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The Hindu Armed Militias of India

Looking back at the rise of militant Hindutva in India

by Khaled Ahmed

Armed Militias of South Asia: Fundamentalist, Maoists and Separatists by Laurent Gayer and Christophe Jaffrelot (Hurst 2009) has presented a most comprehensive portrait of Hindu extremism in India. Harkening back to the late 1930s, it recalls how the Hindu Mahasabha decided to create its own Hindu militia under the Ram Sena (the army of Ram) movement. This project, which took shape in December 1939 during the Calcutta session, was a brainchild of B.S. Moonje, who argued that it was necessary in case the British lost the war and “Muslim nations beyond the North-West frontier could invade India and the Muslims here may help them.”

Moonje, a rather unknown character, played a very important role in leading the Hindutva movement in Maharashtra, and especially of evolving its mindset. Of all Hindutva leaders, it was Moonje who insisted that Hindus should be inducted into a martial ethos. A Brahmin from Nagpur, a milieu that retained some nostalgia for the Maratha empire and continued to profess loyalty to the Bhonsle kingdom, Moonje was an eye surgeon who rose to the very apex of the Congress Party in Central Provinces after World War I and founded the Nagpur Hindu Mahasabha in the 1920s.

Hinduism goes overboard

Although he was a Brahmin, Moonje was not vegetarian and even proclaimed the virtues of eating meat. He liked to refer to himself as a “Maratha Brahmin” and to introduce himself as Brahmin by caste and by temperament perhaps a Kshatriya, particularly because he used to hunt. In 1920, in fact, he started shooting clubs. Moonje was resolutely opposed to ahimsa (non-violence). “In our religion,” he claimed, “violent defense of one’s rights is not condemned.” This drove him to accede he liked the Muslims for the virile vigilance with which they protect racial interests, which, alas, “is visibly lacking in the Hindu race.”

After the Muslim League officially declared in favor of a separate Pakistan in March 1940, Hindu Mahasabha-sponsored militias multiplied in the perspective of the coming Partition as private, self-defense armies. In Bengal, for instance, Shyam Prasad Mookerjee started a Hindu Shakti Sangha while criticizing Savarkar for collaborating with the British so openly that he changed the party’s nationalist credentials. Mookerjee’s alternative strategy militarized the Hindus opposing the British, too—especially after the Congress launched the Quit India Movement. This strategic line became prominent in 1943 when Mookerjee became president of the Hindu Mahasabha, replacing Savarkar, who wanted to resign for health reasons and had already launched the Hindu Rashtra Dal (HRD) in May 1942, whose leaders were Nathuram Godse and N.D. Apte, two Chitpavan Brahmins from Poona.

Gandhi: early casualty

The terrorist agenda that had been set culminated in 1948 in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, who had already been the target of the Savarkarites. In 1934, they had thrown a bomb at the Poona Municipal Town Hall where Gandhi was making a speech against untouchability in the course of his Indian tour against this “social curse.” In 1947, the two main architects of the plot against Gandhi, Godse and Apte, decided to kill him not only to punish him for his appeasement of Muslims to which they attributed Partition, but also to get rid of a man who had obliged the Indian government to give Pakistan “it’s due” in financial terms. But in India, Mahatma’s end also meant the end of Savarkarism. Not only were Savarkar and his colleagues arrested—and Godse as well as Apte executed—but his brand of Indian politics lost the little legitimacy it had acquired in the context of Partition.

In 1921, Hedgewar had decided to create the RSS in Nagpur to defend the Hindus. Replicating a deeply entrenched stereotype in Indian psychology he considered the Muslims to have greater strength because of their meat diet, their religious unity symbolized by Friday’s congregation in which everyone, poor and rich alike, prayed together at the mosque, whereas Hindus lagged—partly because of the food taboos observed by the upper castes—and they were divided into countless castes and sects.

RSS, the private army

From that time on, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) presented itself as a self-defense movement against Muslims who they viewed as potential aggressors. Hinduism thus needed to be reformed to bring about the advent of a new man. To achieve this, Hedgewar designed a special system of which the basic unit was the shakha. Shakha means “branch,” and in fact this entity is the fundamental building block of the network that Hedgewar hoped to spread across India. A shakha is both a place and a social group: every day at sunrise and sunset, the members of a shakha meet for physical training sessions and ideological lectures. The main RSS target was young people who were energetic and malleable and “embodied tomorrow’s India.” The organization sent them to the shakhas by practicing games of their age. Gradually, the games turned into physical training, including practice in handling lathi (a baton also used by the police).

In the late 1940s, with Partition approaching, the RSS adopted features of a private army, like Savarkar’s own. In Punjab, RSS members armed and trained themselves in order to protect Hindus who were in a minority in the province, but also in order to eliminate Muslim districts that they claimed even though they were not in a majority there, or in a very slim majority. Similarly, the RSS attacked Muslims in a logic of ethnic cleansing in places where they formed more or less influential pockets. The states of Alwar and Bharatpur, which had very substantial Meo populations, are cases in point. In Alwar, Prime Minister N.B. Khare, declared 20 years later that, with the help of the RSS, “the state became non-Muslims (sic) as 50,000 were converted to Hinduism by the Hindus. About 15,000 might have been slaughtered.” The Maharajah of Alwar had allowed the RSS to set up training camps to resist “separatist” demands from the Meos, a group of Muslims among whom the Tablighee Jamaat conducted active propaganda.

Bajrang Dal enters the stage

The Bajrang Dal was a by-product of the movement that began after the Ayodhya mosque incident. Founded in the spring of 1984, and out of the auspices of the RSS, it added an additional degree of mediation and concealment of the link between the Bajrang Dal and the RSS. The Bajrang Dal was created to help the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) accomplish the mission the RSS had just assigned it to increase the strength of Hindu mobilization in the Ayodhya movement. Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh is the former capital of the god Ram, one of Vishnu’s most popular avatars in northern India.

According the widespread but unverifiable belief, there once stood on top of Ram’s birthplace in Ayodhya a temple that the Muslims supposedly replaced with a mosque and called it Babri Masjid, after the first Mughal emperor who had it built. In 1949, Hindu national movements such as the Hindu Mahasabha laid claim to the site, with the resulting unrest prompting the government to place seals on the building to stave off communal violence.

Ram Mandir affair

The controversy resurfaced in 1984. The VHP was instructed to orchestrate a campaign in favor of building a temple to Ram in Ayodhya. In April 1984 the Dharma Sansad (parliament of the Hindu religion) unanimously adopted a resolution to “liberate” the site of the Babri Masjid. It was in this context that it set up the Bajrang Dal, with the VHP website specifying that the group was founded “with the temporary and localized objective of awakening the youth of Uttar Pradesh and get their involvement in the Ram movement.”

Starting in the 1990s, Bajrang Dal set up training camps where its members received extremely rigorous physical conditioning. They practiced a mixture of martial arts (judo, karate and jujitsu) specially designed by their trainers. They also learned to climb ropes, to leap through blazing hoops and, especially, to shoot with rifles and pistols. This training is reminiscent of what the Islamists undergo as shown in televised reports of Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. In fact, when interviewed, the Bajrang leaders mentioned threats which “all stem from Muslims.”

Bajrang Dal vs the arts

Then Bajrang Dal set out to defend Hindu gods against the “erring ways” of art. Its primary targets are artists who, it believes, lack due respect toward Hindu culture. Historically, this was the initial target it chose by attacking the famous painter Maqbool Fida Husain in 1996. That year, Bajrang Dal militants attacked the Herwitz gallery where he was exhibiting in Ahmedabad. They destroyed canvases and wall hangings worth Rs. 15 million that had depicted the Buddha, Hanuman and Ganesh. But the real cause of their outcry was something else, a canvas dating from 1976 that depicted the goddess Saraswati far too scantily clad to their taste. Three days earlier the Maharashtra authorities had recorded a complaint against Husain, which accused him of encouraging inter-community hatred through his work, and insulting religion.

In May 2007, Hindu nationalists burst into the fine arts department of the University in Vadodara where the best student works of the year were exhibited. They attacked one of them, S. Chandramohan, 23, after accusing him of making obscene pictures using religious subjects. One of his canvases represented a goddess giving birth to a man and another disrespecting a Christian cross—which the local church also criticized. The youth was arrested and thrown into prison. The faculty dean was requested to shut down the exhibition, which he refused to do. He was then suspended by university president, Manoj Soni, and the exhibition was cancelled.

The courts kowtow

Hindu nationalists enjoyed the benefit of a number of court decisions. The outlawing of the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal was declared under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act of 1967, which requires approval by a tribunal. On June 4, 1993, the High Court of Delhi cancelled the bans, finding that the groups’ leaders had no intention of causing harm to the Babri Masjid. Bajrang Dal again benefited from this. The commission of inquiry appointed by Vajpayee—a one-man show, since it was made up of a single Supreme Court judge, D.P. Wadhwa— let Bajrang Dal off the hook.

Gujarat, a laboratory for Hindu nationalism, warrants separate consideration. First, it has been governed by the BJP for over 10 years, without the party needing to form a coalition with one or more parties. Second, it was the only state to have a former RSS pracharak, Narendra Modi, as chief minister. These two factors are decisive in that they have enabled the Hindu nationalists to appoint to the administration, and in particular the police, trusted associates in league with such controversial organizations as Bajrang Dal. In fact, the border between police forces and these movements has become extremely blurred, to the point of fostering Bajrang Dal in the police and vice versa. The paramilitary Home Guards, a force made up of civilians used by the authorities to keep order at the local level, have also filled their ranks with RSS and Bajrang Dal members. A high-ranking police officer admits that the district command of the Home Guards began to change as soon as the BJP came to power in Gujarat. When he was chief minister of Madhya Pradesh and arrested Bajrang Dal militants, Digvijay Singh noted that among the individuals taken in for questioning were four Gujarat police officers.

Communal hell of Gujarat

The violence was thus propagated by Bajrang Dal activists, squads of whom regularly arrived in Muslim neighborhoods by the truckload. They wore a basic uniform—the RSS khaki shorts and a saffron headband—and carried weapons such as the trident. Their favorite targets were Muslim women, of whom great numbers were raped and killed. In Naroda Patiya, a Muslim neighborhood in Ahmedabad, one of the Bajrang Dal ringleaders allegedly cut the fetus out of the belly of a woman nine months pregnant, threw it into the fire and then burned her alive. This heinous crime was attributed to a thug both by the survivors of Naroda Patiya and by the Hindus for whom he is “the hero of Naroda Patiya.”

These trajectories are systematically implemented through emulation of the threatening Islamist “other”, as is evident from the Shiv Sena’s project of initiating Hindu suicide-squads. The Hindu nationalist culture of violence, therefore, combines a partly autochthonous repertoire, including the Chitpavan legacy, and external influences such as jihadist techniques. This is a perfect administration of the partly mimetic ideology-building process of Hindu nationalism at large.

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