‘I know I could be sentenced to death, but I still want to make the confession,’ Naba Kumar Sarkar told the metropolitan magistrate in a lower Delhi court last December. His move was, he said, an act of atonement after he learned of how someone else had been wrongly arrested.
Such a decision would usually be noteworthy, but not headline making. What was unusual about this confession was who it was coming from. Sarkar, also known as Swami Aseemanand, was no ordinary criminal standing before the courts. Being a Swami—a revered religious teacher in the Hindu religion—Aseemanand is supposed to symbolize virtue. But instead, he was in court over claims that he has been closely involved with Hindu nationalist terrorist attacks that took place in western and southern India between 2006 and 2008.
Aseemanand is believed to belong to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organization that propagates Hindu nationalism, and which is intolerant of other religions, particularly Islam and Christianity. His confession, recorded in front of a magistrate, included talk of his involvement with terror attacks conducted with the help of friends. It also shed light on a previously murky brand of terrorism.
India’s Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram describes the phenomenon as ‘saffron terror’, although the ruling Congress Party prefers ‘Sangh terror,’ in recognition of the importance of RSS. Most of the media, though, prefer a broader tag: ‘Hindutva terror’.
Regardless of the name it is given, it has become increasingly clear that the popular perception of Islamic groups as being behind virtually all of the terrorist incidents in India in recent years is hugely misplaced.
Aseemanand’s confession suggested that Hindutva brigades have been behind a spate of high-profile incidents—the terror attacks in Malegaon in Maharashtra (2006, 2008) the Samjhauta Express bombings (2007), a bomb blast at the Sufi shrine in Ajmer Sharif (2007), the Mecca Masjid bombing, and an attack in Modasa in Gujarat (2008).
Yet at the time of these crimes, Muslim organizations and individuals were arrested in significant numbers, revealing a justice system skewed against Muslims. Some of those arrested over the attacks are still behind bars.
‘There’s obviously an inbuilt bias against Muslims in certain states and among a section of police personnel,’ says Prof. Mahesh Rangarajan, a noted political analyst. ‘Political leaderships should look into it and justice should be given. (There should be) compensation for the people wrongfully held, actions against the erring officials should be taken. This violation of rights isn’t good for the country as a whole.’
The country might now finally be sitting up and taking notice. India’s popular investigative weekly news magazine, Tehelka, published a cover story in January that included details of the ties between the earlier attacks and Hindu terrorist cells.
The first sign of involvement of Hindutva leaders in terrorist attacks came in 2008, when Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad Chief Hemant Karkare had 11 alleged Hindutva radicals, including an activist of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad—the student wing of the main opposition Bhartiya Janata Party—held in connection to the Malegaon blast. But back then, the RSS, the BJP and a number of other Hindu organizations denied there was any link, arguing the Congress government was trying to defame the Hindutva leadership.
Indeed, despite Aseemanand’s apparently damning confession, which was printed by Tehelka as part of its expose, RSS chief Mohan Bhagawat denies there are any ties between Hindutva forces and terrorism. ‘Terrorism and Hindus, terrorism and saffron, and terrorism and the Sangh are oxymoronic—they can never be related to each other,’ he says. ‘This (effort to connect the two) was an attempt to weaken the strength of Hindus in India and, at the same time, to appease Muslims.’
Not everyone is convinced. Writing in Economic and Political Weekly, Christopher Jaffrelot and Malvika Maheshwari argue: ‘This persistent politics of denial is all the more surprising as independent reports and journalists’ investigations have convincingly shown that Hindutva forces have played an active role in communal riots…In fact, Aseemanand’s confession bears testimony to the fact that violence is all pervasive in this nebulae and that rioters and terrorists share the same safe haven.’
Rangarajan suggests the Hindutva ties to terrorism are nothing new. ‘These groups had a history,’ he says. ‘The demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, the carnage in Mumbai in 1993, the Gujarat pogrom in 2002, attacks on Christians in Kandhmal (Orissa) in 2008 and several other cases of riots prove that the Hindutva brigades have never been clean.’
The question many are left with is what has motivated these attacks. Is it part of a grand scheme to undermine Indian secularism? Aseemanand says the attack on the Sufi shrine in Ajmer Sharif was undertaken because it is also visited by Hindus, while the killing of Hindu devotees at the Akshardham temple in Gujarat by Islamist suicide bombers in 2002 was considered an act of revenge.
But some observers see a more fundamental threat to India.
The revelations demonstrate a deep moral ‘sickness’ that poses a significant national security challenge, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, wrote in the Indian Express. The Hindutva brigade is attacking ‘the credibility of the state lock stock and barrel.’
Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi appears to agree. A leaked diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks suggested Gandhi believes home-grown Hindu extremist groups are potentially an even bigger threat to India than Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba and other Muslim militant organizations.
Responding to the US ambassador to India’s query on Lashkar-e-Taiba's activities in the region, the cable states that: ‘Gandhi said there was evidence of some support for the group among certain elements in India's indigenous Muslim community. However, Gandhi warned, the bigger threat may be the growth of radicalized Hindu groups, which create religious tensions and political confrontations with the Muslim community.’
With this in mind, All India Congress Committee General Secretary Digvijay Singh and Left leader Sitaram Yechury demanded a white paper on the ‘Sangh terror,’ with Singh reportedly singling out RSS-affiliated educational institutions as breeding grounds for terrorism.
In a joint report, the two lament ‘communal’ bureaucracy and the tendency among security agencies to launch witch hunts against Muslim youths, while ignoring leads pointing towards Hindutva groups.
Some, though, are keen to downplay the culpability of radical Hindu groups. Shriniwas Kelkar, a Pune-based education consultant, for example, suggests that followers of other religions may simply feel they have no choice but to respond forcefully to Muslims looking to spread Islam. ‘Muslims of the world are trying to establish Islam as the religion of world and are indulging in terrorism, releasing terror to achieve their objectives,’ he says. ‘What are the ways to be adopted by either the secular or followers of other religions?’
Such talk has alarmed many Muslims. A website called ‘Indian Muslims’, which claims to be a ‘window into the mind of Indian Muslims’, for example, states that RSS, with its ‘pan-India presence’ and networking, ‘can do unimaginable damage, and it will be a very difficult task to check them if they are allowed to spread their tentacles like the terror outfits in Pakistan.’
‘This crisis, if unattended, can lead to a total alienation of Muslims from the country. Oddly this is exactly what Hindutva desires. But it could be disastrous for Muslims as well as for the country.’
So, should RSS be banned, just as the Student Islamic Movement of India was?
Prof. Rangarajan says he doesn’t think a total ban is the answer, suggesting instead that the organization ‘be questioned and combated politically.’
And Mehta, for one, believes it’s not too late to try and push back. ‘The only way this damage can be repaired is if the Indian state credibly and relentlessly pursues its investigations, without us impugning its credibility from the start,’ he says. ‘Perhaps this serious crisis can be turned on its head. By admitting our mistakes, blind spots and omissions, we can at least send a signal that we have the resilience and courage to correct our mistakes.’
But he’s also clear about the consequences of failure. We would be ‘in exactly the same boat that we place Pakistan: a society that practises the politics of denial,’ he says.
Will India succumb to what many describe as ‘majority terrorism’? The country’s standing as a secular democracy—and indeed the very ‘idea’ of India—will suffer if it does.