Rationalists in India are under fire from Hindu right wing organizations. A little over a month ago, noted litterateur and rationalist, Malleshappa M Kalburgi was shot dead at point-blank range at his house in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Kalburgi had several run-ins with Hindu groups over his remarks on idol worship.]

Youth Congress members protest against the killing of M M Kalburgi who was shot dead at his Kalyanagar residence
Youth Congress members protest against the killing of M M Kalburgi

A few days later, another rationalist in Karnataka, K S Bhagwan received a letter threatening him with death for his “derogatory” remarks on the Bhagawad Gita. In February this year, Govind Pansare, a progressive public intellectual, was shot dead in Kolhapur in Maharashtra. Two years ago, Narendra Dabholkar was gunned down in Pune. A doctor-turned-activist, Dabholkar campaigned in rural Maharashtra against religious superstitions and black magic.

Violence targeting rationalists, progressive artists and intellectuals who challenge the narrow conservatism of fundamentalists or criticize their bigotry has grown in India over the last couple of decades, especially in recent years. The rising influence of Hindutva (literally Hinduness), an ideology that believes that India should exclusively follow the laws and principles of the majority Hindu faith, since the early 1990s and the decisive victory of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in general elections last year appear to have given a fillip to such violence.

Activists of the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, which are constituents of the Sangh Parivar, a family of Hindu organizations of which the BJP is a part, have been  brazen in their celebration of the killing of rationalists.

“Mock Hinduism and die a dog’s death,” Bhuvith Shetty, a Bajrang Dal leader tweeted following Kalburgi’s killing. The Sri Ram Sene, a right-wing goon squad, has threatened to “chop off” Bhagwan’s legs if he continues to criticize Hinduism and to “cut off the tongue” of writers who insult Hindu gods.

Such threats are issued with impunity with no action taken against the terror being unleashed. Indeed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who otherwise never misses an opportunity to put out his views on twitter, has been silent on the killing of rationalists and the threats being issued by outfits that are ideological kin of his party.

It is not just Indians who are caught in the crosshairs of the Hindu right. Noted American Indologist Wendy Doniger incurred the wrath of Hindu groups for her book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, for its focus on “sex and eroticism.” Under pressure, the book’s publisher Penguin-India withdrew the book and destroyed all its remaining copies.

Clearly, the Hindutva outfits have little understanding of the essence of Hinduism, its liberal schools of philosophy that allowed for atheism/ agnosticism or its historical openness to multiple interpretations of its sacred texts. Hinduism is comfortable with artistic depictions of nudity and sexuality as evident in temple sculptures. Yet these outfits took umbrage with Maqbool Fida Husain’s depiction of Hindu goddesses in the nude.

Interestingly, Husain’s paintings were not controversial in the 1970s or 1980s when they were completed. It was only with the rise of Hindutva in the 1990s that his paintings were vandalized. Husain’s paintings, like Doniger’s research or Dabholkar’s activism, are useful for the Hindutva groups to stir anger among the masses and mobilize them.

The attacks on rationalists and progressive writers and artists reflect the expanding influence of Hindutva and also undermine India’s democracy. Freedom of expression is central to the health of a democracy and this is under severe threat in India today.

There are parallels between the killing of rationalists in India and of atheist/ secular bloggers in Bangladesh. In both countries, radical outfits that claim to be acting in defense of religious faiths and beliefs are unleashing violence and terror.

However, unlike in Bangladesh, where the Ansarullah Bangla Team, which masterminded the killing of several secular bloggers, was banned under the country’s anti-terrorism laws, in India, organizations that are behind the killing of rationalists run free.

Investigations into the murders of the rationalists have moved at a snail’s pace in India and it is only a fortnight ago that police arrested an activist of the Sanatan Sanstha, a Hindutva outfit, in connection with Pansare’s killing. They are probing a link between his murder and that of Dhabolkar and Kalburgi.

The Sanatan Sanstha claims on its website to be a spiritual organization. Its actions indicate that it is a terrorist organization; it was involved in bomb attacks a few years ago.

There are growing calls to ban this organization. Such calls were ignored by the Congress Party when it was in power. The BJP government is even less likely to ban the outfit.

After all, the Sanatan Sanstha is an ideological ally. Besides, declaring the Sanatan Sanstha a terrorist organization will require the BJP government to put its fraternal outfits as well as itself under the scanner.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India, who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at sudha.ramachandran@live.in

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