India's hard men

Editorial Comment, Financial Times, February 24, 2003 original

A year ago India was scarred by some of the worst sectarian violence since partition, when up to 2,000 Muslims were killed in pogroms in the western state of Gujarat, ostensibly sparked by an arson attack by Muslims on a train that killed 59 Hindu activists. Human rights organisations in India, the US and Europe implicated two organisations in the well-orchestrated attacks, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) and its youth offshoot, the Bajrang Dal (devotees of the monkey-god Hanuman).

Now a Financial Times investigation has established that these groups receive extensive funding from Indians abroad, collected mainly as tax-free charity donations to front organisations in the US and the UK. This fundraising is coming under increasing scrutiny. So it should - as should the links between these groups and India's ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP).

Behind the VHP and the Bajrang Dal stands a quasi-paramilitary body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS or Association of National Volunteers), which is the mother organisation of the Hindu revivalist BJP. Described by Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, as "an Indian version of fascism", the RSS is at the centre of a protean network of front organisations. This structure facilitates arm's-length money-raising. It also makes it easier for the RSS to deny it is inciting agitation against Muslims and Christians.

Tragically, the BJP is increasingly adopting RSS campaigning tactics; the combine won a landslide in December's election in Gujarat, after a string of crushing defeats, blamed by RSS leaders on the party's attempts to blunt its fundamentalist agenda. The BJP rules in coalition in New Delhi, but without any such restraint in Gujarat, which has become the RSS laboratory. But even in the national government in Delhi, 16 of the 30 cabinet ministers are RSS members - including Atal Behari Vajpayee, the prime minister - and the influence of this shadowy group on government is palpable.

The Indian subcontinent, trapped in a stand-off between Muslim Pakistan and predominantly Hindu India - both nuclear-armed - has more than enough instability without a replication of this conflict inside India. Friends of democratic India such as the US and the UK need to make this point forcibly and to choke off the flow of funds to the RSS and its front organisations.

The RSS spends heavily on welfare and religious schools, but so do Islamist groups in the Muslim world - a danger the world has woken up to. Such ostensibly charitable activities are one reason for the groups' success. They also help pull in donations from people unaware of how some of their money is used.

The UK is formally investigating two RSS fundraising affiliates, and is considering an inquiry into the VHP. The US has also started carefully scrutinising RSS front organisations. That probe should go ahead unimpeded by Washington's ambition to develop a strategic alliance with India as a counterbalance to China's weight in Asia.