Debating India

COMMUNALISM

Facing the heat

Lyla BAVADAM & Praveen SWAMI

Saturday 15 August 1998, by BAVADAM*Lyla, SWAMI*Praveen

Article paru dans Frontline, vol.15, n?17, August 15 - 28, 1998.

While the Shiv Sena-BJP Government is strident in its own defence, the Srikrishna Commission Report has provided secular forces the platform to launch a serious assault on the combine.

IN its response to the report of the Justice Srikrishna Commission, the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party Government in Maharashtra appears to have decided that offence is the best form of defence. When Congress(I) and Samajwadi Party (S.P.) politicians attempted to use the last day of the Vidhan Sabha session to attack the Action Taken Report (ATR), Shiv Sena and BJP legislators responded with slogans such as "is desh mein rehna hoga to Vande Mataram kahna hoga", and demands that Muslims "Go to Pakistan".

Although the Sena-BJP alliance believes that such polemic will salvage its political credibility, it may well be in for a surprise. The Srikrishna Report has provided the platform for the first serious assault by secular forces on the Shiv Sena-BJP, one that could have profound consequences in the months to come.

Union Home Minister L.K. Advani said that the strictures passed against Thackeray could not be a ground for dismissing the Shiv Sena-BJP Government. He added that it was not mandatory for State Governments to accept the reports of commissions set up by them.

S.P. politicians in Maharashtra were the first to realise the political significance of the Srikrishna Report. "By rejecting the report," party MP Raj Babbar said acidly, "the Government has shown itself to be the protector of those who committed genocide." He asserted: "Those people who have always mocked the judiciary and law and order have once again shown their true colours." In the Legislative Council, S.P. member Hussain Dalwai tore up a copy of the ATR. Another S.P. legislator, Nawab Malik, burnt a copy of the ATR near the legislature premises. On August 7, the S.P. passed a resolution demanding the immediate implementation of the recommendations of the Report and the prosecution of all those who had been indicted in it. If the Government does not act on these demands by October 2, the party says its legislators will resign. A seven-member task force led by the Mahatma’s grandson Tushar Gandhi has already been set up to monitor implementation of the Report.

Like the S.P., the Congress(I) has understood the political import of the developments. Interestingly, there was some initial embarrassment in the party because of acid references in Justice Srikrisha’s findings to the regime of Sudhakarrao Naik, the party evidently realised that there was no point in defending the indefensible.

After prolonged discussions at the Congress Working Committee (CWC) in New Delhi on August 7, this hesitation was replaced by a confident posture. The CWC expressed "great anguish" over the Maharashtra Government’s ATR, principally because it rejected the Srikrishna Report as "pro-Muslim" and "anti- Hindu". This was, the CWC said, the first time in independent India’s history that a Government had taken a decision based on denominational criteria and concerns. The CWC demanded the resignation of Chief Minister Manohar Joshi and the prosecution of all those held responsible for a role in the riots by the Srikrishna Commission. A delegation, made up of Pawar, Arjun Singh, P.A. Sangma, Ahmad Patel and Ghulam Nabi Azad, met the Prime Minister the following day. Sources told Frontline that discussion focussed on the communal posture of the Joshi Ministry. "The mixing of religion and politics is prohibited by law," says Arjun Singh. "The Election Commission must consider debarring the Sena on the basis of evidence documented in the Srikrishna Commission Report."

Significantly, the press briefing after this CWC meeting was led by Sharad Pawar, who was assigned the task by Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi. When Pawar was asked about criticism directed at Sudhakarrao Naik, he replied that the Congress (I) "would have to accept that." Pawar also took on frontally references to him in the ATR. "There is no reference to me in the Srikrishna Report," he asserted, "but the ATR says there were differences between Naik and me." He said: "This fabrication is an attempt by the Maharashtra Government to save those indicted in the report."

Sharad Pawar has also pointed out a discrepancy between the English original and the Marathi translation of the report. The English word "retaliation" has been translated as "self-defence." he said. "This completely changes the picture. It seems the translation is self-serving."

Reiterating the demand for Manohar Joshi’s resignation, Sonia Gandhi added cryptically in Mumbai on August 9 that "the time was not ripe for demanding the arrest" of Thackeray.

ALTHOUGH the Congress (I), unlike the S.P., has not so far given out its plans for an agitation programme, the Left parties have planned a series of rallies and public meetings. On August 11, there will be a dharna at Azad Maidan by the Peasants and Workers Party (PWP), the Communist Party of India(Marxist), and the Communist Party of India. These Left groupings are demanding the resignation of the Government as well as the arrest and prosecution of all those indicted by the Commission. The CPI(M) has called for demonstrations at taluk centres in Thane and Nasik districts, Pune town and at different places in Kolhapur, Aurangabad and Nagpur districts. On August 13, women’s organisations, including Swadhar led by Mrinal Gore, the All India Democratic Women’s Organisation and the Bharatiya Mahila Federation will also hold demonstrations. CPI(M) MLA Narsaiyya Adam outlined the Left’s agenda in the Vidhan Sabha debate: "Don’t divide people on lines of masjid, mandir or gurdwara. No religion has ever supplied jobs, food, clothing, shelter. The Sena has spread the communal virus. Bal Thackeray should be arrested."

These signs of renewed vigour among secular groupings could not have come at a worse time for the Shiv Sena. Chief Minister Joshi’s aggressive posturing is in fact underpinned by deep insecurities. While tabling the Report in the Lower House, his hoarse voice, aggressive manner and strong language were uncharacteristic of a politician who has tried to project himself as the moderate face of the Shiv Sena. Joshi described the Report as "Muslim dharjinya" and "Hindu dwesta". Although the common translations of these phrases have been "pro-Muslim" and "anti-Hindu", the Marathi import of these terms is considerably more harsh. One element that shaped this presentation appears to have been the inner party skirmish between Narayan Rane and Joshi some weeks earlier. For some reason, Joshi appeared to have fallen out of favour with Bal Thackeray, who was seen as backing Rane. Seen in this light, Joshi’s dramatic performance in the Vidhan Sabha was seen as an effort to reinstate himself with the Sena chief. One BJP senior functionary told Frontline that Joshi’s intemperate display was "the only way to save himself from political oblivion."

Thackeray himself has attempted to maintain a public display of calm. Addressing reporters a day after the report was tabled, he said that he believed it to be "biased". By way of example, Thackeray pointed to the burning of Hindu families in their homes at Radhabhai Chawl. The Srikrishna Report entitled its discussion of the riots that followed, ’Hindu Backlash Commences’. "If they do it," Thackeray said, referring to violence perpetrated by Muslims, "it is spontaneous." "If we retaliate, it is hamla (assault)." Questioned further on the bias issue, the Sena boss admitted he had yet to read Justice Srikrishna’s findings, and was basing his opinions on what he had heard from others. This ignorance, however, did not prevent him from editorialising at length on the report’s supposed biases in the party newspaper, Samna, on August 8, in which he repeated his allegations of bias. Interestingly, Thackeray reportedly admitted at the press conference that his editorials in Saamna during the riots had indeed been "inflammatory". "They were bound to be," he said, "the situation demanded it."

As the events on the last day of the Maharashtra Assembly indicate, the Shiv Sena-BJP have no intention of entering into any serious discussion on the ATR. That what should have been a day of debate centred on Samajwadi Party MLA Sohail Lokhandwala’s refusal to sing ’Vande Mataram’ because he felt portions of the song referring to mother earth violated his religious beliefs illustrates the ruling coalition’s strategy.

If it continues its aggressive opposition to the core issues raised by the Commission, the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance may well have to pay the political price for such a strategy in the months to come.

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