Saffron terror

Nanded, in Maharashtra, is a town with a significant population of different faiths – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Buddhist. Nanded could well have become a new metaphor for secularism as practised in the Subcontinent, but this was not to be. Instead, Nanded has come to represent the emergent danger of a violent new brand of Hindu militancy, with due support from a section of the state machinery. A place that was once witness to the final days of Guru Gobind Singh, Sikhism's Tenth Guru, has today metamorphosed into an epicentre of violent Hindutva. Indeed, Nanded represents the build-up of the violent fundamentalist Hinduism of the past half-century. The town has been witness to a new spate of acts that can be inarguably dubbed 'terrorism'.

The inner workings of this new form of Hindutva were on show recently in two, evidently accidental, explosions in Nanded within a span of nine months, in April 2006 and February 2007. These blasts, which killed four people, took place at the houses of activists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena. The arrival of Nanded on India's 'terror' map was followed by media investigations into similar previous incidents, which also showed the involvement of Hindu youth in terrorist actions.

The new element here is the increasing similarity between Hindu militancy and 'terrorism' of other hues. While various enquiry commissions have looked into riots in post-Independence India and corroborated the proactive role played by the RSS in instigating riots, the irony of the situation is that the organisation is still able to maintain its 'missionary' image. Part of this is because the group has long maintained a strict division of labour within its ranks, delegating much of the 'dirty work' to fringe workers. The Nanded blasts proved to be an exception to this pattern, as the RSS links were obvious. This is why, in the immediate aftermath of the explosions, the Sangh Parivar leadership went to great lengths to suppress the news. Indeed, activist friends of this writer in Maharashtra were themselves unaware that any such incident had taken place.

One set of blasts took place in a house belonging to Laxman Rajkondwar, an old RSS activist, and killed two youths belonging to the Bajrang Dal and RSS, while injuring three others. The explosives that were being made were to be used during the entry into Maharashtra of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader L K Advani's Bharat Suraksha Yatra, the idea being to warn of the grave security situation existing in the country. Later investigations found that the plan had been to instigate communal riots in Nanded that could have spread to adjoining areas. Such a situation, it was hoped, would boost the sagging morale of both the BJP and its ageing stalwart, Advani (see accompanying story, "Befuddled, jingoistic party").

The aim was clearly to instigate a communal conflict. A police raid on one of the deceased's houses found maps of nearby mosques, as well as clothes and caps usually worn by Muslims in the area, which the activists were going to wear to sneak into and attack the mosques and gurudwaras. The only thing still needed was explosives. The making of bombs in a house owned by an old RSS activist – one who supposedly also dealt in firecrackers, at that – seemed like the perfect plan.

Of course, the story neither begins nor ends in Nanded. Since 2003, at least five, and perhaps six, Hindutva-related explosions have taken place in central Maharashtra alone, in Parbhani, Purna, Jalna and Nanded. Malegaon also witnessed a bomb blast last year, killing 40 people, with strong indications of a Hindutva hand behind it. (The final picture will emerge after an ongoing investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation finishes.) Beyond the geographical similarities, the details of the attacks were uncanny: each took place between 1:45 and 2:00 in the afternoon, just after Friday prayers, at the most prominent mosque in town. (The bomb that went off in Nanded in 2006 exploded on 6 April, a Thursday, but was apparently meant to be set off at an Aurangabad masjid the following day.)

At the same time, this cannot be dubbed a Maharashtra-centric phenomenon. Madhya Pradesh's former chief minister, Digvijay Singh, has publicly admitted to the involvement of various groups and individuals affiliated with the RSS in similar acts in his state. As for the rest of the country, no systematic study of saffron 'terror' has yet been undertaken. One reason for this could be the thin line that separates the different anushangik (affiliated) organisations of the RSS, thereby making it possible to move from the 'legal' to the 'illegal' without great effort. Indeed, there is every possibility that funds collected from the Hindu diaspora for philanthropic work might also have been channelled to further 'terrorist' activities.

Nonetheless, culturally integrated practices are being utilised to arm certain sections of the Hindu community. Back in 2001, Rajasthan's then-Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot revealed that up to four million trishuls – six to eight inches long and sharp enough to kill – had been distributed by the Bajrang Dal to Hindu households across the country. Meanwhile, in 2002, a group in Orissa, under the district Shiv Sena unit, formed the first-ever Hindu suicide squad, aimed at countering Muslim 'extremism' in Jammu & Kashmir and elsewhere. More than 100 youths, including some women, are said to have joined the group.

Hindutva collusion
Nanded's population is made up of around 500,000 Hindus, 200,000 Muslims and 100,000 Sikhs. The town has seen a significant amount of communal tension in the past, which spiked following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. In more recent years, this tension seems to have also spilled over into surrounding towns such as Parbhani, where, in November 2003, motorcycle-borne attackers hurled bombs into the midst of a large congregation of Muslims assembled for Friday papers. Although the identities of the Parbhani bomb-throwers were never traced, forensic tests following the Nanded blasts revealed that the accused were part of the same group of Hindu militants that had executed the attack in Parbhani.

Following the April 2006 blasts in Nanded, an odd silence ensued – in the local and national media, as well as in the local and national governments. There was also a disturbing lack of sincerity on the part of the investigating agencies in pursuing the case, despite appearing to have gathered significant evidence of the involvement of district and state leaders of the RSS and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). As investigations by the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and other rights organisations have made clear, the district administration even saw to it that news of the blasts did not receive wide coverage. After the initial excitement, district officials also allegedly pressured the local media not to follow the case any further.

The lackadaisical reaction also spread through those involved in local and national investigations. Local police made contradictory statements, and failed to make arrests in the initial stages. Despite the sensitive nature of the Nanded case, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) expressed its "inability" to conduct the subsequent investigation. In response to a case filed by some social organisations against the tardiness of the investigations, the CBI filed a suo moto affidavit explaining that it was "overburdened" and had "limited hands to deal with such cases".

The cumulative effect of the half-hearted – or wholly obstructionist – initiatives, at both the state and central level, was to show the kid-glove treatment being meted out to India's new breed of Hindutva militants. Secular activists questioned whether the reaction would have been similar had the explosions taken place in a minority-dominated area, and the involvement of some 'fanatic' Islamic group been detected.

The cavalier manner in which the probes of the Nanded blasts were undertaken may have prepared the ground for a stepping-up of similar activities in the area. On 10 February 2007, at little after midnight, biscuit boxes being hauled by 28-year-old Pandurang Ameelkanthwar in another area in Nanded exploded, killing him instantly. His cousin, Dnaneshwar Manikwar, sustained massive burns and died six days later. Ameelkanthwar had been a former shakha pramukh (branch head) of the Shiv Sena, and was also associated with the Bajrang Dal. He hailed from an area in Nanded called Rangargalli, a known hotbed of rightwing Hindu outfits.

A mere 'fire-related accident' was how state officials subsequently reported the incident. But preliminary findings of a civil-society inquiry suggest that Ameelkanthwar and Manikwar died due to handled planted explosives. Neighbours near the explosion also told the team that there had been a third person present at the time, who had also been injured but has been unaccounted for in subsequent reports.

These eyewitnesses also said that a police officer, who went on to be part of the official investigation, supervised the seizing and spiriting away of critical evidence from the spot. In their report, the civil-society investigators state that the Maharashtra police, particularly the superintendent and inspector-general, appeared to be in "undue haste to close all possibilities of a possible liquid-substance-driven explosion, preferring to quote oral findings of forensic experts from Aurangabad who are reported to have told them that it was a petrol-ignited fire". Among other evidence, this conclusion is brought under serious suspicion by the fact the explosion threw the iron shutter of a nearby godown a distance of 40 feet – an extremely long way for a fire set off by burning gasoline.

The civil society team also refers to a "nexus between some police officials and the rightwing Hindu outfits". According to the probe's findings, Nanded Police Inspector Ramesh Bhurewar, who was leading the investigation of the 2006 Nanded blast, was also in charge of the investigation into the Parbhani blasts in November 2003. During the course of the long investigation, he had not made a single arrest. A First Information Report was only registered after a legislator raised a question in the state assembly. But following the Nanded blasts in April 2006, the accused admitted to having placed the bombs at Parbhani. As such, the civil-society report concludes: "The Nanded and state police are hence guilty of underplaying crimes wherein members of the minority community are the victims, causing a loss of face for the state police."

In their conclusion, the fact-finding team demanded that the central government keep a close watch over the increasing incidence of Hindutva 'terror' activities. They also asked for independent investigations under a team of neutral officers; and impartial, public inquiries into the Nanded, Malegaon, Parbhani and Purna incidents, in order to ascertain whether state intelligence and police agencies are indeed professional and neutral enough to investigate instances of politically driven Hindutva violence.

History of hate
Post-Independence India is replete with examples of the participation of Hindu extremists in aggravating communal situations, targeting particular communities, and aiding and abetting riots. Those who have watched the organisation since its inception say that the 'terrorism' label may be modern, but the acts themselves, fundamentalist to the core, are decades old: making communally sensitive speeches that culminate in riots; leading religious processions in sensitive areas inhabited by Muslims and other minorities; and outright provocations leading people to engage in violence.

Rajeshwar Dayal, chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh at the time of Partition, provides in his 1999 memoirs A Life of Our Times details of another kind: damning evidence of RSS chief Golwalkar's plans to conduct a pogrom against Muslims. Pyarelal Nayyar, Mohandas Gandhi's secretary during those tumultuous times, adds to these accusations: "It was common knowledge that the RSS … had been behind the bulk of the killings in [Delhi] as also in various other parts of India."

Contrary to the perception that the Sangh Parivar has gained momentum only since the 1990s, various commissions that have looked into communal riots since 1947 have gathered a significant body of evidence on the role of the RSS and affiliated organisations. The Reddy Commission, which in 1969 looked into rioting in Gujarat; the Justice Madon Commission, which analysed the riots in Bhiwandi, Maharashtra, in the early 1970s; the Justice Vithayathil Commission, which probed the 1971 Tellicherry riots – all of these provide solid details of the involvement of either the RSS or its mass political platform, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, in fomenting the trouble.

Justice Venugopal's report, on the Kanyakumari riots of 1982, also severely indicted the RSS for its role in instigating riots against Christians. According to Justice Venugopal, the RSS methodology for provoking communal violence was as follows: rousing communal feelings in the majority community; deepening fear in the majority community; infiltrating into the state administration; training young people of the majority community in the use of weapons; and spreading rumours to widen communal splits. About the shakhas that the RSS organises under the rubric of physical training, Justice Venugopal said that the aim appeared to be "to inculcate an attitude of militancy and training for any kind of civil strife".

It was only in 2004 that the Terrorism Research Centre (TRC), a US-based institute, declared the RSS a 'terrorist organisation', lumping it together with a host of jihadi and secessionist outfits, including the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the Hizb ul-Mujahideen. This new listing came close on the heels of an internationally embarrassing incident for the Hindutva-wallahs, wherein Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi was denied a visa to travel to the US. The two slaps in the face left the Sangh Parivar bosses seething (although it took more than eight months for the RSS to formally react to the TRC's assessment). But this was not the first time that Hindutva organisations had earned international opprobrium. In 2002, secular activists in the US brought out a thoroughly researched report called "Funding Hate". For the first time, this document exposed how funds collected in the US by the India Development and Relief Fund (the IDRF, an umbrella organisation floated by the Hindutva brigade) were directly sponsoring sectarian violence in India.

One potential reason for the inability of the powers-that-be to establish a connection between Hindu militants and acts of terror in India could be the near absence of non-Hindus in the central government's various intelligence wings. Whatever the reasons, this dearth is shocking. Barring the Intelligence Bureau, which has around 12,000 personnel and only a few Muslim officers, none of the other intelligence departments have even a single Muslim officer between them. From 1969 until today, neither the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) nor the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO) has hired even one Muslim officer. (Following the Malegaon blasts, S M Mushrif, a retired India Police Service officer, publicly disparaged the Intelligence Bureau for having long been the source of "unsubstantiated rumours" due to "deep-seated bias".) The state of affairs has inevitably led to what can be dubbed the government's rather monochromatic presentation of the menace of terrorism in recent years, with sole responsibility for attacks almost immediately placed on various Islamist groups, regardless of evidence.

Despite a 'secular' coalition currently holding the reins of power at the Centre and in many of India's state administrations, there have been depressingly few sincere attempts to move beyond post-9/11 mythology and the rhetoric of the 'war on terror', which demonises Islam. So complete is this perspective that it is difficult to decipher any qualitative difference between the 'secular' Congress and the 'communal' BJP in their responses to any act of 'terror'. Instead, even while we have been witness to the dilly-dallying of the Congress following the Nanded and Malegaon blasts, the same Congress-led government had no qualms in targeting Muslims as a community after the July 2006 bomb blasts in Bombay. (In the immediate aftermath of the Bombay attacks, an anti-terrorist squad singled out the Muslim community for suspicion, and immediately began 'combing' operations.) The Maharashtra state administration has also shown its anti-Muslim bias in times of tragedy. Even while attesting to their sadness over the Malegaon blast, state officials saw to it that victims, the majority of whom were Muslim, received just a fifth of the compensation received by the victims of the Bombay blasts of 1993 – the majority of whom were Hindu.

The fallout of this situation has been the administrative failure to address terrorism unleashed by Hindutva activists and formations. One possible reason for the government's ostrich-like position could be that, due to electoral considerations, nobody has wanted to displease the majority Hindus. While it is true that Hindutva groups are not currently in a majority at the Centre, the impact of Hindutva nonetheless transcends its strength in government. Note the inability of 'secular' groups to bring criminal cases against the likes of communal leaders like Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, and the champions of Hindutva: Praveen Togadia, Lal Krishna Advani or Narendra Modi. Indeed, the present-day Congress itself is a faint shadow of its Nehruvian avatar: after all, it 'discovered' the idea of 'soft Hindutva' two decades ago, in a bid to further its hold on the reins of power.

It is time that the public be made aware of the rising trajectory of Hindutva criminality. The dangerous understanding that a particular community, region or religious ideology is more prone towards 'terrorist' activities needs to be refuted at all costs. The people of Southasia in general, and India in particular, need to be convinced that there is no qualitative difference between the violent acts committed by LTTE suicide bombers, al-Qaeda jihadis, Khalistani militants or members of militant Hindutva organisations. This realisation could be the first step in organising simultaneous social and political strategies to expose, challenge and dissolve these groups.

~ Subhash Gatade is a Delhi-based writer and editor of the Hindi journal Sandhan.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian