;
  3. to establish and reinforce contacts with and help all Hindus living abroad;
  4. to welcome back all who had gone out of the Hindu fold and to rehabilitate them as part and parcel of the universal Hindu society;
  5. to render social services to humanity at large;
  6. to revitalise the eternal Hindu society by rearranging the code of conduct of our age-old Dharma to meet the needs of changed times;
  7. to eradicate the concept of  untouchability from the Hindu society;
  8. to establish an order of missionaries, both lay and initiate, for the purpose of propagating dynamic Hinduism representing the fundamental values of life comprehended by various faiths and denominations including Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Lingayats, etc., and to open manage or assist seminaries or centers for training such missionaries;
  9. to promote and conduct activity of literary, scientific, cultural, social, religious or charitable nature and to conduct research in such fields;
  10. to establish maintain, take over, manage or render assistance to libraries and schools and colleges, technological institutes and medical and other relief centers and other institutions of like nature;
  11. to found, maintain, take over, manage or render assistance to orphanages, rescue homes and homes for widows and old and infirm persons;
  12. to found, maintain, take over, manage or render assistance to temples, maths and other centres for preaching and teaching of the principles and practices of Hindu Dharma and Culture       (VHP, 1982)

      From 1964 to 1982, the VHP concentrated on establishing its branches in almost all parts of the country, especially reaching out to the tribals and the Scheduled Castes, consolidating its social welfare programmes, including initiating several educational enterprises and organising Hindus overseas in a massive way. However, it should be noted that the VHP’s entire organisational expansion, its success in unifying the leaders of Hindu religious centres and its acquiring a significant salience in the social and cultural life of the Hindu society and in the Indian political process were made possible by the active involvement of the RSS. AS a matter of fact the VHP, the brainchild of the RSS, became its powerful front organisation.

      At a meeting of the influential heads of the Hindu organisations in June 1982 in Delhi , the VHP acquired its final organisational structure. Its structure has two levels: (a) an assembly of religious heads (Dharma Sansad) as a central authority, and (b) the Advisory Committees (Margdarshak Mandals) consisting of representatives of all the sects, communities and schools. There are two other committees as well: (a) The Kendriya Prabandh Samiti and (b) the Standing Committee. The organisational work is divided into five areas with one Organising Secretary for each area. Every State has been divided into units and every unit into districts and branches. There are 176 units, 640 districts and 6,724 branches. As many as 141 units, 38 districts and 1778 braches have Organisational Secretaries. There are more than 3000 functionaries of the Parishad working full time all over the country. The VHP is aiming at 25 lakhs membership and 10,000 full-time functionaries in the coming years. The VHP since its inception in 1964 has organised several world conventions and national-level conventions with the participation of 25,000 delegates. In addition to these, the VHP has also organised State-level and district-level conventions. It is interesting to mention here that some of the district-level conventions were held in the districts which have a majority or a sizeable Muslim population. ‘Even after partition, the Hindu population has declined to a minority in 19 districts, and 13 more districts face the danger of losing their Hindu majority.’

      The edifice of the VHP organisation abroad was laid down by the founder General Secretary, SS Apte. VHP has divided the world in five Khands (Zones), each headed by a Khand Pramukh (Zonal Coordinator). These Khands are: American Khand consisting of the USA and surrounding countries; Europe Khand comprising the UK and Europe; Africa-Madhya Asia Khand consisting of Africa and West Asian countries; South-East Asia Khand comprising countries of South-East Asia, Australia, New Zeland, Pacific Islands; and Bharat Khand, comprising India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and neighbouring islands.

      The transnational functioning of the VHP has interesting implications for the relationship between transnationalism and transnational Hinduism on the one hand, and between Hindu nationalism and secularism and democracy on the other. An analysis of the VHP’s activities as a discernible identity and collective purpose amongst the Hindus living abroad would reveal the role of the VHP as a cultural agent of Hinduism. An ethnicised Hinduism or Hindu nationalism abroad may help to understand the nature of the VHP project in the Indian context. This ethnicisation of Hinduism abroad might, at least, partially explain why the BJP has been able to gain massive support for Hindu nationalism among the immigrants. The latter, after leaving India, continue to have ties with their homeland and are confronted with challenges to their identity that are often met by religious activism by linking it with nationalism. In this connection one may note that the VHP is ‘committed champion the cause of Hindu minorities residing in different countries for the redress of their grievances’. (VHP, n.d) This is all the more interesting when we are confronted with the VHP’s total lack of empathy and commitment for the doctrine of ‘minority rights’ in India. The VHP organised conventions in New York, 1984; Denmark, 1985; Netherland, 1988; Nepal, 1988; Singapore, 1988; England, 1989; and in the USA, 1993 to celebrate the centenary of Swami Vivekananda’s famous lecture in 1893.

      The VHP has established the following subject-departments to carry on its organisational, ideological, social and religious activities: (1) Sangathan, (2) Mahila, (3) Videsh, (4) Seva, (5) Dharma Prasar, (6) Dharamcharya, (7) Margdarshak Mandal, (8) Goraksha, (9) Pashu Raksha, (10) Math-Mandir, (11) Yuva Sangathan, (12) Sanskrit, (13) Dharmanuthsthan, (14) Prachar-Sampark, (15) Publications, (16) Parva, (17) Sri Ram Janmabhoomi, (18) Purohitiya-Archak, (19) Office, (20) Arth (21) Nyas, (22) Anchal Sampti, (23) Adhyan and, (24) Bhandar.

      From the above-mentioned meticulous and comprehensive division of its ideological, doctrinal and propaganda tasks, it is thus clear that the VHP’s ideological vision and praxis are sought to be realised through a highly modernised and bureaucratised organisational structure.

      Margdarshak Mandal is a bold attempt to unite the Dharmcharyas of all the Hindu sects on a single platform. The Margdarshak Mandal had 25 Dharmcharyas in 1966, the figure rose to 41 in 1981 and now as many as 160 make a powerful policy group in the VHP. The Mandal has played a central role in the VHP’s struggle on the Ram Janma-bhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute.

      The VHP has constituted yet another body known as Dharm Sansad in 1984, consisting of Dharmcharyas and Sants. The Dharm Sansad has held several conventions since then. These conventions have highlighted the problems and concerns of the VHP and challenges facing Hindus with regard to their identity, existence, unity and interests, such as the property of Hindus in Bangladesh, Punjab problem, struggle for the construction of Sri Ram temple at Ayodhya and restoration of temples at Kashi and Mathura, Hindu awakening, Hindu culture, approval of  a 12-point programme for individual, family and society for national unity and culture, approval of yet another 36-point reform programme in the context of intra-Hindu struggles in the spheres of ‘language, caste and regions’, ‘evils of the dowry system and untouchability’ in the Hindu social life’ ‘neglect of Maths and Mandirs’, ‘cow slaughter’, ‘abduction of women and children’, ‘change of names of holy cities and towns’ , ‘curbing atrocities on Hindus’, establishment of ‘autonomous boards to manage Hindu temples’ and increasing the ‘initiative, influence and leadership of Sants in all the arenas of the society. The Dharm Sansad in its session in Delhi on April 2-4, 1991 not only condemned the insults heaped on the Sants in the October-November 1990 Ayodhya struggle but also appealed to Hindus to ‘vote carefully’ in the May 1991 elections, keeping in view the sacrifices made by the brave Hindus in the October-November 1990 Ayodhya turmoil. The Delhi Dharma Sansad Convention acknowledged the support of the BJP to the Ayodhya cause and blessed the party for the same. On April 4 1991, a mammoth rally was organised in Delhi and was claimed to be the biggest in the history of Delhi. ‘No other rally organised by any political or religious organisation was bigger than this... The Ram Bhakats were assured by the religious heads and political leaders and parliamentarians that no power on earth can stop construction of Ram temple at Ayodhya.’ (VHP,1995) The fifth convention held again in Delhi on  October 30-31, 1991was attended by 600 Sants which decided to start ‘kar seva’ for reconstruction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. It also opposed the demand for the extension of the constitutionally guaranteed concessions to the ex-Hindu converts to other religions, Christians and Muslims. The sixth Dharma Sansad was held at four places—Nasik , Tirupati, Kashi and Hardwar. Apart from local-regional issues, these conferences stressed the need for establishing Dharm Rajya and reconstructing society on the basis of spiritual values.

      The Dharm Sansad decided to mobilise the Ram Bhakats to annex the complex at Ayodhya presently under the control of the Central Government for starting the construction of the Ram temple. It also took measures to sharpen the organisational power of the youth wings, Bajrang Dal and Durga Vahini.

      The VHP has undertaken the project of honouring and training the temple priests. It has claimed that such a programme lunched by it in Tamil Nadu has revealed that all the 700 trainees belonged to the deprived classes. In the context of promoting social harmony, the VHP has described this project as a significant one. Protection of the cow and ban on cow slaughter has been given a pointed thrust in the VHP’s campaigns. The VHP has demanded a legislation banning the slaughter of cow and its progeny, ban on cow export, and strengthening ‘goshalas’.

      The constitution of a ‘Bharat Sanskrit Parishad’ is yet another project to promote and propagate Sanskrit as a language of social communication. The VHP is also engaged in popularising the Vedas—the source of Hindu religion and culture. Ninetyfive ‘Veda Mandirs’ have been established in India and abroad. The Parishad organised a ‘Veda Sammelan’ in Prayag ( Allahabad ) on  January 10-11, 1992 in which eminent Vedic scholars participated. The most important campaign, underscoring the self-identity, ‘unity’ of Hindus and correcting of the ‘wrongs’ done to the Hindus in the medieval period of Indian history, and also consciously and unconsciously underscoring the ‘Hindu power’, has been on the issue of Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute. The VHP’s entire organisational effort, the extraordinary and energetic mobilisation by the religious leaders of different maths, ‘akharas’, sects and cults through its Margdarshak Mandals and Dharm Sansad backed by the RSS and the BJP cadres as also the mass members of the latter, including the support and empathy from large sections located in lower middle and middle classes, as also the rich and wealthy in both rural and urban areas, were harnessed to realise the VHP’s ‘do or die’ demand, first for the ‘relocation’ of the Babri Masjid, and now for the ‘reconstruction’ of the Ram temple on the ruins of the Babri Masjid.

For the first time in its history, the VHP came out with an exhaustive ‘Hindu Agenda’:

The majority in our country is leading a life of neglect due to wrong policies of adopted since independence by not following proper secularism and consequently discriminated against. In order to reverse this situation, all political parties should adopt the attached points in their election manifesto. It will be wise to remember that in our country, Hindus are also voters and not merely the minorities and their sentiments and aspirations should be honoured.    
                                                                     (VHP, 1996)

      The 40-point ‘Hindu Agenda’,  issued on the eve of the 1996 Lok Sabha elections put in perspective the religio-cultural basis of the politics of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ being diligently pursued by the RSS.  The RSS’ politics and vision of ‘Hindu Rashtra’ comes out clearly in the VHP’s 40-point ‘Hindu Agenda’ as under: -

1. From the beginning of the creation of Bharatvarsh, known by the name of Aryavart and Hindustan, it has been the birth place of Hindu race and its ancestors. It is an undisputed and self-evident Arya Rashtra or Hindu Rashtra.

2. After its freedom from the unfortunate slavery of 1000 years, the Hindu nation, as a result of its continuous struggle and unmatchable sacrifices should have got political, religious and cultural freedom in its motherland, Bharat. After the unfortunate partition of Bharatbhoomi, the remaining portion of divided Bharat inevitably and self-evidently remains and continues to be Bharatbhoomi. It is indeed extremely unfortunate that due to the shortsighted and foreign-oriented thought and perception of then political leaders responsible for the partition of the country, this most ancient, glorious and cultural civilisation finds itself powerless, helpless and orphaned in its own country.

3. The political parties promoted by the spirit of pseudo-secularism, and not real secularism, which the term conveys, by resorting to the policy of appeasement of anti-national elements, have rendered the mainstream Hindu Samaj deplorably orphaned and their motherland Bharatvarsh like a wretched dharmashala.

4. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad presents this Hindu Agenda before the political parties to salvage Bharat and Hindu nation unfortunately surrounded by inimical forces and innumerable difficulties to ensure just human rights to the vast community of 80 crore in their homeland. It is the duty of every political party in the country to promise to safeguard the interests of the national mainstream, that is, Hindu Samaj (Sanaatan, Buddha, Jain, Sikh panths, etc).

5. In the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections we want the parties to promise the following agenda:

   I. Hindutva and nationalism in Bharat are synonymous. Hindu Samaj is indisputably the main current of Bharat. Hindu interest is the national interest. Therefore the honour and the interests of Hindus will be protected in every manner.

   II. The patriotic Hindus all over the world aspire to construct a magnificent temple at Sri Rama Janmabhoomi in Ayodhya in accordance with the model approved by the revered sants.

   III. The Janmabhoomi complex will be immediately handed over by enacting a suitable legislation to Sri Rama Janmabhoomi Nyas which is in the forefront of Sri Rama Janmabhoomi awakening and is recognised as such by Hindus all over the world.

   IV. The Holy campuses of Sri Krishna Janmasthan at Mathura and Kashi Vishwanath temple at Varanasi which were desecrated and remodeled by foreigners will be immediately handed over to the Hindu Samaj by enacting a suitable legislation.

   V. Slaughter of cow and its progeny shall be completely banned throughout the country by enacting an effective legislation and made a rigorously punishable offence.

   VI. Gau-seva Ministries will be formed at the Centre and in the States to protect environment, natural-ecology and agro-economy for establishment of self-reliant village-oriented economy to foster and develop the national species of cow and its progeny for production of natural and organic manure and to enhance the production of milk, butter, ghee and yogurt, etc., and utilise the tremendous ox-power in national interest.

   VII. The anti-national activity of religious conversion of Hindus by force, fraud or false propaganda by exploiting the innocence and poverty of backward communities will be entirely banned.

   VIII. All foreign remittances to non-governmental agencies, social, religious or service organisations and individuals will be stopped so that the money and the material is not misutilised for religious conversion and other divisive conspiracies.

   IX. A uniform civil code will be promulgated throughout the country to check inequality, imbalance, injustice, atrocities on women and to stop the malpractice of polygamy.

   X. Abortion and female infanticide which promote immorality and female persecution will be banned. More stringent provisions will be made against rape and kidnapping of women. Firm steps will be taken to check the scourge of dowry system.

   XI. Article 370 of the Constitution, which smacks of a separate balkanised identity of Kashmir from the rest of the country will be scrapped. The restriction on the sale and purchase of property in Kashmir by Bharatiya citizens will be abolished.

   XII. The Kashmiri migrants will be honourably rehabilitated. Their snatched properties will be restored and the deprived families will be compensated. Adequate arrangements for their security will be made.

   XIII. Secessionist demands and propaganda in Kashmir or anywhere else will be ruthlessly repressed. The secessionist demand will be a strict penal anti-national offence.

   XIV. Terrorism results in untold sufferings to the people of the country. Therefore, the very source, whether internal or external, will be uprooted by determined action of the government.

   XV. Special rights and privileges granted to the minorities will be available to all sections of society to end inequality.

   XVI. University recognised, well developed and scientific language Sanskrit will be made compulsory subject of study throughout the country.

   XVII. The mother tongue will invariably be the medium of primary education.

   XVIII. Teaching of Bharatiya culture and Dharma will be made compulsory.

   XIX. The status of second official language accorded by certain states to Urdu in foreign script will be withdrawn.

   XX. The distorted presentation of modern, social and cultural history of Bharat will be got re-written by honest, patriotic and learned historians and archaeologists. The teaching syllabus shall be accordingly reformed.

   XXI. Singing of ‘Vande Mataram’ will be compulsory in all educational institutions.

   XXII. Pooja, archana and religious construction activities of maths, mandirs and ashrams will be deemed a charitable society and will be entitled for exemption from the income tax.

   XXIII. A specified portion of government revenue shall be earmarked for the various dharmic, charitable objects of the tax payers.

   XXIV. Efforts will be made at governmental level to spread and develop Ayurved and other indigenous medical system.

   XXV. Government interference and control in pilgrim centres, maths, mandirs and ashrams will be removed and they will be made autonomous for proper management.

   XXVI. Pilgrimages shall be made tax-free. Ministries shall be established at the centre and in the states to restore the glory of pilgrim centers.

   XXVII. Drinking and non-vegetarianism will be discouraged by the government. All meat export from the country will be banned. All big mechanical abattoirs will be closed.

   XXVIII. Vigorous efforts will be made for immediate expulsion of all those who have infiltrated into Bharat after January 1, 1970. The country’s borders will be impregnably guarded and sealed. Identity cards will be issued to the residents of bordering areas.

   XXIX. Pervasive arrangements will be made for the cleanliness, piety and glory of religious centers and rivers.

   XXX. Terrorist and anti-national activities will be ruthlessly crushed by appropriate legal provisions.

   XXXI. Any denigration of, or disrespect to any faith including Hindu culture, belief or tradition, or any venerated character by audio-visual, written or spoken means will be a penal offence and strictly enforced.

   XXXII. The national economic policy will be based on swadeshi and self-reliance.

   XXXIII. It shall be the moral duty of the Government to protect the religious and cultural rights of non-resident Bharatiyas living in neighbouring and far-off countries and to develop their dharmik, cultural and social relations.

   XXXIV. Non-resident Bharatiyas will be treated as Bharatiya citizens.

   XXXV. The old and glorious historical names of towns, roads and places will be restored.

   XXXVI. Prominent Hindu festivals will be declared national holidays.

   XXXVII. The rights and privileges accorded to Scheduled castes and tribes will be withdrawn on their conversion.

   XXXVIII. In view of the unimpeachable historical, literary and archaeological evidence, the Places of Worship (Special Provision) Act, 1991 shall be suitably modified/repealed.

   XXXIX. The Minority Commission and similar partisan institutions will be abolished.

   XL. Recruitment in armed, paramilitary and police forces on communal lines will not be permitted.

      Thus, it is reasonably clear that the elaborate ‘Hindu Agenda’ of the VHP in its contents and tone in their totality is nothing but strident, assertive and passionate plea for legitimising the theory and practice of majoritarianism. The VHP has sought to hegomonise a ‘Hinduised’ politics, hego-minising Hindu religion and culture. The ‘Hindu Agenda’ also has the grave potential to communalise Hinduism and rob Hinduism of its elegant and erudite spiritual and metaphysical traditions steeped in dissent and democratic pluralism. The ‘Hindu Agenda’ is meant to galvanise the Hindus at the grass roots by polticising Hinduism and creating and inventing an identifiable form of ‘political Hinduism’ and ‘Hindu nationalism’ and mercilessly synonymising the latter with Indian nationalism. The net and massive political and electoral gainer of the VHP’s enormous effort and endeavour to aggressively articulate its ‘Hindu Agenda’ has been none other than the RSS-inspired BJP. The VHP-led powerful institutions and campaigns and its politically inspired religious activities have created a sort of well-entrenched and stable ‘Hindu vote-bank’ and the latter is an integral part of the social and organizational base of the BJP, giving it significant political and electoral advantage. In fact, the grass roots cadres and leaders of both the VHP and the BJP share in both intellectual and emotional terms the letter and spirit of the ‘Hindu Agenda’.  

The VHP has organised another hugely emotive campaign on ‘Save Sri Ram Setu’. Hindu Janjagruti Samiti and Rameshwaram Raksha Manch were launched by the VHP to spearhead this massive campaign which has all the organisational, ideological and mobilisational features and attributes of its earlier campaign on the Ram temple at Ayodhya. The political purpose is the same: creation and consolidation of a grand ‘Hindu unity’ platform transcending the many intra-Hindu social and political struggles in its caste-based hierarchical social order. The Setu (Sethu) Samudram Shipping Canal Project (SSCP) has been approved by the Government of India and its work has been started near Kodand Ram temple. In this project, the Palk Strait and Gulf of Mannar will be linked by making a shipping canal through the Rameshwaram Island. The VHP regards the Setu as an ‘ages-old man-made bridge between Rameshwaram and Sri Lanka’. According to Hindu scriptures and belief, Lord Ram and his vaanar sena had built a bridge about 17 lakh 25 thousand years ago.

Hindu scriptures and belief are correct in this matter. And that Ramayana is ‘history’ and ‘mythology’ as is often construed. The Setu project is based on the notion that it is inevitable to break the Sri Ram Setu for easy navigation. This will amount to damaging a monument of both historical and religious importance to Hindus.

      The VHP and the allied organisations regard the Ram Setu as a ‘divine bridge’ and the government’s project ‘is trampling upon the feelings of and emotions of millions and millions of Hindus’. The Hindu organisations leading the campaign have posed emotional questions to the government.

Why was the route of Metro passing close to Qutub Minar in New Delhi abandoned and later reworked fearing prospective damage to this 815 years man-made monument? Why was the project to Taj corridor which would have made lot of dollars to our money-minded government put off after the hue and cry of environmentalists as the construction near Taj may cause bad effect on 359 years old man made monument? These monuments were not going to be destroyed but were feared to get damaged.

      The Rameshwaram Ram Setu Raksha Manch (PRRM), a division of the VHP, performed the ritualistic worship of the stones used to construct the Ram Setu all over the country and has received an overwhelming response from the VHP’s and BJP’s mass members. The convener of the PRRM and Working President of the VHP, Vedanatham, has alleged that ‘certain vested interests in the Congress and DMK wanted to destroy the Ram Setu in retaliation to the demolition of the disputed Babri Masjid in Ayodhya to appease the Muslim community’. Vedanatham cautioned that the Centre would bee surely responsible and accountable for the violence in the aftermath of destruction of the Ram Setu. The VHP’s new slogan is: ‘We will save the Ram Setu (Setusamudram) and build the Ram temple (Ram Sethu Bachayenge, Ram Mandir Banayenge)’. On May 27, 2007 the VHP organised a protest meeting at the Ramlila Grounds where hundreds of Sadhus and Sants were present. Giving an ultimatum to the UPA Government, the Sants warned to stop the destruction of the Ram Setu forthwith. The Sants will be forced to take strong decision to save the Ram Setu. The VHP’s a president, Ashok Singhal, declared:

The political leaders could be coward, but the people of this country are not coward or weak. When the structure at Ayodhya was demolished, they did not bother about their lives.  Now too they are ready for any sacrifice. The people of Europe do not recognize the history and culture of Bharat and they want to destroy it. That is why they call Sri Ram and Sri Krishna the mythological characters.

      He made it clear that they are not against the Setusamudram project. The government should adopt an alternate route. (Source: hindujagruti.org/news)

      The controversy over the Ram Setu dispute slightly cooled down when on September 14, 2007 the Central Government withdrew its affidavits in the Supreme Court, which was hailed by the VHP as a victory of its mobilisation. But the VHP has not given up its pressure on the government and is currently in a mobilisational mode and linking the two issues around Ram: the one of the Ram temple at Ayodhya and the other of Ram Setu.

      The VHP organised yet another huge rally in Delhi on December 30, 2007 to mount pressure on the Centre over the Ram Setu issue. The Hindustan Times, dated December 31, 2007, reporting on the rally said:

The Sangh Parivar, with the BJP in tow, issued an ultimatum to the UPA government on the Ram Setu issue threatening to launch a violent agitation if the centre decided to tamper with the bridge-formation off Rameshwaram to create a shipping channel. At a mega rally attended by top BJP leaders, VHP’s Pravin Togadia threatened: ‘Be ready. The battle will be fought in six lakhs villages across the country…hum eent se eent baja dengey (we will give a befitting reply)… Remember we are the people who had reduced Babar’s structure to rubble in matter of four hours’. The rally aimed at sending messages to all political parties that they could not afford to ignore the sentiments of the Hindu community. Messages from Atal Behari Vajpayee, the AIADMK leader, Jayalalithaa (a potential ally of the BJP) and Punjab Chief Minister, Prakash Singh Badal supporting the Ram Setu movement were read out at the meet. The meeting passed a resolution vowing to prevent the centre from inflicting damage to the revered Ram Setu. It also raised the demand that the Ram Setu be declared a protected historical heritage site and Rameshwaram be conferred the status of a holy pilgrimage town.

      It can be surmised that this rally marked the beginning of Sangh Parivar’s campaign against the UPA Government at the Centre ahead of the next general elections. The Indian Express (December 31, 2007) filed the following report underscoring the political and electoral undertones of the VHP rally:

Though the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, Lal Krishna Advani, was absent and other party leaders present on the dais chose not to speak, the VHP leaders and Sadhus went overboard attacking the ruling coalition….the Sadhus exhorted Hindus to use their voting right to throw out ‘all opponents of Ram’ from the corridors of power. While RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan attacked the Congress for the affidavit it had submitted in the Supreme Court denying the historical existence of Ram, VHP leader Ashok Singhal blamed the Congress and the Communists for calling Ram an imaginary figure. Asserting that Ram was a historical Mahapurush and India an ancient nation, he said both the Sethu and the nation belong to Ram (Ram ka hai setu, Ram ka hai desh). Acharya Dharmendra attacked the Congress in general and Sonia Gandhi in particular, calling her a foreigner. He said that today’s Congress was not the Congress of Tilak, Malaviya and Patel and claimed that it no longer possesses a Right-of-the-Centre space in the country. The Hindus should now take out the funeral procession of the Congress with the slogan ‘Ram Naam Satya Hai’, he said. Though many leaders like Murli Manohar Joshi, Arun Jaitley, Prem Kumar Dhumal, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Vasundhra Raje, and Sushma Swaraj attended the meeting, none of them spoke. The party’s firebrand Hindutva leader, Narendra Modi, chose to stay away. It seems the BJP’s new poll strategy is to make Advani occupy the space left vacant by Vajpayee. This perhaps explains Advani’s absence for the programme. According to some sources, while the party would build up its election campaign in a more liberal manner, its ideological associates like the RSS and VHP would take the core agenda of Hindutva to the people. Interestingly, placards carrying anti-caste slogans were on display at the rally. They read, ‘Jaat Paat ka Bandhan todo, Bharat ko Sri Ram se jodo (Break Caste bonds, unite India in the name of Ram).

The VHP has undertaken another massive, but aggressive campaign on the issue of conversion to spread its Hindutva ideology in society and shape and influence politics of the country. It has, for example, attributed attacks on the Christians, including the widespread damage to their property, prayer homes, churches and school buildings in different parts of the country, particularly in the BJP-ruled States of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and the States in which it is a partner, like Orissa, to the ‘forcible conversions’ of Hindus by the Christian missionaries. This is, at best, a crude attempt to rationalise, rather, justify the assaults on the Christian community. The former Prime Minister and the patriarch of the BJP, Atal Behari Vajpayee, succumbing to the RSS-VHP pressure, lent credibility to this indefensible violence against the Christians by calling for a national debate on conversions.

      In the case of recent violence against Dalit Christians, the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) has found the Orissa Government wanting in its response to the violence targeting Christians and their institutions across four districts of the State around Christmas. The Hindu (January 18, 2008) on the NCM findings reported:

Briefing media persons, the two-member NCM team—Dileep Padgaonkar and Zoya Hassan—said what happened in Phulbani, Daringbadi, Bamunigaon and Baliguda was an ‘organised and pre-planned’ attack on the Christian community and its institutions. Asked who was behind these attacks, Prof Hassan said: ‘What we have gathered from the people we met is that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad was involved in vitiating the political atmosphere of the area.’  Stating the situation in Orissa was ‘far more complex and serious than it is made out to be’, the members said they got the impression that the State wanted to see it as an ethnic conflict between two social groups. While conceding the existence of a ‘long simmering’ Koi-Pana conflict over extending Scheduled Tribe status to the Christian pana community, the NCM team said an equally important component of ‘communal disturbance was the anti-conversion campaign conducted by the VHP and Sangh Parivar organisations for the last few years’.

      The RSS-monitored and controlled evolution of the VHP can thus be neatly divided into two periods. The first period (1964 to 1984) was characterized by a programmatic thrust centered around consolidation of Hindus, prevention of either Christian or Muslim conversions of Hindus, identifying and spreading the message of ‘essential’ Hinduism in India and abroad in cooperation with overseas Hindu organisations or establishing VHP branches outside India, cow protection and ban on cow slaughter, social welfare programmes in the area of education, health services, Hindu awakening, minimising and simplifying religious rituals concerning ceremonies, maintenance and upkeep of Hindu temples, eradication of  untouchability, launching anti-poverty and self-employment generation programmes, especially for the Scheduled Castes and backward classes, promotion and propagation of Sanskrit language, and uniting the leaders and heads of different Hindu sects, maths, cults and ‘akharas’ on core Hindu issues and perceptions for the creation of a grand ‘Hindu Unity’ platform.

      The second period beginning in 1984, as already pointed out, was the massive Ram temple-centred Hindu nationalistic assertion and it terminated the VHP’s broadly liberal phase which generally coincided with religious and social activities. The VHP is the ideological creation of the RSS. It was only when the VHP had acquired a solid and sound organisational shape and structure and had secured the substantial participation of the Sants, Sadhus and Dharmcharyas affiliated with several sects that the RSS signalled the second post-1984 militant phase of the VHP, primarily focused on the emotive but potentially communal and ostensibly anti-Muslim Ram temple issue. The latter has, thus, qualitatively transformed the VHP from a liberal ‘Hindu unity’ platform into a ‘Hindu nationalistic’ platform.

      The VHP’s concerted attacks on the evil of untouchability through several candid resolutions of its Margdarshak Mandals, Dharma Sansad and Sant Sammelans, as also the energetic and deeply felt exhortations against the evil by the leading lights of Hindu religious centres is indeed laudable not only for the realisation of the Parishad’s proclaimed objective of ‘Hindu unity’ and ‘harmony’ in Hindu society, but also as an autonomous goal in itself symbolising human equality, fraternity and dignity. But, surprisingly, in the deliberations of the VHP, there is no ardent attack on the centuries-old caste system-the ideological source of untouchability legitimising it. The VHP has, undoubtedly, made a passionate plea for economic and educational upliftment of the Scheduled Castes and the backward classes. But there is no evidence of robust, categorical and candid commitment for the social and political empowerment of socially deprived sections of the Hindu society. Again, the VHP’s emphasis on ‘social harmony’ is rather platitudinous. Social harmony is an end in itself and ‘social justice’ or ‘social equality’ or’ social change’ are the means to realise the former. The VHP does not speak in terms of ‘social justice’. The VHP’s emphasis on ‘social harmony’, at best, reflects the politics of cooption and at worst, the politics of paternalism.

      In the economic sphere, the VHP’s commitment to swadeshi has not made a powerful impact on Indian politics. The swadeshi campaign of VHP has been anemic in contrast to its powerful Hindutva campaign. The VHP’s swadeshi plank has been merely reduced to an assertion of economic nationalism, nay protectionism. The VHP has failed to articulate the emancipatory and egalitarian ethics implicit in swadeshi. The latter is essentially an alternative civilisational, cultural and developmental discourse meant to dismantle structures of social hegemony, economic domination, techno-managerial modernisation, bureaucratic ascendancy and authoritarian nationalism. Swadeshi stands for the creation and building of democratic, secular, federal and egalitarian nationalism. It can indeed be argued that there is an inherent contradiction between VHP’s planks of Hindutva and swadeshi. The former is bereft of an egalitarian agenda. As a cultural construct, Hindutva has a tenacious tendency to degenerate into communal fanaticism serving the needs of the vested interests. It strengthens and perpetuates the incumbent iniquitous social and economic order.

      The organisational infrastructures, the assertive association of the sants, their core leadership role and their strategic inputs to the Ram Janmabhoomi struggle have been meticulously mobilised by the VHP. The Ayodhya movement had thrown up almost a new genre of political activists-the Ram Bhakats. They have been indoctrinated to perceive themselves not as symbols of religious praxis, or agents of social change but as proud partisans to undo the ‘historical wrongs’ done to Hindus by Muslim rulers.

This grand Hindutva mobilisation has also been the consequence, however, of the continuous existence of an uneasy perception and feeling amongst a section of Hindus on the nature of Indian medieval history. It is generally regarded by them in terms of Muslim domination over Hindus. The Ayodhya project was meant to liberate the Hindus from humiliation which they had suffered at the hands of the ‘alien’ Muslim rulers.   This uneasy feeling has palpably produced a siege psyche amongst them. This segment, essentially comprising the orthodox revivalist wing of the upper castes could not carry conviction in the colonial period, due substantially to the morally edifying leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and modernising leadership of Nehru and the democratic thrusts of the socialist movement in the post-independence era.

      However, the post-emergency Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi phases of Indian politics witnessed, for the first time, the conscious channelising of the relatively repressed, indigenously-inspired and orthodox-revivalist Hindu opinion. The RSS, the sole mobiliser and the sole political leader of the indigenous social thought has now openly and directly entered into Indian politics in a manner not known since its inception. The back-seat driving phase of the RSS has thus ended and its intervention is not a routine entry of a self-proclaimed socio-cultural organisation. It is, on the other hand, ardently and fiercely seeking to give a Hinduised redefinition to the freedom struggle-nurtured Indian nationalism and democratic politics. The Hinduisation of nationalism and politics has profoundly distorted them.

      The Congress of Indira Gandhi and then Rajiv Gandhi also contributed in a meaningful measure to the assertive articulation of the RSS-VHP Hindu cause by their electorally motivated conscious cultivation of soft-Hinduism to meet the challenges posed by the non-Congress Centrist political formations, powerfully organised around the peasant-intermediate castes and backward classes and the centrist-like Vajpayee-led BJP from 1980 onwards. The Hindutva case, since then, has not only got consolidated but has also found diversified support from amongst the several non-upper caste sections. The obviously opportunistic parliamentary enactment in the wake of judgment in the Shah Bano case was a crude attempt to pamper and appease Muslim obscurantism. Congress, thus, contributed to the rationale and justification for the consolidation of Hindutva camp.

      The post-independence secular movement was also seriously subdued and stymied by the tragic absence of an ardently articulated concept of social justice as its integral and pulsating part. The secular thought and forces without a strong focus on social equality did not incorporate the existentialist experiences and rectify the social and psychological deprivations of the vast number of castes and communities located at the lower and intermediate levels of the Hindu social order. The majority-minority, particularly, the Hindu-Muslim tolerance and trust, though laudable, was the only dimension emphasised by the secular school. But the latter was generally oblivious of the emotionally felt social agony of the vast masses who continue to be victims of the caste-based social hierarchy. The secular movement, despite playing a constructive role in preserving and emphasizing the composite cultural heritage, strands and ethos of our polity, was, more or less, socially sterile.

      In the hands of the Congress, secularism became largely, if not entirely, a powerful component of its electoral strategy by converting the Muslim masses into an almost a bonded block for several decades after independence. It was only when the vast sections of peasantry, Dalits and Muslims developed critical alienation from the post-Emergency Congress that the later initiated the process of moving Hindu-ward. The partial Hinduisation of the Congress, initiated first by Indira Gandhi and further augmented by Rajiv Gandhi, continues to be a critical component of the total profile and posture of the party. The Sonia Gandhi-led Congress has made some feeble attempts to change this direction. But the latter are not decisively discernible. The parties and groups of the non-Congress camp, which are committed to the equity-based secularism, have tragically become vicious victim of organizational decay, authoritarian functioning, insipid factionalism and leadership vacuum. The Marxist parties in India have also not shown as much sensitive awareness and robust concern on the question of caste as they did on the question of class. The left parties still show insensitive inability and unwillingness that in our country, political economy, state, social and opportunity structures continue to be influenced and shaped by a caste-based hierarchical socio-economic order. As a result, their secular praxis has not forcefully articulated the aspirations for social equality. It is in this political scenario of socially vulnerable secularism which has emboldened the Sangh family to put the Hindutva discourse on the top of the political agenda.

      By distorting Indian nationalism, the Hindu discourse of the VHP cannot accommodate cultural pluralism which is an important ingredient of the multi-layered complex Indian social reality. The Hindu discourse of the VHP articulating cultural homogenisation, cannot also democratise, sublimate and humanise the sectarian-separatist sensibility and identity formation implicit in the ethnic structure. On the other hand, the VHP’s Hindu discourse has the powerful negative potential to make these sectarian nuances, if anything, more explicit, pronounced and even intransigent. The VHP’s Hindu nationalism, basically bereft of the social equality dimension, therefore tend to reinforce the entrenched structures of social, cultural and economic domination, blocking the struggle for the empowerment of the people. Only a revitalised secularism, freed from the shackles of stultifying inequalities, can give it a mass force and pose a serious challenge to the movement for hinduising nationalism which, in essence, amounts to a dangerous distortion of Indian nationalism itself.

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