Debating India

MAHARASHTRA

Polarised State

Friday 26 March 2004, by KATAKAM*Anupama

The seeds of hatred have been sowed deeply in Maharashtra and even the non-Hindutva governments have done little to check the fundamentalist march.

in Mumbai

"WE are doing a lot of work in the education and health sectors, particularly in the slums and tribal and rural areas. There are approximately 18,000 volunteers working with us on various projects," says Shankar Gaykar, joint secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in Maharashtra.

"Our single-point agenda is to build up national spirit. We do this by creating good personalities through character building and other activities," says B.N. Tambe, Mumbai city secretary of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). "In fact, our training has become so popular and our ideology so inspirational that we are falling short of people to train new recruits."

These seemingly altruistic activities of organisations that are part of the Sangh Parivar are perhaps the most dangerous ways of communalisation, according to Dr. Ram Punyani, an anti-communal activist and Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai. "If you look at a time frame of the past five years, the spread of saffronisation in Maharashtra has not been obvious. But it is happening and quite rampantly so." The spread and mobilisation is taking place through social and economic routes. For instance, the Ekal Vidyalayas (single-teacher schools) run by VHP or RSS members are centres for recruiting youth into the Hindutva ideology. "In Maharashtra you can call it `practical Hindutva’," says Punyani. The RSS, through its affiliates, has increasingly infiltrated small towns and villages across the State and is actively propagating the Hindutva agenda. The VHP has for some time been working in tribal areas. Its reach too is growing. The Bajrang Dal has a strong presence in several small towns. So does the Shiv Sena, which once concentrated its activities in Mumbai. These organisations seek out, recruit and pay poor unemployed poor youth for spreading their message.

The Hindutva agenda is no longer flaunted. The Bharatiya Janata Party has found far more insidious ways of polarising communities. "In fact, over the past five years we have found that the divide in communities on religious grounds has only been widening," Punyani told Frontline. One of the tactics employed by the BJP to pursue its communal agenda has been to float non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Small organisations have mushroomed in the development, labour, education and health sectors in Maharashtra in recent years, most of them run by RSS pracharaks. Punyani says that the advantage of running an NGO is that it can secure grants from abroad and from the Central government. However, the NGO route is not a new phenomenon. There are organisations such as the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA), which is largely supported by the non-resident Indian community and has been involved in development work since 1952. The VKA is clearly linked to the Sangh Parivar. A look at its website under the category of "like-minded organisations" lists the RSS, the VHP and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), among many others. Vanvasi Kalyan Kendras, spread across Maharashtra, recruit youth for organisations belonging to the Sangh Parivar.

A UNIQUE feature of Maharashtra is its military schools. Run primarily by RSS members, such schools have been around since the time the RSS came into existence in the 1920s. In recent years many more have sprung up, and there are hardly any check on what goes on in such establishments. Since the RSS defines itself as a group that upholds Indian cultural values, much of the Hindutva ideology gets concealed under this guise. Says Punyani: "And there is a difference between teaching Hinduism and Hindutva. The latter spreads anti-minority feelings and hate politics - that is what is being taught here. Not the former."

Observers point out that the BJP has been very shrewd in propagating its communal agenda. Even while claiming that it no longer fights elections on the Hindutva platform, the BJP uses other Sangh Parivar organisations - for instance, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal - to carry out its mission. The VHP and the Bajrang Dal focus on Adivasis and other rural voters while the BJP is usually assured of votes from the urban educated upper class. In Maharashtra, for example, the VHP is very active in the Thane, Nasik, Dhule and Nandurbar districts, which have a substantial tribal population.

"We do not have any political agenda," argues Tambe. "Our mission is to improve society by building men of character, contribute to the community as well as uphold our traditional and cultural values." According to Tambe, the RSS trains its recruits, who are then inspired by the RSS ideology to do charitable work. "We have a holistic approach to looking at society. It is not just about creating wealth. We impart training to build our national spirit. Obviously, our message is spreading. We get thousands of recruits every year. Besides, when our members do charitable and voluntary work our reach increases." Tambe said that the Nana Palkar Rugna Samiti, a voluntary organisation in Mumbai, is run by an RSS pracharak. "In accordance with the RSS’ policy of serving the community, this organisation provides medical treatment for patients from across the country. The Jana Kalyan Samiti is another organisation run by an RSS man, which works in slums. There are 30 organisations like these at the national level and almost 1,000 at the local level run by RSS-trained men," says Tambe.

"Our only objective is to do `seva’," says Gaykar of the VHP. "It is the media that has ruined our image and made us look like monsters." Gaykar says that the VHP has been working in some of the remotest areas of Maharashtra, providing assistance in medical treatment, education and housing for orphaned children, destitute women and aged people. "No one is barred from seeking our service. Religion is not important in our mission," he says. However, Gaykar says the VHP’s main objection is to Christian missionaries and their "conversion agenda". "Why can’t they provide charitable service without trapping poor people?" They have very simple tactics, he says. For example, they give people waiting for the bus a lift in their jeep. Before starting the vehicle, they make the passengers chant "Jai Sri Ram". A few kilometers down the road the jeep breaks down. Then they make the passengers chant "Jai Yesu", and miraculously the jeep starts. Or they tell a student who does exceptionally well in his or her studies that it is only owing to the grace of Jesus that they have done so well.

"Conversion is our biggest problem. We need to stop pampering to this minority community. And we need to be able to combat it with our strength," says Gaykar. "We need to make them understand that though Hindustan is a secular country, 85 percent of the population is Hindu. They should not try and change this. We may allow them to drink our water, but we will not tolerate this blatant threat to our religion." While speaking about the VHP’s services, Gaykar lets slip that volunteers distribute Hindu religious paraphernalia while visiting these areas. When questioned, he retorts: "People must know about the religion of the country they live in."

"HINDUTVA is something that suits the Shiv Sena," says Nikhil Wagle, Editor of Mahanagar, an eveninger based in Mumbai. Wagle, who for more than a decade has taken on the Sena, believes that the only reason it has attached itself to the Hindutva agenda is that it is compatible with its `Mumbai or Maharashtra is for Maharashtrians’ slogan. "Maharashtrians = Hindu = Hindutva." More important, it seemed to have helped the Sena come to power in the State for the first time. Essentially, the Shiv Sena is a parochial and chauvinistic body whose main plank has been protecting the Marathi community’s interests. The party, led by Bal Thackeray, first earned notoriety when it attacked South Indian and Gujarati establishments in Mumbai (then Bombay) in the 1960s and 1970s. It gained further strength after it broke the Left-led trade union movement in the mill area of Mumbai. Although it allied with the BJP in 1984 over the Ram Mandir issue, it evolved into a major political party when it came to power after winning the 1995 Assembly elections in alliance with the BJP. "The alliance is convenient for both of them. For the Sena it helps secure seats. For the BJP, the Sena’s reach among the backward classes is essential to further its agenda. Moreover, the Sena’s infrastructure is most helpful to them," says Wagle. In Mumbai alone there are 230 Sena shakhas and each one has 50 to 70 workers.

After it began sharing power with the BJP, there has been a shift of emphasis in the Sena’s ideology. Now seen as the upholders of Hindutva, the Sena uses religion to widen its net. In fact, Thackeray calls himself the "Hindu Hriday Samrat". He even claims he is "more of a Hindu than L.K. Advani". Over the years the Sena has used popular occasions such as the Ganesh and Navaratri festivals as a means to reach out to common people. The party sponsors many of the 3,000 Ganesh mandals across Mumbai. Most of the mandals make clear political and provocative statements in their decorations and props, often attempting to rouse jingoistic sentiments. Last year, following the bomb blasts in Mumbai, one of the mandals depicted the scene of the blast at the Gateway of India, complete with a blown up taxi and dummy dead bodies. In another attempt at generating nationalist feelings, the BJP and Sena resurrected the `maha arti’. The artis were conducted soon after the blasts, ostensibly "for the people of Mumbai". This form of worship became popular after the 1993 serial bomb blasts when Hindu fundamentalist parties used it as a tool of intimidation.

Often associated with violence, the Sena is notorious for its involvement in the 1992-93 post-Babri Masjid demolition riots that raged through Mumbai killing thousands of people, mostly Muslims. Although neither Mumbai nor the rest of the State has had to witness violence at such a scale again, there have been a fair number of incidents to indicate that communal forces are mischievously working at various levels in the State. According to Asghar Ali Engineer, noted scholar and writer associated with the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, since the 1992-93 riots there has not been a single year in which a riot has not taken place in the State. Whether the Shiv Sena-BJP has been in power or the Congress(I), communal problems have occurred. Engineer said that according to an annual report on the number of communal riots throughout the country eight communal clashes occurred in Maharashtra in 2003. The worst riot after 1993 took place in Malegoan in 2001, in which 15 people were killed. At least three incidents each were recorded in the previous year and in 1999. Each of the communal incidents was sparked by relatively innocuous events - an altercation between two members of different communities, the sight of a truck carrying cows, or the discovery of explosive material in a place of worship.

Whether these incidents can be related to the spread of saffronisation is debatable. Whether they are indicators that Maharashtra is a communal powder keg is also up for argument. On the one hand, it takes a small spark to ignite trouble in the State. On the other, few want to experience again the violence of 1992-93. However, what is clear is that the communal situation in Maharashtra seems to have gone past Thackeray’s control. There are undercurrents of tension between communities and there is an increasing anti-minority sentiment. The seeds of hatred have been sown deeply. And it has not helped that successive non-Shiv Sena/BJP governments have done little to check the proliferation of fundamentalism.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

in Frontline, volume 21 - Issue 06, March 13 - March 26, 2004.

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