A nation on the brink?

March 22, 2002

A group of neo-fascist fundamentalist Hindus is waging a politico-religious war against India's Muslim minority. If it wins, it could herald the end of the world's largest democracy, argues Ian McDonald.

The systematic slaughter of Muslims by Hindus across the Indian state of Gujarat three weeks ago was a ferocious and barbaric revenge for the arson attack by a Muslim "mob" on a train carrying Hindu "activists".

The horrific fate of nearly 60 Hindus on February cannot compare to the subsequent pogrom waged against the minority Muslim community, in which whole families, including children, were dragged out of their homes to be beaten and burnt alive. The death toll is estimated to be above 1,000.

Contrary to many reports on the subject, the Hindus travelling on the Sabarmati Express were not pilgrims making their way to Ayodhya to pray in peace. They were ramsevaks , members of the politico-religious VHP (World Hindu Council) for whom the construction of a temple where once the Babri Masjid (mosque) stood is but the first step towards a fundamentalist Hindu state.

It was the VHP that planted the seed of the terrorist destruction of the Babri Masjid by Hindu fanatics in 1992, claiming that it was built on the birthplace of the Hindu god Rama. This resulted in riots targeted at Muslims that left 3,000 dead. The plan to build a temple on the disputed site continued to simmer until the most recent clashes.

The VHP had declared that it would begin building its temple on March 15, but the day was something of an anticlimax. India's Supreme Court barred the VHP from entering the disputed land. High-level negotiations and massive security arrangements led the ramsevaks to settle for a peaceful shila-daan (offering of carved pillars for the temple) accepted by a central government observer more than a mile from the disputed site.

But even before India could sigh in relief, the VHP claimed that this settlement was a "theoretical" acceptance of its plan to build a temple in Ayodhya. Opposition parties have criticised the government for sending a senior officer to accept the shila-daan . Many felt this legitimised the VHP's action. Meanwhile, violence has broken out again in Gujarat.

The crisis is not simply a religious one. At stake is the nature of India itself, and the illegal construction of the temple would constitute the final nail in the coffin of the country's diverse secular culture.

The VHP is but one part of a rightwing nationalist movement known as the Sangh Parivar. Significantly, so is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules India. The goal of the Sangh Parivar is "Hindutva" - the creation of an aggressive and exclusivist Hindu nation. Ideological leadership is provided by the notorious Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh movement.

Formed in 1925, the RSS looked to the fascist movement of inter-war Europe for inspiration. Nazi Germany provided an instructive lesson for one of its early leaders and most important ideologues, M. G. Golwaker, who in 1938 declared: "Germany has shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan to learn and profit by."

In contrast to Hitler's approach, the RSS strategy is to educate and train a mass movement of committed Hindu patriots to assume positions of leadership and influence at all levels of society. Prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and home minister Lal Krishna Advani come from the RSS fold.

The RSS is less a puppet-master than a stern parent, giving birth to and nurturing its offspring to become independent. Loyalty and reliability are expected. Parents still carry great moral authority in India. It was the RSS, despite being a non-elected and unaccountable body, that in the build-up to March 15 played the mediating role between its argumentative offspring - the dogmatic VHP - and the pragmatic BJP.

In 1998, I gained a unique insight into the nature of the RSS. At the time, I was studying the relationship between extreme forms of Hindu national identity and embodiment. The RSS's annual national officer's training camp, a 30-day affair held at a military school in the central Indian city of Nagpur, would be an ideal event for research. After negotiating with senior RSS officials, I was permitted a week when, despite being supervised constantly, I was able to observe and document life in the camp.

More than 1,000 participants attended the camp, all of them Hindu men, the majority of them upper-caste. Every day at 5am a shrill piercing whistle brought immediate silence as the participants assembled like military regiments facing the chief of the camp. Then the swallow-tailed saffron flag symbolising the Nation-God was raised and saluted by all present: the right hand raised to the chest, palm parallel to the ground, and head bowed respectfully. A two-hour session of military exercises and martial arts manoeuvres ensued. This was followed by religious and social "education". The activities were concluded at 8pm after two more hours of physical exercises and mass displays. In their trademark uniform - white shirt, khaki shorts, black shoes and black beret - the men at the camp were an awesome, frightening sight, as fascistic spectacles tend to be.

These were street combat units in the making. Not Nazi Übermensch , but men of all ages and sizes. These cadres are the backbone of the nationwide network of RSS shakhas , or local units. Groups of young men congregate daily in the shakhas to engage in a mixture of physical exercises, martial arts training and politico-religious education. They are pillars of local communities - teachers, bankers, businessmen and civil servants - who nevertheless could be relied on to kill their Muslim neighbours if called on to do so, as demonstrated in Gujarat.

Their training aims to promote devotion to the motherland. An attack on the motherland is to be felt as an outrage on the self. Thus, seemingly respectable men become programmed to respond in defence of the Hindu motherland. No wonder that Mahatma Gandhi (assassinated by a former RSS member in 1948) commented that it was "a communal body with a totalitarian outlook", and Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, felt that the RSS should be regarded as "an Indian version of fascism". Today, a majority of Indians, including most Hindus, would agree with these sentiments, denying that the Sangh Parivar represents the Hindu community.

And back in Ahmadabad, the call to inflict pain on even innocents who belong to the "enemy within" has been ruthless and effective. The fact that Muslims (and low-caste Hindus) have been forced to live in residential ghettos has made them easy targets for Sangh Parivar-inspired attacks in the past decade. The Muslims' attack on the train is not the justification for the recent carnage - no justification was necessary - it was merely the catalyst for the VHP to unleash yet another wave of terror over minority Muslims. Now under siege in their own locality, fearful, insecure and in mourning, the Muslims of Gujarat are paying the price for daring to be Indian. Moreover, the BJP government, both state and central, has been stoking the embers of communal feelings, encouraging the creep of Hindutva ideology into the ranks of the police and army.

The place of Muslims in India is made clear in this chilling rhetoric that egged the Hindu fanatics on to destroy the Babri Masjid. "Muslims live and prosper among us. Live like milk and sugar. If two kilos of sugar are dissolved in a quintal of milk, the milk becomes sweet! But what can be done if our Muslim brother seems bent upon being a lemon in the milk. He wants the milk to curdle. But the world knows the fate of the lemon. It is cut, squeezed dry and then thrown on the garbage heap."

The killing of innocent Muslims in the laboratory of Hindutva, Gujarat, followed by the forcing of the Ayodhya issue by the Hindu extremists, is ominous for the future of the world's largest democracy.

Ian McDonald is a lecturer in politics and sociology at Chelsea School, University of Brighton.

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