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Politics of the Grotesque


By Kuldeep Kumar

As the world is entering the last year of this millennium, a theatre of the absurd is being enacted in India and its dramatist personae are moving ahead with the inexorable dynamics of a Greek tragedy. An atmosphere of intolerance is being systematically created in a country, which has been known over the millennia for its tolerant ethos and respect for the other's point of view. This intolerance expresses itself in almost every walk of life and is striking at the very roots of democracy.
As is well known, democracy is not only a system of governance but also a way of life. No society can progress without allowing differences, be they of religious denomination, caste, language, region, race, culture or thought. The collapse of the socialist system of the Soviet Union is a case in point. But, ever since the Hindu fanactics came into free play in the mid-1980s after the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and later the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), launched a fierce campaign on the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri mosque dispute, leading to the eventual demolition of the Barbri Masjid on December 6, 1992, the tendency to force one's viewpoint into the throat of the other has rapidly grown.

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The theatre of the absurd being enacted in front of our eyes these days dates from this phase of free India's contemporary history. Shiv Sena, an ally of the ruling BJP, known for its explicit philosophy of retributory violence, has also joined these forces. In fact, it has begun to compete with them. Its activists have vandalised cinema halls, destroyed property and tore off posters of Deepa Mehta's film Fire in Delhi and Bombay. Their allegation is that the film, which shows how two women neglected by their husbands find solace in each other and strike a relationship with sexual overtones, promotes lesbianism and is against Indian culture.
Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, who has time and again gone on record rubbishing democracy and extolling the virtues of dictatorship, issued a diktat that Pakistani cricket team would not be allowed to play on the soil of Maharashtra. Later, he included the whole of India under the purview of his fatwa and activists belonging to his party dug up the cricket pitch in Delhi at the express instructions of Shiv Sena MP, Madhukar Sarpotdar. Since the BJP is a junior partner of Shiv Sena in the State Government of Maharashtra, and itself happens to be genetically programmed for such actions, it did precious little to protect the pitch. In Delhi, the police, which is under the direct control of the Central Government, watched passively as the Shiv Sainiks dug up the pitch.
This, however, is nothing as compared to what is happening in the BJP-ruled State of Gujarat. The problem of communalism has been dogging India for the past more than a hundred years, leading to the subcontinent's division in 1947. Yet, what is being witnessed now can only be compared with organised anti-Jew pogroms that have dotted the history of various European societies. And Gujarat, Mahatma Gandhi's home State, has been turned into an arena where aggressive Hindu fanatics have unleashed a reign of terror on the minorities, mainly Muslims and Christians. While Hindu-Muslim conflicts have a long history, never before were the Christians as a community made a target of physical attacks and intimidation as was done during 1998.

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According to a preliminary estimate, 33 incidents of violence involving Christians as victims took place between 1964-96 in the country. However, the year 1997 witnessed a sharp upswing and 15 such incidents were recorded. The number rose to more than 75 in 1998. Barring a few, all of them took place in Gujarat. Militant activists of VHP, Bajrang Dal and Hindu Jagran Manch, all front organisations of the ruling BJP, have openly led the anti-Christian violence. These include desecration of burial places and destruction of churches.
The demolition of the Babri mosque was also the handiwork of these forces professing by aggressive Hinduism, which they term as Hindutva. Ever since the BJP-led Government came to power at the Centre, the Hindutva brigade felt enormously emboldened. While the Gujarat Government turned a Nelson's eye to the well-organised attacks on the Christians and their places of worship, the BJP and the Central Government did everything to play down these violent incidents. The Central Government sent a team of two senior officials of the Home Ministry to study the situation. The team met Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel and other officials but did not find it necessary to meet the victims. This provoked the National Minorities Commission to send its own fact-finding team.
Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, widely viewed as a moderate man trapped in a party of Hindu zealots, too pooh-poohed the anti-Christian violence by dubbing it as a "conspiracy" hatched by those forces which were out to destabilise his Government. He simply does not blame it on the VHP and the Bajrang Dal which are a part of the BJP's Hindutva brigade.

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Both Keshubhai Patel and top national leaders of the BJP such as M. Venkaiah Naidu and K.L. Sharma have been harping on their complaint that the Gujarat incidents have been blown out of proportion. The VHP and Bajrang Dal have repeated their mindless allegations Christian missionaries were forcibly converting the Hindus. VHP supremo Ashok Singhal went to the extent of alleging that the conferment of the Nobel Prize on Amartya Sen was part of an international conspiracy to 'christianise' India. He also found Sen's advocacy of literacy and education as a morale booster to the Christian educational institutions that, according to Singhal, do nothing but convert Hindus, by allurement or force, into Christianity.
No wonder that given the atmosphere of communal hatred, deliberate falsehood and brazen aggressiveness, attacks on the Christian community, their educational institutions and places of worship are on the rise despite the glib assurances offered by the State and Central Governments. When the ridiculous infringes upon the sublime in this fashion, one truly feels out of depth. The BJP, since its inception in 1980 and even in its earlier incarnation as Jan Sangh, has been oscillating between a moderate and a hard-line approach. Its electoral successes after active participation in the anti-Muslim Ramjanmabhoomi (Babri Masjid) campaign gave a boost to its radical front organisations like the VHP and the Bajrang Dal.
However, the party soon realised that while it managed to emerge as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Indian Parliament), it could not dream of forming a Government on its own. Not that it did not try to form one. It tried in 1996 and failed. Compulsions of power politics forced the BJP to take Atal Bihari Vajpayee out of the closet and project him as its Prime Ministerial candidate, ignoring the fact that he had played virtually no role in the political ascendancy of the party during the 1985-96 period. It was due to Vajpayee's moderate image that the party was able to break out of its political isolation and form a coalition Government in 1998.
While the BJP wants to retain its hard-won power at the Centre, there is re-thinking in the Hindutva clan. It is no coincidence that the attacks on Christians acquired a new ferocity after the party faced electoral rout in assembly elections in as many as three states which went to the polls in November last year. One can forget at one's own peril that the BJP took to an aggressive Hindu agenda only after its strength in the Lok Sabha had been reduced to two MPs in the December 1984 parliamentary elections. So, understandably, there is a sizeable section both within the party as well as its front organisations such as the VHP which feels that any dilution in the so-called Hindu agenda takes its distinctiveness away and leads the party to suffer electoral reverses. That seems to be the only reason why even a moderate leader like Vajpayee is not too harsh on those who are making the lives of the Christians in Gujarat and elsewhere miserable.

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Where do we go from here? Will the last year of this millennium leave a trail of destruction, hatred and barbarism behind it? Will we be able to stand with our heads high as a democratic society and polity? Will there be place for democratic dissent in the India of future? It is difficult to answer even one, leave alone all, of these questions. So far, the Indian society has displayed enviable resilience. How much force its secular fabric can withstand before falling into pieces is yet to be seen.

Kuldeep Kumar is former associate editor of The Pioneer, New Delhi



Rape and the Minorities:
BJP's fascist face
Ratna Kapur

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The fascist face of the Hindu Right has been revealing itself over recent weeks (in India). In the bizarre and frightening world of the Hindu Right, Christians and rapists are both under attack. And what exactly do these two have in common. At one level, absolutely nothing. Christians are a legitimate religious minority. Rapists are criminals, but, in the hands of the Hindu Right, the issues like rape and religious minorities - like everything else they touch - are slathered in nationalism, authoritarianism and intolerance.

The Christian community has found itself under increasing violent attack The most violent expression has come in the wake of the recent incident of rape of four Christian nuns in Madhya Pradesh by militants associated with the Hindu Right. Then, there was the violent attack on Christian religious leaders at a national conference in Baroda by mobs of the Hindu Right. The mobs claimed, true to form, that they had rescued 47people (read Hindus) from a foreign-inspired drive of conversion.

These attacks are not isolated events. There are more than 30 recorded instances against Christians that have occurred over the past four months. For instance, in July a mob entered a missionary school and burned hundreds of Bibles after forcing students to spit on them. And there was the exhumation of a coffin in Gujarat, the desecration of a statue at Jesus and Mary College in New Delhi and the attacks on a convent in West Bengal.

The Christian community was reminded not only its minority status, accounting as it does for only 2.6 per cent of the share of the population. It was also reminded loud and clear, of its precarious place in a nation that increasingly defines itself as Hindu. The Home Minister LK Advani has assured the community that these incidents will be investigated. But, no formal prosecutions have yet been started. This steady campaign and annihilation is all too consistent with the BJP election manifesto calling for "one nation, one people and one Culture.’

The recent attacks on the Christian community may seem unprecedented - but only in degree and visibility--in practice conversion has long been a favourite target of the Hindu Right, leading to their demonisation of the likes of Mother Teresa, and their many efforts to stop mass conversions of Hindus to Christianity.

But the real focus of the Right wing’ s censure has more traditionally been the Muslim minorities, who have long suffered at the hand of their anti-minority rhetoric and violence. The current attack on Christians may be a strategy intended to appease the more militant elements in the Sangh Parivar, bent on propagating and establishing their doctrine of Hindutva. The Muslims are experiencing a welcome though temporary reprieve, for any attempt to violently attack and destroy their places of worship or disrupt their community would lead to riots as witnessed at the time of the destruction of the Masjid - something that the very precariously balanced government can ill afford.

Then, there is the seemingly unrelated effort of dealing firmly with atrocities against women. But getting tough with rapists Advani has declared the Government’ s intention to institute the death penalty for rapists. While attempting to project itself the upholder of women s rights, the issue of rape has long been a highly communalised one.

The Hindu Right has frequently highlighted the atrocities against women in Muslim countries, in South Asia, the opposition to the call for Taslima Nasreen’ s death in Bangladesh being one recent example of this process. The demonisation of the Muslim male has been intrinsic to the Hindu Right’s agenda and this is ernphasised in the context of violence against YI Women.

The death penalty for rape cannot be understood in isolation. It is unlikely to lead to an increase in the conviction of rapists, since judges will be loath to indict such severe sentences.

Further, convictions are likely to be disproportionately at individuals from disadvantaged and otherwise despised communities. Statistics in the United States reveal that Black men make up a disproportionate number of death row inmates. In the context of India, a review of laws that are punishable with capital punishment brings out the discriminatory way in which such laws are applied to disadvantaged communities. There is every reason to fear that the death penalty will be disproportionately used against Muslim men.

This may, in turn, only serve to reinforce the stereotype of Muslim men as lustful and rapacious, and deflect attention from the violence inflicted by Hindu men against women.

And finally, there can be no compromise on the basic human rights standard. Regardless of the nature of the crime. The death penalty has always operated against disadvantaged communities in every place in the world where it has been enforced. India is no exception to this rule. The death penalty is an easy solution to a complicated problem, a way in which the state can flex its muscles and fall back on- its prehistoric beliefs that might is right, never reflect the rule of law.

Which brings us back to the attacks on the Christian community.

Advani’s response in the rape of the nuns is couched in the language of nationalism and seems to put the blame on Christian missionaries who have provoked the ire of Hindus with their proselytising mission. There was no condemnation or disagreement with the statements of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, both members of the Sangh Parivar, of Hindus with their proselytising mission. There was no condemnation or disagreement with the statements of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, both members of the Sangh Parivar, which virtually justified the attacks on the Christian community and the missionaries. In fact B. L. Sharma, General Secretary of the BJP, stated that "the assault on the mission in Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh and the violence and loot in Bhaghpat, Uttar Pradesh, was the direct result of the conversion of the Hindus to Christianity by the priests ".

It would seem then that the proposed new law for getting tough on atrocities against women is not designed for communal rapes committed by Hindu militants.

Rapists may be under attack, but apparently not at the expense of the attack on the Christian community.

The targeting of religious minorities is in keeping with the BJP agenda to east Christians and Muslims as foreigners who are posing a threat to the Hindu society and the Hindu nation.

(Courtesy: The Hindu, 29 November 1998


As we have seen, there are conversions, but they are few and far between. Most conversions take place to improve oneís social situation and thatís what some of the Adivasis have done. We should remember what Swami Vivekananda said in the context of allegations against Muslims about Islam spreading through the sword. Says Swamiji ìWhy amongst the poor of India so many are Mohammadens? It is nonsense to say that they were converted by the sword, it was to gain liberty from Jamindars and the priestsî (Collected Works-Vol.VIII, Page 330). Most of the time people adopt a different religion to improve their social situation and thatís what some of the Adivasis have done.

This phenomenon of our society is being blown out of proportion to create hatred against the Christian community, and the same is being blamed on the Pope and attempts are being made to humiliate the Pope and Christians. After the hatred against Muslims, now the same is being done against the Christians. Is it not analogous to the poem of Martin Nimoeller Ö.

First they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Next they came for Communists
But I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for Trade Unionists
Ann I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade Unionist.
Then they came for Catholics
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a catholic

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak for me.

Pastor Martin Nimoellor
A priest and Intellectual and a victim of the Nazi ascendency in Germany in the 1930s

Mahatma Gandhi an ardent Hindu, was the biggest champion of communal harmony, but alas, he was killed by somebody in the name of Hindutva.
The Mahatma said ìIn India, for whose fashioning I have worked for all my life, every man enjoys equality of status, whatever be his religion. The state is bound to be wholly secularî (Pg. 87.Gandhi and Communal Problem, CSSS). He also said that ìreligion is a personal matter and it should not be mixed with politics and National affairsî. (Same book, pg 90)

Friends, the time has come for us to stop listening to those who have been spreading hatred in the name of religion. Sangh Parivar has been spreading hatred against minorities in a well-planned manner. This ìHate Campaignî is part of their politics to grab power. In this process they are demolishing and destroying the age-old tradition of mutual love harmony and tolerance. It is a shame that in the land of Gandhi, Buddha, Kabir and Nanak, hatred is being spread in the name of religion. We need to respect all religions in equal measure, and not hate othersí religions.


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Last updated: October 30, 2000 .