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The many uses of religious weaponry

The Sangh Parivar is organising "trishul diksha samarohs" in a number of villages in Rajasthan where it has distributed lakhs of Rampuri knives disguised as the three-pronged "trishuls" - a campaign reminiscent of the Ramshila poojans of the 1980s and Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani's Rath Yatra in the 1990s, says Teesta Setalvad, editor of Communalism Combat, after extensive peregrinations through the interiors of Rajasthan and Gujarat. She finds the countryside in a slow communal burn, with the various prosthetics of the Sangh Parivar trying to ensure the homogenous dominance of the Hindus...

In Rajasthan today, government agencies, the administration and the police are under severe strain due to the concentrated actions and campaigns being conducted by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Shiv Sena - a new and visible presence in this region - the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal (BD), all of them aided and abetted by the Parliamentary wing of the Hindu extremists - the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Of immediate concern is the systematic distribution of a few hundred thousand "trishuls" - cleverly disguised Rampuri knives, each between six and eight inches long and sharp enough to kill. The lethal instrument is being delivered to "every Hindu household" in the villages where the trishul diksha samaroh is being conducted. More than seven districts in Rajasthan, including Raipur, Kotda, Jaipur and Asind, have had active trishul distribution programmes. It is a brazen attempt to militarise society in the garb of a religious programme.

The campaign raises serious ethical and legal questions, especially because it is accompanied by clever rhetoric. Hindus are exhorted, through speeches and incendiary pamphlets, to "beware" of the danger ahead, and to arm themselves. In short, prepare for violence.

The trishul, like the kirpan (the dirk, which it is compulsory to carry, that functions like a sigil for the Sikh community), is exempt from the provisions of Indian law, on the ground that it is a religious symbol. But when a weapon, specifically because of its religious symbolism, is used to arm people already charged with hatred against other sections of society, and is likely to be used as a terror tool, is such an exemption justified? Is this not tantamount to violating tenets of the Indian Constitution and the Indian Arms Act that are based on principles of a non-violent and non-armed civil society?

In mid-November this year, the Rajasthan government decided to seize a pamphlet jointly published by the VHP and the BD. A case was filed against the publishers of the pamphlet under Article 153-A by the Rajasthan police towards the end of September. The police applied to the state government, under section 95 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), which empowers the police to seize any objectionable material. On November 12, the state government decided to seize copies of the pamphlet titled, "Hathon mein talwaren, seene mein hai toofan; raksha kare desh ki, Bajrang Dal ke jawan" (The Bajrang Dal volunteers are defending the nation with swords in their hands and a storm raging in their hearts).

Highly-placed sources in the Rajasthan state intelligence wing say that the contents of this pamphlet, distributed in large numbers all over the state, were objectionable and malicious, with great potential to cause communal disturbance: hence the ban. The Rajasthan intelligence has made special note of the fact that the BD and VHP have claimed joint credit for the publication.

Rajasthan is clearly on the edge of a precipice. At a recent public rally, chief minister Ashok Gehlot revealed that the BD had distributed as many as 40 lakh trishuls countrywide. He has also written to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in late-September, demanding a ban on the Bajrang Dal. The executive, at the higher level of government, is also showing a clear resolve to tackle the communal menace. But down the line, at the division, district and tehsil level, the administrative and police machinery have displayed either an inability, or a singular lack of intention, to enforce the law in accordance with Constitutional principles.

"Nine years, in total, of BJP rule has been used by the party leadership to successfully infiltrate echelons of the administration and the police," Sriprakash Sharma, senior journalist and editor of Rashtradoot said. "Even now, sections of the top cadre of the IAS (Indian Administrative Services) and the IPS (Indian Police Services) visit the former BJP chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, and the latter publicly flaunts this, as he did a few weeks ago at Diwali."

The brazenness with which Hindu extremists relate to the authorities is well illustrated by the following example from Jahazpur town, which has witnessed communal violence in recent months:

On Dussehra day, though section 142 (prohibition of any assembly with weapons) was in force, the VHP-SS-BD clan assembled in Jahazpur was bent on brandishing swords in the procession. But the deputy superintendent of police, Hemant Sharma, who had permitted the procession without arms, would not allow this. Many among the leadership and organisers took strong objection to this, and actually insulted and roughed Sharma up, leading him to file complaints against three members of the BD, VHP and the Shiv Sena under section 148, Indian Penal Code (IPC) (rioting armed with deadly weapons), and against 13 others for assaulting and misbehaving with a public servant. Those booked include Moolchand Sonar of the Shiv Sena (under section 108) and Dinesh Prajapat and Santkumar - for both offences and Kalu Joshi belonging to the BD and VHP under section 148.

The state saw three communal riots, and 40 cases of communal tension, in the year 2000. And, according to official police records, there have so far been four incidents of communal riots and 50 cases of communal tension in the current year.

Figures are said to be almost always deceptive, and nowhere is this axiom more apt than when attempting an understanding of events classified as incidents of "communal violence" or mere "tension" by the state police in Rajasthan. This is because there is both a specific context to each incident of violence or tension, and a discernible pattern in the techniques of communal mobilisation being used. Hate campaigns and criminal actions, including destruction of homes and businesses following attacks on places of worship have been the favoured methods of the "Hindutva" brigade in Rajasthan, as elsewhere.

Moreover, and this requires careful handling during any analysis, many districts of Rajasthan are the historical locales of genuinely "mixed" communities, especially among Hindus and Muslims. For example, in Beawar, where the Cheeta Mera communities are dominant, we can still find a brother each of common parentage, belonging to two different faiths, and being married through pheras or nikaahs respectively. But Beawar in recent times has seen sharp polarisation.

Thus, since the mid-1980s, demographic and cultural changes have been motivated by both the VHP and the Tableeghi Jamaat to concentrate their energies on "re-conversions" in these areas, with a desire to de-Islamise or de-Hinduise them. As a result, peoples and communities, who until a decade-and-a-half ago were indistinguishable in dress and attire, culture and custom, today carry unmistakable marks of a new religious identity, and the newly found zeal of a recent convert.

In Nasirabad, Ajmer district, violence erupted on April 4-5, the day of Moharram and Mahavir Jayanti. According to state intelligence agencies, and the investigations carried out by the state unit of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), in the middle of the night of April 4, certain identified persons stoned the Laxminarayan temple, and some of the idols on the outside were damaged. Street lamps on the main road of Nasirabad and vehicles outside homes were also broken. 

Though the Moharram procession was disallowed, local Muslims kept their cool. However, the VHP brazenly burnt one taazia and upturned another, when the taazia juloos was finally permitted. The police had to resort to lathi charge to control the situation. Curfew was declared. Some local advocates were charged with the offence of burning the taazia. To protest against this, lawyers in Nasirabad declared a bandh in the courts, which continued for a month-and-a-half.

On April 11 and 16, violence broke out at Beawar and Sawar, when officials tried to pull down an unauthorised mosque (Masooda masjid) in Ravla Baria village, and the Muslim villagers prevented them from doing so. In the hyped-up propaganda about cause and effect that survives every incident of violence, state police and intelligence notch this one against Muslims, who were defending an illegal structure.

But local residents took the trouble to unravel the truth behind the hype. They found that while an overzealous administration was keen on actually destroying a half-constructed masjid at Ravla Baria, hundreds of mandirs in the district that line the hilltops and roads, including the Ashapura Mata mandir constructed by the VHP, have been allowed their unlawful existence.

In a society divided by sharp religious polarisations, the selective application of the Religious Places of Worship Act (that is in force in Rajasthan and West Bengal, and which requires prior official permission for construction of a religious place of worship) is seen as one more attempt to show the Muslims their place.

"In Beawar, there are 6,000 Muslims and 75,000 Hindus. When we visited the area after the violence, we found that the Muslims had been terrorised. In Nasirabad, Ajmer, too, Muslims have been pushed into displaying a board outside the Jama masjid that says, 'Visitors from UP or Bihar will not be allowed to stay here'," says Kavita Srivastava, a social activist involved with the Freedom to Information campaign and the PUCL. This is in response to the systematic hype about "dangerous outsider madrassa education" that is being used to fuel suspicion and ill-will against Muslims. After the incident at Nasirabad and then Beawar, there is desperation now among the Muslims who say, "We are bending over backwards. Ham kis had tak jayen? (How far do we have to go to be allowed to live in peace?)"

The violence in Rajasthan this year did not stop here. On July 16, the mazaar at the dargah of Hazrat Sayed Baba Vithal in Jahazpur was destroyed. A member of the BD was arrested but then, because of the pressure put by the local BD and VHP, the accused was released by the administration.

"They simply did not let anyone get arrested in connection with this incident," says Bhanwar Meghvanshi, the local representative of the PUCL. Again, on July 26, in another incident that was engineered at Asind, the annual urs at the Badiya Baba mazaar, scheduled for July 26-28 was not allowed to take place; the tents set up in preparation of urs were burnt and on July 27, worshippers were assaulted. On the same day a 400-year-old Savai Bhoj masjid at Asind was razed to the ground.

A chabootra was constructed at the site, and the idol of Hanuman brought from half-a-km away was installed here. The name given to the deity was Pir Pachar Hanuman. Later, on August 10, at Vindhya Bhatar also in Jahazpur, another mazaar (Pir Babaji ki mazaar) was also destroyed.

The role of the media surrounding these actions is interesting. Both the local media and the administration projected this incident as a non-incident, claiming that the site was the shrine of Bhoot Bapji, and the Meena community worshipped there. Therefore, by implication, what was destroyed was not a mazaar/dargah at all! The fact that a shrine (mazaar) built by members of the Meena community (in memory of Pir Babaji Baba) had to be destroyed by organisations, who thereafter wanted to claim the site for cultural re-interpretation escaped the public statements of the administration, initially. However, due to energetic interventions from citizens and groups, locally and from Jaipur, the administration had this mazaar repaired. Soon thereafter, even the newly installed idol was removed.

Civil liberties groups are now pressing for reconstruction of the masjid at Asind. In the same area, on August 12, at Pandher Kasba, some miscreants destroyed the interior of the mosque, and copies of the Qur'an were burnt. Until today, no one has been indicted for the incident.

Incidentally, this is not the first time that the Asind mosque has been targeted. In 1985, 1990, 1995 and last April, the mosque has drawn the ire of communal forces, for whom a 10th century masjid, cheek by jowl with a mandir - for many locals a touching symbol of tolerance and harmony for hundreds of years - was, and is, anathema. Incidentally, Gujjar Muslim women (Muslims are 30 per cent of the Gujjar population) offered worship at both the temple and the mosque.

These attacks on Sufi and other shrines of worship - that are visited by a majority of locals who are non-Muslims - were accompanied by the economic and social boycott of Muslim shops and businesses in Jahazpur and other smaller villages. This is reminiscent of the trends and techniques in violence used in Randhikpur-Sanjeli in Gujarat in 1998, and more recently, in Surat, Khed-Lambadiya, Rajkot and Ahmedabad in August 2000.

In the latter incidents, Muslim property worth Rs 15 crore was destroyed after the VHP general secretary, Pravin Togadia, declared, "Wahan ka jawaab yahan denge (We will give our reply to 'their violence' here. The reference was to the brutal killing of Amarnath yatris by militants in Kashmir)". For a whole week, Muslims in all these towns of Gujarat suffered heavy economic losses. Gujarat's Muslims had to pay heavily for the actions of external terrorists under a BJP government, and the heavily-communalised administration did nothing. Compensation has not been paid and the guilty are unpunished.

Similarly, for over two months in Jahazpur and other areas, the situation was grim. While the impact of the economic boycott has been diluted somewhat since, due to some measures taken by the administration recently, the fact that those persons against whom FIRs (first information reports) and criminal cases were lodged for criminal acts and violence have made no progress still suggest only a half-baked desire to tackle the situation.

Following a spate of these incidents, between September 10 and 14, the same forces targeted a small city in Rajasthan that is a symbol of communal harmony - Mandal.

"Hamirgarh, Bigor, Bangror, Badnor, Salaner, Bhilwara - all these areas have become targets for communal incidents," says Meghvansi, a Dalit who was formerly associated with the RSS. "The most significant part of the mobilisation is the blatant use of Dalits as aggressors against the minorities - Khatti, Kohli, Balai, Regar, Chamar, Bherwas, the Rawats. Different Dalit and tribal communities are being systematically communalised to serve the upper and middle caste's motives to foment violence. Their aim is that the Muslims and Dalits, Muslims and tribals fall out among themselves."

Muslims in Jahazpur, Beawar and Asind (Bhilwara), as also in Nasirabad (Ajmer) and even Jaipur, are bitter. Attacks begin with blatant assaults on places of worship - articles and symbols of faith and culture - and, thereafter, escalate into bouts of violence, during which there has been a systematic destruction of Muslim property in lakhs, especially in Beawar, Jahazpur, Asind and Pandher.

The thinking that lies behind each action, and the techniques used in the mobilisation of local communities bear a chilling similarity to the sowing of deep-rooted divisions among the population in neighbouring Gujarat. Each individual incident is backed by systematic verbal and printed propaganda, unleashed on the public and the administration by outfits like the RSS, the BD, the VHP and more recently, the Shiv Sena.

The propaganda contained in these campaigns is a heady, and a poisonous mix of half-truths and historical distortions. The fact that the propaganda works - albeit in a scattered and non-uniform way - is evident from the subsequent portrayal of events in the local media, in the language of the administration, and most critically, the police. Through this, the shrine that was until yesterday a mazaar or a dargah mysteriously becomes a mandir or poojasthal; the minority communities are isolated for violating the law related to construction of places of worship, while any number of unauthorised temples are allowed to come up unhindered; rumours of molestation and rape by Muslims on Hindu women are spread systematically, and unsubstantiated accounts of cow slaughter are peddled to whip up sentiments.

Rajasthan, influenced by strong caste identities and sentiments that have survived in public spaces, with strong traditions of shared forms of ritual and worship between communities, is now seeing a battle for caste domination and power, using the discourse of "Hindu identity", a discourse that is, unfortunately, the easiest currency to power. Many instances of organised violence against the Muslim minority in Rajasthan should be seen in the context of the powerful, emergent Gujjar caste attempting to grab power and land.

Behind these individual incidents of tension and violence lie two major campaigns being orchestrated by the Bajrang Dal and the VHP nationwide. The BD has been holding arms training camps for its cadres in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan for the past two years. In the past three months, weapons disguised as trishuls have been distributed in lakhs. As a useful prop to creating a wider communal consciousness, the VHP also plans to visit every Hindu house as part of its 10,000 jalabhishek yatras in as many villages and small towns of Maharashtra, according to intelligence sources in Rajasthan.

It is not insignificant that Uttar Pradesh, where the Ayodhya card has possibly been overused, is not the main focus of the campaigns presently under way. All reports suggest that the BJP faces near-certain defeat in that state. Astutely aware of this ground reality, the locale of the BD-VHP's communal mobilisation and militarisation has shifted to other states.

More recently, there have also been attempts to focus this campaign on the systematic and conscious militarisation of civil society, a trend that has dangerous implications, given our fragile social relations.

Police investigation and intelligence agencies in some states have been wary of these blatant attempts to draw the country into a cynical replay of the spiral of violence and venom that climaxed on December 6, 1992. This is the factor that pushed three states, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan to demand political steps against the Bajrang Dal at the state DGPs' (director-generals of police) meeting with Union Home Minister L K Advani in September.

In Rajasthan, the formation of the Sampradayik Sadbhav Manch, an initiative of citizens that has been interacting closely with the state government, is a ray of hope in an otherwise bleak scenario. It was the initiative of groups and individuals, who belong to this forum that resulted in the administration playing a more proactive role in Asind, inspiring Rajasthan chief minister Gehlot's demand for a ban on the Bajrang Dal.

Bringing the guilty to book in the spate of incidents that have rocked Rajasthan, however, remains a formidable, yet crucial, task. This will require strong political backing, with a resolve to face the sustained disinformation that these forces have been skilful and successful in unleashing in the past. The secret behind their success, however, has always been the help rendered by a weak-kneed administration.

If the right to equal protection by the law and the fundamental principles of non-discrimination in their application were to become principles that guide the executive, police and administrative actions, the situation could be easily reversed.

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