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Vajpayee’s Contribution To The Hindutva Agenda Goes Well Beyond Babri And 2002

The door to today’s political climate of communalism, hyper-nationalism and fear was opened by Vajpayee

Once, when I was fourteen, I was returning home from school along with my two classmates – a boy and a girl – when we were stopped by a cop. It happened to be Valentine’s Day and the cop was curious why three children of opposite genders were walking together. Nothing really happened. The cop kept us standing for fifteen minutes and let us go only after my friend convinced the cop that the girl was his sister. Nevertheless, for a sheltered adolescent like me it was a scary experience. The arbitrary power that the cop held over us was evident. It was the first time that I realized that I could get into trouble for something I didn’t do, and something that shouldn’t have been a crime in the first place. What I didn’t realise at the time was that I was being introduced to the culture of fear. The year was 2000 and the Prime Minister was Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Nowadays, I am all too familiar with the era of Hindutva and the culture of fear that fuels it. Whenever I stand up for the National Anthem in a theatre or shy away from making a political joke, I know that I am not doing it because I want to but because I am afraid. But back then, this concept was still new. And it was introduced under the Vajpayee government.

In the last two days, hundreds of obituaries poured out, extolling our former Prime Minister for his vision and leadership, and rightly so. Vajpayee was one of the most consequential leaders of this country because of his creative foreign policy, economic reforms, infrastructure schemes, the nuclear tests, defence reforms, telecom and internet policies. But his most important virtue, as we are constantly reminded, was his moderation. The two blots on his long career of moderate politics were his cryptic encouragement during Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 and his double-speak after the 2002 Gujarat riots.

However, Vajpayee’s contribution to the Hindutva agenda went far beyond these two incidents. In fact, Vajpayee’s tenure can been seen as the first systematic attempt in the country to make communalism, hyper-nationalism and the culture of fear seem normal and palatable. The stage was set as soon as Vajpayee took office. One publication counted 77 major incidents of communal violence that made national news in the first ten months of his government. A human rights organization asserted that 30 communal incidents had happened in Gujarat in two months of 1998 alone. In Randhikpur, Gujarat, five hundred Muslims were made homeless overnight when a Hindu girl eloped with a Muslim boy.

And it wasn’t just limited to violence. Indians started discovering new “anti-nationals” in their midst everyday. Anti-Muslim propaganda became commonplace. “Muslims in this country too should support Indian team” in India-Pakistan cricket matches, a VHP leader helpfully suggested. MF Hussain’s house was ransacked over his controversial paintings and the Censor Board asked that saffron headbands be removed when depicting a Hindu-Muslim riot in the 1998 film Zakhm. An NCERT report pointed out that changes being made in school history textbooks gave them “blatantly communal orientation”. Anti-Valentine’s Day campaigns were launched in various parts of the country. Women were told to shun skirts and jeans by political leaders.

Of course, these events were much too small in scale compared to today, but they were the beginning. With such stories appearing in the media day after day, the public got used them. Over the next six years, this political climate steadily ratcheted up. By 2003, the communalism had become blatant enough that the RSS Chief began suggesting that the Muslim security in India depended upon goodwill of the Hindus and demanded that Catholic churches in India de-link themselves from the Vatican. However, the most important change was how this culture became steadily normalized and acceptable in the political discourse. One indication of it was how other political parties began shifting to the right as well. By 2003, cow-protection agenda was embraced by some political leaders of Congress as well. Another indication was how media became comfortable in discussing these incidents as just another political strategy. Perhaps the most disturbing example of this was the political analysis surrounding the March 2003 Himachal Pradesh Assembly election published in mainstream media. It were the first election in North India after the 2002 Gujarat riots and media treated it as a “referendum” on the riots. Several articles discussed the political utility of the riots and “aggressive line of Hindutva” as BJP’s strategy without even mentioning the moral horror that had accompanied them.

So why is Vajpayee remembered for his moderation? What helped him most was what one contemporary called “secular wish-fulfilment”. There was a strong desire within the liberal India to see him as a moderate and to believe that Indian secularism remained intact despite the evidence to the contrary. The BJP Government also employed three main strategies to keep Hindutva palatable. First, corruption and economic liberalization issues were kept on the forefront, while Hindutva agenda kept building up beneath the surface. Second, stories of fissures within Hindu right-wing were forever highlighted – Vajpayee vs. Advani, BJP vs. RSS, RSS vs. VHP – as a distraction, all the while these elements worked hand-in-hand on the ground. Third, Vajpayee and others sought to redefine Hindutva and present it as a benign ideology, often using vague or meaningless explanations, going as far as to suggest that it had nothing to do with Hinduism.

Meanwhile, BJP government prepared the country for today’s political climate. To be sure, none can shirk the responsibility – politicians of all stripes, media and even the average voter, we are all culpable in bringing about the culture of fear. However, the door was opened by Vajpayee and it was not that difficult to see, even back then, where this road would eventually lead. He was either an unwitting abettor or willingly complicit – at best he played with fire without understanding that it was bound to go out of control, or at worst, he knowingly lit the match which burned down the building. Either way, it is one of his legacies and must be reckoned with. Along with giving the nation nuclear bomb and a liberalized economy, he also had a hand in ensuring that I stand up for the Indian National Anthem in the theatre before I can watch Captain America.

Sandeep Bhardwaj is a researcher working on South Asian history and foreign policy at The Centre for Policy Research.

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