In Vrindavan, Communal Goons and ‘Secular’ Police Unite to Deny Atheists Space

When the supposedly secular police and media start colluding with the Sangh Parivar, we need to sit up and take notice – it's not roses we're smelling.

Protestors disrupting the atheist meeting at Vrindavan. Credit: Chaman Lal

Protestors disrupting the atheist meeting at Vrindavan. Credit: Chaman Lal

It looks like the fringe has been active again, this time in Vrindavan. A small gang of people from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and other groups disrupted a gathering of atheists on Friday, beating up attendees and causing general mayhem. This in itself has become so commonplace that it is no longer news. However, what should alarm us all is the way the police – which is under the ‘secular’ state government of Akhilesh Yadav – joined the disruptors. Instead of protecting the participants of the atheism conference by dispersing the small saffron gang, the police joined them and forced the event’s organiser to cancel the meeting. Unsatisfied with that, the police also insisted on the participants’ immediate departure from Vrindavan itself.

Swami Balendu, who lives in Vrindavan and has an ashram there, had invited his friends and like minded people for a conference on atheism. The Seva Bindu Ashram, the venue for this conference, is his private property. Even though he was well within his rights to invite people to his private place, he had taken the step of informing the Mathura administration and taking permission from them. Balendu works with the poor, especially children, and runs a small dhaba called Ammaji to support these children and their families. The meet was supposed to start on October 14.

Balendu announced his plans at a press conference in Delhi a few days ago and was then asked by journalists to hold a press meet in Vrindavan. A day before the scheduled conference, Balendu held a small briefing for the media. He did not say anything which could be termed explosive or insulting to religious sentiments. The usual stuff – Balendu said that religion was imagined by humans and therefore fictional. The next morning, on the day the conference was supposed to begin, local newspapers reported it in their own colourful way. This reportage served as the pretext for the goons who sought to justify their attack, and also for the police to intervene as they could claim the conference had created tensions in the town and caused a law and order problem.

Later, it turned out that the local press meet was in fact a trap. The press people had been asked by the VHP and Bajrang Dal men to call Swami Balendu to hold this press interaction. They wanted some proof for their complaint and the local media obliged. The required ‘proof’ was created by reporting ‘outrageous’ ‘anti-religious’ comments made by the swami.

Institutional collusion

The police took swift action. They brought a bulldozer and dismantled a covering over a drain which separated the ashram from the road, calling it an encroachment. Taking it down meant that it became difficult for people to cross the open drain to reach the ashram. Food inspectors arrived and started collecting samples from the dhaba. The administration threatened to close down the dhaba, saying they suspected that adulterated and unhygienic food was being served there.

“I have never heard such filthy abuses in my life”, Sarvesh, a photo journalist who was in Vrindavan to cover the event said. When she saw the crowd of tricolour-wielding men, all clad in dhotis and kurtas,  raising threatening slogans, she took out her camera and started shooting. They pounced on her, showering her with abuses, tore her clothing and beat her up. “I got beaten up today Apoorva Bhai”, she told me with a nervous laugh as I listened helplessly. “The police were standing close by as mute spectators. You should have seen those goons, Apoorva Bhai. They beat us and fled.”

“They were very few in number. It should not have been difficult for the police to disperse them. But the reverse happened. The police asked us not to create a law and order problem and cancel our meet.” Ashutosh Kumar, a literary critic and my colleague at Delhi University who was also present for the incident, added.

Himanshu Kumar , who had to leave Dantewada after his ashram was bulldozed by the Raman Singh government, had gone to Vrindavan with his family, including his two daughters and also witnessed these events. He reported, “I saw jeeps with BJP posters. Saffron clad goons, with lathis in their hands, were leading a small mob, with placards demanding [the] arrest of the atheists. We were stopped from reaching the meeting venue. Women participants were being chased and abused.”

Kumar tried to argue with the police and the city magistrate, telling them that they could not disallow a private meeting and it was their duty to protect the attendees from the disrupters. However, the police and the administration were unrelenting. Balendu was forced to announce the cancellation of the meet. Participants told the police that they were free to arrest them but refused to vacate the ashram as per the police’s demands.  As of 9 PM on Friday, the participants were still inside the ashram, singing, performing and chanting.

“Why hold an atheist meet in a Hindu religious place like Vrindavan? Do you have the nerve to do something like this in the Nizamuddin Dargah? Go to Mecca and Medina and do it there if you have the guts. You were served right”, was a comment posted on social media regarding the issue.

We would cite Charvaka, even Buddha to enlighten the attackers and the police that atheism is very much a part of Indian tradition. We could also quote Bhagat Singh‘s text, ‘Why I am an Atheist?’. But that is not the point. It is not that this violence is a result of some hurt arising out of ignorance, nothing of that kind. This need to curb such meetings is about dominating all spaces – political, social and cultural. Public and private. According to them, nothing remains private anymore, they can barge into your class room, your galleries, your conferences. They do not like the existence of any other voice.

Protestors even brought petrol with them with intentions to burn down the ashram. Credit: Chaman Lal

Protestors even brought petrol with them with intentions to burn down the ashram. Credit: Chaman Lal

No central command but a clear pattern

Let us not be mistaken. There is no central command here issuing orders for such action. But everywhere, be it the Central University of Haryana where the university is under attack from locals instigated by the ABVP (the BJP’s student organisation) or Indore, where the IPTA national conference was disrupted, or Udaipur, where a film festival was forcibly shifted to a different venue, or Vrindavan where the administration of a state government run by a ‘secular’ party took it upon itself to shut down an atheist conference, the attackers belong to the same family, we know it as the Sangh parivar.

The BJP is definitely behind it. This becomes clear when we read about BJP general secretary Kailash Vijayavargeya justifying the disruption of the IPTA meeting by calling leftists anti-nationals. One would wonder why the left, which is politically insignificant, is the Sangh parivar’s first target. It is worth noting that to justify its attacks, the parivar first describes its target as ‘left;. Thus a writer like Nayantara Sahgal or Ashok Vajpeyi, and all atheists, become leftist.

Should we then take solace in this frivolity? Should we say that the arrogance of the left is to blame for this? It would be very foolish of us if we did that. Because the definition of the left has changed now. Everybody who is targeted by the Sangh parivar members is labelled leftist now. It has become as simple an exercise as it is ridiculous.

Even more worrying is the way the police and administration are brazenly aligning themselves with the Sangh’s ideology. The state apparatus now acts as an extension of the Sangh. Under the new ‘first time Hindu government’, it feels confident in its actions, uninhibited by secular constitutional constraints. We must sit up and smell the new scent in the air. It is not a pleasant one.