‘I am going to take them head on.’ Digvijay Singh, senior Congress leader


When, following the assembly poll results in December, VHP leaders arrogantly announced that the sangh parivar would replicate the ‘Gujarat experiment’ in the rest of India, Congress chief minister, Digvijay Singh dared them to try it in Madhya Pradesh. He even went so far as to aver that if the BJP returned to power in his state after the Assembly elections due later this year, he would retire from politics.

However, some of the recent moves made by him have left many in the secular camp wondering whether he, too, is pursuing the disastrous ‘soft Hindutva’ strategy that the Congress resorted to in Gujarat.

The chief minister spoke to Teesta Setalvad telephonically on the evening of February 19, the day the sangh parivar tried to storm its way into the Bhojshala in Dhar and resorted to violence. Excerpts from the interview:

Q: Of late there has been a lot of discomfort among secularists because you have brought religious issues — cow slaughter, demands to reclaim the Saraswati idol from the UK and opening the Bhojshala for worship – into public life. How do you justify these measures?

A: We must understand the psyche of people here. There are certain sentiments that need to be respected, even while being unequivocal on the question that secularism should and does mean that the State will have no religion.

Having said that, about the recent consternation on the situation in Madhya Pradesh, I would like to remind people that the Congress has always pioneered the move against cow slaughter, since the 1920s. Gandhiji’s writings are a clear indication of this. Again, it was the Congress that led the movement for legislation banning cow slaughter in 1959. Today, I am simply implementing that.

It is in pursuance of this commitment that my government is giving land for gaushalas. If the animals are kept there and if vermiculture (which is important for organic farming) is started, then the whole preservation of their life becomes viable. There is also the question of urine therapy on which there has been much research and interest. If urine is sold at Rs 4–5 a litre this adds to the viability of the gaushalas in the state. So we are trying this at various levels to make the whole thing viable. What is wrong with that?

Q: What about the accusation that in this election year you are trying to beat the BJP on its own turf?

A: In MP, as should be the case in every other part of India, every person has a right to propagate his or her religion and not be harassed or victimised by a person from another faith. I repeat, in my perception, secularism is the only alternative and there has been no departure from it — the State will have no religion. Every person will have the right to practice his belief without fear or favour.

As for the accusation that I am raking these issues up in election year, who has raked up these issues? It is they, the BJP, who have brought them up. So my stand was, and is, clear: I must take them head on.

For example, in Ganj Bansoda, where an incident of cow slaughter was sought to be exploited by communal forces, the incident was promptly investigated by our district administration and any violence or its spill over controlled within three-four hours. At present, there are seven people behind bars under NSA in connection with this incident.

‘The VHP has never constructed a temple. It is only interested in disputed sites! Why? Because that way they can amass funds from abroad!’

Similarly, let’s take the Bhojshala issue. The issue is not a new one. It has been used periodically by the BJP to rake up religious/communal sentiments. Now, this monument is under the protection of the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India). Under a ruling of the ASI, the Muslims are allowed to pray there every Friday and Hindus on Bhoj utsav day, that is, on Vasant Panchami. We, that is, the state government, are only there to implement and enforce the ASI order.

Incidentally, there are no idols there to which puja can be performed. Then why is the sangh parivar, helped ably by the BJP, raking up this issue now? Is anyone asking that? They are raking it up because their sole and ultimate aim is to create a Hindu–Muslim divide and also to create a law and order situation in a state like Madhya Pradesh in this election year and disrupt the harmony between communities that prevails. They are willing to go to any extent in this matter.

Can you believe this? I receive a letter from a central minister, Mr Jagmohan, dated February 13, 2003, stating that that he has received a representation from the BJP/RSS/VHP. He says in the letter that he would like to know the opinion of the state government on whether the ASI order can be relaxed and puja allowed at the place more often.

Now, why is there no speculation about the motive and timing of this letter by a senior functionary of the central government? We are very clear. We will enforce the ASI ruling on the matter.

When I received this letter, I sent it to the district administration and asked them to call an all-party meeting to discuss different views on the issues. That meeting was to take place today (Feb. 19). I had communicated to the Centre that the decision of the administration, taken after an all–party meeting, which had been called, would be communicated back to the Centre. But even before this meeting could be procedurally called and a decision communicated, brute force and bullying tactics were sought to be used. Today, these forces, which are not interested in consensual or dialogic politics, went ahead and decided to force entry. So the government of Madhya Pradesh acted. They were prevented from breaking the law so they resorted to calling a bandh in the entire district of Dhar. We imposed curfew and 15 of our policemen had to suffer due to their violent behaviour. But we upheld the rule of law, respected the standing ASI order. Though the police had to open fire, fortunately there was no loss of life.

I am very clear on the issue. I am going to take them head on. We have invoked the Special Area Securities Act (SASA) and will detain all those who try and deliberately foment disorder and divisiveness and break the law of the land.

Coming back to your point on the kind of issues they rake up, you cannot be in public life without reacting. You have to take them head on. On the Bhojshala issue and the question of the idol of Saraswati being brought back from London, which I have raised, there is a certain background. It shows the Machiavellian politics of the sangh parivar, which has nothing to do with a belief in Hinduism, or its fundamentals or a concern for its culture. It is a simple desire to foment hatred. This is why I am taking these issues up to expose their shallowness in dealing with them.

In 1998, during the previous BJP regime at the Centre, the VHP had challenged the ASI order on the Bhojshala in the MP High Court. Their advocate, by the way, was Mr. Mahajan, husband of Sumitra Mahajan. The facts are that the ASI had, at the time, in its own affidavit filed in a court of law, stated on oath that in their opinion, this place of worship is neither a temple nor a mosque and that the idol that was originally installed there may not be that of Saraswati but that of Yashi Ambica of the Jain dharma.

This was what the government of India’s advocate stated on the basis of what the ASI had stated in its affidavit, countering the VHP claim. Fortunately, the ASI was concerned with historical realities, not political games.

Today, what I am saying? Simply that it is the state government’s job to maintain law and order and for the ASI in its professional wisdom to decide what the structure is. The ball is squarely in the ASI’s court.

As far as ground realities are concerned, the all–party meeting called by the administration today was meant to solicit suggestions. But were they willing to wait and solve the issue in a dialogic and civilised way? No, they rushed in with their brazen attempt to break the law of the land. So, the state came down heavily on them.

One more thing. If the idol were to be brought back from London, we will know for certain whose idol it is. Incidentally, the VHP/RSS/BJP have never done something constructive like trying to get the idol back. They simply rake up issues to divide people.

The VHP has never constructed a temple. It is only interested in disputed sites! Why? Because that way they can amass funds from abroad! They are not responsible or constructive enough to ever build a temple from the funds that they collect! Hence, my effort is to deal with them in a subtle, yet direct, manner.

Q: What according to you are the non-negotiables in a secular State?

A: Utter separation, or distance of the State from religion. The protection of every individual’s right to belief and worship. Firm steps to prevent any disruption of law and order. The MP government has issued stern and standing instructions to district collectors and SPs on how the administration must behave whenever there are any attempts to foment communal violence, that no favour or leniency should be shown to the aggressors, whoever they may be.

As you already know, my government has also banned the distribution of trishuls because their systematic distribution had nothing to do with the tenets of the Hindu faith. Programmes for trishul distribution are being undertaken simply to arm sections of civil society and terrorise other sections within it. We have also disallowed any arms being flaunted or carried in religious processions.

This is what secularism in theory and practice is for me. 

Archived from Communalism Combat, February 2003 Year 9  No. 84, Cover Story 2



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