The Union minister’s latest statement on conversions is part of a long list of efforts to endear himself to the Hindu right.
New Delhi: There is nothing new about politicians raking up controversies in India. Indeed, doing so with polarising and unsubstantiated claims, especially during election season, has become an oft-used tactic for saffron leaders over the past few years.
On February 13, union minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju, who seems to be leading this list of leaders of late, sparked off yet another row. To a Congress allegation that the BJP is trying to Hinduise the indigenous traditions of Arunachal Pradesh and turn it into a ‘Hindu state’, he responded, “Hindu population is reducing in India because Hindus never convert people. Minorities in India are flourishing unlike some countries around.”
It does not take much to figure that Rijiju, a minister in the Modi government, was only articulating what the Sangh parivar has been claiming for many decades now. Although the claim has been disproved many times, its constant repetition by saffron groups in the public domain only indicates the Sangh parivar’s insistence on polarising people along religious lines.
While Rijiju’s statement might sound like one of the parivar’s many remarks against minorities, it is also a cleverly-veiled attempt to target Christian groups in the Northeast. While the Sangh, under BJP rule, has upped its ante against Muslims in most north Indian states over the past three years, it has also been in the process of reviving its campaign against Christians in the Adivasi-dominated states of the northeast.
The Wire spoke to some RSS activists who confirmed that the organisation has been devising a campaign against the increasing Christian population in the northeast and also in states like Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and areas in southwest Madhya Pradesh.
The RSS campaign to check the proselytising activities of Christian missionaries, they said, was pushed to the back burner after the Sangh faced severe criticism in the wake of Graham Staines’s murder in 1999 and the Kandhamal riots of 2008.
Rijiju’s statement, if seen in this context, is clearly a part of the larger Sangh parivar strategy. He underscored “conversion” as the reason for the supposedly declining Hindu population in his veiled attack against Christian missionaries. In one stroke, he gifted the Sangh parivar the political space to carry out its campaign against alleged conversions and Christian missionaries.
Is Rijiju playing to the Sangh’s tune?
In fact, Rijiju has efficiently been playing the role of gatekeeper for the Sangh parivar for some time now.
In late 2015, he infamously shot himself in the foot when he defended Assam governor P.B. Acharya’s controversial remarks that “Hindustan is for Hindus” and Indian Muslims are “free to go to Pakistan.”
Soon after, Rijiju said, “The governor did not make a religious comment. But it was for all religions, not any particular one. But I have not heard the other comment (about Muslims),” he told the press.
Around the same time, he also claimed that Jawaharlal Nehru “let the people of northeast region down” during the 1962 Indo-China war by surrendering to the Chinese forces. While there is no historical truth to his statement, as many strategic experts know, Rijiju has been initiating the Hindu nationalist discourse, as propagated by the Sangh parivar, in the Northeast for some time now.
As voices of insurgent groups premised on the logic of alienation by successive governments have gained ground in the Northeast over the last few decades, the Sangh parivar, instead of addressing pertinent concerns, has been trying to occupy the oppositional political space in the region. While doing so, it has been using Hindutva devices like anti-conversion campaigns. Since most of the insurgent groups are Christians, the Sangh parivar’s version of Hindu nationalism has proven to be a great twin-strike on the multicultural ecology of the region.
In yet another instance, Rijiju propounded a theory that south Indian Muslims are more attracted to ISIS but failed to give any evidence to back his claim. The Sangh parivar has been trying hard to gain a foothold is states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu for years now. According to several reports, it has tried various polarising campaigns in these areas to make its presence felt.
While indulging in such communal statements, Rijiju has also been at the forefront of attacking all forms of democratic criticism of the government by the civil society. For instance, he lambasted filmmaker Anurag Kashyap for criticising Hindu-right activists who were protesting against filmmakers employing Pakistani artists in Bollywood. Kashyap had said that if movie producers can be penalised for featuring Pakistani artists, then Prime Minister Narendra Modi should apologise for his Lahore trip in 2015. Rijiju came forward to say that it had become a fashion to target Modi without any logic.
He also criticised JNU students for protesting against the vice chancellor’s handling of administrative affairs last year, which the students saw as authoritarian. He had said, “Some students come to JNU only to play politics, not study”.
In all of these interventions, Rijiju played to the Sangh parivar’s tune and defended the Hindu right. China, the Nehru family, minorities and progressive universities like JNU have been tactical targets for the RSS’s larger goal of advancing its Hindutva agenda. In his pursuit to take on liberal-secular principles of India, Rijiju is slowly proving to be one of the greatest foot soldiers for the Sangh.
With his most recent statement, Rijiju has revived the Sangh’s population obsession. Since the early 1970s, the RSS has been running a campaign saying that an ‘overflowing’ Muslim population may outnumber Hindus in India. Earlier, the BJP government tried to give the 2011 census figures a communal spin. The Press Information Bureau’s press release, in an unconventional presentation, gave prominence to the fact that the decadal growth rate of the Hindu population (16.8%) was less than that of Muslims (24.6%).
This led to a hue and cry among the Hindu-right groups, with Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Praveen Togadia going to the extent of demanding the peremptory imposition of a two-child norm among the Muslim community. Since then, many RSS and BJP leaders have appealed to Hindus to produce “at least five” children.
What the Hindu right missed in its scaremongering was that the total population in 2011 was 121.09 crore, of which Hindus constituted 96.63 crore (79.8%) in comparison to Muslims who constituted only 17.22 crore (14.2%) and Christians whose number was at a paltry 2.78 crore (2.3%).
In this chain of events, other trends in the census that were the primary reasons for such results were ignored. For instance, that India’s population growth rate was declining faster than expected, or that the decline in this rate was faster in the more populous states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, when compared to many other states.
More crucially, the sex ratio has improved in India and while it has improved only marginally among the Hindus, it showed significant improvement for the Muslim community. Besides, the rate of decline for the Muslim population over two decades was higher than that of Hindus. Eminent economist Abusaleh Shariff noted that the total Hindu population growth between 2001 and 2011 was 138 million, equal to the entire Muslim population of 2001.
Similarly, the total fertility rate among Muslims also showed a considerable decline.
These factors do not figure in the Sangh parivar’s scheme of things. By saying that Hindus will be overtaken by minorities, it forgets that the total fertility rate of Muslim-majority countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh is much lower than the all-India average.
RSS’s game plan
In the context of the northeast, the RSS is looking to re-jig its old campaign of a ‘Muslim population explosion’ by targeting Christians and making ‘conversion’ the primary talking point. The same claim being repeated by a serving Union minister only further cements the ideological alliance of the BJP with the larger agenda of the RSS.
In the last few years, the RSS has put all its energy into strengthening its foothold in the northeast by polarising the electorate on Hindu-Christian lines. Complementing this cultural campaign, the BJP has been fighting the Sangh’s political war. It is reported that Amit Shah has been very serious about the party’s “Look NorthEast” policy, which is framed on the Sangh parivar’s lines, ever since he took over as the president of the party.
Rijiju, who is facing accusations in a Rs 450-crore hydro-power scam in his home state Arunachal Pradesh, has been desperate to prove his Sangh parivar credentials. In the final analysis, however, he is but yet another pawn in the larger Hindu-right’s puzzle-ridden politics.