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India's young Hindu radicals

MANGALORE, India — Inside the Mangalore city jail, Subhash Padil, a 29-year-old foot soldier in a far right Hindu organization, leaned in to make himself heard through the wire mesh of the visitor's window. Half a dozen of his fellow inmates crowded around him.

With an orange lungi wrapped around his waist, sarong-style, and a saffron towel draped over his shoulders, Padil dressed in the guise of a temple priest. His moralistic protestations against his incarceration for an alleged attack on a birthday party held at a local bed and breakfast last year make him sound like one, too.

“When we came in, the girls were half naked and everyone was drinking,” he said, through a translator. “They claim it was only a birthday party. But if that was all that was going on, why would they hold it at a guesthouse instead of at home?”

Last July, journalist Naveen Soorinje caught Padil and other alleged members of the Hindu Jagarana Vedike on video as they roughed up a group of 20-something party-goers they claimed were up to no good. For exposing the Hindu group's violent answer to moral policing, the journalist spent more than six months in jail.

The real shock, however, was the virulence of the young Hindu radicals he exposed.

More than half of India's 1.2 billion people are under 25 years old, a potential demographic dividend that optimists say could add two percent per year to the country's gross domestic product over the next 20 years.

But contrary to conventional wisdom, it's not all Facebook, MTV and sexting in “Youngistan” — Pepsi's clever tag for this generation now coming into its own.  Instead, even as English-speaking India appears to be growing ever more tolerant of dating, live-in relationships and even intercaste marriages, Mangalore's birthday party battle and similar conflicts across the country hint at a simmering culture war beneath the surface of India's economic growth.

“If they truly suspected that there were drugs at the party or that the boys were taking pictures of the girls in compromising positions to blackmail them, they should have stopped to assess the situation and confirm something like that was really going on,” said Soorinje, who was finally released from custody after months of protests from civil rights organizations and other media personnel.

“But you can see from the video that they just stormed through the gate and started the attack.”

The Morality Police

A small, coastal city in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, Mangalore seems like an unnatural hotbed for Hindu radicals. It's only about 200 miles from Bangalore, the IT hub that has become the public face of India's economic rise. And thanks to dozens of educational institutions like St. Aloysius College, whose colonial-era towers overlook the Arabian Sea from the center of town, the city throngs with young, upwardly mobile Indians studying to be doctors, nurses, executives and engineers. 

On a typical afternoon at a local branch of Cafe Coffee Day, the unofficial capital of Youngistan, several couples from the local colleges sit together, their heads drawn together over the excuse of a notebook. In one corner of the cafe, a Muslim girl sits with her bearded boyfriend, strappy pink sandals peaking out from beneath the head-to-toe black of her chador, while in another, a Hindu guy with a soul patch has pulled his chair around the table to sit next to his girlfriend. And later that night, at a local bar called Froth on Top, the crowd of young college students drank pitchers of beer, looking no different from any such group in any country around the world.

But there's more here than meets the eye.

Over the past five years — according to news reports collected by the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), India's oldest and largest human rights organisation — Mangalore and the surrounding coastal area has witnessed more than 100 incidents of so-called “moral policing,” similar to the homestay attack in July.

“If a boy and girl walks together, that is not Hindu culture, they will say,” said Swebert de Silva, principal of St. Aloysius College, where students have protested against the self-appointed moral police.

“Or women drinking in a pub. Or young people gathering together and drinking a little beer. That is not Hindu culture.”

Most of the incidents compiled by PUCL involved members of radical groups such as the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, Sri Rama Sene and Bajrang Dal. In January 2009, for instance, around 40 alleged members of the Sri Ram Sene attacked young men and women drinking at a local Mangalore bar called “Amnesia — the Lounge,” claiming they were violating Indian culture. In August 2011, some 30 to 40 alleged members of the Bajrang Dal reportedly broke up a birthday party being held at a local farmhouse, claiming it was a rave.

“If I'm married and I'm having children of age 20 or 25 and I flirt with a girl who is the age of 14, and my intention is to spoil her, and some alert social activists ... stop us, how can you say it is moral policing?” said Franklin Monteiro, a local leader from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“First they will ask whether they are married or they are lovers, or whether they are having the permission of their parents,” Monteiro said. “These three questions they will ask first. If they belong to the same [religious] community, they [the vigilantes] will leave, just like that.”

But in contrast, in dozens of cases compiled by PUCL, members of various right-wing outfits reportedly dragged young people off buses, sprang on couples and hauled them into the police station, or beat them up on the spot.

Many of these attacks stemmed from the real or imagined perception that a Muslim boy had sought a connection with a Hindu girl — which right-wing ideologues have characterized as “Love Jihad.” And in almost all of these instances that involve the local police, the authorities appear to have tacitly sanctioned the vigilantes' actions by holding the couple for questioning, calling their parents to retrieve them, or releasing them only after ascertaining that both the boy and girl are Hindus.

“Nobody is stopping it,” said Suresh Bhatt, vice president of the Karnataka chapter of PUCL. “We're terribly concerned that the lawkeepers, the police and the politicians, are turning a blind eye.”

Activists from PUCL and other like-minded organisations trace such incidents of moral policing — as well as dozens of reported attacks on Muslims accused of slaughtering cows and on Christians accused of trying to convert Hindus — to the recent rise to power of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Karnataka.

The BJP and the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, Sri Rama Sene, and Bajrang Dal are all official offshoots, or ideological allies, of a massive, informal political “family” known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), PUCL activists said.

The increase in these interreligious skirmishes — whether they're related to the bogey of “Love Jihad,” cow slaughter, or conversion — is part of a well-planned RSS campaign strategy, according to critics.

“For us, the final is the Sangh Parivar (RSS family), we are all activists of the Sangh Parivar,” said the BJP's Monteiro. “For us, the final and the most holiest part of life is to protect this country, as well as the culture of this land, which has been practiced by our elders.”

In Mangalore, the campaign began in the late 1990s, when a communal clash between Hindus and Muslims offered the RSS and other proponents of its ethnic nationalist ideology of “Hindutva” or “Hinduness” an opportunity to woo low caste Hindus away from competing socialist and communist movements, according to K. Phaniraj, a professor at the nearby Manipal Institute of Technology. 

But since 2008, when the BJP came to power in Karnataka, the lines have blurred between the grassroots exploitation of tensions between religious communities and official sanction from the authorities. When the government proposed a bill to ban cow slaughter, for instance, local police tacitly allowed hooligans to enforce the ban, though it never became law.  And for more than a month last year, the official police website for the district that includes Mangalore featured a photo collage highlighting the supposed public service activities of the RSS (which the group's opponents say are nothing more than recruitment efforts).

“I call it Hindutva fascism,” Phaniraj said. “I make no bones about it.”

Class and caste, town and gown

As disturbing as that sounds, that aspect of the issue is little more than politics as usual forIndia, where the RSS and Hindu nationalism has been a potent force since 1925.

And though various speeches reported by local media suggest otherwise, some RSS members and sympathisers say that the organisation has quietly shunted to the side the outright fascist ideas of Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, one of its principal early ideologues. (In his written works, Golwalkar calls for non-Hindus to adopt Hindu culture or submit to remain “wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation” and appears to endorse Hitler's decision to purge Germanyof the Jews, though perhaps not his methods).

“There might be a small section of the RSS which is anti-Muslim,” said 31-year-old Brijesh Chowta, an RSS member who cautioned that his statements represented only his personal views. “But if you look at the organisation, they say Hindutva is not a religion. Everybody can practice their religion, but it's about being Indian first.”

What's new, and of greater concern to the more liberal citizens of Youngistan, is the idea that India's modernization may not be diminishing the ranks of the true believers, and their conservatism may be contagious — encouraging Christian and Muslim fundamentalism.

At a recent regional meeting, 80 percent of the 85,000 uniformed “volunteers” that turned out were between 16 and 35, according to a 28-year-old member of the RSS who lives at its center in the city and works for the organisation full time. (He asked not to be named because he is not an official spokesman.)

Meanwhile, the regular attacks on Muslims that accompanied the Hindu vigilantes' moral policing sparked local college students to adopt the burqa and chador as a kind of badge of honor in the tussle between modernity, freedom and identity.

And the socio-economic dimensions of the conflict hint that it may soon grow more serious.

Apart from the alleged political machinations of the Hindu right, there is a class-and-caste, town-versus-gown element to these incidents of moral policing that some observers believe augurs trouble on the horizon.

While educated, upwardly mobile young people move forward to take better jobs, free themselves from the authority of their parents and embrace more liberal attitudes toward love and sex, another group may be growing increasingly lost, hopeless and angry.

According to Soorinje, the journalist jailed for his reporting on moral policing, for instance, four of the young men facing charges for the alleged attack on party-goers at the homestay in July do not have electricity in their homes.

“The reason that young people are attracted to these kind of [radical conservative] outfits is the uneven development we see in Mangalore,” Soorinje said.

“While we have so many colleges and shopping malls, the backward and uneducated tend to take what the leadership says about 'Love Jihad' and so forth at face value, because young men and women socializing together like the college students do is completely outside their sphere of knowledge.”

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