July 12, 2005
By Meenakshi Ganguly, Asia division researcher for Human Rights Watch
Published in The Asian Age
After Lal Krishna Advani’s trip to Pakistan and his praise for Muhammad Ali Jinnah, there has been a great deal of discussion in the media about disagreements between the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Both Atal Behari Vajpayee and Advani have been roundly abused by Hindutva hardliners for various slights to the Hindu cause. The BJP is apparently not "Hindu enough" for the VHP and the RSS.
What is happening is a struggle in the religious right to determine what is "Hindu enough" in public life. Perhaps the RSS should issue a set of standards. But would those standards include a ban on rape and murder of their opponents? Prosecution for those who commit such acts? Thus far, neither the RSS nor any of its numerous subsidiaries has agreed that they might be accountable for inciting, if not actively encouraging, Dara Singh and his buddies who burnt two small boys to death. Or the men that chose to rape nuns. Or, in fact, those who planned and carried out the orgy of murderous vengeance in Gujarat.
What happened in Orissa on June 14, 2005 is a good test case. The Indian People’s Tribunal on Environment and Human Rights (IPT) was investigating the rise of violent sectarianism in Orissa. The state has witnessed a tremendous rise in sectarian violence, which has been blamed on extremist Hindu groups. For example, Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons were killed in January 1999; in March 2002, VHP and Bajrang Dal activists, ostensibly annoyed at criticism from some legislators, attacked the state’s Assembly; in February 2004 seven Christian women were beaten up and tonsured in Kilipal village of Jagatsinghpur district to forcibly reconvert them to Hinduism; and in August 2004 Hindu extremists stormed a church in Raikia town, burnt Bibles, and destroyed church property. One group claiming inspiration from the RSS, even claimed it was setting up Hindu suicide-bomb squads. Yet the state government of Orissa — ruled by an ally of the BJP — has been unwilling or unable to respond adequately to ensure the security of its vulnerable communities.
The IPT enquiry was led by two retired judges, Justice K.K. Usha and Justice R.A. Mehta, and convened by lawyer Mihir Desai of IPT and Angana Chatterji, who teaches at the US-based California Institute of Integral Studies. Other members included Lalita Missal, National Alliance of Women, Orissa chapter; Chetan Bhatt of the University of London; Asha Hans of Utkal University; Shaheen Nilofer and Sudhir Patnaik, scholar-activists from Orissa, and Ram Puniyani of Ekta, the Committee for Communal Harmony. The team’s investigation was transparent. It visited various parts of the state to gather testimonies, primarily from affected tribal, Dalit and minority communities.
In an effort to understand the views of the Hindu extremist groups, on June 14 the IPT invited representatives of the BJP, RSS and Bajrang Dal to participate in the hearings. Ramachandra Behera, a journalist and a supporter of the Bajrang Dal, deposed before the tribunal, as did some other known VHP and RSS supporters. Even as the depositions were going on, however, the VHP hand-delivered a letter signed by the state’s organising secretary, alleging that the IPT was made up of "leftists" and "Hindu-baiters." It claimed, falsely, simply because one of the convenors is a US resident, that the IPT was supported through foreign funds raised from sources attempting to destabilise the country.
What followed should really worry the RSS if it believes in the moral standards it proclaims. Soon after the letter was delivered, those representing the Hindu groups at the hearing threatened tribunal members and IPT staff, many of them women. They threatened rape and public stripping. They took photographs of tribunal convenor Chatterji, saying "we will make sure everybody knows your face." One of the women witnesses described the scene: "The intensity and verbal violence deployed by the Sangh activists was fearsome. They surrounded us and their tone became more and more menacing and their actions more abusive."
Has the threat of rape become an accepted RSS weapon? Is this what the RSS wants? When the tribunal members asked about RSS ideology and its purported respect for women, they were told that such protection was reserved only for "proper women." Does the category of "proper women" include senior and respected judges?
Angana Chatterji, who stayed in Orissa after the tribunal hearings, continued to receive anonymous hostile phone calls that talked ominously of rape. Because of her research and writings on communalism in Orissa, she has been particularly targeted. Instead of repudiating these threats, Bajrang Dal leader Subash Chouhan told journalists at a press conference that his group and the VHP would not allow Chatterji to continue her research. Does Chouhan believe in freedom of expression?
Such behaviour should no longer be tolerated. The government of India and the state government of Orissa should immediately prose
cute and punish those responsible for making these threats and inciting violence. They should launch public awareness campaigns making it clear that those who organise such campaigns will be prosecuted for incitement to violence and those who follow the orders of extremist groups will face the full force of the law.
There is no time to wait. What is happening in Orissa, including the distribution of tridents and indoctrination of youngsters to oppose Christian missionaries working in the area, could create the same kind of environment as in Gujarat. A spark, such as the train attack in Godhra, could again lead to waves of violence that engulf whole communities.
The government of Orissa has to be more alert to prevent these groups from propagating religious hatred. The National Human Rights Commission has called for an immediate investigation into the incident. The National Commission for Women should also respond.
But this alone cannot contain the danger. RSS supporters in Orissa who threatened the IPT believed that they could get away with it because they have gotten away with worse in Gujarat and elsewhere. They have to be made to understand that in the future this will not be so.
It is time for the RSS to take responsibility. The organisation should clearly — and publicly — tell its supporters that bullying, murder and rape are not acceptable. The BJP and its allies also need to send out an unequivocal message of opposition to threats and violence.
We have all seen that encouraging violence for short-term political gain, sooner or later can cause great harm. The Sangh and its subsidiaries should take heed. After the Gujarat riots, VHP leader Praveen Togadia said that it was difficult to control Hindu wrath. But those that incite have to take responsibility. Responsibility for criminal acts, whatever the justification, is the basis of the rule of law. It is not acceptable to dismiss mass rape and murder as a "reaction" to provocations.
Punishing foot-soldiers for "excesses" would be a start, but it is not enough. The leaders of vigilante groups, the people responsible for indoctrination, training and handing out orders, should also be held to account. The RSS and its many affiliated organisations, including its political face, the BJP, must begin by firmly disciplining their colleagues and supporters in Orissa. Some in these factions have been speaking out, whether it is to deplore Gujarat or encourage peace with Pakistan. It is time to listen to those voices.