Is Himachal CM Virbhadra walking into a trap of soft Hindutva?
Himachal Pradesh chief minister will have to walk a tightrope on the issues pertaining to the heady mix of religion and politics that have started cropping up just ahead of the state Assembly polls.
Such issues were unheard of previously in the hill state that is normally viewed as a peaceful place. But developments at a couple of places, over the last few days, indicate that he will have to watch his step and will have lots of answering to do lest he falls into a trap. Polarisation in the state, at this point of time, will only help his opponents.
Just three days back tension had reportedly gripped Virbhadra's hometown of Rampur when activists from various Hindu organisations united under the banner of Dev Sanskriti Raksha Manch. They opposed the offering of prayers by members of a Christian denomination in a local government school and asked an American priest Mark Anderson to go back.
The protestors also tried to take out a march and tried to forcibly enter the school besides blocking the Hindustan-Tibet National Highway for more than an hour.
The police had to intervene to stop the agitators from entering the school and avoided a clash between the two communities. There was also a scuffle between the police and the protesters.
The protestors questioned the school authorities for giving permission for the christain congregation and asked whether such permission would be given to a Hindu organisation for performing yajna or havan.
The protesters also tore posters of the American priest and alleged that the missionaries were indulging in conversions under the garb of prayers. The organisers of the congregation of course denied this allegation.
There are a couple of points that need to be noted. Firstly, the activists of various Hindutva organisations have been running a campaign for quite sometime alleging large-scale religious conversions by various Christian denominations particularly in the tribal areas of Himachal.
In the process, they have been trying to whip up passions of the majority community.
In the lower hills, particularly in towns like Solan, a campaign is on against the Muslims. The town has seen a large scale influx of Muslim labourers from Uttar Pradesh given the construction boom.
The Muslims have also made their mark in business, particularly in fruit and vegetable retail, through sheer hard work.
While the common man is happy with the services they are getting, the Hindu right-wing elements have been carrying out a covert campaign against them.
The right calls?
Coming back to Rampur, Virbhadra has stated that action would be taken those responsible for damage caused to property during the protest.
At a public meeting in Jeuri, he underlined that it was disgusting that few BJP loyalists were involved in hooliganism in the name of religion at Rampur Bushahr. Virbhadra said that such incidents are not in the interest of the state and never before has this type of vandalism been witnessed in Himachal.
Stating that the communal violence should be avoided at all costs and that government institutes should not serve as the venue for religious ceremonies, Virbhadra said that no religious organisations will be allowed, henceforth, to hold congregations in educational institutions.
He further said that religious conversion carried out by luring and paying for the same is not a good practice and it should not be made into a business.
Such a practice needs to be stopped as conversion by luring or financing is illegal and banned and one has to apply to the district magistrate on a form to seek permission to do so, Virbhadra pointed out.
He reminded every one that Himachal was the first state in the country that had passed a law against conversion around a decade back under his regime.
At the same time, Virbhadra underlined that every Indian citizen has the right to practice the religion of his choice. However, he added that a few religious organisations in the country were seen involved in suppressing the true spirit of the right to freedom of religion.
He cautioned people to be aware of such elements and also of those who shift their loyalties when elections are around the corner.
The second instance of Virbhadra getting 'wrongly' involved in a religious issue pertains to the outrage over his meeting a controversial godman Baba Amardev after a fracas between villagers and the godman. The godman had allegedly assaulted a woman with a sword.
There is a large section of villagers who have been opposing Baba Amardev raising a Ramlok Temple in Solan district which they say has come up illegally given his links with high-profile politicians.
Virbhadra rushed to meet him and ensured that the Baba enjoyed VVIP treatment despite his having allegedly almost opened up the stomach of a 52-years-old woman following an argument over the dumping of construction material generated from temple construction.
There are reports saying that Amardev was earlier booked in a case of leopard skin recovery and was issued notices for raising the temple on Panchayat land in Rurra village. The people have formed a committee and have threatened an agitation if the government fails to act against him. The battle against the godman is being led by the Kisan Sabha.
Interestingly, there are videos doing the rounds where this godman is seen threatening local journalists with beheading and wearing a garland of their chopped heads for writing against him, the controversies and the alleged illegal construction of temple premises that reportedly houses idols worth more than Rs 20 Crore.
Reports say that officials cannot dare to act against the godman given his clout.
Recently after the fracas with the locals, the entire staff of the Kandaghat Police Station was reportedly suspended and sent to Police Lines in Solan hours after Virbhadra met the controversial Baba.
Amardev is equally close to the BJP leaders and there are pictures of him posing with former chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal.
The locals have questioned Amardev's affluence asking – how come a Baba who had come in tatters a few years ago is now moving around in SUVs? They are also questioning the sources of the funds being used for constructing the temple.
“We want a probe by a judicial authority. He has the backing of the RSS, the BJP as well as the Congress. It needs to be investigated how a temple came up on land that was marked for a community centre. We are not against a temple but these illegal activities need to be exposed. People must know how he got bail without a proper address proof and why it was the people who have been targeted instead of him,” says Kisan Sabha leader Pyare Lal.
In a face-saving effort, Virbhadra has said that neither he nor his government is shielding the godman. He said it is the propaganda of the CPM to paint a picture that the Baba is getting shelter from the higher-ups.
Amardev has been admitted to Indira Gandhi Medical College (IGMC) after a clash with the locals. Counter FIRs have been lodged by the Baba and the locals on each other.
Observers point out that the Hindutva organisations are trying to create a scenario where Virbhadra would be compelled to toe the line of what has come to be known as 'soft Hindutva'.
This has proven to the nemesis of the Congress at many places. Now the question is how will he escape the trap being laid out?
“This is just the beginning. Such instances are going to increase by the day,” said a senior media person in Shimla.
Pointing to the lynching of a man in Nahan district by cow vigilantes in October 2015, observers point out that the forces wanting polarisation could not achieve the desired result at that point of time but their efforts have continued.