Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sreenivasan Jain - Debate Over the Sanatan Sanstha Ban Diverts From the Real Questions

With the Hindutva group Sanathan Sanstha once again in the news after one of its members was arrested for his alleged role in the murder of Govind Pansare, a parallel - but distracting - controversy has broken out on why the group has not been banned, and who is responsible for it.

While Pansare was killed on the BJP-Sena state government's watch, it has been pointed out that it was a UPA government at the Centre which sat over a ban proposal made by the earlier Maharashtra government, three years after members of the group (and its sister organisation Hindu Janjugriti Samiti) were charged for serial blasts in Mumbai's suburbs, and two years after two of its members were accidentally killed by a bomb they were transporting in Goa. Had the UPA acted on the ban, it is argued, it would have prevented further alleged murderous acts by the group. The Sanstha, naturally, has pointed to the non-enforcement of the ban as vindication of its claim that it has no connection to violence.

As always, the real questions are lost in the fog of hyperbole.

To begin with, a ban can only be enforced under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which defines the requirement in vaguely worded terms: that the organisation is 'involved in terrorism'. This allows enforcement agencies broad leeway in interpreting, or amplifying existing evidence to justify bans for reasons which may not always be the application of law.

A review of the Maharashtra government dossier recommending a ban on the Sanstha and HJS submitted to the Centre veers close to this pattern. At the time it was submitted, in April 2011, activists of the Sanstha were charged under the UAPA for the Mumbai and Goa blasts.

Building on these two cases, which were still in court, the dossier claims that these activists were not acting independently but as representatives of the organisation. It says they stayed in its ashrams and establishments while plotting the attacks and afterwards.

They also included the quotes of its founder Jayant Athavale in the organisation's in-house journal, where he urges Hindus to "imitate Naxalites and terrorists" and to "be a Naxalite to defeat the enemy Naxalite," suggesting that these attacks fit a wider violent philosophy of the group. For good measure, it also lists six cases of promoting communal enmity against the Sanstha in Maharashtra and Goa.

This patchwork of material, which mostly reads like a copy-paste of the chargesheets against them, was produced as evidence that Sanstha is a terror outfit attempting to "wage war against Government of India," justifying the imposition of a ban.

Except four months later, in August 2011, a court in Mumbai dropped the UAPA charge against the Sanstha members for their role in the suburban serial blasts. The court said that these blasts do "not cause harm to the security, integrity or image of this country". They were, however, convicted for voluntarily causing hurt by dangerous weapons or means, and under various sections of Explosives Act and Explosive Substances Act - serious charges, but ones which do not match the criteria needed for the ban.

The case for a ban received another setback when in 2013, five members of the Sanstha arrested in the Goa blast case under UAPA were acquitted for want of evidence.

The Sanstha has cited these orders as proof that the charges against them were manufactured, even though two of its members were convicted for the suburban blasts, hardly a vindication of the kind they are claiming. Moreover, according to Rohini Salian, the public prosecutor in the Mumbai suburban bomb blast case, the state government's appeal against the removal of UAPA is still pending in the High Court.

In the Goa blasts case, UAPA remains in force against three Sanstha members who are absconding.

Even so, there is little doubt that the court orders would have taken the wind out of the sails of the government's ban attempt, highlighting the perils of a heavy-handed approach, while ignoring the consistent application of less specialised laws which are more than sufficient to penalise these groups for their chronic propensity to incite hatred, sectarian or individual.

The journalist Nikhil Wagle, one of the many individuals targeted by the group for being 'anti-Hindu' described here the aggressive escalation he experienced when he took the group on, and the complete absence of a state response.

As for claims by these groups that they are do-gooders far removed from sectarian agendas (and that threat callers are lone wolves), one needs to only look at the website of the Sanstha's sister organisation, the Hindu Janjugriti Samiti. It says "Holy land of Bharat is a self-materialised 'Hindu Nation'. However, the unrighteous rulers have maligned the Hindu Nation by declaring it a secular Nation... To reinstate Dharma, that is, to establish the Hindu Nation, 'Hindu Janajagruti Samiti' (HJS) was established."

For a 2008 event, the HJS outlined its activities on its website, which included "drives undertaken by the Samiti like execution of death sentence of terrorist Mohammad Afzal, indecent and obscene paintings of Hindu deities and Bharatmata drawn by anti-Hindu painter M F Hussain, proposed anti-Hindu Acts on 'anti-superstitions and taking over management of temples."

Given this, the Congress-NCP needs to answer why, if they were serious about cracking down on the Sanstha, were far less elaborate provisions in the Indian Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code against inciting sectarian hatred and violence not applied more consistently against the group? Or in the handful of cases that were filed, was there any serious follow-up? Will the present BJP-Sena state government pick up the slack, or repeat the inertia of its predecessor?

Also, how realistic is it to expect all arms of the state to function impartially and vigorously as long as political parties continue to give tacit patronage to these extremist groups?

The Shiv Sena in its mouthpiece Saamna has declared that Samir Gaikwad, the arrested Sanatan member, is the victim of a 'liberal conspiracy' (quite forgetting that it is a Special Investigation Team or SIT under its own government which made the arrest).

In Goa, the wives of cabinet ministers in the BJP government (they were also cabinet minsters in the previous Congress regime) are long-time members of the Sanstha.

In October 2008, the HJS proudly displayed a letter on its website by Narendra Modi, then Gujarat Chief Minister, endorsing their plan to conduct Dharmasabhas in his constituency of Maninagar to unite people against terrorism. In the letter, Modi says the HJS' "effort to create awareness among people and to develop them culturally too is quite commendable." An endorsement of a sabha against terrorism, ironically posted a month after members of the Sanstha and HJS were charge-sheeted by the Anti-Terror Squad for the Mumbai suburban serial blasts.

Which is why our collective energies are better spent holding the political establishment to account for their failure to adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards groups inciting hatred and divisiveness, and the inability to maintain a clear arm's length from such outfits. That, rather than getting bogged down in the dubious business of bans, is a far more effective way of keeping such groups in check, and reducing the risk to those who question them.