Despite journalists being invited, they were only allowed into a few sessions and most of their requests for information were denied.
Ponda, Goa: “Jaitu Jaitu!” a man from the audience calls out.
“Hindu Rasthrum!” everyone cheers.
“Jaitu Jaitu,” the man calls out again.
Twenty-one-year-old Sadhvi Saraswati – a preacher with the Sanatan Dharm Prachar Seva Samiti – sits on stage alongside four fellow ‘gau rakshaks (cow protectors)’.
A television screen begins to show footage of a cow being culled. (Or so we are told – the sound system is poor and the screen too small to tell.) But Saraswati alone can discern from the screen what no one else can. This, finally, is the clarion call she has been waiting for.
She sits up. Dramatically bows her head to the screen. Then prays. When her silent prayer is finished, she approaches the podium to present her margdarshan (way forward).
“I want to clarify what I said earlier this morning,” she says in Hindi. “I asked that Hindus pick up their weapons in defence of the cow, our mother.”
“But this is not only for Hindus. Why should cow protection be only a Hindu prerogative? Does the cow, our mata, differentiate between Hindu and Muslim when giving milk? This is an issue for all and we must ALL pick up our weapons to protect our mother! And anyone who dares to hurt her must be hanged to death!”
The crowd – no more than 120 people excluding the press – is enthralled.
“Jai Hind!” they clap and cheer with fervour. Followed by “Har Har Mahadev!”
The announcer thanks the sadhvi for her “amrut vani” (sweet, nectar-like speech). She grins back and is soon escorted out. She entertains no questions from the press.
In the press briefing after, Ramesh Shinde, national spokesperson of the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti (HJS), is asked whether the organisation will take responsibility for Saraswati’s speech.
“Those were her personal opinions. We are merely providing a platform,” he responds.
This answer is unsatisfactory, because Saraswati has made this speech several times before.
In March 2015, she was charged under Section 153(a) of the Indian Penal Code for inciting communal disharmony after she presented a variation of this speech. At the time, even the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) distanced itself from her comments. By inviting her to speak, the HJS knew precisely what they were getting into.
In a private interview, I ask Shinde how he could not know what Saraswati was going to say, given that this is a speech she has made many times before? Why did he invite her at all?
“See, it’s not the speeches for which we invite our delegates. We invite our delegates for their good work and their social service. And Sadhvi Saraswati has done a lot of good work. It is, in fact, the media that is putting mirchi (chilli). They are only highlighting portions of her speech and giving no attention to all the other things that are being said by so many other delegates,” he answered.
This is true. Media coverage of the event so far is largely limited to the sadhvi’s speech. It soon becomes a talking point and public pressure mounts. A day later, the Congress party demands Saraswati’s arrest.
But this raises a second question.
“What is the sanstha doing to pour water on the media’s mirchi?” I ask Shinde. “What are you doing to calm the fears of minorities?”
“Arre, why should we pour water? It’s first the media’s responsibility to stop putting mirchi.”
And yet, a day after that, water is poured.
With no willing allies, the HJS is forced to delete all videos of the sadhvi’s speech or edit out portions where she is speaking.
Soon after that, they begin curtailing media access to the event itself.
The sixth All India Hindu Convention for Establishing a Hindu Rashtra was held at the headquarters of the Sanatan Sanstha in Ponda, Goa. The Sanatan Sanstha and HJS are functionally the same organisation, but are separately registered.
Ponda is a district between Margaon and Panaji. During the early years of Portuguese occupation, Ponda provided a safe haven to persecuted Hindus. Many temples were built here and the demography, to this day, remains largely Hindu.
We arrive in Ponda on June 14 – day one of the conference and the morning of Saraswati’s fiery speech. We are each given a press schedule. Of the four sessions that take place over the course of the day, the press is allowed access to only one. The other events are “private”.
We ask the sanstha’s media coordinator, N.Y. Nadkarni, if he can get us access to the “private” events.
“There’s just not enough space inside,” Nadkarni tells us. “Too many people come and there’s no place to sit. This is the sixth year of this conference and over the years we’ve learnt how to manage these things, you see. But we are streaming all our events on Facebook, you can watch it there.”
This theory doesn’t fit. We have never seen the venue operate at more than 70% of capacity. At all times, there are plenty of empty chairs to spare.
Besides, while the events are streamed live on Facebook, those videos are deleted soon after. Only a handful of cherry-picked videos, with speeches edited out, remain on the Hindu Adhiveshan Facebook page.
As the day progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to interview volunteers or delegates. Everywhere we go, we are followed by silent volunteers. They only speak to ensure we do not take photographs of residents or of the volunteers themselves.
On June 15, day 2, a request is sent to Shinde asking him to give journalists, if not access to the events themselves, at least
- The names of participating organisations,
- A list of events, private and public
- The number of volunteers at the conference
- A list of the various tasks allotted to the volunteers and
- Permission to speak with volunteers.
All our requests are denied.
On day 3, one press briefing is held. The second is cancelled. We are told, instead, that singer Abhijeet Bhattacharya (of Twitter notoriety) will perform. An hour later, that too is cancelled.
On day 4, all press events are cancelled. An unscheduled press conference is held in Panaji instead, 30 km away, for which we are given a few hours’ notice.
At the last press conference in Panaji, we are told that the motion to demand a Hindu rashtra has been passed. By whom and by what majority, though, cannot be revealed.
With the conference systematically playing hide and seek, we turn to our only other source of information – the locals of Ponda.
The Sanatan Sanstha ashram is a three-storied white structure located downhill from Farmagudi, in a locality called Ramnathi. Within it is the Ramnathi temple.
The land immediately outside the Sanatan Sanstha had once been a fertile rice field, though it is now uncultivated and overcome by weeds. This change happened in 2008.
One morning, during the early monsoons of 2008, villagers of Ponda woke up to a strange stench rising from the fields. As the water receded, it had left behind over 1000 used condoms.
Villagers were outraged. A police inquiry was conducted. It was found that the Sanatan Sanstha had ordered approximately 3,000 condoms from the Goa government. One thousand of them – putrid and rotting – were scattered on the rice fields. No villager was willing to clean and cultivate the land ever again.
The sanstha has since claimed that the condoms were purchased for married couples who live in the ashram. But since that year, rumours of the sanstha being a sex cult have been rife; the seeds of misgivings had been planted among the locals. But there was no proof.
A year later, on October 16, 2009, a bomb went off in Madgaon, 17 km from Ponda. Two people carrying the bomb – Malgona Patil and Yogesh Naik – were killed when it went off prematurely. Both were members of the Sanatan Sanstha.
The locals wanted proof that something was wrong – and here it was.
The day after the blast, the priest of the Ramnathi temple, Basant Bhatt, launched a movement to remove the sanstha from Ponda. He formed the Jan Jagruti Manch. This local movement gained momentum – first only a few people, then hundreds and eventually 2,000 marched to the Sanatan Sanstha, demanding that they leave Ponda. The matter received extensive media coverage. But to no avail.
The sanstha responded by slapping defamation charges on Bhatt. The matter is still being contested in court.
Bhatt’s brother narrates the story of the used condoms and smirks. I ask if he fears the sanstha.
“Hatt, no way! They’ve filed three cases against my brother. Whatever will happen will happen in court. I’m not scared at all,” he says.
Bhatt is the only villager we meet who is willing to speak against the sanstha on the record. Everyone else answer only vaguely.
I ask a woman who lives down the road from the sanstha whether they do good work for the locals.
“Karte honge (Maybe they do),” she shrugs
“Aapko pata nahi wahan kya kya hota hai (You can’t possibly know what goes on in there),” another villager tells us.
This sentiment is repeated to us several times over the course of our stay.
If there is a fear of speaking, it is legitimate. Since 2009, the sanstha has been accused of the murders of Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare. The accused in the Dabholkar case, Virendra Tawde, was acquitted for lack of evidence.
Six years later, on June 17, 2017, during the All Hindu Conference, Samir Gaikwad, the accused in the Pansare case, was granted bail.
It is important to note, however, that information given by the locals is based almost entirely on hearsay. This is because locals are not allowed inside the sanstha at all. All housekeeping within the sanstha is performed by the volunteers themselves. Contact with the outside world is limited.
The main exceptions to this are the Sanatan Sanstha’s publications. The sanstha publishes a daily, a weekly and a series of books. The topics of writing range from ‘How to care for your hair’ and ‘How should clothes be from a spiritual perspective’ to books warning about the dangers of “love jihad” and conversion.
Nadkarni tells us, “We have published 60 lakh books. Sixty lakh different books! Can you imagine! Even the Guinness Book of World Records approached us. We told them we were not interested, we are a spiritual organisation after all.”
The locals concur. A school teacher, who did not wish to be named, tells us, “There are touts who distribute these books for a nominal fee. For Rs 100, they will give you an annual supply of books. This includes newspapers, booklets, magazines – everything. Nobody can prove it, but everyone knows Jyoti Dhavlikar helps fund the distribution.”
Dhavlikar is the wife of Sudhin Dhavlikar, who heads the Maharasthrawadi Gomantak Party, an ally of the BJP in Goa. She is a sadhika at the sanstha. It was the Dhavlikars who facilitated the sanstha setting up in Ponda in 2004 and its subsequent expansion.
I ask a spokesperson from the sanstha about their method for the distribution of books. “There’s no distribution, really. Every time there’s a festival, we sell our books at a stall,” I’m told.
For books sold at a kiosk, 60 lakh is a suspiciously large number. The population of Goa is a third of that.
In the run-up to the conference, the RSS, the VHP and the BJP go to great pains to distance themselves from the Sanatan Sanstha and their demand for a Hindu rashtra.
The Hindustan Times reported that the BJP distanced itself from the event. “We have no connection with the Sanatan Sanstha or the HJS as we differ from them in the very philosophy of Hinduism. For us, religion cannot be the basis for any nation or state. We treat Hindutva as a way of life,” said BJP spokesperson Madhav Bhandari.
The RSS said it have nothing to do with the convention. “Our country is already a Hindu rashtra for centuries and we are identified by this,” said a RSS senior activist.
The VHP also expressed differences.“We are interested in the cultural aspect [of a Hindu rashtra] and not the political one,” said Ashok Chowgule, all-India vice president of the VHP.
Only Adityanath, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, said, “There is nothing wrong with a Hindu rashtra.”
On day one, during the session about cow protection where Saraswati made her erring speech, all the delegates spoke against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
One delegate suggested earnestly, “Instead of Chai Pe Charcha, he should do Gai Pe Charcha!” to much applause.
Hanumat Parabji, a self-proclaimed gau rakshak, said, “Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and Modji had promised us that they would protect our cows. But now Modiji is too focused on vote bank politics and his Hindutva agenda is gone. But I am optimistic about Yogi Adityanath. He is our only hope.”
A similar sentiment is expressed by delegates at both sessions we are allowed to attend: Modi has failed the extreme right. And they now look to Adityanath for help.
This is the only message delivered publicly, deliberately and strongly.
I happen to meet a delegate I recognise on my last night in Ponda. Unwilling to be named, he agrees.
“The BJP isn’t trying to undo Congress policy. They’re trying to outdo it. And that’s making a lot of people unhappy. Many of them now want to create internal opposition to Modi, since there’s no real opposition from the outside. Yogi Adityanath is someone a lot of people want to get behind. He is the only force who can take Modi on. It will also help shift the locus of Indian politics back to Uttar Pradesh,” he tells me.
The following morning, we see this play out at the last press conference in Panaji. Three of the seven delegates taking questions are from the BJP. A journalist asks if the RSS Goa participated in the conference.
Anil Dhir, BJP member from Odisha who claims to be a close aide of Modi, responds, “What does that mean? Even I am a member of the RSS. But I am here representing Bharat Raksha Manch.”
Another journalist asks, “Is this a failure of internal machinery of the BJP that you have to speak out against them at this conference?”
“I would put it in a positive way,” Dhir laughs. “The BJP allows dissent.”
This, then, is a conference of BJP and RSS dissenters. Their objective may not be the declaration of a Hindu rashtra, but it is certainly to pull the establishment further towards the right.
And in those tensions, Adityanath is the man to watch.
Sneha Vakharia is a freelance reporter.