In­dian min­is­ters blasted for sup­port­ing Hindu ac­tivists

Con­tro­ver­sial ac­tions seen as sign of BJP’s de­sire to build sup­port in lead-up to elec­tions

The Straits Times - - ASIA - De­barshi Dasgupta In­dia Cor­re­spon­dent In New Delhi

Two fed­eral min­is­ters from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have courted con­tro­versy af­ter sup­port­ing Hindu right-wing ac­tivists ei­ther con­victed or ac­cused of per­pe­trat­ing vi­o­lence.

Mr Jayant Sinha, the Union Min­is­ter of State for Civil Avi­a­tion, was last week pho­tographed gar­land­ing and hon­our­ing eight men in the east­ern In­dian state of Jhark­hand. The men had just been re­leased on bail af­ter they were con­victed by a fast-track court of lynch­ing a Mus­lim in a cow vig­i­lan­tism case in June last year.

A day later, Mr Giri­raj Singh, the Union Min­is­ter of State for Mi­cro, Small and Medium En­ter­prises, vis­ited a dis­trict jail in the ad­ja­cent state of Bi­har and com­mis­er­ated with in­di­vid­u­als ar­rested in con­nec­tion with com­mu­nal vi­o­lence dur­ing Ra­manavami, a Hindu fes­ti­val, last year.

Many have in­ter­preted the min­is­ters’ ac­tions as a sign of the BJP’s de­sire to con­sol­i­date sup­port from Hindu vot­ers in the lead-up to the gen­eral elec­tions sched­uled for next year. The states of Bi­har and Jhark­hand to­gether ac­count for 54 of the 545 seats in the Lower House of the In­dian Par­lia­ment. The min­is­ters have also been crit­i­cised for lend­ing fur­ther strength to a “larger cli­mate of im­punity” that has en­cour­aged Hindu ac­tivists to vi­o­lently tar­get mem­bers of marginalised groups.

In­di­aSpend, a data-driven jour­nal­ism web­site, recorded 66 cases of cow vig­i­lan­tism, re­sult­ing in 26 deaths, be­tween July 2009 and 2017. Of these, 64 were re­ported af­ter Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s gov­ern­ment came to power in May 2014, and 35 took place in states gov­erned by the BJP.

The po­lice have of­ten been ei­ther in­ept or come across as re­luc­tant to crack down on vig­i­lantes claim­ing to be pro­tect­ing cat­tle.

Mr Modi has crit­i­cised these at­tacks and tweeted in July last year that state gov­ern­ments should take “strict ac­tion” against those re­spon­si­ble. The In­dian Con­sti­tu­tion gives re­spon­si­bil­ity for main­tain­ing law and or­der to state gov­ern­ments.

Mr Ab­hay Ku­mar Dubey, a pro­fes­sor at New Delhi’s Cen­tre for the Study of De­vel­op­ing So­ci­eties, said the BJP’s ide­ol­ogy of Hin­dutva, which em­pha­sises Hindu supremacy over other com­mu­ni­ties, “mil­i­tates against con­sti­tu­tional prin­ci­ples and the gov­ern­ment’s claims of devel­op­ment and good gov­er­nance”. “It is Hin­dutva that is forc­ing the hands of these peo­ple to go against the con­sti­tu­tional prin­ci­ples,” he added.

While Mr Dubey is not wor­ried about the ac­tions of Mr Singh, who has a track record of sim­i­lar provoca­tive ac­tions and com­ments, he said he is “re­ally wor­ried” about the im­pli­ca­tions of some­one like Mr Sinha, who has been ed­u­cated at the “best of uni­ver­si­ties”, do­ing like­wise. Mr Sinha is an alum­nus of the In­dian In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy in Delhi, the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia and Har­vard Uni­ver­sity. Prior to en­ter­ing pol­i­tics, he worked for McKin­sey & Com­pany and the Omid­yar Net­work.

“It is wor­ri­some that even those who are not steeped in this ide­ol­ogy can be seen fol­low­ing it. There­fore, we can safely con­clude that the BJP is some­how an­gling for Hindu mo­bil­i­sa­tion against mi­nori­ties for the 2019 elec­tions,” he said.

The op­po­si­tion has lashed out at both the min­is­ters, call­ing for their ex­pul­sion from the Cab­i­net. Congress pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi has even sup­ported an on­line pe­ti­tion that calls on Har­vard Uni­ver­sity to “with­draw” Mr Sinha’s alumni sta­tus. His fa­ther, Yash­want Sinha, a for­mer se­nior BJP leader who quit the party in April this year, has said he does not ap­prove of his son’s ac­tions.

The min­is­ter has, how­ever, de­fended his ac­tions in a se­ries of tweets. Mr Sinha claimed he was “hon­our­ing the due process of law” and that those guilty will be pun­ished. “I have re­peat­edly ex­pressed my mis­giv­ings about the fast-track court’s judg­ment sen­tenc­ing each ac­cused to life im­pris­on­ment. I am pleased that the honourable high court will hear the mat­ter as a statu­tory court of ap­peal to test the cor­rect­ness of the fast-track court or­der,” he added.

Mr Singh, the other min­is­ter, has ques­tioned if “sup­press­ing Hin­dus is sec­u­lar­ism”, and said he felt “help­less” for not be­ing able to help those ar­rested and their fam­i­lies.

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