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Sangli Communal Violence

The Statesman
September 11, 2009

The riot act ~ BJP Still Cannot Avoid Communal Provocation

 Amulya Ganguli

THE eagerness with which the saffron camp tried to provoke and then exploit communal sentiments in Sangli and elsewhere in Maharashtra was typical of its incendiary tactics. Riots have always been the easiest way for the Sangh Parivar to enthuse its cadres. The cynical ploy is not dissimilar to the recourse to strikes by the Communists to make their presence felt. Given the BJP’s current woes, it may not hesitate to fall back occasionally on the time-honoured gambit of minority-baiting in a desperate attempt to recover the lost ground.

Maharashtra is an ideal testing ground for such devious manoeuvres with the prolonged Ganapati festivals offering an opportunity to flaunt the party’s and the Parivar’s Hindu identity. It may not be besides the point to recall that Tilak initiated the Ganapati celebrations to wean Hindus away from participating in Muharrum and other special occasions in the Muslim calendar. Since then, the aggressive elements among the Hindus have always looked forward to the Ganapati celebrations less with piety than with the intention of challenging the minorities if any such chance presented itself.

Sangli flare-up
IT wasn’t surprising, therefore, that the spark which lit the communal fires in Sangli was a depiction in some of the puja pandals of Afzal Khan being killed by Shivaji. The intention of the saffron organizers was to keep the “blazing history” of the Maratha warrior alive, as the Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece, Saamna, noted. It doesn’t take a keen student of Hindutva politics to decipher why this aspect of Shivaji’s life was sought to be highlighted instead of the fact that he also had Muslim generals in his army. Clearly, it isn’t their interest in history which drives the saffron zealots. Instead, they prefer to pick and choose those facets which can play a divisive and inflammatory role.

The success of this ploy with the outbreak of violence must have been a source of satisfaction to the BJP in the midst of the all-enveloping gloom which surrounds the party today. To fish in the troubled waters, its leader in Maharashtra, Gopinath Munde, lost no time to decide to fly to Sangli. When he was not allowed to board the flight, he started out by road. His interest is perhaps all the greater not only because of the challenge which he faces to his position from the party’s chief of the state unit, Nitin Gadkari, especially now that Munde has lost his powerful brother-in-law, Pramod Mahajan, but also because of the impending state assembly elections.

That the saffron camp is on a weak wicket is no secret. Not only did it lose the recent parliamentary elections in Maharashtra, it cannot hope to recover its position as long as the Shiv Sena remains divided between uncle Bal Thackeray and his estranged nephew, Raj, who has floated his own outfit, the Navnirman Sena. What is more, the latter’s attacks on north Indians in Mumbai and elsewhere, some of whom may have been expected to vote for the BJP, cannot but make them turn to the ruling Congress-NCP combination.
In addition, while Mahajan’s untimely death has robbed the BJP of an energetic campaigner, Bal Thackeray has not been as enthusiastic a supporter of the BJP in recent years as before, judging from his decision to support Pratibha Patil rather than the NDA’s Bhairon Singh Shekhawat for the President’s post, and his expressed preference for Sharad Pawar as Prime Minister instead of the NDA’s LK Advani. Thackeray’s attitude was evidently a case of Marathi parochialism trumping Hindutva affiliations.

At a disheartening time like the present, therefore, a riot is just what the doctor can be said to have ordered for the BJP. The Sena, of course, has always been at the forefront of such outbreaks, for its politics for the last four decades of its existence has been geared round street violence. Moreover, as its aging patriarch, Bal Thackeray, shows signs of fading away, and his son, Uddhav, is outsmarted in the choice of a new target of attack ~ mainly the Biharis ~ by his cousin, Raj, the Sena may depend on a communal flare-up to boost its spirits on the eve of the elections.

Afzal Khan episode
IT has accused the Congress-NCP government of hypocrisy by arguing that it was against the depiction of the Afzal Khan episode although the ruling alliance was erecting a giant statue of Shivaji on the Mumbai seafront. But the answer should be clear even to the simple-minded. The statue is a tribute to the 17th century hero’s military and administrative achievements ~ he is known as the “father of the Indian navy” ~ and non-sectarian politics. In contrast, the purpose of the saffron lobby’s focus on one episode in Shivaji’s long and colourful career is too obvious to be stated.

Although the saffronities have partially succeeded in achieving their objective of setting off a riot, the BJP may not like to pursue this confrontationist agenda for much longer lest it should revive all the familiar fears about the party, especially at the national level. The Sena may not mind carrying on further with its mischief. Its base and influence are limited to parts of one state and sections of one community. The party has little interest, therefore, in widening its appeal. The BJP, on the other hand, has to keep a larger audience in mind, including the NDA’s virtually only remaining “secular” component, the Janata Dal (United). Even then, its role in Sangli has shown that there has been no change in its essentially anti-minority instincts.

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