A Brief History of the Sampradayikta Virodhi Andolan (SVA)

A Brief History of the Sampradayikta Virodhi Andolan (1984-1993)
NB - This history has been prepared by some activist participants, and may be liable to correction, revision and improvement over time. It is presented here after having been placed on Facebook about a year ago as a Note on my wall - Dilip

1/   The Sampradayikta Virodhi Andolan, or Movement Against Communalism, was founded by some of the activists working in the relief camps in Delhi in November 1984. Its original concept was to engage in systematic activity designed to pre-empt communal violence, rather than merely react to its consequences. One of the first acts of the group was to help organise (along with certain political groups and unions outside the established left parties), a protest demonstration on November 24 1984. Participants still consider this one of the most memorable demonstrations in Delhi in many years, despite the abstention of the national Opposition. Students and professors; butchers and auto-rickshaw drivers; workers, political activists, women's groups, all took part with great enthusiasm in a march lasting nearly four hours, and comprising some four to five thousand persons. Citizens belonging to virtually every national community were present. `Bhai-bhai' slogans were not raised - the focus was quite simply, the demand for punishment to the guilty. Significantly, the demonstration was given little or no coverage in the media, barring an editorial page article in The Statesman some days later that stated that “thousands of Sikhs” had marched in Delhi crying for vengeance - a classic case of distortion.

Soon after this, during the height of the 1984 general election campaign, the SVA organised a smaller march in Shakarpur in East Delhi. This was the scene of some of the worst carnage, and formed part of HKL Bhagat's constituency. This was probably the first time that the demand for punishing this Delhi politician was raised in public. The march was subjected to vicious intimidation along parts of the route.

Early in 1985 the SVA produced a bulletin called Vikalp, containing detailed accounts of the atrocities of 1984, reports from the refugee camps, and commentaries on communalism. In March we commemorated Bhagat Singh's death anniversary, highlighting his committment to secular values. We conducted debates on the unfolding situation, and participated in various public meetings. In 1986 we submitted a memorandum to the National Integration Council, which focussed on the need to implement the criminal law with respect to the Delhi carnage. This document we believe, is the only public statement drawing attention to the communal nature of the Rajiv Gandhi-Longowal accord of 1985 for its presumption that the Akali Party had the natural right to take up the matter of the massacre of Sikhs in Delhi. We argued that the government was constitutionally bound to identify and punish the guilty, regardless of the religious affiliation of the victims, and that the investigation of the allegation of conspiracy (as undertaken in the Accord) was a red herring which left this duty unattended. The SVA's predictions in this matter have unfortunately, been proven correct. See Appeal to the National Integration Council, in Mainstream, April 26, 1986.

2/ The Foundation Convention  
With the anti-Muslim pogroms in Maliana and Hashimpura in 1987, it became clear that the communal situation in the country was only going to get worse. The SVA undertook some low-key protest actions about these events, but was hampered by insufficient organisation. In 1988 there were riots in the walled city of Delhi, and communal organisations announced their intention to conduct provocative actions in sensitive areas. Working in collaboration with civil rights activists, the SVA decided to build itself as an organisation in order the better to conduct a public movement against communalism. A meeting was jointly convened under the auspices of the SVA and the People's Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) in November 1988. It was unanimously  decided to call an inaugural convention to formalise the organisational existence of the SVA. This took place after much effort, in the Dewan Hall, Chandni Chowk, on January 22-23 1989.

Swami Agnivesh helped arrange the hall, which belongs to the Arya Samaj. Dozens of individuals including students, teachers, journalists and trade-unionists, and several organisations including Vidya Jyoti, Saheli, Action India, Ankur, Alaripu and Nishant Natya Manch helped organise the convention. Comrades Satyapal Dang and Gursharan Singh, representing different streams in the communist movement, presided. Satyapal Dang's suggestions on the constitution were incorporated in the final document, as were suggestions from the other participants, who numbered about 500 over two days. The constitution included sections on membership, aims, and organisational procedures. Members were to enrol on an individual basis, whilst retaining and declaring their membership of other political or social organisations. An appendix on the SVA’s political perspectives was thoroughly discussed and included. Comrades Zahoor Siddiqui of the CPI and Shivmangal of the IPF were included in the first co-ordination committee. A public demonstration for communal harmony was held in the old city to commemorate Gandhi Shahadat Diwas on January 30, 1989.

3/ The 1989 Campaign  
On October 2 1989, (Gandhi Jayanti), at the height of the VP Singh wave and the communal mobilisation over Ayodhya, the SVA organised a ten day dharna at Bhagat Singh maidan, on Bahadur Shah Zafar road in New Delhi. The idea was to campaign for the protection of Babri Masjid, and remind the public of the need to implement the anti-communal safeguards in the Representation of the People Act and the IPC. Two activists, Purushottam Agrawal and Dilip Simeon, fasted for five days each. The dharna was visited by several public figures including Aruna Asaf Ali, Ghulam Rabbani and Indrajit Gupta. VP Singh came and sat with us and we engaged him in a debate about the Janata Dal’s seat adjustments. He submitted (before several journalists) that the RSS was a more dangerous force than the Congress, though he added that this was not to be quoted; that the Janata Dal would physically defend the Babri Masjid if necessary, and that he was committed to punishing the guilty men of 1984. It was soon after this that VP Singh refused to share a platform with the BJP in Mathura, and was publicly castigated by the Shiv Sena.

During these weeks, the SVA coined a new slogan that was adopted after much controversy within our own ranks. The slogan, Kan Kan Mein Vyapen Hain Ram; Mat Bharkao Danga Lekar Unka Naam - was criticised by colleagues uncomfortable with the use of a religious motif to combat what was seen as a religious crusade. The SVA's consensus to use the slogan, was supported by those of its members with a left-wing political past, as well as by members innocent of the `opium' view of religion. (the Jesuit members of SVA enthusiastically supported the slogan). The gist of the agreed position was that communal mobilisation was not based on religion, but an instrumentalisation of it; and that ethical arguments and appeals can never be context-free or culturally vacuous. The slogan was appropriated without acknowledgement, by Mulayam Singh Yadav, (the then Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh), and most of the mainstream secular political parties. Its author Purushottam Agrawal, was denounced in a four page tirade in the RSS journal, Panchjanya. It had, indeed, touched many nerves.


Another example of the kind of questioning which the SVA's anti-communal activity evoked is its prolonged debate over Kashmir. In September 1990 it took the position that if the question of the accession of the state to India in 1947 was to be re-opened, democratic groups ought to take the opportunity to start a debate over Partition, a blatantly undemocratic and communal measure, never sanctified by any legislature elected upon adult suffrage. It raised the question of Partition again in its annual convention on February 29, 1992, "not with any preconceived notion of undoing it, but with the intention of broadening the discussion on communal politics, nationalism, and federalism... we would like to underline our perception.. that whatever else may be said about the current developments in Jammu & Kashmir, its people are unique by virtue of their refusal to accept that partition. This is a sentiment worthy of respect" (SVA Political Resolution, February 29, 1992.)

The resolution failed to make clear that Kashmir was not partitioned in the same way as Punjab and Bengal. What took place was a de-facto partition stemming from the controversial accession. Nevertheless, the intent of the statement is clear. The same document carried a warning to "The government, the economic elite, and the political parties committed to `national integrity', that the persistent failure to abide by the letter and spirit of the secular democratic Constitution; the open avowal of communalist prejudice by well-known industrialists, senior retired police and bureaucratic officials; the deliberate sabotage of the processes of criminal law by the ruling groups, especially in the matter of communal carnages, and the failure to initiate drastic reforms for social equity and in Centre-State relations, will add momentum to the spiral of violence and social disintegration. This will ultimately lead to a fracturing of the entity known as the Indian Union" (original emphasis).

Activities in 1990
The Second National convention was held on 21‑22 January 1990. This was attended by many social workers from other cities. Reports by these activists from Jhansi, Bhagalpur, Ajmer, Jaipur, Indore, Saharanpur, Allahabad, Chandigarh and other places were discussed. A debate took place on anti‑communal strategies, violence, and religion, and the role of religious symbols in the struggle. Resolutions were passed on Punjab, Ayodhya, and Jammu & Kashmir. The Constitution was thoroughly discussed and revised, and a Sampark Samiti set up to keep up links between various centres. From February till May, regular meetings were held with activists of various political groups and organisations to explore possibilities of co‑ordinated work. Workshops on Kashmir were organised.

In June, a workshop was held on Hindu communalism, its forms of organisation, and the Ram Janmabhumi campaign. Several meetings were organised in Jehangirpuri to involve local residents in a debate about communalism. In August 1990 SVA members participated in meetings in Panipat, Saharanpur, and Faizabad. On the 22nd of September, a GBM was convened on the Kashmir issue. A Resolution was passed. Meetings were also held in September to discuss the Mandal Commission Report. A film show was sponsored by SVA in collaboration with the Federation of Film Societies at India International Centre, and funds collected. A Workshop was organised for Ankur activists on the Ram Janmabhumi campaign. SVA members attended and spoke at an anti-communal rally by the Uttar Pradesh Sampradayikta Virodhi Committee in Agra, which included the Janata Dal and the left parties. The committee adopted the SVA poster on Ayodhya and reprinted it in lakhs, with some minor alterations (they deleted our name, inserted their own, and printed Mulayam Singh Yadav's photo alongside). A street play was prepared by the Sabla Sangh and performed at Samta Sthal, the railway station, ITO, and several other places along with the distribution of pamphlets.

A dharna was held at Bhagat Singh terminal. Several performances of street plays were staged by Sabla Sangh and Nishant Natya Manch. The VHP was invited to attend a public debate in an event named Pakhand Khandani Pataka on the Ayodhya issue. (This was in deliberate imitation of the tradition established by the founder of the Arya Samaj, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, in the late 19th century, who would plant a flag at Kumbh Melas and challenge the conservatives to a debate). The VHP refrained from participating, although a minor attempt at intimidating us was made. On the day of the Pataka, our invitees and members publicly exposed and demolished the VHP's thinly disguised methods of political blackmail in the name of religion.
A rally was organised in Jehangirpuri on the 30th of October. In November the SVA participated in street plays in Seemapuri, Nand Nagari, Jehangirpuri and other bastis. Aman Yatras with local residents and children were taken out. SVA and members of the Times Research Foundation began a survey of communal biases in press reporting. An SVA team investigated the Sadar Bazaar riots in December. Discussions were held with Janata Dal members on possibilities of co‑operation on the communal question. The SVA's audio cassette Dhol ki Pol had a strong impact in the few places it reached, and helped counter VHP propaganda. The first issue of the SVA bulletin Manas, was dispatched to 3000 addresses around the country, containing our "Appeal to the Nation". The SVA sent members to meet activists in Calcutta, Allahabad, and Bhopal

Activities in 1991
After its Third National Convention in February 1991, the SVA organised a rally at the BJP Head Office, to present that party with a Charge Sheet. None of the communist parties collaborated with us despite our repeated requests. The rally was the first time that the Hindu communalists had been directly accosted at their party office, and was accompanied by heavy police `bandobast'. The SVA accused the BJP of hypocritically using patriotism and nationalism to hide its aim of achieving power by spreading hatred and violence; deliberately distorting Indian nationhood and culture; and systematically disseminating lies and falsehoods, examples of which were supplied. The party was denounced for its "Rath Yatra", which had resulted in at least a thousand deaths. A delegation presented the BJP secretary KL Sharma with the chargesheet, and was promptly warned of dire consequences, which were, however, not spelled out.

A GBM in March 1991 considered the situation arising out of the impending national elections and after a heated and prolonged discussion decided to ask voters to defeat both the Congress and the BJP. Such a result was not considered utopian at the time, although it is evident that the majority opinion in the SVA at this time was hopeful of a victory of the VP Singh led National Front which had now severed its connections with the BJP. We were also disgusted by the use that Rajiv Gandhi had made of the crisis in Ayodhya to topple a government which had, after all, defended the Babri Masjid.

Activities  in 1992 (to be completed)
With the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and the installation of  Narasimha Rao led Congress government, coincided with  rise of  Economic Liberalisation on the one hand and intensification of the  of Communal fascist movement of the Babri Masjid  destruction campaign led by the BJP/VHP/RSS on the other.  However the SVA's debates in this phase tried to link the two phenomena. There was also a growing understanding that fascism could not be countered by mere political checkmating and alliances. It was felt that the fascist movement had acquired deep social roots and sustained and broad-based social engagements were necessary to counter it. The premonition of a looming crisis of Indian social democracy was strongly felt.

With this view in mind SVA members in alliance with other social organisations initiated a campaign for anti communal education at the school level .This was carried out in one or two schools through out 1991-1992 with the aim of broadening it further. The campaign focussed on trying to understand and to counter the appeal of communal propaganda among the urban middle class. The question of communal identity and its social and political construction was at the heart of the educational campaign.

(The February 1993 annual convention of the SVA thoroughly discussed the issues of the crisis of the Indian state, Babri Masjid, the origin and spread of identity politics; & the question of gender)

Alongside this SVA initiated a wide ranging discussion on the nature of Indian state, federalism and nationalism etc focussed on the question of Kashmir and Article 370 a demand for its abrogation having been made the main plank of BJP. SVA also actively participated in the public protest against the attack on historian MushirUl Hassan by  Muslim communalists in Jamia Milia University

In July 1992 the Ayodhya crisis deepened with the Kalyan Singh Government allowing Karseva by the VHP. The SVA organised the only demonstration to have taken place in the city against the UP government and demanded that UP government protect the Mosque and uphold its constitutional obligations. Very soon afterwards (under restraint by the Supreme Court)  the movement for Karseva at Ayodhya was intensified and top BJP leaders actively led the Karsevaks for the symbolic Karseva on December 6. Advani and Kalyan Singh gave solemn promises to the Supreme Court to the effect that the Mosque would be protected. With cynical impunity, thousands of VHP, Shiv Sena and other Sangh members attacked and destroyed the Mosque while the Central government watched helplessly. 

On the 7th December morning a large and spontaneous demonstration against the hooliganism of the Sangh Parivar began from Vithalbhai Patel house . Immediately afterwards a large coordinating body was setup (later PMS, or People's Movement for Secularism) in which SVA become actively involved. The first act of this body was to formulate a pamphlet about the political implications of the shameful destruction of the Babri Masjid; and to demand the rebuilding of the Masjid and the prosecution of leaders who had wantonly violated the constitutional and judicial mandate. The pamphlet was printed in thousands distributed by SVA and other members of the PMS throughout Delhi.

Everyday from December 6 onwards, campaigns and peace marches were taken out in coordination with the larger citizens body (PMS). As riots broke out all over the country including Delhi, the SVA was involved in relief, rehabilitation and providing judicial assistance to riot victims in Seelampur. During this period the SVA produced a pamphlet called Manas which directly attacked the myths propagated by communal fascists. This pamphlet was printed and distributed in thousands and was copied, translated and distributed by several anti-communal groups in India and abroad. 

Alongside these activities, vigorous internal debates on the character of the ongoing crisis and its implications for the future occurred almost everyday. Along with other anti-communal groups the SVA carried on with the campaign against great odds and in face of violent oppositions in the streets and public places of Delhi.  At the same time great efforts were made towards clarity on the issues involved. Both tactical and strategical aspects were freely discussed. The SVA  responded to the changing character of communal mobilisation indicated by the Bombay, that it saw as a systematic attempt to subvert the constitutional basis of the Indian state. The Bombay riots seemed to have exposed the communal fascists and frightened sections of its support base.

The cynical intentions behind the communal mobilisation by the BJP and RSS were manifest in their attempt to replicate the Bombay sitution in Delhi. In February 1993 Madan Lal Khurana announced what he called Ailaan-i-Jang, an open invitation to his activists to launch a physical assault on alleged Bangladeshis in the Okhla area. The SVA mobilised  successful resistance to this nefarious attempt to start a riot, and on the appointed day Khurana had to beat a retreat in the face of large numbers of volunteers and police “bandobast”. 

The SVA carried on a tenuous existence for nearly ten years. It was one of the few secular campaigns which maintained an organisational existence with a written constitution, regular meetings and conventions, and a formal membership. Its attempts to define and locate the roots of the periodic crises in the Indian polity led its members and collaborators to a deeper questioning of the ideology of Indian secularism, and of the political practice of the ruling elites. The democratic spirit and radicalism of its debates gave the SVA political stamina, and an attractiveness for its constituents. These included individuals belonging to a very wide range of religious and political belief and hailing from the professions, academia, NGO’s, and women's groups. The unfolding political crisis of the 1990's, with the collapse of Soviet-style socialism and the retreat of Nehruvian secularism, created an openness to questions about religiosity, symbolic identities, the political functions of culture, the historical roots of communal projects, and the limits of patriotism.

While opinions may differ on the reasons for its closure, it is clear that the wanton destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992  and its bloody aftermath demoralised many members. It is also significant that a major motif in SVA debates in its latter period was the impossibility of sustaining a movement based solely on opposition to communalism. Decisions were made to draft a more positive agenda for a movement tentatively named Samata Paksh. The scheme was overtaken by the turn of events that led to the eclipse of the SVA, but it is arguable that this concept retains its basic validity.

See also:
CONSTITUTION OF the Sampradayikta Virodhi Andolan 1989

Appeal to the National Integration Council

Political Resolution of the Annual Convention of the Sampradayikta Virodhi Andolan, Delhi, March 1992

SVA Press Statement dtd 24 October 1990, following the arrest of LK Advani

Rethinking Secularism by Bhagwan Josh, Dilip Simeon, and Purushottam Agrawal

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