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Test Flights of the Hindutva Dream
For the Sangh, Gujarat is ideal turf for its saffron experiments

By Rajesh Joshi in Ahmedabad                  -Outlook 1999

It's the biggest laboratory of its kind - a state that is a test-case for the BJP-RSS brand of social engineering. Gujarat is not just the realisation of the Sangh's vision of a saffronised landscape. The results of its exertions here, believe its proponents, shall influence the future shape of Indian polity. Why is Gujarat a natural choice for locating this experiment? Because, for historical and contemporary reasons, ideal laboratory conditions exist here.
It's the only state where the BJP rules with the benefit of an absolute majority.
This means little interference from Opposition parties or pesky allies. The BJP, thus, has no need for 'hidden' agendas - it can openly employ the Hindutva one.
In Keshubhai Patel, they have a helmsman who even flaunts his RSS credentials.

The total identification of the government apparatus with a saffron 'infrastructure' was never more evident than with the recent decision to lift restrictions on state employees from participating in RSS activities. On the face of it, the move appears to be innocuous, almost natural. But it's the first time that a government, and not the BJP as a party, was according a stamp of legitimacy to the RSS. Gujarat, always a solid base for orthodoxy, had moved overtly into saffron mode with the mass-scale riots of 1969. That process was now close to fruition.

The saffron Blueprint

All state officials can now join the RSS
Move to lift restrictions on joining VHP and the ABVP on the cards
A government anti-cow slaughter campaign under way
A bill on banning conversions to be discussed in the next Assembly session
Bill to check population growth being contemplated, it may be used to harass the minorities
Attempts by the VHP and the Bajrang Dal to create a polarised atmosphere

Controversial bills
So what next? Sources in the government hint at some very controversial decisions in the near future. Next month, the state assembly will discuss a bill seeking a total ban on religious conversions. Top officials say a bill on enforcing checks on population growth is on the anvil. "The government is planning to introduce a bill through which restrictions will be imposed on couples having more than the stipulated number of children. We're aware that it'll be viewed as a step to curb the growth in minority population but that does not bother us," says a minister in the Keshubhai cabinet. A two-month official campaign to implement anti-cow slaughter laws is also under way.

'I'm doing it in my own style'
After lifting the ban on state government officials' participation in the activities of the RSS, Gujarat's BJP government is now "weighing the pros and cons" of a similar decision with respect to other Sangh parivar affiliates like the VHP and the ABVP - outfits which figure in the government list of 32 organisations declared out of bounds for government employees. However, when Outlook met chief minister Keshubhai Patel, he brushed aside allegations about the RSS's backseat driving" in the state.

Why has the government decided to lift restrictions only for the RSS?
The Muslim League divided the country; they organised riots and disturbances but the Congress came to power after aligning with them in Kerala. It would really be gross injustice to put restrictions on organisations which have never done something like that.

But other pro-Hindutva organisations like the VHP and the ABVP continue to be on the restricted list?
We are thinking about that. A decision on whether we should lift the restrictions or not will be taken in the future. But the RSS has not done anything wrong. Actually, the decision to restrict the RSS was taken by the previous government in order to remain in power and suppress the RSS. Is it wrong to inculcate the feeling of nationalism among the people?

There are apprehensions that proximity to the RSS will now become the sole criteria of doling out favours to government servants...
Ours is a transparent government. We will not let anyone take advantage of their proximity with the RSS. At the same time, we don't know if anybody will actually try to do that, in any case injustice will not be done to anyone.

There are concerns within the international community about the "growing religious intolerance" in India...
The Congress party raised this issue last time to gain political mileage. The international community knows that Gujarat is a peaceful state - as for minor incidents, they happen throughout the country. Even the Muslims have understood the Congress gameplan. Muslims are carrying out their business peacefully in Gujarat. We have adopted a positive political attitude and the Congress has been defeated everywhere.

Are you carrying out the RSS's hidden agenda?
Nothing is hidden. In our manifesto, we've declared to the public that we will strengthen nationalism. Let our critics say what they want to. I am doing the BJP's work in my own style and will continue to do so in the future. That the RSS tells us how to run the government is a lie. The BJP decides policy matters; of course, some of us happen to be RSS swayamsevaks.

The fallout of these measures is frightening. Particularly the implications of lifting the ban on government servants joining the RSS. Consider this: custodians of the law - policemen and members of the armed constabulary - responsible for maintaining peace in a communally volatile state will now have the "legal right" to go to the morning RSS drills to learn a lesson or two in aggressive Hindutva. The same RSS-indoctrinated policemen can be deputed by the state government to "handle" a communal situation should the need arise. What earlier hinged on police corps naturally 'identifying' with one side during riots - recall the '84 anti-Sikh riots or the Bombay riots - now comes with an official mandate.

Gujarat is the unique model, the testing ground where the dream of the 'virile, aggressive Hindu' is sought to be realised.

On the other hand, it's still illegal to participate in activities of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Students Islamic Movement, Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Hind or the IUML. Under the government's conduct rules, these outfits are still on the Centre's list of 32 "restricted organisations" considered to be "anti-national, violent and against public morality". As for the VHP and the ABVP, the government is "weighing the pros and cons" of deleting their names from the list. As state home minister Haren Pandya told Outlook, "No decision about the VHP and ABVP has been taken yet. Whether the restrictions exist tomorrow or not is a different thing".

Says P.K. Lahiri, principal secretary to the chief minister, "Whoever wants the restriction to be lifted will have to move (an application)". Did the RSS move an application? "No," replies Lahiri, "the state government on its own asked for the restriction to be lifted. It depends on the perception of the government." According to him, the RSS was added to the list of restricted organisations "because of the communal situation then". Says Lahiri, "The perception of the government keeps changing according to the ground situation. Looking at the period between 1986 and today, you will find there isn't much of a communal situation now". But Lahiri fails to explain why Muslim organisations haven't benefited from this 'change'. Clearly, the state government's perception is based on a thinly-veiled thesis: majority communalism is not communalism. As Haren Pandya puts it, the RSS is committed to "character building". Again, of note is the fact that these are no longer merely the personal views of BJP leaders or the party - it's the state government's official stand.

The government looks determined not to rescind its decision. Says Pandya: "It's a well thought-out decision taken after consulting the central government. It should have been taken earlier. It is not going to be reverted." Threats of a mass movement by the Congress against the legitimising of the RSS also leave them unfazed. Congress president Sonia Gandhi is scheduled to lead the protests in Ahmedabad on Mahatma Gandhi's death anniversary on January 30. About a year after coming to power, the Keshubhai government wrote to the Centre in June '99 seeking its advice on the move to delete the RSS from the restricted list. A friendly central government headed by another swayamsevak, Atal Behari Vajpayee, wasted no time and wrote back on July 13, '99, saying that the Unlawful Activity Prevention Tribunal had cleared the RSS as a lawful organisation.

However, it took the Keshubhai government a good six months to pronounce the decision - perhaps it was waiting for an opportune moment. This cautious approach is understandable, the government had come in for sharp criticism on the issue of conducting a clandestine survey of crime records and assets of Christians and Muslims early in '99. Plans of conducting the survey had to be dropped after it was challenged in the court. But part of the state government's strategy is working in tandem with the Sangh parivar - should the government find it difficult to implement a decision, the more rabid cousins of the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, come to the fore. Indeed, having a friendly government in place means the Bajrang Dal has acquired the status of a thought police which unleashes its cadres on whoever it thinks is against Hindutva.

During the last five years the Bajrang Dal has methodically targeted minorities in different parts of the state. It has disrupted beauty contests, burnt copies of the Bible in a school in Rajkot, threatened Muslims in Randhikpur after two Muslim youths eloped with Hindu girls. When the VHP-Bajrang Dal directed their wrath against Christians in the Dangs area in '98, even Vajpayee tried to justify the vandalism by merely stating that a national debate was needed on the issue of conversion. It's all part of the well-synchronised march of the saffron brigade in Gujarat. And the government no longer denies that it's implementing the partisan ideology of Hindutva. Home minister Pandya admits, "Good governance is no doubt our priority but it's equally necessary to see that the finer points of the ideology are also implemented".

Political observers feel the process of saffronisation that began with the '69 riots has been accelerated after the BJP came to power with an absolute majority. Says Achut Yagnik of the Centre for Social Knowledge and Action: "The RSS has managed to break tribal unity along communal lines enabling the BJP to make inroads in the tribal belt of Gujarat". Indeed, the secret of the BJP's success lies more in breaking the Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasi-Muslim (kham) alliance forged by the Congress.

The great Sangh dream is gradually being accomplished - that of a dominant and aggressive Hindu society. The communal riots of Surat after the Babri demolition is considered by the RSS family as one of the indicators of the growing "capability" of Hindu society to "retaliate". In these riots, Muslim women were stripped and paraded naked, an event recorded by video cameras.

Points out a senior BJP mla: "Muslims have stopped creating any problems after Surat because they know any action will invite Hindu retaliation." This process of "strengthening" had begun way back in '69. The P. Jagmohan Reddy Commission of Inquiry looking into the biggest-ever communal riots in Gujarat had indicted the Jana Sangh in '70 when it was still a fledgling in Gujarat politics. Notes the report: "...the agitation had received the blessings of the local Bharatiya Jana Sangh workers who did not want to involve themselves directly but suggested the formation of an organisation known as Hindu Dharma Raksha Samiti with Harishchandra Patel, an old RSS worker, as its convenor".

For the RSS, Gujarat is a unique model where the glimpses of a larger Hindu dream can now be seen. Says Shankersinh Vaghela, the former CM who fell out with the RSS with the Khajuraho escapade, "Rightist politics has always been popular in Gujarat. Taking advantage of that, the RSS and VHP have spread their tentacles". Once himself part of the decision-making process of the RSS, Vaghela now predicts the organisation's downslide has begun. But for the RSS it's just a small step in the direction of achieving its ultimate goal of Hindu rashtra.


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Last updated: January 15, 2001 .