Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

New Delhi left grasping for answers to violence

Motilal Pradhan, a soldier in the Indian army, is thankful he was home when Hindu nationalists attacked his village.
Members of a New Delhi contingent of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh celebrate the anniversary of the group's founding.
Members of a New Delhi contingent of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh celebrate the anniversary of the group's founding.

DELHI // Motilal Pradhan, a soldier in the Indian army, is thankful he was home on leave on the night of Aug 24, when a 200-strong mob of Hindu nationalists attacked his predominantly Christian village. Hearing the chants of "Hindustan for Hindus! No foreign religion in this country!" Mr Pradhan hid his wife and three children in a nearby corn field. But his relief at keeping them safe is offset by grief for others he could not protect. Before he could return to the house, the men, armed with sticks and swords, hauled his wheelchair-bound younger brother on to the street, doused him with petrol and set him alight. "I watched as he was burnt alive in front of my own eyes," Mr Pradhan said in an interview. Since then, the wave of anti-Christian violence unleashed by the killing of a Hindu priest in the eastern state of Orissa has largely died down, but Mr Pradhan's family is refusing to return home, fearful there is little the government can do to protect them against an amorphous and emboldened network of Hindu militants. "The people who have burnt and broken these people's homes have not even been arrested," said Sudhansu Nayak, who runs a refugee camp in Bhubaneswar, Orissa's capital, where Mr Pradhan's family along with some 500 other displaced Christians are staying. Some arrests have been made, but the violence, which the Catholic Church said left 60 Christians dead and more than 50,000 homeless, has provoked a wider debate about how to deal with the Hindu nationalist organisations accused of orchestrating it. Yesterday, India's Catholic clergy welcomed Pope Benedict's condemnation of the violence, while Hindu nationalist politicians accused the Vatican of interfering. During a mass held on Sunday to canonise India's first woman saint, the pope invited prayers for Christians suffering persecution in India and Iraq, and urged the perpetrators to renounce such acts of violence, Agence France-Presse reported. "The pope's comments draw international attention to the problems of a minority which cannot defend itself on its own," said Father Dominic Emmanuel, a spokesman for the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese. The government is now mulling a ban on one or several of the groups that comprise India's "Hindutva" movement - which centres around the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and includes India's main national opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party. The national leaders of RSS and its affiliates - the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad - deny their organisations are behind the bloodshed, saying instead they campaign peacefully to establish a Hindu state and reverse the effects of British and Islamic invasions. But local leaders and rank and file members have been more forthright, with the Bajrang Dal president in Karnataka - one of six other states also caught up in the violence - claiming responsibility for attacks on members of the clergy and the destruction of prayer halls. "They were trying to convert our Hindu religion ? this was a reaction. They started it by taking western money to convert poor Hindus. So our people stopped them," said Suresh Changar, 55, an RSS member. It is Bajrang Dal that the government is now coming under the most pressure to ban. "Its members have been involved in mayhem, murder, arson, looting and rape. It is spreading hate and stoking communal tensions," said Mohammed Shafi Qureshi, the chairman of the National Commission for Minorities. "The commission strongly feels that the Bajrang Dal should be banned." Human rights groups have long advocated a ban, citing the group's involvement in communal riots between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, which saw as many as 2,000 people killed, mainly Muslims. However, the cabinet shied away from a ban on Wednesday, saying it needed more evidence. The National Integration Council, a panel of public figures, met yesterday to discuss communal tension, the first time the group has met since 2005. "It is not by accident that these incidents are increasing," Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, told the council, according to Reuters. "We need to collectively consider whether short-term narrow political ends are driving some of us to encourage forces of divisiveness." The Bajrang Dal, the RSS and the VHP were briefly banned in 1992 after 150,000 of their members defied a Supreme Court ruling and destroyed the 16th century Babri Mosque in the city of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. The RSS has also been outlawed on two other occasions since its inception in 1925: once in 1948 after one of its former members, Nathuram Godse, assassinated India's independence leader, Mahatma Gandhi, and again in the Emergency of the 1970s. Any ban, however, will be near to impossible to enforce as members of the "saffron brigade" now number in the millions (the RSS claims eight million members, the VHP 6.8m), with many supporters holding membership of more than one organisation. More importantly, the Bajrang Dal is careful not to keep a roster of its 1.5m members, who must be male and younger than 35 to join. "If you ban any one of these organisations you will feel the wrath from the others," said Prof Angana Chatterji, an expert on Hindu nationalism at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. "The Bajrang Dal are like the Black shirts in Italy and the Ku Klux Klan in its prime. It is that hateful, that systematic and that locally invested." The government also fears any ban will only bolster support for the BJP ahead of nationwide parliamentary elections early next year. So for the time being, the RSS and its sister organisations continue to operate openly - and with apparent impunity. On Thursday, the RSS celebrated its 83rd anniversary with small local marches and weapon-worshipping ceremonies across the country. At South Delhi's Kalkaji chapter, the 40-odd members assembled at 7.30am dressed in the traditional RSS outfit of wide khaki shorts, a crisp white shirt and a black Nehru cap. To the beat of a drum and chanting patriotic slogans, they marched along a 3km route, flanked by Bajrang Dal members on scooters flying saffron flags. Before disbanding, their leader, Ravi Prakash, the owner of a handicraft export business, carried out a prayer ritual in front of an altar bearing a rifle, pistol, swords and a trident - the movement's symbolic weapon. Talk of a ban was shrugged off with pleasant smiles as everyone tucked into a hearty breakfast of chickpeas with raw onion. "They won't ban us, there are too many of us," said one member, a 45-year-old lawyer who has been attending RSS meetings since he was five. For Mr Pradhan, a ban might have little effect in practice, but it would be proof the national government takes his plight seriously. Last week he was forced to return to his village under armed escort to retrieve the remains of his brother - all he could find was a part of his skull and pelvis. He has vowed never to return again. "Resettling there would only mean making a graveyard for our next generation," he said. hgardner@thenational.ae