Pratap Chandra Sarangi was introduced to India as a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politician who leads an austere life in a mud house. We like such stories. We may aspire to huge houses and cars and foreign education for our children, but we admire those who sacrifice materialism for simplicity.
But who is Sarangi? For all that he lived in a mud hut, he is part of the large Hindu supremacist family of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). In his home state of Odisha, he furthered India’s sectarian divide, pushed the idea of Hindu supremacy and with that, violence against Muslims, Christians and other minorities.
In 1999, when Sarangi was head of the Bajrang Dal, a militant wing of the RSS, Graham Staines, an Australian missionary, and his two sons were burnt alive in Odisha, allegedly by the Bajrang Dal, although an inquiry found no evidence of no evidence of one group’s responsibility for the attack, and instead individuals thought to be “active sympathisers” of the Bajrang Dal and the BJP were charged. Is it mud houses that make you win elections and get ministerial posts? Or is it a murky past?
In today’s India, after the return to power of Narendra Modi and his BJP with their huge mandate, violence has been let loose, with “Jai Shri Ram” – a slogan that roughly translates to “Hail Lord Ram”, a Hindu god – being used as a death threat instead of a salutation. In the last five years of Modi rule, we have had lynchings of Muslims and the lower castes across India by Hindu mobs, ostensibly for the “protection” of the holy cow. In his second term, we’ve shifted gears to forcing people, of whatever religion, to declare the glory of the god Rama and Hinduism. And when I say “force”, I mean kill.
Tabrez Ansari, 22, was caught by a crowd in the BJP-ruled state of Jharkhand on suspicion of stealing a motorcycle, on 18 June. He was tied to a tree and beaten within an inch of his life. And while he was being thrashed, the crowd established his religion – Muslim – and then began the demands for “Jai Shri Ram”. Ansari was then arrested, yes, arrested, and taken into judicial custody. On Saturday, June 23, he died in a local hospital after he complained that he felt unwell.
The BJP-ruled central government has been largely silent. Party functionaries who have spoken claimed that there was no connection with “Jai Shri Ram” and Tabrez’s death. And yet, there is video evidence, graphic and chilling, of a crowd filled with blood lust, violently beating Ansari and yes, of forcing him to say, “Jai Shri Ram” and “Jai Hanuman”.
Since the BJP returned to power at the centre, Ansari’s plight, though the most brutal, became one of several stories. Here’s another: A Muslim teacher is attacked in a train in Kolkata, for being Muslim. He’s heckled to say, “Jai Shri Ram”, even if Ram is not really Bengal’s most popular deity from the enormous Hindu pantheon. He refuses, is beaten by the mob and forced to get off the train at the next station. And that’s not all. In the run-up to May’s general elections and after the results were declared, Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of Bengal, was constantly heckled by BJP mobs to shout, “Jai Shri Ram”.
Modi as prime minister had two options: to be the reformist PM he was sold as, or to take further the agenda of the party he belongs to, to make India a theocratic Hindu country. The last five years saw economic collapse and fraudulent claims. So now we are on to Plan B, or should that be Plan A, since the original plan of Hindu supremacists since the 1920s was that India should be a Hindu country? The constitution we adopted is of a secular India, but that is a total anathema to the RSS way of thought.
So, are we at the beginning of the end? Sarangi in his first speech in parliament asked why people who refused to chant Hindu slogans should be allowed to live in India.
As Ansari discovered with his life, these Hindu mobs who move around with apparent impunity, mean what they say. With an opposition in disarray since the election results, if civil society doesn’t wake up now, this will be the future.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior Indian journalist who writes on the media, politics and gender
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