Modi returns as the prodigal son of the far right in India

Why the BJP leadership is systematically trying to downplay incidents of Hindu terrorism during this election campaign.

Samjhauta Express
Survivors look on as the compartments of Samjhauta Express burn after an explosion at Dewana village in India, on February 19, 2007 [File: AP/Dainik Bhaskar] [Daylife]

On April 21, as terror gripped Sri Lanka in the aftermath one of the worst attacks witnessed by the country in recent years, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent a message of condolence to Colombo.

He called the attacks “cold-blooded and preplanned barbaric acts” and reiterated that there could be no place for such barbarism in any civilised country. He pointed out that terrorism poses the most serious challenge in South Asia, especially since the attacks in Sri Lanka were perpetrated at religious sites and during a religious festival.

Two days before the prime minister said these words, he inducted Pragya Thakur, a seer from the province of Madhya Pradesh, into his party and gave her an election ticket to contest one of the most coveted seats in the North Indian belt, which over the past two decades has witnessed multiple episodes of intercommunal tensions.

Thakur – or Sadhvi (priestess) Pragya as she is referred to by her followers – was introduced into the electoral race by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supposedly to correct for the gender imbalance on their list of candidates. Yet, most Indians know her not as a rising female politician, but as a suspect facing terror charges in relation to a deadly bomb blast in the city of Malegaon, Maharashtra state which targeted the Muslim minority.

On the morning of September 29, 2008, two explosive devices fitted into a motorcycle exploded in the city killing nine people and injuring hundreds. The motorcycle belonged to Thakur and in a taped conversation with a co-accused submitted to court as evidence, she supposedly says: “If my vehicle was used for the blast, how come so few people (Muslims) died, why didn’t you park it in a crowd?”

Besides the Malegaon incident of 2008, Thakur was also investigated for her role in the 2006 blasts in the same city during the Muslim festival Shab-e-Baraat that took 40 lives. Just like the terrorists who targeted the Christian community of Sri Lanka on Sunday, the perpetrators of the 2006 bombings wanted to ensure maximum casualties and instil fear in the Muslim community. 

Her name also appeared in investigations into a series of deadly incidents in 2007 – the bombing of Samjhauta Express, the Mecca Masjid blast, and Ajmer Sharif shrine explosion – all of which targeted minorities and aimed at stirring intercommunal unrest in the country.

Currently, she still faces charges in the 2008 Malegoan case under the draconian Unlawful Activities Preventive act, which deals with terrorism.

It is, perhaps, the first occasion in the history of independent India that a suspect facing terror charges has been asked to contest elections by the ruling party and has been endorsed by none other than the prime minister himself. In an interview for a news channel on April 19, Modi said that Thakur’s candidacy is a symbolic answer to those who labelled Hindus as terrorists.

Two days after her nomination was announced, Thakur wearing a saffron robe addressed a gathering attended by thousands of mostly BJP members. She boasted about taking part in the demolition of the iconic Babri mosque, which unleashed one of the worst episodes of communal carnage in the country in 1992.

She claimed that India’s celebrated anti-terror squad head Hemant Karkare, who died in the 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai, died due to her curse. He is credited with exposing the face of ultra-right terror in India and exposed their role in cases that were earlier attributed to Muslims who spent years languishing in jail on false charges. 

In 2008, Karkare unearthed the terror activities of the Abhinav Bharat, an organisation Thakur had pledged allegiance to. The aim of the Abhinav Bharat was to create a Hindu kingdom and establish Hindu supremacy.

Her induction in the BJP was celebrated as the triumph of Hindu pride which was supposedly restored under the leadership of Modi and BJP President Amit Shah.

In their endorsement of her candidacy, the BJP leadership have normalised the terror and hate that she championed and set the agenda for the country should Modi be re-elected. In this way, they have also sent a chilling message to the Muslim community that those responsible for terror acts against them could potentially come to rule the country with brazen disregard for the rule of law and justice.

During his campaign speeches, Modi has questioned the concept of right-wing terror in the country as a whole, suggesting that Hindus can never be terrorists. He has also pointed several times to the final verdict in the 2007 Samjhauta Express bombing case, which was announced in March this year, in which four Hindu nationalists who were accused of setting up the explosives that killed 68 passengers, mostly Pakistani nationals, were acquitted by a special court. What many saw as a travesty of justice, Modi has brandished as proof that Hindus were being framed in terror cases by investigators sympathetic to secular parties.

Meanwhile, his government in the western province of Gujarat endorsed a bail application for a rioter involved in the Gujarat carnage of 2002 which killed a thousand Muslims. In March, Babu Bajrangi, a Hindu nationalist who participated in the riots and was sentenced to life imprisonment, was granted bail on medical grounds, with the help of a government-issued affidavit. This same government has jailed academics and intellectuals for dissent and refused to give any relief for their medical needs.

Lower-ranking BJP functionaries have taken cues from the leadership and also gotten involved in endorsing Hindu terror. Yogi Adityanath, a saffron-clothed monk who is Modi’s most controversial provincial minister, recently seated the key accused in a lynching of Muslims in the front row of his election rally.

For all his talk about bringing economic development and prosperity, Modi has only succeeded in sowing divisions in the country. In fact, he has gone back to the script put together by the man he considers his mentor – Madhav Sadashiv Golwalker, one of the founders of the right-wing organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). In a book called – We, or our nationhood defined – Golwalker writes: “As long as the Muslims and the Christians failed to abandon their own religion and culture they cannot but be only foreigners in this country and if they stayed here without losing their ‘separate existence’ they might be treated as ‘enemies’.”

In 2019, Modi has cast himself as the prodigal son who has come back to continue the legacy of his ideological forefathers and defend it against the secular and democratic principles independent India was founded on.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.