By Swapan Dasgupta
Judged purely by the lax standards of short-term politics, it was understandable that the Congress would go to town with the 'confessions' of Swami Aseemananda, the militant Hindu activist who is being held as a terror suspect. Having been at the receiving end of an effective Opposition onslaught against corruption and Sonia Gandhi's links with the controversial Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi, the ruling party was desperately in search of retaliatory fire. Aseemananda's testimony before a Magistrate which was conveniently leaked to an obliging media has given the party a half-decent talking point, though it is unlikely to shift popular focus from corruption and economic mismanagement.
The Congress may have also based its decision to focus on "Hindu terror" on the cynical calculation that the Muslim community, which is no less affected by inflation, may be deterred from reposing faith in the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance. Certainly, Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh is doing his utmost to both exploit legitimate Muslim fears of retributive terror and simultaneously pander to conspiracy theorists who see the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai as a grand global conspiracy to defame Muslims. A book on 26/11 that Digvijay has been promoting, for example, is replete with incredible theories of a Zionist conspiracy in Mumbai that is as distasteful as the one surrounding the 9/11 attacks in New York. Underlying this approach is the belief, bolstered by the muted reaction to last September's Ayodhya judgment, that there is no likelihood of any voter consolidation on Hindu identity issues.
Yet, and notwithstanding the political grandstanding, there are serious issues involved in the furore over "Hindu terror". For a start, the testimony of Aseemananda, a man who was apparently moved by the plight of a Muslim boy wrongly held for involvement in the Mecca Masjid bombing in Hyderabad, cannot be dismissed as being fabricated. Like many religious figures who have taken to violence, Aseemananda apparently believed in the moral and ethical legitimacy of an eye-for-an-eye approach. He was well aware of the grave legal implications of implicating himself in the larger conspiracy and yet decided to tell the truth, as he saw it. Although there are legitimate questions surrounding the release of his testimony to the media, Aseemanda's version of events cannot be easily dismissed as either fabricated or obtained through coercion.
Read with the reports of the interrogations of Lt-Colonel Purohit and others charged with the Malegaon bombings, Aseemananda's testimony offers fascinating insights into the working of ultra-militant Hindu nationalists who felt they were serving the nation by inflicting pain on the Muslim community.
It would appear that there were two distinct conspiracies at work, albeit with some overlaps. First, there was the Abhinav Bharat group, which may well have begun as an intelligence gathering exercise by a section of the Military Intelligence but ended up as a rogue operation. Second, there was the group of Sunil Joshi which comprised of people with RSS links. The hand of Abhinav Bharat seems to have been present in the Malegaon blasts and there are reasons to suspect Joshi's involvement in the blasts at Mecca Masjid and Ajmer Sharif Dargah. Although Joshi claimed to Aseemananda that his boys had also bombed the Samjhauta Express, there is no corroborative evidence to suggest the group had the requisite expertise to assemble such sophisticated IEDs.
Aseemananda was known to both groups and he appears as a common point of ideological inspiration. But apart from this link, the relationship between the two groups was laced with bitterness and rivalry. A bone of contention appears to be Indresh Kumar, a high RSS functionary on whose behalf the organisation went on public dharnas last year. Purohit and his associates seem to have regarded Indresh as an "ISI agent" and Abhinav Bharat didn't seem averse to the idea of assassinating RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. Aseemananda's testimony indicates that Indresh had deep connections with the Joshi gang and may have facilitated their activities.
In a speech in Surat last Monday, RSS chief Bhagwat said that the "extremists" connected to terror had either dissociated themselves from the RSS or had been edged out by the organisation itself. "There is no place for radicals in the RSS", he claimed. Bhagwat's claim appears credible when viewed against the record of the Abhinav Bharat network. Many members of this network are, interestingly, still at large and persisting with their advocacy of aggressive Hindu nationalism. However, Bhagwat's charge of political vindictiveness falters in the case of Indresh who continues to hold an important post in the RSS. There is enough in the various testimonies to suggest that Indresh was recklessly flirting with those who didn't shirk from using terror.
Without the necessary corroborative evidence, it may be unfair to suggest Indresh was a mastermind or even a facilitator of either of the terror networks. However, there is no disputing the fact that he was mixed up with the most dubious of people. A high functionary of the RSS has to be circumspect about both his activities and his associations. Indresh, it would seem, was reckless. The RSS decision to stand by him may be a measure of its sense of regimental loyalty but is unlikely to be viewed by the larger community with the same degree of generosity and indulgence. It has certainly given the Congress a handy stick with which to beat both the RSS and the BJP.
Yet, there could be some redeeming political fallout from the larger "Hindu terror" controversy. Ever since the general election of 2004, there have been voices in the BJP arguing for a greater RSS detachment from day-to-day politics. Unfortunately, these voices have been subsumed by the RSS' steamroller approach. This over-involvement has led to political distortions and has cost the BJP politically. For its own sake, the RSS needs to first put its own house in order and save the BJP a lot of blushes.