On October 11, 2007, an explosion ripped through the 800-year-old shrine of Sufi saint Moinuddin Chisti in the Rajasthani town of Ajmer. The attack was timed well: it was the month of Ramzan, and a crowd had gathered outside the dargah to break their fast. The bomb, placed inside a tiffin box, killed three people.
It took a court verdict on Wednesday to rekindle some interest in the case. Three people were convicted for the terror bombing. Two of them – Devendra Gupta and Sunil Joshi – have been identified in court records as “RSS pracharaks”.
At a time when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh controls the levers of power in the Union government itself, what does it means for India that members of this hardline Hindutva organisation conducted a terror strike on a Sufi shrine?
RSS and state power
The RSS is no ordinary body. The Jan Sangh, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s earlier avatar, was founded – the BJP’s own website informs us – “after consultation with Shri Golwalkar Guruji of the RSS”. The BJP, thus, is the political arm of the RSS.
The BJP’s top leadership is drawn from the RSS. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself was an RSS pracharak till he was transferred to the BJP in 1987, and the organisation dominates his cabinet: in 2014 when he became prime minister, 12 of his ministers had links to the RSS. The chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, was also an RSS pracharak before being shifted to front-end politics. In neighbouring Maharashtra, the entire cabinet takes public governance lessons from the RSS, which is headquartered in the state’s Nagpur city.
Since Modi came to power, the role of the RSS in the government has been broadcast – quite literally. The state-owned television network Doordarshan telecasts the Vijay Dashami speech of RSS head Mohan Bhagwat live every year, a remarkable use of goverment machinery for private ends.
This influence extends to the day-to-day running of the Union government as well as various BJP-controlled state governments. On Tuesday, for example, the New York Times reported that a Christian charity proscribed by the Union government was forced to negotiate its ban not with bureaucrats or ministers but with RSS functionaries. In July, the Union minister of human resource development, Prakash Javadekar, met with RSS functionaries to decide what the new national education policy would be.
Ajmer attack link
As foreboding as the conviction of the two RSS pracharaks in the 2007 Ajmer terror blast is, it gets murkier with the involvement of Swami Aseemanand. Aseemanand was a senior RSS pracharak working with Adivasi groups in Gujarat. He had, in a confessional statement to a magistrate in a Delhi court, admitted to planning the Ajmer blast. In an interview to Caravan magazine last year, he alleged that RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had himself sanctioned the bombing.
In spite of the confession, the special National Investigation Agency court on Wednesday acquitted Aseemanand. The court verdict came even as more than three dozen witnesses turned hostile in the case, pointing to grave lapses by the Union government-controlled National Investigation Agency.
This isn’t the first time that the Modi government has been accused of blocking investigations into cases of Hindutva terror. In 2015, Rohini Salian, special public prosecutor in the 2008 Malegaon terror attack case – a bombing in the Maharashtra city that killed four Muslims during Ramzan – complained that she had faced pressure from the National Investigation Agency to “go soft” on the case since Modi took power in 2014.
A history of terror
This, of course, is not the first time an RSS member has been convicted for murder. Gopal Godse, the brother of Mohandas Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse, confirmed that the latter was an RSS worker. This led to the organisation being banned by the then Union Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel. Eight months after the assassination, Patel wrote to the RSS head, MS Golwalkar, blaming the organisation’s communalism for leading to Gandhi’s murder. Patel even claimed that RSS men had distributed sweets to celebrate the killing.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was also banned during the Emergency in 1975 and after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.
In most circumstances, the Ajmer terror attack would have given rise to a conversation about the role of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its ideology and whether it deserves to be banned like it was after Gandhi’s assassination. If, in 1948, Patel could discuss the “communal poison” that led to Gandhi’s assassination, India in 2017 should also seriously consider what elements of the RSS’ ideology led two of its pracharaks to bomb an 800-year-old Muslim shrine.