Area 14/8

Has India’s mainstream media decided to pay mere lip service to secularism and liberalism while ignoring daily attacks on them by the extremist Sangh Parivar in which the Bharatiya Janata Party is embedded? Going by the media’s silence on several recent developments, that seems to be the case.

No newspaper noticed the irony of a representative of the Sangh Parivar – the very current that inspired the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi – being invited to the unveiling of his statue in London. This event was organised mainly by the Tories, who never had any love lost for Gandhi, with an eye on the British-Gujarati vote in the coming election.

Earlier, Britain’s prosperous Gujarati businessmen lobbied the Cameron government to reach an odious rapprochement with Narendra Modi, who had long faced global isolation for the 2002 anti-Muslim violence. The rapprochement happened a year before he emerged as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. It was rationalised on the ground that Gujarat offers “dynamic and thriving” opportunities in “business” (yes) and “education”(hardly)!

Again, many papers criticised the Parivar’s hysterical campaigns against Love Jihad and Ghar Wapsi. But very few trenchantly criticised the premises on which they are based, or noted the effect they have had in debasing the national discourse or making the religious minorities insecure.

Many commentators went along with the Parivar premise that all Indian Muslims and Christians are converts from Hinduism (not true), and therefore the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has the right to reconvert them (which it doesn’t, thanks to the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of conscience).

The Parivar has further poisoned the climate by unleashing three offensives: attacking Christian institutions; pushing brazenly majoritarian policies in BJP-ruled states; and making communal appointments to the Indian Council of Historical Research. The Parivar’s Long March through the institutions will prove more damaging to democracy than Ghar Wapsi.

Christian institutions have come under vicious attack especially since RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat accused Mother Teresa a month ago of using charitable work as a cover for religious conversion. In Delhi, five churches were attacked in nine weeks. A 71-year-old nun was raped in West Bengal and a church was vandalised in Hissar in Haryana. Christians have also been subjected to reconversion drives in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh.

BJP MP Subramanian Swamy added insult to injury by saying that churches and mosques, unlike Hindu temples, are not holy places, but mere buildings that can be demolished. Haryana’s chief minister, no less, defended the Hissar attackers by claiming that the church priest was trying to convert Hindu men by promising them brides, as if that justified crass vandalism!

Not to be left behind, VHP joint general secretary Surendra Jain called the 1857 anti-British revolt an anti-Christian war and threatened similar wars against conversions. He asked whether a Hanuman temple would be allowed in the Vatican. Worse, he said sexual exploitation of nuns was part of Christian, not Hindu, culture; the Pope is so worried about it that he’s promoting gay sex. This disgusting anti-Christian tirade impelled former Punjab police chief Julio Ribeiro to say “I feel I am on a hit list”. He hinted that Modi failed to stop the attacks. Ribeiro’s intervention will have a massive impact in India and abroad.

BJP-ruled governments are subverting democracy in multiple ways: lifting the ban on their employees from joining the RSS (Chhattisgarh), making the teaching of the Bhagwad-Gita compulsory in schools (Haryana), and punishing possession, sale or consumption of beef with five years’ imprisonment (Maharashtra).

Allowing state employees to join the RSS undermines the principle of a politically impartial bureaucracy, which is at the heart of a rule-of-law society. The RSS is not a social or cultural organisation. It’s a political entity. It lays down the BJP’s political line and nominates its key organisational personnel. Gujarat similarly lifted the RSS ban in 2000, but reversed the step under Vajpayee’s orders. Yet the move sent a signal to the bureaucracy and police whose dreadful impact became visible in 2002.

The BJP is taking its proselytisation drive even to posh private schools like Ryan International (133 branches), whose managing director is the BJP women’s front secretary. Its staff and students are being recruited into the BJP on pain of salary cuts or other punishment.

Take beef. Surveys show that three-fourths of all beef sold is consumed by Hindus, especially poor, mainly Dalit, Hindus. Not only is beef a cheap source of good-quality protein. Banning the slaughter of old and unproductive cattle will deprive huge numbers of butchers of their livelihoods, increase pressure on shrinking pastures, and further degrade the environment.

The whole idea that the majority’s food preferences should be imposed upon the rest is profoundly undemocratic. No pious upper-caste Hindu should be forced to eat beef, or watch cows being killed. But equally, no Muslim, northeastern tribal, Christian or Dalit should be deprived of the choice of eating what they like.

Take the new ICHR appointments. The Modi government has broken the long-standing convention of reappointing members who have completed one term (of the maximum of two they can hold), and purged the council of accomplished secular-minded scholars.

The 18 new appointees, barring a couple, are close to the Bharatiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana, an obnoxiously obscurantist group, some of whose members believe the Taj Mahal is a Hindu temple, and the Ramayana is a historical, not religious-mythological, text! Among the new members are physicist MD Srinivas, and Michel Danino, who has written about the mythical ‘lost river’ Saraswati, and made fantastic claims about science in ancient India.

The Parivar’s new aggression seems to be related to a larger understanding reached between the BJP and the RSS, which became evident at the Sangh’s just-concluded Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha. The RSS has set aside its differences with the BJP on Jammu and Kashmir, the Land Acquisition Ordinance, and raising foreign investment in insurance, etc, to back the ruling alliance solidly. These differences aren’t trivial. Some actions of the PDP-BJP alliance are directly at odds with the RSS’ core positions on Kashmir, but the very fact that the alliance is in power is a coup for the Sangh. Similarly, the Bharatiya Kisan Union has problems with the land ordinance, but the RSS has told it not to oppose it.

The RSS believes that with the BJP in power with a majority, it has a unique opportunity to mainstream itself by capturing social and state institutions, and opening up issues long considered settled, such as Hinduism’s socio-cultural primacy, religious conversion, etc, which could help redefine India as a Hindu society.

The RSS needs the support of state power to do this and grow. So it’ll back the BJP’s pro-corporate neoliberal economic policies. The BJP, in turn, will give the Parivar a good deal of freedom to push its ultraconservative social agenda. That’s why Modi has done nothing to restrain the Parivar, barring issuing a weak, vague statement against inciting religious hatred.

The Parivar is no longer ‘fringe’; it’s an almost equal partner of the BJP. Despite the strenuous efforts of some confused, and some very devious, elements to give it semi-respectability, the BJP remains an extremist party, with a hardline, expansionist Hindu-supremacist agenda – and a menace to democracy.