I am not the sort of person who gets unduly perturbed by stories about the violent Hindu right or about the rise in so-called Hindu terrorism. Yes, there may be terrorists on the fringes of Hinduism but given the size of India’s Hindu population, it would be surprising if there were no terrorists at all within the community. In a nation of over a billion Hindus it is hardly cause for shock and horror if 0.01 per cent of the community turns to violence.
This was my view on Thursday when Headlines Today invited me to their studios to comment on video tapes of alleged Hindu terrorists. These recordings had been made by one of the terrorists himself and were part of the police investigation into the matter. Headlines Today said that the tapes suggested a worrying nexus between the terrorists and individuals within the Sangh Parivar.
There was, first of all, a conversation involving B.L. Sharma Prem, a former BJP MP who was video-taped in conversation with some of the alleged terrorists. Prem said terrible, disgusting, anti-Muslim things on the tape (the abuse had to be bleeped out) and the possibility of staging violent attacks on Muslims was discussed. Far from dissuading the potential terrorists, Sharma seemed almost approving. Other recordings linked the potential terrorists to members of the RSS, including perhaps a relatively senior leader.
I said on the show that I did not believe that the tapes proved that the RSS had a terrorist agenda or that it had organisational links with the terrorists. But, I added, there was always a danger that an organisation that defined itself in terms of religion and had a clear anti-Muslim agenda would attract dangerous lunatics, peddlers of hate and violent radicals.
I gave the example of B.L. Sharma Prem, who I first met when he appeared on a TV show I anchored in the late 1990s. Prem was clearly a fascist of some description and said such terrible abusive things about Muslims and Christians on camera that we had to edit out most of his comments. To complete the fascist picture, he filled the studio with his own followers, who shouted ‘Har Har Mahadev’ each time their leader said something especially poisonous. I was so shocked by Prem that I complained about him to a very, very senior leader of the BJP. “Arrey, woh toh pagal hai,” the great man said. “Don’t take him seriously.”
But we had no choice but to take Prem seriously because no matter how much the BJP dismissed him, it also gave him parliamentary tickets. Prem got to be an MP twice and at last year’s election, he was a BJP candidate once again. (Fortunately, he lost.)
The problem with the BJP, I said on the programme, was that it did not distance itself enough from the Muslim-haters and the Hindu fascists. In the case of the RSS, the problem was more acute. We know that in the early days of the Sangh, many of its leaders supported such fascists as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. If the Sangh wished to leave behind the legacy of those days, it had to weed out the lunatics, Nazis and mad bombers from its extended family.
The RSS had its defenders on the show. The basic defence was that terrorist acts were the work of individuals and did not reflect on the organisation. The RSS is rigidly disciplined. It does not believe in violence.
So far, so good. I had my concerns. The Parivar had its defence.
That was on Thursday night. On Friday afternoon, an angry mob (numbering anywhere from 500 to 4000, depending on whom you believe) stormed the offices of Headlines Today, broke window panes, pelted stones and was stopped by the police from entering the building. The mob shouted pro-RSS slogans and its members made it clear that they were protesting against Thursday evening’s story. If you watch footage of the attack, you will see how ugly the mood was and how close the mob came to doing some serious damage.
Oh dear, I said to myself, all three of yesterday’s defences have crumbled at a stroke. If the terrorism was the work of a few individuals, then why is the RSS turning up to complain? If the RSS is so disciplined, then why is it being represented by rampaging goondas? And if the RSS does not believe in violence then why are these men breaking window panes and damaging property?
At first, the BJP took a safe if slightly ludicrous line. It distanced itself from the attackers and said that the whole thing was a Congress campaign to discredit the party.
But by the evening, the mood had changed. Far from disowning the attack, the BJP was actively identifying with it. Its spokesman, Tarun Vijay, even described it as a Gandhian dharna. (If this is Tarun’s understanding of Gandhian philosophy, no wonder he is such a great fan of Veer Savarkar.) When Headlines Today’s Rahul Kanwal protested that he and his team could have been hurt, Tarun Vijay smirked, “If they had wanted to hurt you, do you think you would have escaped?”
Hearing Tarun speak, my blood ran cold. Worse was to follow. Other BJP spokesmen, whom I know to be moderate liberals, were reduced to attacking Headlines Today for ‘defaming’ the RSS and glossing over the attack. Not one BJP person spoke up for freedom of the press. Not one of them disowned B.L. Sharma Prem or condemned his poisonous remarks.
I thought back to the BJP of the Vajpayee era. Then too, the fascists and the lunatics had been around. But they had been kept in check, hidden away, or, at the very least, dismissed in public. Now, the BJP was going out of its way to defend the lunatics, to justify attacks on the press, and to protect an essentially fascist agenda.
There has always been a thin line that separates sections of the Sangh Parivar from the hoodlums of the Shiv Sena, the MNS or Ram Sene. The BJP has achieved the sort of national respectability that these parties can never aspire to because its leaders have always stood up in public for liberal values and have condemned violence. But now, there is no difference between Bal Thackeray defending the ransacking of the Mahanagar office and BJP spokesmen acting as though Headlines Today brought the attack upon itself.
I still don’t believe that Hindu terrorism is widespread or that the RSS is involved in it. But I do believe that the BJP is in deeper trouble than it realises. It risks going from being perceived as a respected national party to becoming a Shiv Sena clone that thrives on communal hatred, attacks the press and glories in violence.
This started out as a story about terrorists and RSS supporters. I would still acquit the RSS on that score. But now, the Sangh Parivar, by its own actions has turned it into a story about something more fundamental: the very character of the Parivar itself. Are the loonies being given free rein? Is the BJP no more than the lapdog of a hardline RSS faction? Has the party forgotten the liberal lessons of the Vajpayee years?
Judging by Friday’s violence, the answer to all these questions is: yes.
(The views expressed by the author are personal)