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November 30, 2000

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AsiaweekTimeAsia NowAsiaweek

MARCH 17, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 10

Liberal Face, Hot Heads
The Hindu fundamentalist threat to India is growing

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In the 1980s, Lucknow, capital of India's most populous state Uttar Pradesh, was the wrong place for a student if you were indiscreet and endowed with aggressive testosterone. Hanging out with a girl was as dangerous as walking through a forgotten minefield. "Talk to that girl and we will break your nut" or variations of this threat were conveyed to those who wouldn't listen. The bullies, or dadas, used knives and revolvers to enforce their moral code. Most of the violence on campus stemmed from conflicts with them. It was easy to stereotype these roughnecks. They came from areas of the state where feudalism was intact and muscle power provided a solution to most problems. Power flowed from politics, guns and caste - not necessarily in that order. Criminality was an expression of machismo. Women suffered the most. They were routinely raped and it was seldom reported to the police. Boys from such areas brought their aggressive atavism to the campus, where they were never reformed or punished. Civil authority always gave the impression of being on the defensive.

After college, the bullies gravitated to politics, which provided them protection and legitimacy. For years this feudal group perpetuated itself by pandering to leaders in the ruling Congress party. It gave lip service to secularism, the emancipation of women and other ideals of the party. Collapse of the Congress at the center helped them end these irritating ambiguities. Depending on their bloodline and its loyalties, they chose caste-based parties or a movement that swore by distorted Hinduism. The campaign that opposed primacy for oppressed castes in education and jobs, and the movement to make India a Hindu state, were led and manned by people who had little regard for the rule of law. The goons had found an ideology custom-made to increase their influence. And the proponents of the Hindutva movement needed the help of this class to weaken the resolve of those - mostly secularists and the Muslim minority - who could put a spoke in the movement of the communalist juggernaut.

The marriage of feudalism with a religious ideology proved to be truly explosive. On Dec. 6, 1992 Hindu mobs pulled down the contentious Babri Mosque in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh as police stood by. In power in the state then, having arrived on the crest of a religious wave, was the Bharatiya Janata Party. The criminal act was condoned as being the "outcome of a prolonged political movement." And those who had presided over the demolition - after some electoral victories - managed to occupy departments concerned with maintaining law and order. Ayodhya proved that crime backed by the right kind of politics really pays.

Last Feb. 2, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), student wing of the Hindu fundamentalist organization Rashtriya Swayam- sevak Sangh (RSS) and the ruling BJP, banned the celebration of St. Valentine's Day on the grounds it is contrary to the cultural ethos of the country. Days later the ABVP, drawing support from the lumpen elements of various college and universities in Uttar Pradesh, went on a rampage. The so-called "moral vigilantes" stalked parks, markets, and bakers to make an example of those who dared to love. State administration too - under the control of the BJP government - actively imposed the ban. Police arrested couples in Lucknow, Kanpur and other towns. In some cases they blackened the faces of young lovers and made them walk in the bazaar. In a college in Agra, a town famous for the Taj Mahal that immortalizes love, students were frisked for roses and greeting cards. Those arrested were warned and their identity cards withdrawn.

Having tasted blood, the ABVP, la Taliban, wants to impose a dress code on women that would make the likes of Levi-Strauss and Calvin Klein poorer. Soon, women in Uttar Pradesh will not be allowed to wear jeans. Though few take such threats seriously, the disruption in the state of the filming of Deepa Mehta's Water, which is about the plight of widows, clearly shows that the lunatics are winning. The fundamentalists claim to defend "Hindu religion and culture," which has "no pope, prophet, orthodoxy or single defining holy book." They are impatient with political dissent, preferring fascist methods like burning the set of Water. Interestingly, they enjoy the protection of the government, and police did not challenge them. Forced to abandon shooting, Mehta is searching for a safer place.

At every level the fundamentalists are trying hard to transform officially secular India into a Hindu state. If the BJP had been in power on its own, the task would have been accomplished earlier. A coalition government and a secular constitution have cramped their style. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the liberal face of Hindutva, has served the Hindu hotheads well. Whether on the issue of conversion of tribespeople in Gujarat or government employees joining the RSS, Vajpayee's posturing has allowed the perpetuation of the status quo. To remain in power, coalition partners have used his image as an excuse to make light of the fundamentalists' attempts to implement their agenda. Due to the compromises they have made with religious groups and criminals for electoral reasons, the secular parties lack both credibility and the willpower to challenge these dark forces.

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