September 27, 2015

India: Sanatan Sanstha on the extreme edge of the Hindutva right wing in Goa (Pamela D’Mello for Scroll)


How the Sanatan Sanstha is positioning itself on the extreme edge of the Hindutva right wing in Goa

The outfit has powerful backers in Goa.
 Even as investigating agencies in Maharashtra study the alleged links between the members of Hindutva group Sanatan Sanstha with the killings of rationalists Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar, the organisation's headquarters in central Goa’s Bandora village seems unaffected, at least from the outside.

Goa Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar has shrugged off any responsibility for investigating the organisation, whose members in Maharasthra and Goa have been implicated in several terror plots, including the 2009 Diwali-eve Margao bomb blast. (The six men arrested for the explosion were acquitted in 2013).

Parsekar justified his inaction saying one or two individuals caught doing “ill” do not reflect on the organisation as a whole, even though one of though a colleague from his Bharatiya Janata Party had compared the Sanstha to the Students Islamic Movement of India and called for it to be banned.

Parsekar said that would be possible for Goa to take a decision on banning the organisation only after the authorities in Maharashtra establish whether the Sanstha was actually involved in the murders of the two rationalists.

Powerful backers

Ramesh Gauns, a member of the Goa Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti, which has repeatedly challenged the Sanstha's claims of being able to "scientifically tabulate spiritual levels", said he was not surprised by the Goa government's tip-toeing around the organisation.

“They have managed to build a large base of influential donors, followers and supporters, in private and government service, teachers, housewives, among professionals and business families in Goa," Gauns alleged. "Every political party sees the number of people behind them and leaves them alone.”

The organisation hasn't always been held in such regard. In 2009, many Goa residents were angered when members of the Sanstha were implicated in blasts that went off on Diwali eve near a huge gathering of Hindu revellers for the hugely popular Narakasura effigy contests. The Sanstha opposes the Narakasura festivities because they celebrate the demon rather than its righteous slayer Krishna.

Demonstrations against the Sanstha in the temple towns of Ramnathi and Ponda put the organisation on the backfoot for a while.

But once the protests died down, the Sanstha found its stride again. The Goa government resumed giving advertisements to the organisation's daily Sanatan Prabhat, a practice it continues. “We support Sanatan Sanstha through government advertisements," Goa's Public Works Department Minister Sudhin Dhavlikar admitted to a newspaper.

The Dhavlikar brothers – Sudhin and Deepak – who head the Maharastrawadi Gomantak Party, which in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party run the state government, have been steadfast supporters of the Sanstha from 2000, facilitating the construction of the spacious air-conditioned ashram in their constituency. This allowed the sanstha to shift its headquarters from Panvel, near Mumbai, to Goa in 2004. Sudhin’s wife Jyoti and Deepak’s wife Lata, are both sadhaks (literally, seekers) of the organisation. Lata Dhavlikar was in the news recently for urging parents not to send their children to Christian schools and suggesting that the spread of western culture was leading to increasing incidents of rape.

From spiritual to political

While the Sastha was established in Mumbai 1990, it got a toehold in Goa when its founder Dr Jayant Athavale, a clinical hypnotherapist, was invited by a local businessmen’s social club to deliver a lecture, Ramesh Gauns said. He apparently quickly gauged how devoted local Konkanis were to their kuldevta or family deity. Early devotees were asked to recite and write their family deity’s name repeatedly, until they responded to hypnotic suggestions that they had indeed “sighted” the deity before them.

As the Sanstha's following and donors increased, with many prominent doctors joining its ranks as sadhaks or seekers, it began organising weekly satsangs (religious discourses) in temples, conducting moral science classes in schools, or giving up their professions and families to become full-time seekers. Seekers are conferred levels of spirituality based on their levels of sadhana or devotion, says the Sanstha's website, according to which some 53 persons have been granted sainthood.

While the Sanstha's spiritual teachings may be harmless and even therapeutic to its large following of middle-class women and men, its political teachings of a militant Hindutva are far from benign. Its many editions of Sanatan Prabhat proclaim that the organisation aims to establish a Hindu Rashtra by 2023. Articles and headlines attack non-Hindus, Muslims and Christians and target the Congress for the failure of "Bharatiya democracy” since Independence.

In 2002, ENT specialist Dr Charudatta Pingale, a disciple of Athavale and former editor of the Sanatan Prabhat, went on to become the head the newly formed Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, which is also headquartered in Goa. Later, a youth wing, Dharmashakti Sena, with branches in Maharashtra and Goa, caused a bit of a stir when it became involved in defence and martial arts training.

The Hindu Janajagruti Samiti was particularly active during the tenure of the Congress government led by Digamber Kamat, forcing it to withdraw  textbooks, even as it targeted artists for depictions of Ganesha and prevented the screening of films, including some at the International Film Festival of India. It was also alleged to be behind several incidents of communal tension, singling out Kamat's Margao segment. But the political will to bring the organisation to book, see cases to completion or challenge acquittals seemed always lacking in Goa. All Samiti campaigns seem to find an echo in the Sanstha's newspapers and websites, with the two organisations seamlessly complementing each other.

Saffron terror

One article on the Samiti's website propagates the use of “saffron terror” in order “to hunt down Pakistani and foreign agents in India and eliminate them.” Others say that it is “time to hold India's media legally accountable”, forego tolerance and hunt down “anyone who kills or hurts a Hindu for religion reasons” wherever they live.

The Samiti's All India Hindu conventions at Ramnathi temple have drawn other like-minded organisations since they started in 2012. Temple trustee, former member of Parliament and influential banker Ramakant Angle has promised to build 100 rooms to house future delegates, the organisation's website reports.

An organisation of Hindu lawyers, the Hindu Vidhidnya Parishad, set up as an offshoot of the 2012 convention to assist Hindu causes, boasts of its success in securing the acquittal of the Margao bomb blast accused, getting orders to clear Muslim-dominated slums in Margao and Pune and take on the rationalist Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmulan Samiti.

As the Congress and Aam Aadmi Party in Goa clamour for the organisation to be banned, the Sanstha, it would appear, is bidding to lay claim to the extreme in competitive militancy within the Parivar and is becoming increasingly trenchant in its criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.