19 MAY 2001, Page 24


David Gardner on how Hindu mullahs are

attacking Islam, Christianity and science to promote a new 'Golden Age'

New Delhi AS professional star-gazers will doubtless have foreseen, Indian students are in for a rare treat. Their education authorities have just authorised 24 universities to set up departments offering undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in astrology: yes, mumbo-jumbo about horoscopes and interplanetary alignments.

This development might appear startling to those who are vaguely aware of India's contemporary emergence as an international force in hi-tech industries such as software and pharmaceuticals; but then some people may not know of the growing power of irrationalism in India. The overarching fact is that India, the biggest democracy in the world, is to an extent governed by an obscurantist organisation that has never been elected to anything.

That organisation is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which translates innocuously as the Organisation of National Volunteers. The Volunteers usually look pretty innocuous too: you can see them each dawn, a bit like ageing Boy Scouts in their khaki shorts and forage caps, performing callisthenics and paramilitary drill. When Jawaharlal Nehru described them as 'an Indian version of fascism', they were on the margins of Indian politics. Now they are in power, and they look as though they are trying to hold back modernity to promote their vision of a Hindu Golden Age.

The RSS is the mother organisation of the Hindu revivalist Bharatiya Janata party (RIP), the party which dominates India's ruling coalition government. It is also the force behind 80 to 100 other front organisations and a concerted attempt to hijack India's cultural life and history. Sixteen out of 30 Indian cabinet members belong to the RSS, including the Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, a member for nearly 60 years and a pracharak, or full-timer, for nearly 40. There are, in addition, three ministers of the Shiv Sena. a rougher sort of outfit than the RSS, which used until recently to run the government of Maharashtra in Bombay.

At its first outing in 1984, the BJP secured two seats in parliament. By 1996, however, it presided over a 13-day government. In 1998, Mr Vajpayee was able to form a coalition. only to be tipped out a year later by one of his more opportunist allies in league with Congress. He was then re-elected in October 1999 with an increased majority for a BJP-led, 25-party coalition.

The erstwhile pariahs of Indian politics seemed to have triumphed, if only because so many Indians were holding their noses at the stench of corruption and political flatulence of Congress, now clinging to the last relict of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in Sonia Gandhi, the reclusive, Italian-born widow of Rajiv Gandhi. There was also a certain trimming of sails among intellectuals, the media and the bureaucracy, anxious to please the new political class and give it a chance. Some were inclined to take on board the BJP, while being dismissive of the RSS. 'Think of them as cavemen coming into the light,' said one of India's top analysts, recently elevated to a post on the National Security Advisory Board. Or, as one senior civil servant put it. referring to the RSS uniform, 'Why should we get our dhotis in a twist about a bunch of knicker-wallahs?'

Nobody, on the other hand, could be in any doubt about the fundamentalist makeup of the government. Pramod Mahajan, the young minister in charge of the information technology industry and of managing the coalition in parliament, told me last year that 'everybody knows we are RSS: the relationship between the BJP and the RSS is like flesh and blood — it's hard to know where the flesh ends and the blood begins'.

By now, however, people are beginning to get het-up as the scale of RSS ambition becomes clear. The attempt to equate astrology with science is the latest instance. The liberal intelligentsia, the high-powered scientific community, and even some members of the BJP, are up in arms. More than 100 scientists and 300 political and social scientists have written to the government say mg, in the words of Jayant Narlikar, an internationally renowned astrophysicist, that the elevation of astrology would take India 'backwards towards mediaeval times'.

M.L. Sondhi, a former member of the BP executive who now heads the Indian Council of Social Science Research, last month publicly denounced the education ministry for subverting his work through 'an ideological cabal within the ICSSR council'. V.M. Tarkunde, a respected former supreme court judge turned social activist, resigned this month from a BJP-inspired agriculture NGO, because it is propagating astrology and Vedic ritual as the means to increase farm output. 'If prayers and sacrifices can be the means of agricultural progress, India would have become the richest agricultural country in the world,' Mr Tarkunde said. 'In fact, it is among the poorest, and the main reason is the blind faith and orthodoxy of most people.'

Beyond the astrology dispute is wider unease about BJP/RSS attempts to rewrite history, while stirring up communal animosity against minority Muslim and Christian communities that have been subjected to organised violence by RSS front organisations over the past decade. For the past 18 months, for example, the education department, headed by the RSS stalwart and former BJP president Murli Manohar Joshi, has been busily putting a Hindu fundamentalist spin on the school curriculum, censoring the output of the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR). and ensuring that internationally respected historians like Romila Thapar are removed from the panel overseeing a new curriculum review.

As part of that review, Mr Joshi also wants to make Sanskrit — the ancient language of the Vedas, Hinduism's sacred texts, and of the dominant Brahmin caste from which the RSS draws its leadership — compulsory in primary schools. No bigger deal than enforcing Latin, one might think, except that it will add another barrier to education, another social filter for the lower castes in a country where 40 per cent are illiterate.

Curiously, all five men who have led the RSS (there are no women) have been trained scientists, as is Mr Joshi, a physicist. But an essential premise of its fundamentalist ideology is that virtually all modem science is prefigured in the Vedas, even nuclear physics and the very atom bombs the BJP test-exploded as soon as it secured power in Delhi in 1998.

In a speech last December to the Indian Philosophical Congress, Mr Joshi said that empirical knowledge was 'inconclusive and therefore unreliable', and needed to converge with 'the overpassing of the limitations of reason'. But the RSS has put most of its energy into the battle to control the historical record. A look at the textbooks quickly reveals why.

Uniquely for a self-styled nationalist movement, the RSS played no part in the fight for India's freedom. Indeed, the evidence suggests a pattern of collaboration with the colonial authorities, as the RSS crept into administrative positions vacated by the Quit India movement led by Gandhi and Nehru. (The Mahatma, of course, was assassinated by an RSS man in 1948: easily disavowed, since the RSS purports not to keep records of members, only 'office-bearers'.) Read the textbooks of the Vidhya Bharati, the RSS educational wing, and you will find that K.B. Hedgewar, who founded the RSS in 1925 under the inspiration of Mussolini, is the towering figure in India's march towards independence, not Gandhi or Nehru. Textbooks in Gujarat, the only state where the BJP/RSS rules without the restraint of coalition, tell schoolchildren that 'Islam teaches only atrocities'. One book paraphrased the notorious 1939 remark of M.S. Golwalkar, RSS leader and ideologue, that Hitler's persecution of the Jews manifested 'race pride at its highest'.

RSS historians are trying to prove that the Aryans — generally accepted to have been invaders from the north who brought Brahminism and the caste system to India — were in fact indigenous. 'Thus the Muslims and Christians who are not indigenous to India and hence outsiders should either Indianise themselves or live like "second-class citizens without any rights or privileges",' said historian K.N. Pannikar, quoting Golwalkar himself in a paper on the 'Rewriting of History' delivered last year in Montreal.

The current leader of the RSS, K.S. Sudarshan, seems to hold similar views. Upon taking charge in March last year, he immediately foresaw 'an epic war between Hindus and anti-Hindus', railed against 'Semitic religions', described Muslims as 'aliens', and for good measure risked rekindling separatism in the Punjab by maintaining that the Sikhs were no more than 'the sword-arm of the Hindus'.

By last July he was calling for Fortress India, and an end to the government's faltering attempts to open up India's underperforming economy. Swadeshi, the doctrine of self-reliance, should fence India off from rapacious multinationals which the RSS likens to the East India Company. Only selfreliance, Mr Sudarshan preaches, will underpin 'a resurgent Hindu race'.

Expatiating on the RSS's peculiar cowdung capitalism at a 75th-anniversary paramilitary rally at Agra in central India last September, Mr Sudarshan moved on to the stock-in-trade of his movement: minority-baiting. Denouncing the 'politically motivated, anti-national activities of the foreign Churches', he said Christians should immediately sever all links to Churches abroad, and assemble into a national Church on the Chinese model. Muslims should also 'Indianise' themselves by acknowledging that they were all once Hindus. Christians and Muslims must be foreign, because even if India is their fatherland (pitrabhoumi) their holy land (punyabhoumi) lies elsewhere. The fact that, say, not one of 143 Catholic bishops in India is a foreigner is irrelevant.

Although the BJP subsequently disavowed this tirade as merely the views of the RSS, LK Advani, the home minister in charge of law and order, was present at the rally, proudly performing the RSS's quasi-fascist salute (hand on breast, palm down). It was 'up to the minorities to accept or reject' Sudarshanji's prescriptions, Mr Advani said.

That has not been, altogether, how it works. It was Mr Advani who led, in 1989, a chariot-borne pilgrimage across India. Its purpose was to campaign for a temple to the warrior-deity Lord Ram on the site of the Babri mosque at Ayodhya, built by the Mughal dynasty in the 16th century. This pilgrimage left mayhem in its wake, a foretaste of the rioting and anti-Muslim pogroms that killed more than 2,000 after the Babri Masjid was demolished in five hours by trained RSS and Shiv Sena squads in December 1992. Mr Advani and Mr Joshi, as well as another current minister, were present at that event, among the most traumatic to befall independent India, and are still under investigation for criminal conspiracy by India's Central Bureau of Investigation — which happens to be under the home ministry.

More recently, the RSS has turned its attention away from India's 140 million Muslims towards its 25 million Christians; 2.3 per cent of the population, and falling. In December 1998, in the Dangs, the dense forests in the south of Gujarat, the BJP/RSS stronghold, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and the Bajrang Dal (devotees of the monkey-god, Hanuman) held anti-Christian rallies. Soon afterwards, 36 churches were destroyed in the Dangs in 48 hours. Within weeks, attacks on Christians spread like a lighted powder trail across the tribal belt of central India to the Bay of Bengal where, in Orissa, Graham Staines, a Protestant missionary to lepers, was burnt to death with his two sons in January 1999.

It is difficult to believe that a campaign so co-ordinated could take place without at least the acquiescence of state power. The Catholic Bishops' Conference documented 67 attacks in 1999 — including the murder of priests, the rape of nuns, and the burning and bombing of churches and schools — and a further 81 serious incidents by September last year. This month in Bihar, in the north-east, a church was bombed, with leaflets saying 'Christians Quit India' littered among the ruins.

Hindu supremacists have no objection to quality Christian education for the upper castes; about six million Indians go through church schools each year without appreciably swelling Christian ranks. Quite another matter is to educate tribals and Dalits — the outcastes formerly known as 'untouchables' — who together make up an underclass of 250 million, or nearly one in four Indians. From the RSS's vantage, the point is that three out five Indian Christians are Dalits.

Despite a constitution written by a Dalit — the late B.R. Ambedkar — which outlaws 'untouchability', the Dalits' lot has changed little, especially in rural India. They have been kept in misery, confined by caste to menial jobs or used as bonded labour on land they can never own. In the Dangs, by contrast, the Jesuits have now educated two generations of tribals, a challenge to two local land-owning castes, the PateIs and the Shahs.

'The problem is that conversion gives them education whereby they begin to stand up for their rights,' says Father Dominic Emmanuel of the Catholic Bishops' Conference. 'The point is that you are attacking one of the main pillars of Hindu society, or at least Brahminical society,' says a veteran of three decades' aid work in south Gujarat.

It is difficult to say exactly where a man like Mr Vajpayee stands in all this. On a state visit to the US last September, and fresh from portraying India as an open, pluralist, secular and multicultural society in a speech at the UN, Mr Vajpayee addressed a World Hindu Council-organised meeting on Staten Island. To roars of approval he declaimed that while he was temporarily called upon to be the Prime Minister, he would always be a swayamsevak. After the predictable uproar in India, especially among the BJP's secular allies, Mr Vajpayee said he meant that he was a 'volunteer' of the nation, not of the RSS.

In December, India's parliament was brought to a standstill after the Prime Minister said that building a Ram temple at Ayodhya was 'an expression of national sentiment' and part of the 'unfinished agenda' of his government. In fact, a condition of the BJP being able to rule in coalition — with only 23 per cent of the national vote itself — is that Ayodhya appears nowhere in the government's agenda. Mr Vajpayee then corrected himself, saying he meant that the work of healing the wounds of Ayodhya was 'unfinished'. Nothing whatsoever to do with the RSSNHP's threat to go ahead with building the temple on the ruins of the mosque if the government did not act.

In January, the VHP called a 'religious parliament' at the giant Kumbh Mela pilgrimage on the Ganges river, intending to announce the immediate start of temple construction. The ploy backfired when three out of the four Shankaracharyas, or Hindu clerical authorities, boycotted the 'parliament' as a nakedly sectarian exercise. The RSSNHP then postponed starting work on the temple until March next year.

We cannot foresee how Mr Vajpayee will handle this incendiary issue as it approaches showdown, except that he says it should be arbitrated by law. What we do know, however, is that, as a poet, wit and orator of some renown, he knows the meaning of words.

David Gardner is the South Asia correspondent of the Financial Times.