May 15, 2011Lethal Footprint
BY LS HERDENIA
The dividing line between the government and the saffron brotherhood in Madhya Pradesh has become so blurred that the two are now virtually indistinguishable. Thus the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, calls upon government employees to join the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and attend its shakhas, or cells, police officers perform shastra puja – arms worship – on Dussehra, government schemes are named after Hindu rituals and ceremonies and organisations associated with the sangh parivar are gifted prime pieces of government land.
On a more sinister level, data is being collected about the Christians living in the state even as the government funds “religious functions” which are nothing other than platforms to spew venom against the minorities. The chief minister has made it clear in so many words that the government would in no case implement the recommendations of the Sachar Committee (which examined the status of the Muslim community in India), as that would “divide society and pave the way for another division of the country”. A case of the pot calling the kettle black?
When, sometime in the first week of April this year, a couple of uniformed policemen turned up at the office of a Christian priest in Bhopal and started asking him all sorts of questions about the Christian populace of the city, the latter became suspicious and demanded to know at whose behest the information was being sought. The policemen, apparently unaware that they were parting with an official secret, handed over to the priest a copy of the order – with the word “Secret” written in bold relief at the top – issued by Bhopal’s senior superintendent of police (SSP) to all police stations, asking them to collect information about Christians residing in the area under their jurisdiction. The information sought included details about the churches, schools and other institutions run by the community as well as their sources of finance. Policemen were also asked to collect information about the political patronage enjoyed by the community leaders, their criminal antecedents, if any, and the public functions that the Christians had organised. Names and other personal details about Catholic and Protestant priests were also sought.
When the Christian community protested, the state police headquarters initially denied the existence of any such order but subsequently declared that it had been withdrawn. How an order that was never issued can be withdrawn continues to be an unsolved mystery. What is interesting is that even after the order was “withdrawn”, the police continued to act on it; the chief minister told a delegation led by Rev Leo Cornelio, the archbishop of Bhopal, that this was due to a “communication gap”. What makes this exercise – aborted, at least for now – particularly scary is the fact that a similar exercise had preceded the Muslim genocide in Gujarat and, of course, much earlier, the Jewish Holocaust in Germany.
In further emulation of Gujarat, a ‘Narmada Samajik Kumbh’ was organised on the banks of the Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh in February this year, on exactly the same lines as the ‘Shabri Kumbh’ held in Gujarat in 2006. The objective: Hinduise the tribals, replacing their gods with Ram and Hanuman and their places of worship with Hindu temples. The government spent several crores of rupees on setting up the infrastructure necessary for the event. Lakhs of tribals from within the state as well as from neighbouring Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra were brought to the fair and treated to a stiff dose of the Ramayana, Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu scriptures. On the sidelines of this event, a ‘Ghar Vapasi’ (homecoming) programme was organised – meant to reconvert tribal Christians to Hinduism. Those who sermonised the tribals included luminaries of the RSS.
The Gondwana Ganatantra Party (GGP), a political outfit representing the tribal population, saw the Narmada Samajik Kumbh as an attack on tribal identity and launched a campaign in the tribal regions to make the tribals – who the sangh parivar prefers to call vanvasis, or forest-dwellers – aware of the real designs of the Kumbh’s organisers. “Tribals have never attended the Kumbhs held at Allahabad, Ujjain, Haridwar and Nashik for hundreds of years. So where is the question of their attending this fake Kumbh?” asked a pamphlet issued by the GGP.
Attacks on Christians and their places of worship are on the rise in Madhya Pradesh. Since the BJP came to power seven years ago, at least 200 incidents of physical attacks on Christians have been reported from different parts of the state. The Bajrang Dal and company are invariably the culprits in these cases and the police invariably refuse to take any action against them. The Christians have taken to the streets in protest several times, all to no avail.
And going by the names of various government schemes and programmes, one could legitimately suspect that Madhya Pradesh has already become a Hindu Rashtra. All of them, without exception, have names with Hindu connotations and many are named after Hindu religious ceremonies, sites, gods and goddesses. Thus the state’s water conservation scheme is called “Jal Abhishek” Abhiyan, a scheme for the welfare of the girl child is called “Ladli Laxmi” Yojana, a rural development scheme has been named “Gokul Gram” Yojana and another welfare scheme, meant to provide financial help to poor families in order to marry off their daughters, is called “Kanyadaan” Yojana. Farmers are called “Balram” (after Lord Krishna’s brother). In 2009 the government proclaimed that schoolteachers in state-run schools would be addressed as “Rashtra Rishis”, a decision that was withdrawn in the face of opposition from minority leaders.
The state capital, Bhopal, is proposed to be renamed “Bhojpal”. And eight towns in the state have been notified as “holy cities” where the sale of liquor, eggs and meat have been prohibited. The official website of the state agriculture department has an entire section devoted to “Kheti-sambandhi shubh muhurat (Auspicious times for agricultural activities)”, which guides farmers on how to choose the proper “muhurat (time)” – according to Hindu tradition, of course – for sowing, harvesting and other key agricultural operations.
The government had, early in 2007, also made it mandatory for all students from Class V onwards in government-run schools to perform “surya namaskar (sun salutation)”. The order came after the so-called yoga guru Baba Ramdev introduced the chief minister to the “miraculous benefits” of yogic exercise. This move was bitterly opposed by Muslim organisations in the state, which pointed out that Islam did not allow its followers to bow before anyone but Allah and so they could not worship the sun – an integral part of the exercise. The decision was ostensibly withdrawn after the Madhya Pradesh high court ruled on January 24, 2007 that surya namaskar could not be made compulsory. (The government however showed no signs of relenting and, in direct violation of the high court order, district education officers in some districts directed schools to conduct surya namaskar. In August 2009, more than two years later, a fresh order was again issued by the high court disallowing such compulsion.)
Seemingly undeterred, in August 2009 the government went on to declare that from September 5 that year, students would have to recite a Sanskrit hymn, the Bhojan Mantra, before partaking of their government-funded midday meals – a practice long adhered to in RSS-run schools, the Saraswati Shishu Mandirs.
st is unending. The latest is the chief minister’s announcement on April 21 that “Gita Saar (Essence of the Gita)” would be taught to all school students in the state from the session commencing in July 2011. Also, government teachers are proposed to be trained in the Hindu “solah sanskar (the sixteen rituals, aimed at improving the inner self and all-round development of the individual)” whereby they would gain “more respect” in the rural areas.
In keeping with the maxim ‘make hay while the sun shines’, member organisations of the extended sangh brotherhood are seeking – and receiving – prime government land at throwaway prices. At a conservative estimate, at least 300 land allotments have been made to saffron bodies, one of which was struck down by the Supreme Court recently. In 2004 the Kushabhau Thakre Trust, whose trustees include BJP heavyweights like Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, was allotted 20 acres of land on the outskirts of Bhopal. The state government was in such a hurry to allot the land to the trust that it did not even wait for the trust to be formally constituted before distributing its largesse. However, this move was challenged in the courts by the Akhil Bhartiya Upbhokta Congress, a Bhopal-based consumer organisation, which approached the Supreme Court after the Madhya Pradesh high court had refused to quash the government’s decision. Ultimately, on April 6 this year the apex court ordered the government to take possession of the allotted land.
But the judicial action in this case is an exception. As a rule hundreds of plots, ranging from 10,000 square feet to several acres in almost every town and city in the state, have been allotted – for peanuts – to Saraswati Shishu Mandirs, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and a host of other organisations owing allegiance to the sangh parivar, turning these institutions into millionaires and billionaires overnight.
It was at the inauguration of the state headquarters of the ABVP, built on a piece of land gifted by the government, slap-bang in the centre of Bhopal, that the chief minister urged government employees to join the RSS, technically a non-political organisation but for all practical purposes a partisan outfit. At another public function he announced with obvious pride that the government had done away with the ban on government employees joining the RSS because the Sangh was the only organisation that genuinely believed in universal brotherhood and the welfare of all. Thunderous applause ensued.
Without much sound and fury, the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh is busy converting the geographical heart of India into a saffron land. After Gujarat, it seems, another Hindu Rashtra is in the offing.
(LS Herdenia, a senior journalist based in Bhopal, is convener of the Rashtriya Secular Manch.)
Communalism Combat, May 2011