*A Woman’s Curse and the Death of a Hero

PragyaThakur

Pragya Thakur, May 2019. Source: Hindustan Times.

 

On Wednesday, April 17, Pragya Singh Thakur enrolled in the BJP.  Hours later, she was nominated by the party to contest the elections from Bhopal, where the BJP has not lost in nearly three decades.  Prime Minister Narendra Modi defended his party’s decision to give her a ticket with these words, “They defamed a 5000-old culture that believes in Vasudhaiv Kutumbakam. They called them terrorists. To answer them all, this is a symbol and it will cost Congress.”

What a supposedly “5000 year-old culture” has to do with the nomination of a woman charged with heinous crimes of murder, terrorism, and the incitement of hatred between religious communities is far from being clear, but the Indian Prime Minister is not known to be a clear-headed thinker.  No one has even remotely suggested that Hinduism—which is not the same thing as either Hindutva or Hindu nationalism—ought to be linked to the terrorist attacks in Malegaon, Ajmer, and elsewhere more than a decade ago, and for Modi and the BJP to pretend otherwise points to the desperation, deceit, and rank opportunism that drives them to play the communal card.  Obfuscation is the first weapon of those whose only conception of worship involves the naked admiration for power and a ruthless determination to wield it in their own self-interest.

MalegaonBombBlast2008

Malegaon Bomb Blast 2008: Accused Muslim Men were Made Scapegoats, according to a headline in the Times of India.

Let us be clear about what is at stake in the BJP putting forward the name of Pragya Thakur as the party’s candidate for a Lok Sabha seat from Bhopal.  On 8 September 2006, during the festival of Shab-e-Barat, three serial blasts rocked Malegaon in District Nashik, Maharashtra, leaving 40 dead (mainly Muslims) and 125 injured.  The police and Mumbai’s Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) took into custody nine Muslim men and extracted false confessions after torturing them and conducting Narcoanalysis tests that were not authorized by any court.  Two years later, bomb blasts once again shook Malegaon:  this time the bomb was fitted on a Hero Honda motorcycle registered to Pragya Thakur, who was arrested a month later in October 2008.  She was charged with offences under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and spent eight years in jail, and is presently out on bail—furnished partly on the grounds that she is in poor health, though whatever ailments she has have clearly not prevented her from running for office.  Indeed, she has been campaigning vociferously for the Bhopal seat.

Meanwhile, in January 2008, Hemant Karkare was appointed head of the Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS), and it in consequence of the investigations by him and members of his team that a conspiracy among Hindu extremists, in which Pragya Thakur played a critical role, to terrorize Muslims was uncovered.  In December 2010, a man going by the name of Assemanand, whose real name is Naba Kumar Sarkar, confessed before a magistrate that the Malegaon blasts of 2006 and 2008 had been carried out by a radical Hindu group in “revenge against Jihadi terrorism”.  Pragya Thakur was named as the person who had assumed responsibility for assembling terrorist teams to carry out the 2008 Malegaon attack.  According to the chargesheet filed by the National Investigative Agency, Thakur, Aseemanand, and various other radicals had lengthy discussions and they “developed (a desire for) vengeance not only against the misguided jihadi terrorists but against the entire Muslim community.”  Aseemanand subsequently retracted his confession.

Just how exactly the investigations against these Hindu extremists proceeded, and with what consequences, is another story.  What emerges quite clearly from the reports is that Pragya Thakur is not only unprincipled, ruthless, and vituperative in her hatred towards Muslims, but that she has played the role of a ‘holy’ and aggrieved Hindu woman who is animated purely by love for the motherland to her advantage.  She calls herself Sadhvi, a devout woman given to the cultivation of spirituality, but this designation grossly ill suits her.  She would not, of course, be the first spiritual renunciate to hunger after power.

Karkare&PragyaThakur

Hemant Karkare (left); Pragya Thakur (right).

Pragya Thakur’s recent remarks regarding Hemant Karkare, who was killed in the line of duty during the coordinated attacks on the Taj Hotel and other sites in Mumbai in late November 2008, are if anything more illuminating of her disingenuousness and her extraordinary capacity for manipulation.  Karkare was declared a hero for his part in attempting to neutralize or kill the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists and posthumously conferred the Ashoka Chakra, India’s highest peacetime award for gallantry.  Less than two months before his death, Karkare had traced the Malegaon bomb blast to Pragya Thakur and it is his investigation that led to her being taken into custody.  Thakur now claims that Karkare had to die—and, so to speak, at her hands as in sending her and her fellow conspirators to jail, he had caused Hinduism’s custodians grievous harm.  Pragya Thakur says that she cursed Karkare, “I had told him you will be finished, and he was killed by terrorists in less than two months.”

As Pragya Thakur spoke these words at a press conference, the members of the BJP who stood by her side clapped.  It says something about the execrable state to which the BJP has fallen that a woman who stands charged of terrorist offences under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, as well as charges under the Indian Penal Code of murder, criminal conspiracy, and incitement to hatred against members of another community, should now be championed as a defender of the faith and be rewarded with political patronage.  But it is her “curse” that is striking:  in India, at least, the curse remains a potent force of excommunication and revenge, as much as a peculiar demonstration of the power of primal (female) energy.  The curse is everywhere in the Mahabharata and Ramayana; it is part of the sensibility of the epic.  It has worked its way into the sinews of Indian society; it speaks in a language that resonates with many.

GandhiCursesKrishna

Gandhari curses Krishna, from the Mahabharata.

In stating that she had hurled a curse on Karkare, and that he was thus doomed to death, Pragya Thakur has cast herself as a woman wronged.  The power of the virtuous is thought to form the backdrop of the curse.  Many commentators have supposed that Hindutva is most “successful” or effective when it exercises its muscle, but Pragya Thakur’s invocation of the curse suggests that Hindutva’s pharmacopeia runs deep.  I have long argued that Hindutva cannot be combated merely by producing better histories, or exposing what the secularists call ‘myths’, and Pragya Thakur’s “curse” on Karkare points to the fact that the forces arrayed against Hindu nationalists, bigotry, xenophobia, and religious hatred will have to be inventive and similarly resourceful in their deployment of Indian traditions, cultural norms, and popular lore if they are to force Hindutva on to the back foot and bring back civility and a genuine commitment to pluralism in Indian politics and society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The men with puffed-up and bloated chests who have run the country, or rather have run the country into the ground, are now counting upon a woman who claims that her shaap (curse) sent the leader of the anti-terrorism squad of one of the country’s principal police forces to his death.

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21 thoughts on “*A Woman’s Curse and the Death of a Hero

  1. Your call to those opposed to Hindutva to find inspiration from within the Indian tradition itself is quite important. Somehow, the Hindu right wing, which is now in power and will be, I am afraid, for a long time, has claimed a monopoly over Hinduism. I am reminded of Vandana Shiva’s employment of the iconography and mythology of the Earth goddess Gandmardhan in her eco-feminist movement among the Adivasi women of Dhanmati. As she had explained, she uses the goddess to critique “the post 1950s international development juggernaut that rode rough shot over postcolonial nations, divorcing rigorous analysis of gender, sustainable agriculture, poverty, and economic class from state planning”. I would very much agree with you that the creation of a political Hinduism opposed to Hindutva is absolutely necessary. Somehow, while there is the Christian Left of liberation theology, the Islamic Left of Islamic socialism, and so on, political Hinduism has generally only found voice among the right wing. It is also amazing that PM Modi has used the phrase Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, of all Sanskrit phrases, when he and his party obviously do not at all abide by that spirit.

    • Hi Ramachandran, You’ve said it well and spoken my mind. The secular left in India (and of course I generalize, as it has its own constituent parts) has not learned one of life’s most important lessons, namely that it is more important to choose one’s enemies wisely than one’s friends. They spend so much time trashing Gandhi, Vandana Shiva, Ashis Nandy, and various others that they are often clueless about what to
      do with the HIndutva chaps. And of course this also means that they have not learned to deploy the extraordinary resources of Indian traditions. It is, as you suggest, a disgrace that someone of Modi’s ilk should be embracing the idea of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, as he and his friends & acolytes have done everything possible to degrade the spirit behind that sentiment.

  2. I could not agree more. Another important element of the ideology of the Hindutva people, including this terrorist Sadhvi, is a deep hostility towards journalists, academics, people’s lawyers, and others in civil society. The attempt to crack down on debate and free thinking is frightening. Here, too, it would do well for them to go back to the Indian tradition of which they claim to be the guardians, which not only enshrined the principle of intellectual debate but was also based on the idea that one should argue against the strongest and most charitable interpretation of the opponent’s argument.

    • Your observation that the Indian intellectual tradition is, in your words, “based on the idea that one should argue against the strongest and most charitable interpretation of the opponent’s argument” is very perspicacious. I don’t think we pay much attention to it any longer, at least not in modes of public discourse. An analagous principle informed Gandhi’s thinking and conduct throughout his life. When he was in South Africa, he called off a strike he was leading when another strike commenced at the same time, as he took the view that this placed the opponent — the government, in this case — at a disadvantage, and that one could not in good faith strike the ‘enemy’ (not that he used the word) at the moment of their weakness. Gandhi would have characterized this as the nonviolence of the weak, not the nonviolence of the strong. Of course, the likes of Amit Shah would view Gandhi as an utter food and weakling.

  3. Hello vinay sir ,
    I have been reading your blogs and I have a question to ask . I would like to know what would happen if bjp comes to power with a majority and this sadhvi becomes a MP . Can I say that it will be an end of “Gandhi” in india? As a student of political science I fear for the future of Gandhi in india.

    • The BJP has tried to bury Gandhi. But, as in the famous cartoon published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Gandhi says to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, “The odd thing about assassins, Dr. King, is that they think they’ve killed you.”

  4. Before Modi, India never had a prime minister who did not grow up rich. I am absolutely opposed to Mr. Modi and his ideology, but this is an indictment against the Congress. Certainly, one of the reasons he appealed to the masses is his humble upbringing as a chai wallah (it is an utter disgrace that the Congress ridiculed him for that or for his poor English: truly a sign of their insufferable elitism and snobbishness). The same is true of the Sadhvi. Even as the elites who never had to worry about money find her remark about the curse distasteful, they have no idea that they are so far removed from the actual people of India to know that they wouldn’t find it distasteful at all. While it should not come from Modi and the Bhajpa, we need much more representation in our politics of people who are not from the disgustingly out-of-touch social class of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. We need more politicians with working class backgrounds and poor backgrounds. In other words we need more politicians from the real India, no more from the elite. The communists, who are supposed to represent the poor and working class in theory, have unfortunately been reduced to a state of electoral irrelevance and the BJP has taken up the mantle of working class populism.

    • I have no defence to offer on behalf of the Congress in this respect. I wouldn’t even remotely be interested in that. But, Ishaan, you should not at all make the mistake of supposing that the BJP speaks for the interest of common Indians. Modi was no ordinary chai-wallah to begin with, another one of the shenanigans that he has spread. Elitism has become a common word of abuse and the Congress in any case cannot be accused of elitism, since they are scarcely free of the pervasive anti-intellectualism in India in contemporary politics. I agree that in India, as in the United States, the working class needs much better representation in politics and that we need a far better appreciation of working class culture. But let’s not bark up the wrong tree.

  5. You are an anti-national, anti-Indian, and anti-Hindu person. Please stop poisoning the minds of our youths and turning them against our Hindu dharmic culture which is older and greater than any other religion. If Hinduism will not be protected in India where else in the world will it be? Unlike other religions which are practiced everywhere, Hinduism is the unique cultural inheritance of our land and finally our government is giving it the respect it deserves after so many years.

    • What other response should one expect from people who are unself-reflective (if at all they understand what that means), and who believe that they alone are desh-bhaktas (lovers of the motherland)? Hinduism has survived very well in spite of all the anxieties of the self-proclaimed lovers of Hindu dharma. The comment of Abhiram, whoever he is, reminds me of the comment made by Swami Vivekananda on a visit to Kashmir. Some of his followers were very agitated at seeing broken idols and, in a state of anguish, Vivekananda asked the goddess why she allowed her idols to be destroyed. He says the goddess spoke to him thus: “Do you protect me or do I protect you?”

  6. While I am opposed to the U.S. policy of preventing former felons from voting after serving their time, I do find the ability of a convict to run for office from prison to be problematic.

  7. With Thakur winning with over 200,000 votes, what can be done in terms of democratic reform or actual change when an actual terrorist is voted in by such a large margin. How can those against the BJP even continue to believe that their votes matters and they should continue to vote when someone like Thakur wins?

  8. Nehru, too, embodied the ideas of turning to the resources of Indian civilization. Though he has often been portrayed as an irreligious or even atheistic figure due to his staunch secularism and Westernized demeanor, his writings and views on Indian spirituality, the relevance of Vedanta, the civilizational ethos of India and so on were quite nuanced. Perhaps he simply did not effectively communicate his views on these matters.

  9. When I was a child going to school in Andhra Pradesh, now Telangana, I had a Telugu teacher who truly had a lasting impact on me. A short yet intimidating woman, in the way that all schoolteachers were intimidating in those days, she was a communist and took an extremely progressive stance in the interpretation of mythology. Her mastery over Telugu poetry was astounding, but what was even more influential was her steadfast support of the rakshasalu in every story. She eloquently discussed the injustice done to Mahabali by Vamana avatara, saying “he of course didn’t do anything wrong. his only fault is that he is a rakshasam, no?” She sided with what I had been raised to believe were the most evil figures, from Ravana, to Duryodhana and Dushasana. And yet she approached the texts with respect. I am afraid that this method of engaging with Indian tradition, in a way that is both respectful and subversive, is being lost. Just a few months ago in Hyderabad, when a prominent film critic made a comment in support of Ravana, he was arrested for “hurting religious sentiments”. In our English medium schools, this engagement with the vernacular literatures has been lost, as all schools are now focused on just English and Hindi and perhaps Sanskrit with little time for the vernaculars. We must again teach our children our mythology, not in the dogmatic way of the Hindutva folks, but in the old progressive way, which encourages them to sympathize with the rakshasa without fear of being arrested. I find your call to engage with the Indian tradition very important.

    • Hello Sanjay,
      The story you have shared of your Telugu teacher is wonderful and captures very much the idea of what I have described as a desirable and necessary engagement with Indian ‘traditions’ and in particular with what I call the mythos of Indian civilization. The world of the puranas (and I don’t mean just the “puranas”, but the puranic sensibility) is rich beyond comprehension but the Hindutva folks are hung up on the likes of Savarkar, an absolute mediocrity and a positivist who was enchanted by the worst European traditions, such as Social Darwinism, or Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, who was likewise singularly devoid of ideas. A K Ramanujan’s classic essay on the 300 Ramayanas is about the breathtaking plurality of Ramayana traditions, but when it was prescribed at Delhi University around 10 years ago, the self-proclaimed defenders of the Hindu tradition protested and went on a rampage.

  10. It is truly bewildering why the Hindu nationalists wish to promote this single, uninteresting version of Indian mythology. I would agree with you that Savarkar, Golwalkar, and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya are some of the most pathetic thinkers our country has generated, though integral humanism may have some merits. Delhi University, too, which is the top university in the country, has relatively few scholars of Tamil, Telugu, or Kannada. Astonishingly, even the Department of Telugu at the University of Hyderabad states that their goal is to provide Telugu education with an eye towards “business administration and mental health promotion, recognizing the changing needs of the society in relation to language use“. Truly a sign of what education has become in today’s world.

    • What passes for education, as you have suggested, is a sham — even at so-called “world-class universities”. Business schools, for instance, are a complete sham; in fact, I do not, and will not, write letters of recommendation for students seeking admission to business school, no matter how well they done in my classes. But how many battles can one fight?

  11. While I agree with your piece, your comment that the Indian Left has always Gandhi is not entirely fair. Though you have said that there are differences within the Indian Left, the characterization as a whole seems only apt for a couple of writers who have made lots of noise. Irfan Habib, for instance, a historian firmly a part of the Indian Marxist tradition who is, as I am sure you know, writing a truly extraordinary people’s history of India series from Prehistory to the present, has strongly criticized the detractors of Gandhi as ahistorical and ill informed. In my experience he is not unrepresentative of most Indian Marxists’ assessment of Gandhi.

    https://m.economictimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/criticism-of-mahatma-gandhi-not-based-on-history-irfan-habib/articleshow/46745393.cms

    • Hello Shiva, It is always a risk to paint adherents of a certain view with broad brush strokes. There have certainly been Marxists and what in left are called left nationalists who have had a much more sympathetic reading of Gandhi, and Irfan Habib — and JNU historians such as the late Bipan Chandra, and his students Aditya and Mridula Mukherjee — would all fall in that category. I recognize that. Nevertheless, there is a long history of sheer animosity towards Gandhi in CPI/CPM/Maoist parties, and that, unfortunately, is more characteristic of the Marxist view of Gandhi in India. My EPW piece of 2007, “The Gandhi that Everyone Loves to Hate”, delves into this to some degree.

      • While I warmly agree with most of the content you have written on this blog, I must respectfully differ on this point. As Vijay Prashad has written in his recent book, “No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism”, the Gandhians and the communists have always been mutually adjacent political entities, especially after independence. He has also hailed Gandhi as a revolutionary figure and said that if Gandhi had gotten to design the Indian state, we would have had a revolutionary state rather than the bourgeois democracy pushed by the Nehruvians. Ramachandra Guha also recently wrote a piece entitled, “Shankar Guha Niyogi: Marxist, Ambedkarite, Gandhian”, and it is in fact true that Niyogi encompassed all of these strands. The Maoists are also not universally anti-Gandhi, as demonstrated by the fact that the head of the CPI (Maoist) himself in fact has a large portrait of Gandhi hanging in his house, along with the more expected figures of Marx, Lenin, Mao, and Che Guevara. If we are to create an alternative future for India to oppose it to Hindutva, I believe it is essential to bring the work of Gandhi and Gandhians into conversation with the work of Indian Marxists and communists. While there are certainly bitter disagreements between the two groups, and that too on issues of no small importance, ending the hostility between them is essential in our time if we want an effective alternative to both the fascism of Hindutva and the failed liberalism of the Congress. There have been at least some attempted overtures by Marxists, such as Prashad. It remains to be seen whether the Gandhians can provide similar overtures. It is worth pointing out that the Marxists and the Ambedkarites themselves have had bitter disagreements, stemming both from the fact that Indian communist parties have been largely dominated by Brahmins along with the perception among the Marxists that Ambedkar’s critique of caste is entirely theologically based and does not view it as a material social reality. This hostility among three groups who each promote, in their own way, revolutionary change, must end.

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