The Vishva Hindu Parishad completes 50 years of existence this month. The organisation was floated as part of the Sangh Parivar in August 1964 to contain the influence of three ideologies they asserted were alien – Christianity, Islam and Communism – and strengthen Hindu dharmic values among the tribal communities in India and the Hindu diaspora. Swami Chinmayanada, Sushil Muni of the Jains, Sant Tukdoji, Karan Singh, Jaya Chamraj Wadiyar, KM Munshi, CP Ramaswamy Aiyar and Master Tara Singh were some of those involved in the formation of the VHP, either as members or invitees to its founding conference in 1964.

While these people shared the socio-religious concerns of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, at that stage, the involvement of important religious minorities in its formation prevented the VHP from developing a uniform conception of the Hindu self and nation as represented by the RSS.

The early leadership of the VHP refrained from employing the language of open militancy and belligerence that later became characteristic of the organisation. For many years after its formation, the VHP was not a prominent organisation. This obscurity continued till about the mid-1980s.

An apolitical birth

What is important about the early VHP is that it was not conceived as a front-ranking, overt and loud political outfit, but as a socio-religious organisation that had to calmly feed into the RSS’ agenda of exclusive Hindu nationalism. Evidence suggests that it did not have a clear-cut plan to regenerate the Hindus as a political community. Even its formation reflected an uncertainty about a future course of action for the organisation. The leadership considered the religious quest an effective way to rally Hindus together, to bring about some form of stability and certainty to this future.

The quiet and calm demeanor of the early VHP began changing in the 1980s. Under its third sarsanghchalak, Balasaheb Deoras, the RSS came to regard active politics an important vehicle for the dissemination of Hindu nationalism, unlike his predecessors, who shunned publicity and restrained the RSS and VHP from taking openly political positions. Within this changed orientation the VHP seemed suited to the job of building a mass-based movement grounded on religious demands. This was a situation in which religion became a strong instrument for political power and identity politics.

Out of the shadows

Gradually the VHP came out of the shadows and into the political limelight through its “Hinduism in danger” and Ramjanmabhoomi campaigns. This was in the 1980s. Three subsequent events brought the VHP to the attention of the media and public: the shilanyas programme in 1989, LK Advani’s rath yatra in 1990 and the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992. Its existence as an organisation got publicity amidst the communal violence and public uproar these events led to.

As the VHP’s Ramjanmabhoomi campaigns became louder, the BJP grew politically. The VHP enthusiastically campaigned and celebrated the BJP’s electoral victories. At election time it made it a point to go on overdrive with campaigns to generate support for the BJP. Some of its leaders – Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti, Mahant Avaidyanath and Vinay Katiyar among them – became successful BJP parliamentarians and legislators. It is no surprise then that the VHP expected the Hindutva agenda to be implemented by the BJP once the political party came to power at the centre.

However, much to VHP’s chagrin, the first stable NDA government, from 1999 to 2004, did not allow the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya. That the BJP leadership was bending to coalition and corporate pressures rather than fulfilling the Hindutva ideological agenda upset the VHP considerably. It went public with criticism of then-prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Some years later, the High Court verdict of September 2010 on the Ayodhya case also did not go the way the VHP wished.

On the ground

In this situation, VHP’s has attempted to become more self-reliant. It is making considerable efforts to build and maintain its presence among Hindu youth in urban working class and not-so-well-off localities, as also among tribal communities in rural pockets. The VHP has been working hard at the grassroots to attain its goal of Hinduisation. It has opened cow shelters, ekal vidyalayas, health centres and samskar kendras in these places. It has also been actively involved in what it calls paravartan or reconversion activities in some tribal pockets. It has attempted to take over local worship practices and rituals under the ambit of Hindutva by defining them as the varied worship practices falling within Hindutva.

In states like Tamil Nadu it has involved itself in training priests to activate temples and conduct religious rituals at the village level. These activities have been more intensely carried out in states where there has been a BJP/ally/friendly government for a good number of years. The VHP has also been active during natural calamities. For instance, it contributed to relief work during the earthquake in Gujarat and during the Orissa floods. It was also involved in flood relief activities in Andhra Pradesh in 2009.

This ground level work of the VHP pays dividends in the long run. The Hinduisation in the villages of Gujarat, where a good numbers of tribals reside, became evident in the large-scale anti-Christian violence from the late 1990s and in the violence against Muslims in 2002. The burning alive of missionary Graham Staines and his two small sons in Keonjhar district of Odisha in 1999 is another instance that one can connect to this sustained work. The prime accused who was held guilty in this case was allegedly a member of the Bajrang Dal (an off-shoot of the VHP). In the late 1990s and early 2000s there were several instances of violence against Christians in Gujarat, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh, all on the pretext of stopping conversions to Christianity.

Anti-Muslim propaganda

This anti-minority propaganda has been equally effective against Muslims, who are dubbed anti-Hindu and anti-national. The VHP builds propaganda against the Muslim community in several ways. One of these ways is through its campaigns for Ram temple at Ayodhya, Krishna temple at Mathura and Kashi-Vishwanath temple at Varanasi, which, it proclaims, were taken over by Muslim “invaders” to attack Hindu identity. In recent years, the VHP has launched campaigns against what it calls love jihad (the so-called abduction of Hindu girls and their conversion to Islam) and land jihad (the buying of Hindu property, land and houses by Muslims).

Muslims thus stand in its propaganda as slaughterers of gau mata, the holy mother cow, abductors of Hindu girls and grabbers of Hindus’ land. Conversely, it projects itself as the savior and liberator of Hindu temples, Hindu girls and Hindu land. The VHP justifies its work – including the violence it sometimes takes recourse to – as essential to the protection of Hindu culture and national security.

Though relations between the VHP and the former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as well as the present prime minister when he was the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, were not quite tranquil, there are hardly any instances to show that the BJP has not stood by VHP in its ground-level work, whether to do with conversions, gauraksha or imparting Hinduised education. The BJP leadership has been actively supportive of these Hindutva goals of the VHP, though larger causes like the Ram temple at Ayodhya have remained unfulfilled due to absence of a national consensus.

The VHP’s expectations from the Narendra Modi government are high. During the election campaign this year it did not seem too happy with the development-oriented and personality-oriented campaign style of the BJP, but with the latter’s victory things have changed. This is the first time in the history of independent India that a Hindu right-wing party has won an absolute majority and formed the government at the centre. The VHP expects that the new government under prime minister Modi will facilitate the construction of Ram temple at Ayodhya, implement the uniform civil code and ban cow slaughter countrywide.

Manjari Katju, teaches Political Science at the University of Hyderabad. She is the author of Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Indian Politics.