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.
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.
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.
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.