If terrorism poses a periodic external threat to India, right wing Hindu fanatics pose a more constant danger of destabilizing Indian politics and society. The attack on lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan by fringe fanatic groups last week underscores this point. The temerity of the right wing forces extended not only to assaulting Bhushan in a chamber of the Supreme Court of India in front of the national media, but also to repeating the act the very next day when they roughed up his supporters outside a courtroom.
The motivation behind the attack was apparently Bhushan’s recent statements on Kashmir, in which he calls for a plebiscite to widen the debate over possible solutions to the conflict in the disputed region. The civil rights activist argued he was attempting to take the discussion forward on Jammu and Kashmir, but right wing activists argued his remarks were seditious.
The rise of right wing forces over the past few years raises alarming questions about the safety and security of liberal ideals in India. Examples of right wing excess abound. Renowned painter Maqbool Fida Husain was hounded by right wing Hindu forces and eventually abandoned his Indian citizenship to live in Dubai and England. He died a lonely man in the latter, far from his friends and home. And, last year, Mumbai University was forced to withdraw the book Such a Long Journey from its syllabus because it contained ‘unpalatable’ references to the Hindu group Shiv Sena.
A book release function for the writer and social activist Arundhati Roy, which this writer attended, saw similar right wing hooliganism a few months ago. The moment the Booker Prize winning author mentioned Kashmir, goons rushed to the stage, disrupting her speech and snatching her microphone from her. The attackers reportedly had previous associations with the main Opposition Bhartiya Janata Party and its parent organization Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).
The state of Gujarat is a classic example of how radical Hindu groups can hold democratic government to ransom. The recent detention by the state government of a senior police official, Sanjeev Bhatt, who tried to expose the complicity of Gujarati Chief Minister Narendra Modi in 2002 riots in which more than 2,000 Muslims were killed, is a case in point. This systematic stifling of liberal and dissenting voices encourages groups to take the law into their own hands.
The very fact that a person like Modi, despite his alleged involvement in the killing of so many people, can continue to derive legitimacy through the support of a section of a polarized electorate, encourages fringe rightist groups to attack those who don’t subscribe to their world view.
But liberals also share some of the blame for the rise of such dark forces in India. We fail to act firmly when faced with challenges by the fanatical right. The Congress government in Maharashtra failed to resist open defiance by Shiv Sena, and apparently couldn’t offer Husain sufficient protection to prevent him from being forced into exile.
At the same time, civil activists who fight for secular and liberal ideas in India fail to campaign consistently against such rightist groups. The social activist Anna Hazare and his team have been so single-mindedly devoted to their campaign against corruption that they have tacitly and indirectly accepted the help of Hindu rightist groups like the RSS, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and others. Rightist groups are then using the civil rights movement to further their own political agendas.
Nor is the problem of cross-pollination between civil rights movements and the Hindu far right a new one. As noted by English daily The Hindu, ‘today's right wing intolerance is a product of the failure of past anti-corruption campaigns to recognise the dangers of communalism. The RSS was an integral part of the anti-corruption movements of 1977 and 1989, and the Anna campaign too suffers from the perception that its ranks have been permeated by RSS foot soldiers.’
Tellingly, one of the first reactions of Hazare after the attack on Bhushan was condemnation of the lawyer’s statement on Kashmir and only mild opprobrium for the ‘misguided’ youth who assaulted the activist. Such an attitude on the part of this prominent activist is not only a second assault on Bhushan, it’s also an endorsement of the violent methods of rightist elements.
We’ve seen the danger of indulging majority fascism and religious intolerance in Pakistan, a phenomenon that has dreadfully destabilized Pakistan. Politicians who dare speak out there, like Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer and Religious Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, were killed because they expressed their views on blasphemy laws there. If we don’t deal firmly with rogue religious and fanatic elements in India, we run the risk of endangering the very idea of India itself.