Rights activists in India are outraged after members of two right-wing Hindu groups put up posters around the ghats of the Ganges River in Varanasi, asking “non-Hindus” to stay away from the bank of the river in the north Indian city.
With the posters, members of Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) or World Hindu Council and its youth wing Bajrang Dal (BD) tried to whip up anti-minority passion and polarize the society on a communal line, activists said.
VHP leaders said that some activists from the organization put up the posters without knowledge of the group’s leaders. “We have suspended from our organization two activists who were involved in the Varanasi ghat case,” the national spokesperson of VHP, Vinod Bansal, told VOA.
Hindus view the Ganges as a holy river, and every year, millions of Hindu pilgrims from India and other countries visit the ghats of the Ganges and the nearby temples of Varanasi, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The centuries-old ghats – steps leading down to the river -- are also very popular among foreign tourists who are largely Christian and Buddhist.
‘This is a warning, not a request’
The posters that the VHP and BD activists put up around the ghats of the Ganges in Varanasi on January 6 and 7 had “Entry Prohibited for Non-Hindus” written on top.
“The ghats and temples along the bank of Mother Ganga are symbols of the Sanatan Dharma [Hindu religion], Indian culture and faith. Those who follow the Sanatan Dharma are welcome here. Others should note, it’s not a picnic spot,” read one of the posters in Hindi. “This is a warning, not a request,” a highlighted line of the poster read.
Local leaders of the VHP and BD appeared in separate videos warning non-Hindus to stay away. Both were arrested and released on personal bonds.
VHP spokesperson Bansal said the posters reflect feelings of the Hindu activists who are angry with what he called the “anti-Hindu activities of the jihadis.”
“However, the activists in Varanasi did this without taking consent from the central authority of our organization. We disapprove of their posters…This is not the policy of VHP to boycott any religious community or stop it from entering any public place,” Bansal said.
Varanasi is the parliamentary constituency of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His Hindu nationalist party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), happens to be the ruling party of Uttar Pradesh, where crucial state elections will be held in seven phases between February 10 and March 7.
‘Strategy to humiliate India’s minorities’
The right-wing Hindu activists, whose ideology is known as Hindutva, released the posters in Varanasi with a plan to polarize the society along communal lines and help the BJP win more votes in the upcoming state elections, Dhananjay Tripathi, a local school teacher and social activist told VOA.
“Varanasi has a history of all religious communities living together peacefully for generations. With the posters the VHP and Bajrang Dal activists threaten to destroy the legacy of the city’s communal harmony,” Tripathi said.
Many are of the view that since Modi became prime minister in 2014, Muslim and Christian minorities have found themselves marginalized, attacked by right-wing Hindu groups and subjected to many discriminatory practices as his party pursues a Hindu nationalist agenda.
“The posters at the Ghats of Varanasi manifest the continuation of their strategy to humiliate India’s minorities, particularly Muslims, by openly infringing upon their fundamental human rights,” Professor Ashok Swain, head of the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University in Sweden, told VOA.
“The overall strategy of Hindutva forces is to reduce India’s minorities as second-class citizens of the country in all spheres of life,” he said.
Hindus make up an estimated three-fourths of India’s 1.4 billion people.
Zafarul-Islam Khan, former chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission, said that the Hindu right-wing activists operate as foot soldiers of the BJP.
“In recent years, the spike in cases like those of forcing Muslims to chant Hindu slogans, beating up Muslims on trumped-up charges, lynching them, framing them in false ‘love jihad’ cases shows that the perpetrators, who are the Hindutva groups, enjoy impunity,” Khan told VOA.
“Love jihad” is a controversial term used by Hindu nationalists who say that Muslim men marry non-Muslim women to spread Islam.
Professor Apoorvanand, who teaches at Delhi University and uses one name, agrees that impunity helps Hindutva groups in their campaign to marginalize the non-Hindu minorities.
“The ideology of Hindutva claims that Hindus have the first claim over all the natural and cultural resources of India. For the last decade or so, non-Hindus, mostly Muslims, are being pushed out of economic activities and common public spaces and they find it increasingly difficult to buy houses or land in Hindu-dominated areas. The idea is to create a segregated India making its large parts free of Muslims,” Apoorvanand told VOA.