It took New Delhi two days to respond to the sharp rebuke administered in September by the US State Department to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its militant affiliates like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal (BD), for rising violence against Muslims and Christians in India.
Obviously, the State Department was provoked into making the statement by the killing of an Australian missionary and his two sons in Orissa in January by a Hindu fundamentalist (and suspected Bajrang Dal activist) who is still at large nine months after committing the crime (although he surfaced in August to kill a Muslim trader in full public view), and the attacks on Christians in Gujarat, incidents that received worldwide coverage. Its report also dealt at length with the plight of Muslims, as “governments at the state and local levels only partially respect religious freedom”, and “local police and government officials abet violence against minorities”. Significantly, the State Department also noted that Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Home Minister L.K. Advani are members of the RSS, as are the chief ministers of BJP-ruled states.
When the caretaker government finally did respond, it dubbed the reprimand as an “intrusive exercise”, and suggested that instead of India, “where the constitution guarantees religious freedom” and so on and so forth, the US should “focus its efforts on countries which remain under the pall of bigotry and intolerance, where religious minorities are discriminated against by law…”
This evasive response revealed that the Vajpayee-led government — notwithstanding illusions of superpower status and eagerness to strut the global stage after last year’s nuclear tests — is simply unable to stand up to rich and powerful nations even when they whip India publicly. The Indian government did not dare tell the US to refrain from sanctimonious preaching and policing. It was left to principled votaries of secularism and equality to point out that while it is true that India has to bear the cross of the Sangh Parivar, the US too is haunted by the spectre of right-wing militias with anti-minority agendas.
The point is not to highlight America’s delinquencies so as to sanction the sectarian plank of the BJP. Rather, it is to take note of the fact that the consequences of the open encouragement given by the Vajpayee government to the RSS, the VHP and the BD is causing concern well beyond the country’s borders. A senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader, Anil Biswas, recently quoted from classified Home Ministry files to reveal that there had been as many as 698 “communal flare-ups” in the country in 1998 and 1999 during BJP rule.
The campaign for the September-October general election saw the BJP’s anti-Muslim movement back on track, coming as it did after the country’s tiny Christian community had been targetted earlier in the year. Addressing an election rally in Lucknow, the BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Kalyan Singh, is reported to have called upon the Indian government to cross the line of control in Kargil “to change history as I did on 6 December 1992 when the Babri Masjid was razed to the ground”.
The Kargil conflict is being exploited by other parties too, but it is the BJP that has given the matter an overtly religious colour. The party has taken the lead in organising funeral processions for Hindu soldiers who died in Kargil (during which anti-Muslim slogans were known to have been raised). Even more dangerous has been the BJP’s attempt to communalise the armed forces. The RSS recently roped in the army to organise a religious function in the disputed Kashmir region where anti-Pakistan, and anti-Muslim, slogans were heard, while VHP leaders visited an army hospital to distribute copies of Hindu scriptures, and deliver religious sermons.
The BJP and its fighting arms — RSS, VHP and BD —have already turned India into a soft Hindu state. Further descent into fascism has so far been blocked only by that marvellous document, the Indian Constitution. But there is always the fear that if the BJP ever gains a brute majority in Parliament, it will amend the constitution to create the Hindu rashtra envisaged decades ago by the BJP’s forerunners —the Hindu Mahasabha and the Jana Sangh.