In the hurly-burly of state elections in the Hindi heartland—Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi—the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) defence of its self-styled sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur’s alleged role in the Malegaon blast case as well as her links with Lt Col Srikant Prasad Purohit, a suspect in the plot, has brought questions such as “Who is an Indian?” back to the top of the agenda.
To think that the debate that followed the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by Nathuram Godse in 1948 would have settled it by now! If Godse thought the Mahatma and his ilk in the Congress were “selling out” to the newly-created Islamic state of Pakistan, and therefore needed to be done away with, the shock of the Mahatma’s murder even made right-wing organizations such as the Hindu Mahasabha and the Jan Sangh dissociate themselves from Godse.
The uniqueness of the Indian experiment, as political scientists Sunil Khilnani and Ramachandra Guha have so simply said elsewhere, is that a mind-boggling plurality of faiths (and castes, creeds and colour) is still learning to give each other space within the secular, democratic republic.
Certainly, India is special in this sense. Certainly, no other country in the neighbourhood compares; across the Asian arc, from Japan on one side to Israel on the other, few do.
That’s when the smug, self-congratulatory feeling comes face-to-face with the reality on the ground, of “Islamic terror” and “Hindu terror”, each of them seeking to rebuild India in its own image.
And the worst piece of news yet : Apart from the sadhvi’s links with Purohit, the first serving army officer arrested for suspected involvement in an act of terrorism, the government is investigating at least three more serving officers in the army for suspected links to Purohit.
If proved to be true, the involvement of the army officers would shake the self-avowed secular foundations of the Indian Armed Forces.
The Indian Army, indeed the establishment, has often taunted the Pakistan army’s fierce desire to control state power as well as its links with the Islamic right-wing, even as it holds itself up as a fair and lovely alternative in comparison.
Just look at the irony here: As the ATS was investigating Purohit, the Americans were flying in Pakistan army chief Ashraf Kayani to its aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean, where he gave them information about militants such as Rashid Rauf, who was allegedly involved in the potential use of liquids as material to blow up airliners flying out of Heathrow. Days later, an unmanned US drone had reportedly killed Rauf in the Pakistani borderlands with Afghanistan.
(It’s another matter that the Pakistan army is accused, by none other than the Americans, of playing fast and loose with the Al Qaeda and the Taliban, on the one hand, and the US, on the other.)
Government officials involved in the Purohit-sadhvi-Malegaon case say that national security adviser M.K. Narayanan briefed the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, L.K. Advani, over the weekend about the sadhvi’s alleged terror connections with Purohit. Director of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) P.C. Halder was also present during the briefing at Advani’s Prithviraj Road residence. Both men gave him a presentation on the overlapping circles of information that had been gleaned by the IB, on the one hand, and Military Intelligence, on the other. But, according to the officials who didn’t want to be named, Advani only wanted to know why the sadhvi was being tortured in custody, and why the government insisted on describing the case as one of “Hindu terror.”
This is exactly the stance that BJP leaders, both Advani and party president Rajnath Singh, have taken during the just-concluded campaign in the Madhya Pradesh election. According to reports from Madhya Pradesh, the senior BJP leadership has sought to separate the sadhvi and other “extremists,” defending the self-styled woman-saint, while seeking to put the latter into the loony fringe.
After former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi allowed the shilanyas, or ground-breaking ceremony, for a Ram temple in Ayodhya and Advani followed up with a campaign that culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, religious divisiveness in India has grown to the extent that “Hindu” terrorists and “Islamic” terrorists are simply a mirror-image of each other.
The lack of a real response on Advani’s part to the Narayanan-Halder briefing shows that he perfectly understands what’s going on: When extremism breeds upon itself, it gives rise to a lunatic fringe that makes the previous extremism look moderate in comparison. That is why Advani called 6 December 1992, the day the Babri Masjid was demolished, the “worst day in my life”. That is also why former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee shed tears when confronted with the 2002 Gujarat massacres.
Still, at a time when six states are going through a staggered electoral process, here’s the perfect irony: Jammu and Kashmir, which has been the battleground for both azaadi, or independence, as well as a Hindu-Muslim divide for the last 20 years, has witnessed the highest polling so far.
Perhaps the Hindi heartland could learn a thing or two from the borderlands.
Jyoti Malhotra is Mint’s diplomatic affairs editor and writes every week on the intersection of foreign policy, trade and politics.
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