Saturday, November 22, 2008

‘Hindu terrorism’ debate grips India

Hindu devotee in Nasik
It’s argued that Hinduism and terrorism are incompatible

A new and highly controversial phrase has entered the sometimes cliche-riddled Indian press: “Hindu terrorism”.

As with the term “Islamic terrorism” and “Christian fundamentalism”, this latest addition to the media lexicon is highly emotive.

It was in the aftermath of the 29 September bomb blast in the predominantly Muslim town of Malegaon in the western state of Maharashtra that the term “Hindu terrorism” or “saffron terrorism” came to be used widely.

That was because the state police’s Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) arrested 10 Hindus following the blasts and has said that it wants to arrest several more.

Little-known

One of those detained was a female priest, Sadhwi Pragya Singh Thakur, aged 38, who has been accused by the ATS of being involved in the Malegaon blast. Her detention shocked members of the faith.

So too did the arrest of a serving Indian army officer, Lt-Col Prasad Srikant Purohit, who the ATS says is the prime accused in the case.

Site of the Malegaon blast
Police said the Malegaon attacks were the work of ‘terrorists’

Police are investigating whether some of those arrested are members of a little-known Hindu outfit called Abhinav Bharat (Young India).

At least three of those held have some links with a prestigious college in the city of Nasik, the Bhonsala Military Academy.

ATS investigators have questioned two of the academy’s former office bearers several times.

One of them was Col Raikar, who retired from the Indian army some months ago.

Both he and Col Purohit served in the same unit of the army and became friends.

The ATS claims the meeting in which the plan for the bomb blast was hatched was held in the Bhonsala school.

Another retired army officer, Maj Prabhakar Kulkarni, is also under arrest. He too was an office bearer at the school.

In addition, the ATS says that at least one of the 10 suspects received military training here.

Sadhwi Pragya Singh Thakur, Col Purohit, Maj Kulkarni and Col Raikar have denied any connection with terrorism, as has the Bhonsala Military Academy and its parent organisation, the Central Hindu Military Education Society (CHMES).

Founded in 1937, the sprawling Bhonsala campus is run by the CHMES, an organisation established in the 1930s by Dr BS Moonje, a former president of the militant Hindu Mahasabha (Hindu Assembly) organisation.

His vision was to militarise India to fight the British Raj.

Military-style training

As the name suggests, this is not an ordinary college.

Its aim, as its website claims, is to “encourage students to take up careers in the armed forces of the country”.

Elephant in Nasik
Many Hindus are bemused at claims their faith is linked to terrorism

Military training involves teaching students how to fire guns.

The students are prepared for the National Defence Academy, the central government’s premier military college.

The branch of the academy in the city of Nasik has many impressive buildings.

One of them is used to impart military-style training to students, aged 10-16 years.

Its secretary, Divakar Kulkarni, laments the fact that his school is getting a bad press these days.

He says that besides military training, students are taught Hindu philosophy and scriptures.

Mr Kulkarni accepts it’s primarily a school for Hindus, but he adds that there are two or three Muslim and Christian children in every class of 45 students.

‘Tea and biscuits’

“Even Muslim students study the Bhagwat Gita and the Ramayana [Hindu scriptures],” he says proudly.

So how does he respond to the ATS allegation that the bomb plot was hatched at a meeting in the academy?

National defence Academy branch Secretary Divakar Kulkarni
Mr Kulkarni concedes his school has recently had ‘bad press’

“Col Raikar let out a hall to Abhinav Bharat for a meeting for two hours, but we don’t know what transpired in the meeting,” Mr Kulkarni said.

The ATS believes Col Raikar was also present in the meeting. But according to Mr Kulkarni he went there just for a few minutes “to ask if they wanted tea and biscuits”.

The ATS says that it has also found the aims and objectives of Abhinav Bharat downloaded on the computers of the two men.

Mr Kulkarni insisted that there was a perfectly innocent explanation for this: “They downloaded the outfit’s aims and objectives without knowing much about its work,” he said.

Meanwhile, most Hindu organisations believe India’s Congress party-led government is playing politics by defaming Hindus.

They argue that the very term “Hindu terrorist” is not only a creation of the media but also a contradiction in terms - because the faith explicitly renounces violence.

“The government, with an eye on the general election next year, is trying to woo Muslims by maligning Hindus,” says Datta Gaikward, chief of the right-wing Hindu Shiv Sena party in Nasik.

Hindu political parties are also staunchly defending Sadhwi Pragya Singh Thakur, the arrested female priest.

They have hired lawyers to represent her and at every legal hearing in Nasik supporters of right-wing parties gather outside the court and shout anti-government slogans.

All eyes will be now be on the court proceedings - whenever they start in earnest - to find out whether “Hindu terrorism” really has taken root or not.

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