In Bhopal, a tale of two competing brands of Hinduism

In Bhopal, this year’s election is not about choosing a parliamentarian. It is instead a referendum on two competing brands of Hinduism.

One is the Hinduism, rather Hindutva, of Pragya Thakur of the BJP, exemplified by her in-your-face symbolism: flaming saffron robes, rudraksha mala (garland), a huge vermillion stain on the forehead and a predilection for invoking the name of Rama, Ganga maiyya (mother), Sita mata (mother) and gau (cow) mata in almost every sentence. For every question she has a simple answer: A lyrical ode to the Ganges sung to an impromptu beat of the table or clapping of hands. When she is not doing this in private, Pragya makes a bigger dance and song of her faith, dancing and singing in satsangs (public events) at temples and on Bhopal’s roads.

Thakur’s religious philosophy, if it could be called one, is defined by just one goal: The hegemony of Hindus in the country, even if it is at the cost of others. For her, India belongs to the Hindus and the Hindus — people of one “vichardhara” (ideology) are the rashtra (nation). Everyone who doesn’t subscribe to this one vichardhara is a rashtradrohi (traitor) — like her opponent Digvijaya Singh of the Congress.

Whose saffron is brighter?

Unfortunately for her, Singh, who was chief minister of Madhya Pradesh for ten years, is dealing in even bigger symbols, in a bid to prove himself a more devout and sau tanch (pure) Hindu, unlike Thakur whom he calls a fake sadhvi (ascetic). But, unlike Thakur’s medieval brand of theology, Singh’s is more refined and subtle.

Singh never talks about all the matters that form part of his rival’s speech, but has his own favourite—the river Narmada that flows through Madhya Pradesh. He subtly refers to the temples in his own ancestral palace—his ancestors once ruled a princely state—and the oil lamps that are kept glowing there 24×7.

And since this battle is all about whose saffron is brighter than the others, Singh has also roped in his own battalion of babas (holy men) in flamier robes, with bigger vermillion stains and rudraksha malas. One of them is ‘Computer Baba’, a self-proclaimed saint whose political savvy is the stuff of legends. For several months under the Shivraj Singh government, Computer Baba, enjoyed the status of a minister and the attendant facilities. But, just a few months before the recent assembly elections in MP, he flipped for the Congress.

Earlier this week, Computer Baba organised a huge yajna (ritual) in the heart of Bhopal, circled by dozens of Congress-aligned Babas. He followed it up with a rally, where the Babas chanted Jai Shri Ram and demanded from Amit Shah, who was visiting the city, when the Hindus would get the promised temple of the deity in Ayodhya.

Singh’s Hinduism — or rather secularism — is different from the virulence of Hindutva. It professes inclusiveness, argues for equal rights for every Indian, regardless of religion, and is more of a personal faith than a commandment to the nation.

Personal histories

The mouth-watering battle of competing interpretation of one religion has further been garnished by the personal histories of its proponents. Thakur is out on bail on charges of planning and executing bomb blasts to kill Muslims. Singh is perennially under fire for his attempts to appease Muslims by being ‘deferential’ towards terrorists —  like calling the founder of a terror outfit Shri Hafiz Saeed — or challenging the official version of the Batla House encounter in which several Muslims were killed for their suspected role in terror attacks. One is accused of unleashing violence in the name of faith; the other is accused of shielding those very people who are enemies of Thakur’s faith.

So, this is what the election in Bhopal is all about — two narratives of the same faith, practised in contrasting forms by two persons representing their respective extremes. With such a burden of faith and history on their shoulders, it’s easy to sympathise with the people of Bhopal. Perhaps, they would have been better off choosing just a lawmaker.

In this battle with very high stakes, Singh started cautiously by not giving any opportunity to the BJP to polarise the election on communal lines. He welcomed Thakur’s candidature, did not rake up her communal past, ensured Muslims are not ‘noticed’ in his rallies by asking them to work in the background and winding up his speeches with ‘Narmade Har’ — a symbolic counter to the BJP’s slogan of har-har Modi. But, somewhere along the line, he got emboldened enough to not be coy about his faith and reclaim it from the BJP.

So, this is what the election in Bhopal is all about — two narratives of the same faith, practised in contrasting forms by two persons representing their respective extremes. With such a burden of faith and history on their shoulders, it’s easy to sympathise with the people of Bhopal. Perhaps, they would have been better off choosing just a lawmaker.

Laboratory of RSS

Why does Bhopal, ironically a city of Nawabs and Begums who ruled it, home to one of the biggest mosques in India, finds itself in the middle of a theological battle? The answer is simple: Bhopal has always been the RSS laboratory for testing various strands of Hindutva. The presence of a large number of Muslims—26.28 per cent in last census— makes it a fertile ground for playing up insecurities, raking up the past and, thus, playing the polarisation game.

This year, it is testing its most strident form in a bid to find out if Hindus would accept a terror accused if she packages herself as a martyr for the faith? If the experiment succeeds, it would unleash the next generation of its leaders on the country—each more radical and divisive than the ones that came out of the RSS labs in the past. Bhopal has been a BJP bastion since 1989. Even this year the BJP could have chosen to field someone like Shivraj Singh Chauhan or Uma Bharati and be reasonably sure of victory. Yet, it has taken a step higher on the Hindutva ladder with a candidate accused of slaughtering Muslims.

As luck would have it, in Singh, they have found the perfect adversary. Once upon a time, Singh used to peddle soft Hindutva—he once prescribed cow urine as an elixir of life, sought a ban on cow slaughter and triggered the Bhojshala controversy to project himself as a protector of the faith. And then, he became a devout follower of India’s secular ideals—the kind the BJP dismisses as euphemism for minority appeasement. For the Sangh, whose leaders handpicked Thakur for Bhopal, this is a godsend—a veritable dharm yuddha (holy war) for establishing its radical Hindutva and slaying one of its biggest opponents.

The battle of Bhopal promises to be a defining moment in the political history of India—and Hinduism.

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