On November 22, the Department of Public Instruction in Karnataka withdrew a controversial order that asked schools in the state to take students to an exhibition being organised as part of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s three-day Dharm Sansad, or religious parliament, in Udupi following protests from parents and a student organisation.

The Dharm Sansad and exhibition, which began on Friday, will conclude on Sunday. It comes ahead of the Assembly elections in Karnataka next year.

The November 15 circular had asked schools to provide students the opportunity to visit the Hindu Vaibhava exhibition because it throws light on the “glory of our nation”.

Deputy Director of Public Instruction Sheshashayana, who issued the order said the order was withdrawn as the exhibition was organised by a religious organisation. “We also received complaints from parents and students’ organisation, the Campus Front of India,” he said.

Inaugural session of the Dharm Sansad in Udupi, Karnataka, on Friday. (Photo credit: Special arrangement).

Asked why he issued the order in the first place, the official said he acted on a request from Udupi zilla panchayat president and Bharatiya Janata Party leader Dinakar Babu. “I did not realise that it was organised by a religious outfit,” said Sheshashayana.

The Congress welcomed the decision to scrap the order. “Children should not be forced to attend such events,” said Congress executive president Dinesh Gundurao. “It is good that better sense prevailed at last.”

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad alleged that the education department was forced to withdraw the order by the Congress government. “The Congress government’s action is an attack on Hindus,” said the VHP’s Udupi district president Vilas Naik. “It doesn’t want Hindus to unite.”

He said that students have now lost an opportunity to learn about their past. “The Hindu Vaibhava exhibition would have helped them learn about the Hindu leaders, the battles won by valiant Hindu rulers and our rich cultural heritage,” he said.

Sheshashayana, however, denied the VHP’s allegations. “There was no pressure from the government to withdraw the circular,” he said. “We took a decision on our own.”

Pejawar Mutt seer Sri Vishwesha Theertha Swami inaugurates the Dharm Sansad in Udupi on Friday. (Photo credit: Special arrangement).

Politics of the Sansad

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad maintains that the event, attended by 2,300 Hindu holy men from all over India, is not connected with the upcoming Assembly elections in the state.

VHP international president Praveen Togadia asserted as much on Wednesday when he said that the event would discuss topics that affect Hindu society and had nothing to do with the elections. “The Sansad would give socio-cultural direction to the Hindu community,” said Togadia. “It is not for political direction.”

But on Friday, while delivering the keynote address at the Dharm Sansad, Mohan Bhagawat, the chief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent organisation of all Sangh Parivar outfits including the VHP and BJP, brought up the controversial Ram Mandir and cow protection issues, indicating that the event indeed seems to have a political purpose: whipping up Hindu sentiments in order to help the BJP make electoral gains ahead of the polls.

“We will build the temple at the Ram Janmabhoomi site only with the same stones,” said Bhagwat.

He added: “It is our tradition to protect cows. People are trying to tarnish the image of cow protectors these days.”

Inaugural session of the Dharm Sansad in Udupi on Friday. (Photo credit: Special arrangement).

Karnataka election

The Bharatiya Janata Party seems to be hopeful that the Sansad will unite all Hindu communities and help it overcome the threat posed by Karnataka’s dominant Lingayat community, which has been demanding the tag of a religion separate from Hinduism. The Lingayat Mahasabha has set a December 30 deadline for Karnataka to recommend to the Centre minority status for the community.

Lingayats, classified as Other Backward Classes, constitute 17% of Karnataka’s population. They are considered to be a BJP vote bank. Since their vote is widely believed to be decisive in at least 50% of the state’s 224 Assembly constituencies, the community is also considered to be politically powerful. The Congress has supported their demand with the aim of making incursions into BJP territory.

The Dharm Sansad will conclude on Sunday with a Hindu Samajotsava and a rally. “We expect more than one-and-a-half lakh Hindus to attend a procession on the concluding day,” said Naik. “It will be the Hindu community’s show of strength.”

The Congress has many reasons to be worried about the impact of the Sansad, but it has reacted cautiously. “Why should the Congress worry about a religious congregation?” asked Gundurao. “We hope that it will not divide people on communal lines.”