Delhi/ Mumbai: Garba events have emerged as centres of political controversy in two BJP-ruled states — Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat — ahead of assembly elections.
In both states, several alleged incidents of Muslim youth trying to enter garba (folk dance) venues stoked trouble. In all instances, the men were identified by workers of the Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), who were keeping watch during the dance events, a mainstay of the nine-day festival of Navratri that started Monday.
In Madhya Pradesh’s Indore, at the behest of the Bajrang Dal, the police took action against Muslim youth who were rounded up from garba pandals in three separate incidents. The Indore police confirmed to ThePrint that these men used fake identification cards or names, and that “preventive” action had been initiated against them.
Tannu Sharma, the Indore Bajrang Dal sanyojak (coordinator), told ThePrint that all three incidents had taken place between 27 and 29 September. He further said that if the police failed to take appropriate action, matters might escalate.
“There is a slogan that’s become popular in Madhya Pradesh these days — pehle rokenge, phir tokenge aur uske baad thokenge (first we will try to stop them, then interrupt them, and if that also doesn’t work we will remove them),” he said.
Similarly, in Gujarat’s Ahmedabad, Bajrang Dal members allegedly assaulted Muslim men trying to enter garba venues in Ahmedabad in two separate incidents.
Speaking to ThePrint, Vinod Bansal, national spokesperson of the VHP, said fears of “love jihad” and concerns over “women’s security” during garba events were behind the actions of Bajrang Dal workers.
“It’s a cultural as well as religious programme. We have requested the state police and organisers to keep an eye on people trying to create nuisance in such programmes,” he said.
On the presence of Bajrang Dal workers outside garba pandals, he pointed out that “women’s security is a major concern and (people) need to be checked so that women can participate freely”.
“Bajrang Dal workers have been vigilant. We are only supporting the law enforcement agencies. Cases of love jihad and crime against women have been reported from such pandals,” he claimed.
“We also don’t want non-believers to make rounds of these pandals. They should either not go or should not be allowed,” he added.
Elections in Gujarat, where the BJP which has been in power since 1995, are due later this year. The Madhya Pradesh elections are scheduled for next year.
Both polls are crucial for the BJP as it is trying to improve its double-digit seat tally of the 2017 elections in Gujarat, while in Madhya Pradesh, the party’s performance in the recent municipal elections had raised concerns.
‘A tool for love jihad’
The Bajrang Dal in Indore, MP, has informed the police of three incidents at pandals over the last two days.
“On 27 September, we found a few men making videos of Hindu girls who were doing garba. The Bajrang Dal activists found their actions suspicious and when they tried to enquire about the men’s identity they turned out to be Muslim youth who had given fake names. We called the police immediately,” the Bajrang Dal’s Tannu Sharma said.
He also cited two other alleged incidents. “In Dwarkapuri two Muslim men who were from Kolkata had entered a pandal using fake IDs and again we asked the police to intervene. In the last incident, a youth was found trying to take the contact numbers of the girls at the pandal and when Bajrang Dal activists asked for his name he was found using a fake ID. We handed him over to the police,” Sharma claimed.
The garba controversy in Madhya Pradesh comes days after state culture and tourism minister Usha Thakur raised concerns about the events being used as a tool for “love jihad” in the state. Following that, the state government swung into action and asked garba organisers to check identity cards of people before allowing them into the pandals.
Thakur had told reporters in Gwalior earlier this month that no one would be allowed to enter garba pandals during Navaratri without showing identity proof. According to her, garba events in the past had been a “big way to carry out love jihad activities”.
On Tuesday, state home minister Narottam Mishra told reporters: “Navaratri, the festival of worship of Maa Durga, is the centre of our faith and is a religious programme. To maintain peace and harmony on such a holy occasion, garba event organisers have been instructed to provide entry only after checking identification cards.”
He further stated that the move was meant to ensure there was no “untoward situation” at such events. “Everyone can come to offer prayers to the goddess,” he said.
BJP MP Pragya Thakur took a harder line. She told reporters in Bhopal this week that people from the Muslim community should not be allowed in garba pandals. “Entry in garba pandals should be done strictly on the basis of identity cards. People from the Muslim community should not be allowed to enter. We want to keep our worship system pure,” she said.
The Congress questioned her statement and termed it hate-speech.
“RSS chief (Mohan Bhagwat) should visit masjid imam, go to madrasa… (PM Narendra Modi’s childhood friend) Abbas stayed at home with him, his mother cooked food for Abbas on Eid. BJP state president stops his speech at the time of azaan. Sadhvi should first show the courage to oppose these people, then she should indulge in sowing the poison of hatred,” said Congress leader Narendra Saluja.
According to a BJP leader, the party has always focused on Hindutva issues as they are important for the community and that “love jihad has been used to target innocent Hindu women”.
“The focus on Hindutva issues will be sharper in the coming few months as the party does not want to give any scope to the Congress to make headway on the basis of its so-called soft-Hindutva strategy,” said another BJP leader.
Surprise checks, a teeka test
In Gujarat, members of Bajrang Dal allegedly stopped Muslim men from entering two garba venues. “Our members keep conducting surprise checks at such venues to ensure Muslims are not entering and there are no possibilities of love jihad,” VHP spokesman Hitendrasinh Rajput told ThePrint.
“During surprise checks on Tuesday at two venues, our karyakartas (workers) saw some Muslim men harassing women. When we spoke to them, their intention seemed malafide. It seemed they were inspired by the concept of love jihad. There were some clashes, and fisticuffs,” he added.
Rajput said that like every year, the VHP has issued an appeal for all non-believers and non-Hindus to stay away from Navaratri venues. “It is a matter of devotion,” he explained.
According to Rajput, the VHP has informed the Hotel and Restaurant Association (Western India) as well as OYO Rooms to ensure they don’t rent out rooms to Muslim men accompanying Hindu women to “prevent love jihad” during Navaratri.
Ashok Rawal, a senior Gujarat VHP functionary, told ThePrint: “Bajrang Dal members stand outside garba venues and apply a teeka (vermillion) on the forehead of people entering.”
“Those who are Hindu don’t mind the teeka. If anyone opposes, we immediately sense something amiss and ask for their identification to ensure they are not Muslim,” he said. “It is only a matter of creating awareness,” he added.
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)