Journalist | Writer | Analyst
24 March 2009
A stench that is all too familiar
I cannot decide what is more offensive about the recent statements made by the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate for Pilibhit, Varun Gandhi — the original sin of inciting religious hatred against Muslims or the cowardly dissembling when confronted with irrefutable evidence of his incendiary oratory. In the old days before television news and the internet, politicians could always deny the veracity of the printed word by claiming they had been misquoted or that their words had been taken out of context. The hapless hack might well have a recording of the offensive words but in the absence of any way to disseminate that evidence, the politician would invariably get away. Not anymore. Varun has regularly been spewing communal hate in his stump speeches. And not one but several video and audio recordings exist to prove this.
What the whole of India saw and heard in the flailing of his arms, the hysterical movement of his lips and his coarse, insistent promise to cut and kill Muslims was reality TV stripped of the comforting gauze of distance. “This is not the ‘hand’ [of the Congress], this is the hand of the lotus. It will cut the throats of Muslims after the elections,” he said, using a pejorative that plays on the fact that Muslims are circumcised. We all saw it, heard it and recognised it. That is why the Election Commission rejected Varun Gandhi’s unproven claim that the clips were somehow “doctored” and found him guilty of violating the code of electoral conduct.
That he would do everything possible to prevent himself from being debarred or even imprisoned is understandable. In Pilibhit, the Hindutva hero bravely promised to cut the throats of Muslims if elected. Back in Delhi, he whimpers that he threatened violence not on Muslims but on “vote katuas,” or spoilers, an explanation which is nonsensical because that phrase is used only to describe a minor third party which enters an election and cuts into the votes of a bigger rival.
The k-word Varun deployed is the Indian equivalent of the n-word racists in the U.S. use for African-Americans and belongs in the gutter rather than in an election speech. He also demonised Muslim names and said Hindus ought to fear encountering Muslims at night. In any democracy worth the name, a politician would be arrested and prosecuted for making such a speech. In a country where such speeches have been used to incite actual violence against Muslims, he would immediately be barred from standing for election. And even if he were able to take refuge under the labyrinthine legal process to postpone the inevitable for several months and years, his party certainly has a moral and political obligation to stop him contesting under its symbol.
In America, racism in politics has sometimes been used at the subliminal level. The Republicans used the case of a Black felon to attack Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election. But were a mainstream candidate to break the taboo against using racist language, let alone threaten violence, his party would expel him before the day were out. But this is India, and the party concerned is the BJP. How can it act against Varun when all he did was to echo the anti-Muslim message that its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has been giving since its inception?
As Jyotirmaya Sharma convincingly demonstrates in Terrifying Vision: M.S. Golwalkar, the RSS and India, Muslims have always been seen by the sangh parivar as alien, violent and threatening — “incomplete, uncultured and demonic” in the words of its most important sarsanghchalak. Muslims (and Christians) were scary like rakshasas and had no loyalty to India because they did not accept their kula dharma, or ancestral duty, towards Hinduism. They were “ghar ke baaharwaley” — those who are not part of our home — and had to agree to be assimilated to the point where they no longer called themselves Ali, Hassan, John or Thomas. And if they refused, how should Hindus deal with the desecration of their motherland? “Parashuram avenged his father’s humiliation by offering him libations of blood of those who had insulted him,” Professor Sharma explains. “Likewise, the only way to worship the motherland after she had been defiled,” warns ‘Guru’ Golwalkar, “would be to wash it with the blood of those who dared commit such an act.”
The anti-Muslim construct and the threat of violence is a congenital part of the RSS’ philosophical DNA, a genetic flaw so potent that it contaminates anyone who comes into contact with it. Muslims are the enemy around which the edifice of the BJP’s wider politics is built, even if the requirements of legality mean the party has to be guarded in the manner in which it expresses itself. Sometimes, of course, the mask slips, either by carelessness or design. Varun Gandhi is a novice but even a consummate politician like Atal Bihari Vajpayee could occasionally trip up. In a venomous speech at a BJP meeting in Goa in April 2002, shortly after the anti-Muslim violence which shook Gujarat that year started, Mr. Vajpayee, who was Prime Minister at the time, declared: “Wherever Muslims live, they don’t like to live in co-existence with others, they don’t like to mingle with others; and instead of propagating their ideas in a peaceful manner, they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats.”
Mr. Vajpayee later claimed he was speaking about “followers of militant Islam” and not Muslims in general. Subsequently, the PMO put out a doctored version of the speech in which the phrase “wherever Muslims live” was changed to “wherever such Muslims live.” There the matter would have ended, except that Mr. Vajpayee made the mistake of telling Parliament the doctored transcript was the actual speech delivered by him in Goa. Priyaranjan Das Munshi produced a recording and moved a privilege motion claiming the House had been deliberately misled. Manohar Joshi, who was Speaker at the time, exonerated Mr. Vajpayee. But in his ruling, he noted that the BJP leader had admitted the recording of his speech did not contain the word “such.”
Despite emendations and clarifications, however, the party’s DNA keeps asserting itself. On the eve of the 2007 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP officially produced and distributed a VCD, ‘Bharat ki Pukar’, in which a number of actors play out scenes of Muslim villainy to underline the sangh’s message that Hindus are under siege. The VCD’s hero was a school teacher (masterji) who goes around telling Hindus to act before it is too late. “If you don’t vote the BJP, you will regret it. This country will be enslaved by the Muslims and these tikas on your forehead will have to go and in their place you will have to grow beards.” His commitment to the cause eventually causes him to have a stroke and die. At his funeral, one of the mourners sounds a dire warning. “That day is not far away when we will be afraid to even call ourselves Hindu, and you will never be able to find a Sohanlal, Mohanlal, Atmaram or Radhekrishan anywhere. Wherever we look, we will only see Abbas, Naqvi, Rizvi, and Maulvi.”
From Guruji to Atalji, Masterji to Varun, the words may vary but the notion that Muslims are outsiders and enemies, that they are “scary,” have peculiar names and are plotting to turn the country into Pakistan is constant. So Varun Gandhi could warn his voters, “go to your villages and give the call that all Hindus must unite to save this area from becoming Pakistan.” His words, in their totality and in their relationship to the sangh parivar’s message, make clear what he was talking about. Regrettably, the Election Commission never took the BJP’s 2007 campaign VCD seriously. This time, however, it has not made the same mistake and has said Varun should not stand.
The BJP is upset about due process. It has also complained about double standards, since the Congress is again fielding Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, despite their more than questionable role in the November 1984 massacre of Sikhs. That the Congress should do so is shocking and condemnable but two wrongs don’t make a right. The law may allow Varun Gandhi to claim he is innocent until proven guilty but the imperatives of political judgment are different. By failing to condemn his hate speech and disregarding the Election Commission’s request that his candidature be withdrawn, the BJP and its leadership have made clear that they concur with, and are complicit in, the incitement of religious hatred as a means of winning elections.