By fielding Sadhvi Pragya, BJP has made the election about Hindutva, not development

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Published: April 18, 2019 6:56:40 PM

Digvijay Singh is the father of the so-called ‘Hindu terror’ story, and there are big gaps in the case against Sadhvi Pragya, but Singh can’t be fought by someone who has still not been cleared by the courts.

Sadhvi PragyaSadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur arrives at the Madhya Pradesh BJP headquarters in Bhopal, Wednesday, April 17, 2019. (PTI Photo)

Though the election campaign started off as somewhat centred around development issues—hence the Opposition’s talk of joblessness, farm distress, etc—with nationalism-read-as-Hinduism as the backdrop, it has rapidly deteriorated into an all-out communal one. So, on the BJP’s side, union minister Maneka Gandhi set the ball rolling by telling Muslim voters that she wouldn’t want to give them jobs if they didn’t vote for prime minister Narendra Modi; given that Gandhi repeated the threat to even Hindu villagers by saying villages that didn’t vote for Modi would find their work getting done last, though, suggests her bullying may not have been restricted to just Muslims.

On the other side, BSP chief Mayawati made a clear appeal to the Muslim community, asking it to vote as one against the BJP, proving the adage—or at least the belief among politicians—that Muslims vote their religion while Hindus vote their caste. Punjab politician and former cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu made the same appeal to Muslims in Bihar. In other words, the battle has clearly been cast as one of Hinduism vs caste (plus Islam), at least in key north Indian states where the Opposition has aligned along caste lines.

On Wednesday, the BJP, in turn, dramatically ratcheted up the Hindutva component of its campaign by announcing the candidature of Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur in Bhopal against Congress leader and ex-Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh. Given Sadhvi Pragya is still under trial for her role in the Malegaon blasts in 2008 that killed six Muslims, and that Digvijay Singh was the principal architect of the term ‘Hindu terror’—used to arrest people like Sadhvi Pragya—the BJP top brass has obviously decided to make this a Hindutva-anti-Hindutva battle.

As part of his ‘Hindu-terror’ campaign—as a counter to the term ‘Islamic terror’—for instance, Digvijay Singh had even said that the Batla House encounter where two terrorists were killed was, in fact, a fake; in that case, then home minister P Chidambaram had said the encounter was genuine. Singh even claimed Mumbai Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) chief Hemant Karkare had told him—before Karkare was killed in the 26/11 attacks—that he feared Hindu extremists would kill him; Karkare was in charge of the investigation that eventually led to Sadhvi Pragya’s arrest. Singh, in fact, made this statement at the launch of a book that claimed 26/11 was actually an RSS plot, not one hatched by Pakistani terrorists.

To that extent, pitting an alleged victim of the ‘Hindu-terror’ tag versus the originator of the concept appears a master coup since the BJP has, for long, held that the charges were trumped up. So while the initial charges talked of meetings among the conspirators that Sadhvi Pragya was part of, later the charges centred around mobile phone calls between the conspirators. While those defending Pragya spoke of big gaps in the prosecution’s arguments, including the call data records as well as the register of the circuit house in Indore where the accused are supposed to have met, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) which took over the case in 2011, said the most crucial evidence—a statement by Yashpal Bhadana who said he was present at some of the meetings where Sadhvi Pragya was present—was incorrect as Bhadana later said he made the statement under duress. Indeed, Sadhvi Pragya herself has alleged severe torture—the hospital report mentioned rupturing of the stomach and lung membranes—and duress when she was in custody, and was repeatedly denied bail though she was even diagnosed with cancer and needed treatment. The public prosecutor even argued that the tissue samples tested may have belonged to someone else!

The NIA also said that Sadhvi Pragya’s motorcycle—used to plant the bomb—had been in possession of another accused, Ramchandra Kalsangra, for two years before the blast. In the event, NIA gave Sadhvi Pragya a clean chit. While the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) charges were dropped by the court, Sadhvi Pragya is still being tried under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).

While the BJP may be right in believing the ‘Hindu terror’ cases were trumped up—last month, the NIA special court acquitted the ‘Hindu terror’ accused Swami Aseemanand and three others in the 2007 Mecca Masjid blast case—the fact of the matter is that Sadhvi Pragya has not been acquitted by court. If the BJP feels comfortable with fielding Sadhvi Pragya, then how can it object to other parties fielding those accused of murder or rape. According to the Association of Democratic Reforms, 17% (213) of the candidates in Phase 1 of the elections had criminal cases against them, of which 12% (146) were serious cases; 10 related to murder and 25 were attempt to murder. In Phase 2, 16% (251) of the candidates had criminal cases against them, of which 11% (167) were serious cases; six related to murder and 25 were attempt to murder. Around 30% of the BJP’s candidates, so far, have criminal cases against them and around 20% of the candidates have serious criminal cases.

Sadhvi Pragya may well win the elections, but the “people’s court” is not a substitute for the real thing. Ideally, the BJP should have waited for Sadhvi Pragya to be acquitted. Indeed, India needs special courts to try such political cases since it is possible—like the BJP is arguing in the case of ‘Hindu terror’ charges—the charges are trumped up. It is certainly curious that from 2008, when Sadhvi Pragya was first arrested till 2014 when the BJP came to power—it is only after this that allegations can be made, if any, of interference with the investigation—the investigation was not completed and the case was put to trial. But in fielding Sadhvi Pragya, the BJP has let short-term electoral gains dictate its policies. The election is now mainly about Hindutva, not development.

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