When the saffron 'parivar' betrayed its discomfort with non-supporters

Over the weekend, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), unwittingly revealed their discomfiture with those who do not support or endorse their Hindutva ideology. In doing so, the heads of both institutions betrayed a profound disregard for the founding constitutional values of India. At the BJP’s national executive meet on Sunday, party president Amit Shah openly praised Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis for the Pune police crackdown on five activists by the law enforcement agencies. He also chose to parrot the label “urban Naxals” to describe the activists — in the absence of any evidence — and accuse the Congress and other opposition parties of playing “vote-bank politics” by criticising their arrests.

That Mr Shah, the head of India’s largest political party, made these statements in an open forum is remarkable. He seems to have ignored the strongly-worded criticisms by the Supreme Court, which stayed the arrests, pointing to the appalling violation of police procedures in the round-up of activists just one week before — presenting FIRs written in Marathi, raiding premises and arresting without adequate authorisation, and so on. When the highest court in the land points to shameful conduct on the part of the Pune police, it is strange for Mr Shah to praise the chief minister, under whose aegis this Emergency-style operation was conducted. Mr Shah’s remarks cannot be dismissed lightly; as the BJP’s chief strategist, his statements signalled his intention of making the issue the centrepiece of the party’s upcoming campaign, no doubt in the guise of protecting “national security”. This ruse is the oldest trick in the playbook of any authoritarian political movement. Mr Shah would have done better to heed the Supreme Court’s observation that dissent is the “safety valve” of democracy or, at the very least, waited for its verdict before pronouncing publicly on the issue.

Across the continents in Chicago, it is ironic that RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat chose to interpret this “safety valve” in quite a different way. Celebrating the 125th anniversary of Swami Vivekananda’s historic address to the World Parliament of Religions, he couched the organisation’s view of tolerance in language that even a generous assessment would term as grossly insulting. Vivekananda spoke in luminous terms about universal acceptance and religious tolerance. Mr Bhagwat spoke about how Hindu society would prosper only when it worked as a society. This was an unexceptional, even admirable, statement. The analogy he used to elaborate the point, however, betrayed his organisation’s true outlook: “If a lion is alone, wild dogs can invade and destroy the lion. We must not forget that,” he said. The message was certainly a memorable one: The dominant ideology being endorsed here and the insulting reference to the “other” were hard to miss. This intemperate language and crude imagery contradict the organisation’s strenuous efforts in recent months to acquire a kinder, gentler image, inviting critics such as former President Pranab Mukherjee to its Nagpur headquarters and extending a similar invitation to Congress President Rahul Gandhi. Both Mr Shah and Mr Bhagwat betrayed a vision that Indians can ill afford to endorse and should find no place in our public discourse.

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