The Vishwa Hindu Parishad had spent most of its existence in obscurity before Ashok Singhal, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak, took over its leadership. Under Singhal, who passed away on November 17 aged 89, the VHP emerged from the shadows of the RSS and became an aggressive and visible organisation. This was at a time when Balasaheb Deoras, who wanted the Sangh Parivar to be more assertive and active in the public arena, was the RSS chief. Deoras wanted the RSS’ influence to expand beyond the limited spheres where their cadres were active. Singhal was given charge of the VHP in 1983 with this mandate.

In the 1990s, the VHP, Ashok Singhal, Ayodhya and Ram Janmabhoomi almost became synonyms and were part of the archetypal Hindutva blend. A RSS member since 1942, Singhal was devoted to making Hindutva a household name through the VHP. His heart was in the Ram Janmabhoomi project. VHP campaigns like rathyatras, shilanyas, marches to Ayodhya, onslaughts on the Babri mosque, etc. were all conceptualised under his leadership.

In 2002, Singhal initiated the shilanyas (foundation stone laying ceremony) to forcibly start the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya. The karsevaks returning from this programme lost their lives when a train coach was burnt in Godhra in February 2002, sparking the mass killings of Muslims in the riots that followed.

Ram in his militant (ugra) form was Singhal’s contribution to the Hindutva discourse. He gave direction to the VHP's anti-conversion drive and educational programmes and was well known for his versatility as an organiser.

Passionate about the cause

I met Ashok Singhal in the mid-1990s in Delhi while I was researching the VHP. What struck me most about him was his soft-spoken manner and his strong conviction about the organisation’s goals. Boisterous, loud, hostile, aggressive, short-tempered – he was none of these.

On the contrary, he gently and calmly answered the most incisive or unsympathetic of questions. Never once did he raise his voice. I was a little flummoxed. This was the architect of the most blistering majoritarian, anti-minority campaign independent India had ever seen, a campaign that had galvanised many Hindus with slogans of “Hinduism in danger”.

Singhal's demeanour was also in sharp contrast to his colleague Praveen Togadia, the current VHP president, whose loud and animated rhetoric on political issues stood out during my interview with him.

Though soft-spoken, Singhal narrated with great conviction his idea of India as a Hindu Rashtra. He seemed deeply committed to wresting Ram Janmabhoomi from the hands of “anti-Hindu forces” and protecting India for the Hindus.

Singhal told me that as a young pracharak, the partition of the country bothered him a great deal. He said that he and his compatriots in the RSS saw the event as a failure of Mahatma Gandhi’s politics. While they respected Gandhi for bringing independence, his leadership was disappointing because he failed to keep the country united. This was regarded as a “Himalayan blunder”.

Singhal went on to say that India had seen “Muslim rule and Christian rule” and that there was a possibility of “Communist rule” coming.

“Under no circumstances should it (Communism) be allowed to come here,” Singhal had said. “That’s why we should all get together and work. This is what gave me inspiration to work.”

Core purpose

I asked him why an organisation like the VHP was needed when the RSS was already in existence. Couldn’t the RSS carry  forward the work of Hindutva?

“Sangh [RSS] is like a university,” he explained. “A sole university is not the only requirement; it cannot fulfill all tasks. Not all are able to go to universities, therefore, to spread the ideas and principles of the RSS in society. Various types of organisations were needed and formed. The VHP is one of them. It works in the socio-religious sphere.”

He told me that the VHP worked toward awakening the swabhiman (self-respect) of Hindus.

“We took up the issues of cow protection and Ram Janmabhoomi to go to the masses,” Singhal said. “These have had a big impact and a sense of swabhiman has awakened in Bharat. The work of sadhus has borne result”.

I asked him why the VHP was seen and branded as communal if it was merely trying to awaken the self-respect of Hindus. “So that in this country, the Muslims and Christians are able to achieve their goals, so that they can achieve the Islamisation of the country, or where Islamisation is not possible, to Christianise the area,” he replied. “A drug called secularism is being given to Hindus so that the entire Hindu society remains unconscious and whoever wants to finish it can do it. For example, injections are given for numbing the body before an operation, in the same way doses of secularism are administered to keep the Hindus unconscious."

Mass following

Singhal belonged to Allahabad. After going to Varanasi for his engineering degree, he became a full-time RSS worker. He was sent to Delhi in this capacity. While in Delhi, he organised a “Virat Hindu sammelan” (Grand Hindu Conference) in 1982. The following year he was given charge of the VHP.

The Allahabad triumvirate – Ashok Singhal, Murli Manohar Joshi and Rajendra Singh – were close from their days as young activists. Singhal led the VHP, Joshi led the Bharatiya Janata Party as its president between 1991 and 1993, and Rajendra Singh was RSS’ general secretary before becoming its chief in 1994.

The Allahabad of the 1930s and 1940s, known more for giving the country a secular, pluralist and radical political leadership, also gave rise to an energetic right-wing leadership.

Singhal rallied people such as Sadhvi Rithambara, Uma Bharti, Acharya Giriraj Kishore, Vinay Katiyar, Sadhu Ramchandra Das Paramhansa, Mahant Avaidyanath and a few others around him. All of them were known to be fiery political personalities, who derived their power from established social networks or a mass following of the Hindi-speaking belt (mainly Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh).

Polar opposite

The current VHP leadership lacks social grounding, some of its leaders are now perpetuating dynasties – they are in the organisation only because of their fathers or other elders. They have been unable to devise pioneering strategies to rally electoral support for the BJP – one of the principal functions of the VHP since the 1989 general elections.

The new leaders increasingly deploy lung power and hate speeches to whip up support. Hate speeches from the VHP are nothing new, but the past leadership had an alternative agenda to “Hinduise” society. For example, an earlier approach was to educate the disadvantaged and promote Sanskrit among the middle class and upper castes.

The new leadership does not have much to offer by way of new programmes. It solely relies on issues such as love jihad (Muslims luring Hindu girls into marriage and converting them to Islam) and ghar wapsi (re-conversion of Muslims and Christians to Hinduism) to energise its social presence. The VHP in its current form has no other “positive” agenda.

Thus, even though Ashok Singhal had passed the VHP baton to the younger generation of leaders some years ago and had taken on the role of a mentor, his absence will leave a void that the organisation will find difficult to fill.

Manjari Katju, professor of political science at University of Hyderabad and author of  Vishva Hindu Parishad and Indian Politics.