Modi candidate forces existential choice on India

Fielding an election candidate accused of terrorism, Pragya Singh Thakur, could be a desperate move by Modi to retain power. But it could also destroy India’s secularity.

In what is arguably one of the most bitterly fought elections in India’s history, the nomination by the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of a parliamentary candidate accused of terrorism has exposed the strategy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling clique to seek political dominance through religious polarisation and communal discord.

The controversial move to field Pragya Singh Thakur, one of those accused for the 2008 Malegaon bomb blast in which six Muslims died and around 100 were injured, evoked sharp disparagement. This is perhaps the first time any political party has nominated a candidate accused of terrorism in the country.

The ruling BJP gave Pragya Thakur, 49, the ticket to contest the key Bhopal parliamentary seat in the Hindu heartland of Madhya Pradesh after she joined the Hindu nationalist party on 17 April.  She is facing trial under stringent sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act on charges that include murder, criminal conspiracy and promoting enmity between communities. She is out on bail on health grounds after spending nine years in prison.

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Senior lawyer and social activist Prashant Bhushan referred to the BJP’s nomination as the party’s desperation, given that Modi’s party has failed to deliver on the jobs, economy or development fronts. “Now communalism is a last gambit,” said Bhushan.

Bollywood lyricist Javed Akhtar said the choice of the BJP candidate for Bhopal was the perfect personification of Sangh Parivar’s – the umbrella of Hindu, right-wing organisations –  “thoughts and actions”.

Former chief minister of Kashmir and Peoples Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti accused the BJP of “normalising” terrorism. “According to these guys, terror has no religion when it comes to saffron fanatics. But otherwise all Muslims are terrorists. Guilty until proven innocent,” she tweeted.

Who is Pragya Singh Thakur?

Widely known for making Muslim-baiting, inflammatory speeches, Pragya Thakur was born in the Bhind district of Madhya Pradesh in central India. A powerful orator and post-graduate in history, she developed a keen curiosity about Hindu philosophy at a young age and became an ascetic at the age of 14.

Shorthaired Pragya Thakur, who often dons saffron robes and calls herself a “sadhvi”, the term used for a woman who renounces their possessions and chooses a spiritual life, became known for beating up men who allegedly harassed women. She set up an organisation that was reportedly involved in “rescuing” girls who had eloped with boys from other communities.

She worked with Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad – the student wing of the ultra-Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organisation that has been banned three times in post-independence India and was accused of plotting the murder of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. She was linked, too, with the Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a far right-wing Hindu organisation. She was also associated with another radical activist group, Hindu Jagran Manch, which was accused of involvement in a series of blasts in India.

In 2017, when she was released by the court, the bail order noted that she was ‘suffering from breast cancer.’ Pragya Thankur recently told media that she was cured of her disease after drinking gaumutra (cow urine), a claim debunked by the doctor who treated her.

Malegaon blasts and the trial

On 29 September 2008, two bombs concealed in a motorcycle exploded at a hotel near a mosque in the communally sensitive and Muslim-dominated town of Malegaon in the west Indian state of Maharashtra. At least six people were killed and more than 100 injured in the blasts, which the police said was the handiwork of “Hindu” extremist groups.

Pragya Thakur was arrested in October 2008, along with two accomplices. The Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), led by Hemant Karkare, a decorated officer who was later killed in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, investigated the case.

According to the charge sheet, Pragya Thakur was part of most meetings of the radical “Hindutva” (extremist Hindu nationalism) activists from 2006 onward, at which plans to target Muslim-majority areas for terrorist acts were discussed. In January 2009, the ATS said Thakur owned the bike linked to the blast and had given it to a co-accused, Ramchandra Kalsangra, who planted the bomb and placed it at the blast site. Her hateful utterances before the attacks lent credibility to the accusations, as she had often spewed vindictive tirades against Muslims in her speeches.

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In 2016, India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA), however, dropped Pragya Thakur and five others from the list of accused persons, claiming that “sufficient evidence had not been found” against them. The NIA said the ATS had tortured a witness who made a statement indicting Pragya Thakur, and another witness retracted his statement implicating her.

However, the Supreme Court of India and the National Human Rights Commission noted that Pragya Thaku’s allegations of torture were not substantiated by facts.

Although the NIA gave her a clean chit, the trial court refused to discharge her from the case. The court dropped the charges against her under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act and continued the trial under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

From terror to politics

Pragya Thakur’s entry into mainstream Indian politics has a clear agenda and strategy: to vitiate the political environment and polarise voters along communal lines. Unsurprisingly, since joining the electoral fray, she has made provocative statements and hateful remarks that have been severely condemned.

Soon after announcing her nomination, Pragya Thakur declared that she had “cursed” Karkare for “torturing” her in custody when he was investigating the Malegaon blast case. “I had told him you will be finished, and he was killed by terrorists in less than two months,” Pragya Thakur bragged to the media. Her statement drew widespread criticism and the BJP was forced to distance itself from the comments, asserting that the remarks may have been “influenced by the torture” she faced in jail.

In an interview with a news channel, Pragya Thakur claimed to have been part of the mob that demolished the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya on 6 December 1992 and said she was “extremely proud of her actions”. “We had removed a blot from the country. We had gone to demolish the structure. We will make sure that a Ram Temple is built at that site,” she told reporters.

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The Election Commission of India (ECI) took cognisance of her remarks and served her a show cause notice – an order asking her to explain why it should not take disciplinary action against her – for “creating mutual hatred or causing tension between different communities”. The ECI notice said Pragya Thakur’s remarks were in violation of chapter four of its Model Code of Conduct, which pertains to the maintenance of harmony between castes, communities, religious and linguistic groups. But, unfazed, she stood by her statement. The ECI then ordered the police to open a case against her.

The father of one of the men who died in the blast has also challenged Pragya Thakur’s candidature in court.

However, Modi himself has defended her standing for elections, asserting that it is a symbolic answer to all those who falsely labelled the rich Hindu civilisation as “terrorist”. BJP national president and Modi’s close aide Amit Shah also defended his party’s decision to field Pragya Thakur, saying that the allegations against her are false and the real culprits in the Malegaon blast case have evaded the law.

Normalising terrorism

For Modi and his Hindu nationalist party, the decision to field saffron-clad Pragya Thakur for the Bhopal seat is rife with symbolic messaging. She will be challenging Congress’ senior politician, Digvijaya Singh, who has spoken openly in the past about the threat of “saffron terror” – acts of violence motivated by Hindu nationalism – in the country.

With ultra-Hindu right politics now at the centre of India’s polity, Modi seeks to champion the cause of Hindu nationalists and challenge those who critique his brand of majoritarian nationalistic politics. The “quasi-democratic” choice is another effort to ensure the consolidation of the Hindu nationalist voter base through the extreme polarisation that ensured BJP’s sweeping victory in the 2014 elections.

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“Modi’s choice of a terror-accused signals intent to fundamentally change the character of the republic,” wrote journalist Samar Halarnkar, saying that this thinking is now embraced by larger numbers of Hindus.

For a country that is already deeply polarised along religious lines, the divisive decision has further widened the existing political chasm between the majority Hindus and the marginalised Muslim minorities, which threatens to tear apart the country’s secular social fabric.

“It is a signal to intimidate India’s minorities, particularly Muslims, from whom they expect supplication,” added Halarnkar in his article.

‘Sanctioned communalism’

Columnist Indrajit Hazra said that with the BJP’s “polarising” tactics of verbal threats against “bad Muslims” and Thakur’s nomination, India had crossed into “the domain of sanctioned communalism”. Hazra said Pragya Thakur was given a candidature only because she had been credited for terrorism (against Muslims). “For many BJP supporters, the Malegaon blast was indeed a justifiable act, a response to jihadi terrorism in our country.”

For some observers, the ruling BJP fielding a candidate accused of terrorism has exposed Modi’s toxic strongman politics to the world, which will likely hurt India’s case against terrorism and irreversibly alter the country’s social fabric and cultural ethos.

Pragya Thankur’s inclusion in the electoral foray is understood by some to be a symptom of Modi’s “desperation” to retain power, even at the expense of destroying India’s secular foundations and possible disintegration of the country.

Shajahan Madampat, a cultural critic and political commentator, wrote that the Hindu right has “lionised” mob terrorism throughout its existence and these extremist groups now feel “ominously emboldened” to field a candidate accused of terrorism because they believe their well-crafted operations for “savaging the civilised” have finally come to fruition. “Whether or not India will prove them wrong is the existential question before the country now,” wrote Madampat.

India’s two political strongmen, Modi and Shah, are known for their electoral brinkmanship. But fielding an election candidate who has been accused of terrorism has, in essence, reduced the democratic process of voting to a mere procedural exercise by mainstreaming the forces that seek to push India towards a majoritarian state in which minorities will be second-class citizens.

Whether or not the Indian public elects Pragya Thakur, her entry into the electoral lists will have a long-lasting impact on India’s pluralism, and democracy.

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