Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, center, front, who was accused of being involved in the Malegaon bomb blast, walks between police to a Mumbai court in November 2008. Photo: Times of India / Sanjay Hadkar.

In a twist to the electoral fight in the northern Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has fielded a Hindutva ideologue who is facing trial in a terror case.

The BJP chose Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur to contest against Congress’ heavyweight candidate and senior leader Digvijaya Singh in Bhopal constituency. Thakur had expressed her wish to fight Singh in March this year because of his “Hindu terror” remarks directed against Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) activists and the BJP’s parent organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Madhya Pradesh, with its 29 parliamentary seats, will be a tricky state for both BJP and Congress in the seven-phased general elections that started on April 11. The two parties had a neck-to-neck fight in the 2018 Assembly Elections in Madhya Pradesh, that ended with Congress wresting power after 15 years. But the BJP, which won 27 out of 29 constituencies in 2014 parliamentary elections, still has a strong grip over the state, where RSS maintains a dominant presence.

Moreover, BJP has held power in Bhopal in Lok Sabha elections since 1989. The Congress has tactically fielded veteran leader and former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijaya Singh there to make a dent in this BJP fortress. With this poll, Singh will enter the fray after 19 years.

But now the fight will get more intense as Singh will face Thakur, a Hindu sannyasin and member of a right-wing Hindu nationalist organization called Abhinav Bharat. Thakur formally joined the BJP on April 17 to fight the ongoing general elections from Bhopal.

Hindutva and terror case

Thakur has been associated with the Sangh Parivar or Sangh family (the cluster of Hindu nationalist organizations affiliated with the RSS or aligned with it) for a long time. Born in Bhind district of Madhya Pradesh, she worked with the RSS’ student wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and the women’s wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) called the Durga Vahini.

She is an accused in the 2008 Malegaon blast that killed six people and injured over 100 when a bomb went off near a mosque in Malegaon in north Maharashtra. It was part of a series of terror bombings in western India. Thakur was arrested in connection with the blast in the same year. The Maharashtra anti-terrorism squad found that the motorcycle used in the blast to carry explosives was registered in Thakur’s name and was used by prime accused Ram Kalsangra, as per reports.

Later, she was given a clean chit by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in 2016. However, a special NIA court refused to discharge her from the case but dropped charges against her under the Maharashtra Control of Organized Crime Act (MCOCA).

Thakur, along with six others, is now being tried under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and has been out on bail since 2017. The accused people have also been charged under the Indian Penal Code sections 120 (b) (criminal conspiracy), 302 (murder), 307 (attempt to murder), 324 (voluntarily causing hurt) and 153 (a) (promoting enmity between two religious groups). Additional charges also exist under relevant sections of the Explosive Substances Act.

Thakur used to be a ‘feared’ student leader in her college days, according to a Times of India report. She would also ride motorcycles and beat up men harassing women. She joined ABVP after becoming a disciple of religious guru Avdeshanand Giri and an ascetic in 2006.

Thakur vs Singh

BJP has fielded Thakur from Bhopal instead of sitting MP Alok Sanjar to get back at Congress’ Digvijaya Singh. Singh, who has been slammed by BJP several times for using the term ‘Hindu terrorism’. Last year, Singh clarified that he did not use the term ‘Hindu terrorism’ but ‘Sanghi terrorism’, making his attack direct on the Sangh family. He told the media: “Bomb blasts were executed by people influenced by Sangh ideology, be it the Malegaon blast, Mecca Masjid blast, blast in Samjhauta express or Dargah Sharif.”

Thakur has rejected all the allegations made against her in the case and has called them “a Congress conspiracy”, a claim which has also been supported by the BJP.

Terming her candidature as a warning to those “who speak out against the nation”, Thakur said, “The Congress has associated ‘Hindutva’ with terrorism. This will cost them very dearly in the elections.” She also dubbed the election as a ‘dharma yuddha’ or religious war, the Asian News International reported.

In a contrasting tone, Singh tweeted saying: “I pray to mother Narmada [a holy river in India] for Sadhvi and seek blessings from the goddess so that we all walk the path of truth, non-violence and religion.” Later, he told reporters that Sadhvi Pragya was like any other BJP candidate to him. Defending his Hindu identity, he added that he was a religious person himself.

Singh has been said to follow ‘soft Hindutva’ in contrast to the BJP and RSS’ hardline Hindutva. But the senior politician has maintained that Hindutva was different from the Hindu religion. Nonetheless, he has not refrained from using the religious plank in politics. For instance, during Congress’ campaign for Madhya Pradesh assembly elections, he said the Congress would construct the “Ram Path” (a mythical route taken by Hindu god Lord Ram during his 14-year exile from his kingdom) stretching up to the borders of Madhya Pradesh if voted to power.

Many in Indian politics have criticized the BJP’s move to use Thakur. Referring to the development, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti tweeted: “Imagine the anger if I’d fielded a terror accused. Channels would’ve gone berserk by now trending a Mehbooba-terrorist hashtag!”

Polling will be conducted in four stages in Madhya Pradesh during phase four, five, six and seven – scheduled on April 29, May 6, May 12 and May 19 respectively.

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