India: Religion, terror and the majority

The confessional statement of Swami Asseemanand – a self-styled godman, originally Jatin Chatterji from Hooghly district in West Bengal – has finally put to rest lingering doubts, if any credible ones remained, over the involvement of extremist elements from within the Hindutva fold in acts of terror and extremism in India. The swami's leaked confession has implicated a group of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharaks (motivator activists) and other Hindutva adherents in the bomb blasts in Malegaon in 2006 and 2008, on the Samjhauta Express in 2007, in Ajmer Sharif in 2007 and Mecca Masjid in 2007. All these had earlier been blamed on Muslims. 

Even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has long presented itself as the defender of 'Hindu values', and persistently and strenuously denied that any Hindu could ever be involved in such activity, now finds itself on the back foot. The Congress party, of course, is quietly gloating – the leak, almost certainly engineered by the party itself, has come as a blessing to the beleaguered ruling party, reeling under rising prices, scams at the highest levels and old ghosts (in the shape of the Bofors corruption scandal of the 1980s) coming back to haunt it. However, it is wary of making too much of the new turn of events, anxious over appearing anti-Hindu, a fear that has led it to soft-pedal the issue in the past. 
Beyond the political gamesmanship and irrespective of the motives behind the leak, it is high time that the political class, going beyond political divides, recognises the growing phenomenon of Hindutva terror. Notwithstanding the fact that one of the first of such acts in modern India – the assassination of Mohandas K Gandhi – was committed by a Hindu fanatic, it is only in recent years that there has been public recognition of the increasing evidence supporting Hindutva extremism. The modus operandi has been typical: engineer a bomb blast, and wait for the blame to be cast on Islamist elements. Given the stereotyping of Muslims as extremists, such blame tends to stick – the Indian security apparatus in particular seems to believe that any terrorist act is automatically the handiwork of Islamist elements, and wholesale arrests of Muslims inevitably follow, often without credible evidence. 
This is not to deny that radical Islam continues to be a problem in India and the region as a whole, particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But cases of Indian Muslims being involved in such acts have been sporadic, and cannot be termed a rising trend. While the more dramatic instances of violence in recent years – such as the attacks of 26 November 2008 in Mumbai – have been more or less conclusively traced to Pakistan, Indian Muslims as a group nevertheless continue to live under suspicion for that heinous event. Even if most non-Muslims do not see India's Muslims as terrorists themselves, the latter remain under suspicion for harbouring sympathies with radical Islam.
Meanwhile, evidence indicating the growth of Hindutva extremism has consistently been swept under the carpet or dismissed as the actions of an inconsequential lunatic fringe. This has been the approach not only by BJP state governments but also by the Congress. First came the arrest of Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, Lieutenant Colonel Shrikant Purohit and others, following their involvement in the Malegaon blasts of 2006. The Ajmer Sharif bomb blasts of the following year have also been laid at the doorstep of Hindutva elements by the Rajasthan Anti-Terrorist Squad. There have also been smaller incidents, such as the blasts of Nanded (Maharashtra) in 2006 and Goa in 2009, in which the inept Hindutva-aligned attackers blew themselves up rather than their intended targets. 
We must remember that it is not only fringe organisations, such as Abhinav Bharat and the Sanatan Sanstha, that have been implicated in these events. Attackers have also come from within the fount of Hindutva ideology, the RSS, and the BJP, the political offspring of the Sangh. 
A dangerous game
Swami Aseemanand's confession, made before a magistrate and hence admissible in court, now provides an indication of how seriously Hindutva terror must be taken. The first step, of course, is uncovering the Hindutva extremist network, and prosecuting those involved. But the matter does not end there. The more vital concern is recognising that an ideology that bases itself on hatred of others (in this case, Muslims) has been successful in alienating minorities and increasing their isolation in India. 
In fact, the signs have been clear ever since the early days of the Hindutva campaign in the 1950s, with the RSS's emphasis on martial training and the involvement of its cadres in post-Partition violence. The virulent propaganda of these groups, demonising religions other than Hinduism (and denying, of course, the vast pluralism within Hinduism itself), inevitably creates a mindset that predisposes adherents to violence. Groups such as the Sanatan Sanstha give their members training in the use of firearms, and the Goa bomb attack was allegedly planned at the state headquarters of this organisation. Further, with the BJP's lack of electoral success at the national level in the last two elections, some proponents of Hindutva have begun to question the efficacy of democratic politics, and to espouse extremist action instead.
Another worrisome aspect is the involvement of members of the security forces – as in the case of Lt Col Purohit, a serving army officer – in these networks. Over the years there has been a steady infiltration of Hindutva elements into various wings of government. The more extreme elements among these have provided expertise, materials and intelligence to those bent on violence, while others soft-pedal and cover up such acts. In the case of Pakistan, we have seen how the state itself can become weakened by a takeover by a fundamentalist, extremist religious ideology that manages to spread its tentacles in the mechanisms of government functioning. 
Without downplaying the need to combat extremism of all hues, all players must recognise that Hindutva terror in India poses special challenges. While radical Islam and its violent expression is hugely damaging and dangerous, its excuse cannot be used to turn India towards becoming a fascist state. If the ideology of extremist Hindutva takes hold, the potent mixture of politics and religion, in a country where 81 percent of the population is Hindu, is a certain recipe for fascism.
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