Last month, on October 24, Bajrang Dal activists attacked the ongoing shooting of filmmaker Prakash Jha’s series, Ashram, in Bhopal. With impunity they ransacked the sets, smashed the windscreens of buses, threw ink on Jha, and threatened further violence if the shooting did not stop. Anyone else taking the law in their own hands and indulging in this kind of vandalism would be afraid of the consequences. After all, we are a country where there is supposedly the rule of law, and no one is above it, or can openly flout it.
But apparently the Bajrang Dal activists were under the impression that they could, and for good reason. Narottam Mishra, the home minister of BJP ruled MP, where this happened, seemed to brazenly back their actions. Instead of coming down heavily on such lawless behaviour, he delivered a homily on how filmmakers should be careful and avoid “scenes that hurt our sentiments” while remaining mindful of “the spirit of the majority society”. Perhaps — but this might be too much to expect — Mr Mishra and his cohorts should have read a little of Adi Shankaracharya. In the Bhaja Govindam, the great thinker mocks at fake godmen who pick up the accoutrements of religion only for personal gain. Will the Bajrang Dal and Mr Mishra now attack Adi Shankaracharya?
It is this same Mr Mishra who backed the boycott of the Fab India Diwali ad campaign for the ridiculous reason that it was titled in Urdu, Jashn-e-Riwaaz, and because the models were not dressed as “chaste” Hindu women should be. It was Mr Mishra, too, that threatened to send the police if the fashion designer Sabyasachi did not withdraw his Mangalsutra collection because — no surprises — the models were not “appropriately” dressed as he would like to see them. Earlier, in November 2020, it was he again who ordered action against the web series, A Suitable Boy, for a kissing scene with a temple in the background.
But what is crucially significant is that Mr Mishra was last month promoted to the BJP’s national executive. Quite obviously then, people like him, and the Bajrang Dal whom he patronises, are not some loony fringe of the BJP, but very much part of its mainstream, duly rewarded for their actions by the parent party.
The first myth that needs to be buried then is that there is a difference between the BJP and the so-called fringe. The two are one and the same. Both feed off each other. Both are hyphenated at the hip. Both have similar goals. Both encourage each other. It is this cozy relationship between the core and its parts that we need to understand. The fringe is only the violent extension of what the core believes. If Narottam Mishra, a BJP minister, condoned the violence of the Bajrang Dal activists in the Ashram matter, it was BJP MP Tejaswi Surya who led the campaign against Fab India. The stormtroopers are not autonomous actors; they act on the directions of what the BJP supports; otherwise, they would have been censured long ago, not rewarded.
Over time this happy condominium between BJP and the so-called fringe has empowered the mob, and led to the reduction of a great, refined and highly cerebral religion to its lowest common denominator. What are the signs of this lumpen leadership that is devaluing Hinduism? Firstly, it is characterised by a singular lack of knowledge about the nuances, complexities and intellectual grandeur of Hinduism.
Secondly — and for precisely this reason — it is averse to dialogue, discussion and debate. Thirdly, it has no compunction in resorting to violence to impose its views. Fourthly, it is highly conservative and orthodox in its interpretation of Hinduism, supportive of inequitable existing hierarchies, and completely unexposed to the liberality of thought that is the quintessential feature of Hinduism. Fifthly, it is deeply patriarchal, believing that women should accept their subordinate position, and conform to stereotypical notion of so-called Hindu values, which essentially means that men should decide what they should wear, who they should meet, what they should drink or eat and what kind of relationships they can have.
Sixthly, the dominant emotion is of hatred of the “other”, others being defined as primarily Muslim, but also including all those who are not part of its smug circle of like-minded largely upper-caste brethren. Seventhly, it is animated by the need to revive India’s great Hindu past, but its knowledge of what that really is, is highly superficial and mythical, thereby trivialising the real refinements and achievements of ancient India. Eighthly, it has scant regard for the rule of law. It believes that such niceties are the crutches of the weak, and has little or no application to those who are fighting for bigger causes like “protecting” Hinduism. Ninthly, it has little problem in conflating patriotism with religion. Through the prism of this narrow polarity, only a Hindu who supports them can be patriotic, while the patriotism of all others is suspect. And tenthly, it is particularly porous to false information so long as it buttresses its preconceived, narrow worldview.
The fact that Hinduism is now sought to be led by such a lumpen class with the active encouragement and participation of the BJP is a matter of deep worry. No Hindu, and indeed no Indian, can be immune to this impact. We may choose to remain silent, or ignore it, but we do so at our peril, for sooner or later we will become its victims. Filmmaker Abbas Tyrewala nailed it on Facebook. “They’re coming for you. Wait till you do something they think is wrong. Make a show. Make an ad. Sing a song. Wear clothes. Meet a friend. Fall in love. Eat something. Drink something. Smoke something. Pray. Don’t pray. Say something. Don’t say something. Ask anything. Believe anything. Other than what has been ‘sanctioned’. You may be next. Not yet. But unless you’re in the mob, your turn and your family’s turn and your children’s turn are inevitable.”