Bhopal, the new lab of Hindutva

Indian Express 7 May 2019


The BJP has made Bhopal the epicentre of its Hindutva ideology by fielding terror-accused Pragya Singh Thakur as its candidate for Bhopal Lok Sabha seat.

A BJP bastion for the past 30 years, Bhopal has suddenly become the venue of one of the most interesting electoral and ideological battles in the country.

Thakur’s candidature took even many by surprise. The BJP has no dearth of tall leaders in Madhya Pradesh to challenge Digvijaya Singh, the Congress candidate from Bhopal who was the state’s chief minister for a decade.

They have hugely popular Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who ruled MP for a record 13 years. Charismatic Uma Bharati, who trounced Singh 15 years ago, is still around. So is former CM Babulal Gaur, who holds the enviable record of representing Bhopal in the state assembly for 10 terms, winning the seat every time with an increased margin.

Yet, the BJP chose Thakur, facing trial in a case of terror bombing aimed against religious minorities. The 2008 Malegaon blast killed six persons and injured 101 others.

Apparently, it has discovered a new Hindutva mascot in Thakur, who dresses in saffron robes and holy beads, sporting sandalwood paste on forehead, the traditional attire of Hindu men and women of religion.

So enamoured is the BJP of its new find, currently out of prison on bail, that it rolled out red carpet for her to join the party and gave a ticket within a few hours.

The BJP alleges that its predecessor Congress government implicated Thakur and other radical Hindu activists in fake cases. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described Thakur’s candidacy as a symbolic answer to those who falsely labelled Hindus as terrorists.

BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya says bluntly: “The Congress tried to prove Hindu is a terrorist. Now Hindus should give a reply through votes.”

The BJP walked the extra mile for Digvijaya Singh because he is a known RSS-baiter. While the RSS prides itself for “nation building”, its opponents like Singh have accused it of violence and terror, practising communal and divisive politics.

His candidature from Bhopal was an open challenge to BJP that had been winning the seat since 1989. MP is a BJP stronghold. Along with its earlier avatar, the Jana Sangh, it ruled the state for more than 20 years. Although it lost power in the state five months ago, it actually polled more votes than the Congress.

As the Congress flexed its muscles, the BJP bared its fangs. It knows that fielding saffron Thakur against Singh, a favourite hate figure for Hindu far right, would lead to polarisation. That seems to be its ideological agenda.

Brandishing boyish haircut, a pair of Skechers shoes and volatile temper, 49-year-old Thakur started her political career as an activist of ABVP, the RSS students’ wing, in her home district of Bhind in Chambal valley, known for bandits and gun culture. The RSS proved too conservative for her. The feisty nun graduated to another Hindu organisation, considered more radical.

Maharashtra ATS arrested her in 2008 as one of the “principal conspirators” in Malegaon blast. She spent nine years in jail. In 2015, a year after the BJP came to power, the NIA sought to drop the charges against her.

However, the court refused to go along with NSA’s decision and framed charges against her for terror activities, criminal conspiracy and murder. The public prosecutor in the case quit four years ago, alleging government pressure.

Thakur was also arrested, along with seven others, in the sensational 2007 murder of Sunil Joshi, her colleague and a former RSS activist. Interestingly, the arrest was made when the BJP was in power in the State. The court, however, acquitted all eight accused two years ago as the prosecution failed to prove its case. The murder remains unsolved.

During her campaign, Thakur portrays herself as ‘victim’ of the plot to malign Hindutva, often breaking down while narrating vivid stories of how she was stripped naked, hanged upside down, and tortured in police custody until she “lost consciousness”.

She alleges that as a result of “inhuman treatment” she developed cancer. However, now she is cured, thanks for the cow urine therapy she undertook, believes BJP’s choice for India’s highest lawmaking authority.

The BJP soon discovered it has found not only a mascot but also a loose cannon.

At a meeting she vilified Maharashtra ATS officer Hemant Karkare, decorated with Ashoka Chakra, India’s highest peacetime gallantry award, after he was shot dead in 2008 Mumbai terror attack. Karkare, she pronounced, died after she had “cursed” him for torturing her in custody —- in effect hailing Karkare’s murder by Pakistani terrorists.

Her offensive remarks shocked most people. Retorted Singh: “If your curse is so powerful, why don’t you curse Masood Azhar and other terrorists?” Even as a political firestorm broke out, irrepressible nun boasted that she climbed atop Babri Masjid and demolished it: “We wiped off a blot on the country.”

Election Commission may be slapping notices on her, but there is little doubt in which direction the campaign in going. Faced with Hindutva’s onslaught, Digvijaya Singh is weaving his campaign around development plank, which is itself ironical because as chief minister he believed that elections are won not by development but by political management and social engineering.

Bhopal parliamentary seat has 19.5 lakh voters of whom nearly one-fourth belong to minority communities.

Aware of the pitfall, Singh has tried to reinvent himself as a born-again Hindu. He started his campaign by temple-hopping. Last heard, his supporters were distributing bottles of holy Narmada water to woo voters!

Singh had undertaken a 3,300 km arduous pilgrimage along holy Narmada last year. He hoped that the 192-day foot march would help him shed the anti-Hindu image that his detractors have inflicted upon him.

Ironically, Singh is a devout Hindu in personal life, assiduously following most religious rituals. He observes most fasts prescribed in scriptures, never misses a chance to visit famous temples during festivals and goes on frequent pilgrimages.

Once, as chief minister, he took his entire cabinet to Mathura for a 24 km foot march around a hill that Hindus consider holy. Many returned with blisters on their feet.

As a senior BJP leader commented, Bhopal election has become a litmus test for the RSS brand of Hindutva: “We have taken a big risk. If we lose, it will mean voters have rejected Hindutva”. And if it wins?


Indian Express, 7 May 2019

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