The Guest Column

19th May 1996

Hindu revivalism and the rise of the BJP

by Stanley Kalpage

The Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) has accepted the invitation of President Shankar Dyal Sharma to form a government. Atal Behari Vajpayee, the leader of the BJP, has been sworn in and given time until May 31 to prove that his government can pass the hurdle of a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha.

However slight the possibility of success, this was not an opportunity that the BJP was likely to give up lightly. Since 1984, when it obtained only two seats in the 545 member Lok Sabha, the BJP has come a long way. It increased its representation to 88 in 1989 gained 119 seats in 1991 and has won 195 seats at the recent general election.

Ironically, the BJP, which is supported by the upper and middle classes and high caste Hindus, has been dubbed 'untouchable' among the Indian political parties. Both the Congress (I) and the National Front/Left Front (NF/LF) alliance have reacted with alarm at the prospect of India being governed by the BJP, which they perceive as a chauvinist, extremist Hindu party determined to establish a Hindu Raj and to upset the careful balance among the diverse ethnic and religious minorities living in India. They have vowed to do all in their power to bring down the BJP government at the earliest opportunity. This is more because of the BJP's antecedents and past history than its recently declared manifesto and programme of action. The BJP has been associated with extremist organizations like the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Shiv Sena.

BJP philosophy

There is apprehension in the minds of the minorities and those who consider India should not abandon secularism about the manner in which a BJP government would rule India.

There is nothing in the name of the party to indicate that the BJP is an extreme Hindu party. 'Bharatiya Janata Party' means the 'India Peoples' Party', and BJP leaders deny that they will discriminate against or harm the minorities.

However, they maintain that previous governments, concerned about the need for preserving their vote banks, have always been unduly solicitous of the minorities, especially the Muslims, who have been protected and pampered. They believe that there is nothing wrong in promoting Hindu culture in an India which is 82 percent Hindu. They are of the view that there is no 'fundamentalism' in Hinduism as there is in Islam, for example, and that throughout history Hindus have been tolerant of other religions and cultures.

While being nationalistic in outlook, leaders of the BJP have emphasized the need for foreign investment to develop the economy. They refuse, however, to be dictated to by the World Bank, the IMF and other international funding agencies or to permit multinational corporations' unrestricted entry into and participation in the Indian economy. They would welcome foreign investment for infrastructure development and modern high technology but not for consumerism. "India needs computer chips, not potato chips", is their slogan.

The BJP wields much influence with upper caste Hindus and among the business community and professionals. It is supported by the growing new Indian middle class, the big business enterprises as well as by shop-keepers and owners of small businesses. It is seen to be leading the challenge to two of the four cardinal principles of Nehru's legacy - secularism, socialism, non-alignment and democracy - which they believe have left India poor and vulnerable. The BJP is seen by its supporters to be better disciplined than either the Congress (I) with its culture of corruption and abuse of power or the loosely knit National Front/Left Front alliance with its internal squabbles and lack of proper leadership.

Hindu revivalism

In 1987, a wave of Hindu revivalism swept through India when the Ramayana ("Romance of Rama"), the most popular of all Hindu epics, was being serialized on national television. The Ramayana was adapted for television by Ramanand Sagar, a successful producer of Hindi films. Everyone enjoyed Sagar's Ramayana, broadcast on a hundred and four Sunday mornings. It was so successful that the government immediately asked B.R. Chopra, a celebrated Indian film producer, to adapt another Hindu epic, the Mahabharatha for television. Chopra made ninety-three hour-long television episodes of the epic.

It was remarked at that time that during the broadcast of each epic serial, the whole of India came to a virtual standstill. Practically everyone who had television watched the Mahabharatha. Others gathered in the homes of their friends or watched it on television screen in the village square, and watched with rapt attention the doings of their heroes and gods. The streets were deserted and the telephones stopped ringing.

The two epics depicted the evolution of Hinduism from 400 B.C. to 200 A.D. The serials opened the floodgates to a Hindu revivalist tide. Congress party members and other critics of the BJP linked the rise of the BJP with the Hindu serials. Since 1987, the leaders of the BJP have exploited the religious mood that the serials created.


The BJP was not taken seriously until about 1984 when, together with the RSS and the Vishva Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), the BJP embarked on a campaign to demolish a historic mosque called Babri Masjid, built in 1528 by the Mogul Emperor Babar in Ayodhya, in what is now Uttar Pradesh. They claimed that the site of the mosque was the 'Ramajanmabhoomi' (the birthplace of god Rama). The BJP could not have chosen a more appropriate place and symbol to promote its cause.

When the Vishva Hindu Parishad called for the "Liberation" of the Ramajanmabhoomi from the Muslims, they planned a week-long rath-yatra (chariot procession) from the neighbouring state of Bihar to Ayodhya. The plans had to be postponed because of Indira Gandhi's assassination. In 1986, the Hindus called for the construction of a temple to Rama on the site of the mosque. The BJP eagerly picked this up and supported it. The Muslims were agitated and began holding protest meetings all over the country, demanding that their mosque be 'liberated' and that they be allowed to pray there.

On September 30, 1989, the Vishva Hindu Parishad organised a 'shila puja' (consecration of temple bricks). Each Indian village, with a population of 2000 or more, was required to prepare and consecrate a brick stamped "Shri Rama". Hindu volunteers then carried the bricks to Ayodhya and, on November 9, the foundation was laid for a temple to Rama, a short distance away from the mosque. The National Front government of V.P. Singh stopped the construction of the temple and tried to get the parties together for an amicable solution but did not succeed.

In October 1990, V. P. Singh's decision to implement the Mandal Commission's recommendations to extend the constitutionally guaranteed affirmative action for the scheduled castes and tribes in entry to the public service and higher educational institutions, to the "other backward classes" (OBCs) compelled the BJP to revive its demand for the building of a Hindu temple at Ayodhya. L. K. Advani then president of the BJP embarked on a rath yatra from Somnath, a town in Gujerat, to Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. The 'rath yatra' was stopped when it tried to cross over from Bihar to Uttar Pradesh. Although thwarted, the BJP's cause received enormous national publicity.

The BJP and its allies organised a second march on Ayodhya for December 6, 1992, this time ostensibly for building a platform on the foundation laid earlier. BJP President Advani had assured Prime Minister Narasimha Rao that the marchers would not harm the mosque, but the leaders of the march sat silently and looked on as vandals pulled down the mosque brick by brick. The mosque's destruction touched off widespread Hindu-Muslim riots and more than three thousand people were killed. This in turn led in January 1993 to what appeared to be organized riots and vandalization of property in certain Muslim areas of Bombay, the commercial capital of India. Apparently in retaliation, the Muslim underworld set off bomb blasts in Bombay causing casualties and damage, this time to Hindus.

Now that it has reached the portals of power the BJP must rue its association with extreme policies and parties in the course of its political journey. With the background of antagonism between the BJP on the one hand and the other two main political formations in parliament - the Congress and the NF-LF alliance - on the other, there is little likelihood of sufficient support for it to gain the confidence of parliament. Unless the liberal-minded and affable Vajpayee can use his acknowledged persuasive powers with the Congress and the NF-LF alliance to give the BJP a chance to prove its assurances of tolerance towards the minorities and a toning down of its harsh pro-Hindu image as manifest in the past, the first government of the BJP is doomed to fall when it faces the Lok Sabha for the first time.

*The writer is a former High Commissioner to India

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