'Hindutva Politics Feeds on Chaos'

In conversation with The Wire, Dhirendra Jha talks about his book Shadow Armies: Fringe Organisations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva.

Bajrang Dal members shout slogans during a bandh. Credit: PTI

As goons masquerading as protectors of Hindu values, women or cows attack and kill people across the country, we remain largely unsure about who these people are. Dhirendra Jha’s Shadow Armies: Fringe Organizations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva, published by Juggernaut, traces the history behind many of these organisations, who are angered by everything from Valentine’s Day to Muslims, to secular rationalists who are unabashedly atheist. Split into eight simple chapters, the book includes information on such well-known organisations as the Bajrang Dal, as well as institutions such as the Bhonsala Military School, which was set up to make sure Hindu nationalists qualify for the Indian military. The last chapter, on the Rashtriya Sikh Sangat, delineates the attempt at including the Sikhs within the Hindu nationalist camp – and its violent failure.

Jha spoke to The Wire about the book, how it came about and the interlinkages between the actors he has documented.

Excerpts from the interview:

What made you decide to do this book?

In May 2014, an extraordinary process began in India. The BJP’s striking victory in the Lok Sabha elections marked a sudden spurt in activities of disparate Hindu militia groups. Hate speeches, ‘ghar wapsi’ and attack on minorities in the name of cow protection and ‘love jihad’ became frequent. The deepening links of these groups with the ruling party magnified the impact of these social disruptions, which appeared part of a larger design of Hindu nationalist project. There was, however, little insight into the actual mechanisms that underlay the evolution of these groups and the complex manner in which they connected with the overall politics of the BJP and the RSS. As a reporter covering the Sangh parivar, I kept a close eye on these groups and their activities, and when towards the mid-2015 Juggernaut suggested that I should tackle a book about the ‘shadow armies’, I immediately got down to frame the project.

This is a huge range of organisations, but are they all of them? What about the sadhvi associated with the ‘gau rakshaks‘ that murdered Pehlu Khan in Rajasthan?

I took up eight Hindutva outfits for study. Four of them are organisationally part of the RSS-led Sangh parivar while the remaining ones are independent entities. These are the prominent but not the only Hindu militia groups. At present, the RSS has roughly three dozen affiliate groups across the country. Several groups – both big and small – exist outside the purview of the Sangh parivar. In some areas, as in Rajasthan, gau rakshaks operate as an independent group, but in other areas, even the militia groups I studied double up as gau rakshaks from time to time.

Dhirendra K. Jha. Courtesy: Author

Is there an organisation linkage that ties everybody together? From your chapter on Abhinav Bharat, it seems that the RSS and BJP were also confused.

Not all the Hindu militia groups are organisationally linked to each other. Some are part of the Sangh parivar while others are not, and yet all have their umbilical cord attached to the RSS and are ideologically on the same page. Portraying minorities, especially Muslims, as imaginary threats to Hindus and attacking them constantly, has remained the single most important tool of all the strands of Hindutva politics. On occasions, when it is inconvenient, the BJP and the RSS disown the outfit. Thus, when Maharashtra ATS started probing terror links of Abhinav Bharat, the BJP and the RSS got bewildered and declared the outfit as a fringe organisation that never enjoyed their patronage. But Abhinav Bharat’s RSS roots could not be hidden.

Dhirendra K. Jha
Shadow Armies: Fringe Organizations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva Juggernaut, 2017

Sameer Kulkarni, who had asked Himani Savarkar to head Abhinav Bharat and who had initiated the Madhya Pradesh branch of the organisation, was an RSS pracharak. Similarly, retired Major Ramesh Upadhyay, another prominent Abhinav Bharat leader, has strong Sangh parivar connections. Before joining the outfit, he was the president of the Mumbai unit of the BJP’s ex-servicemen cell. No less significant is the political track record of Sadhvi Pragya Singh, the first person to be arrested in the Malegaon 2008 blast case. She had been a leader of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the RSS, before taking up sanyas. There are many such instances.

Why are there so many such organisations? If they all derive from the RSS, then how does it benefit to have so much chaos?

Hindutva politics feeds on chaos. Its hydra-like structure is its strength and not a weakness. The BJP’s electoral fortunes have remained largely dependent on reaping votes that grow out of seeds of communal propaganda and campaign sown not just by its pan-India associates but also by a large number of organisations working locally in various regions of the country. The tasks of brazen kind required to create polarisation in the society may not be carried out swiftly and easily if the Hindu militia outfits do not have multiple faces. This also makes it difficult for the state authorities to clamp down on them.

In your chapter on the Sanatan Sanstha, you imply that they may have received support for actors other than the RSS/BJP, who and why?

Though the BJP and the RSS have remained sympathetic to Sanatan Sanstha, no better has been the track record of the Congress. For some unexplained reasons, the Congress, when in power, did not deal firmly with this outfit despite gathering sufficient proof of the involvement of its members in acts of terror during 2008-2009. Perhaps, the Congress’ fear that banning of the Sanstha might push the traditional Hindu voters of Maharashtra to the BJP led it go for appeasement towards the outfit.

The Bhonsala Military School chapter is very interesting. The right-wing didn’t have many military figures until now – Jaswant Singh was hardly right-wing – but now they are all around. Is there a connection?

A number of army men seem to drift towards Hindutva organisations after retirement, possibly because the communalism at such places is garbed as nationalism. The Bhonsala Military School, with its curious combination of Hindutva ideology and military training, seems equipped to capture the imagination such military figures whose sense of nationalism can easily get mixed up with Hindu communalism.