The politics of a Hindu elephant god

In Hindu lore, the elephant Ganesh is one of the simplest and most common of gods, worshiped by all castes. He is also traditionally one of the most fun-loving and playful.

But in the past few years, Ganesh has undergone a transformation. He's been adopted by the Hindu Munnani, just one small part of a growing Hindu unity movement that is changing the dynamics of Indian society and politics - including the ongoing national elections that end next week.

Last week, a huge, pink Ganesh led a parade of other idols, riding a make-believe tank. Ganesh, like the boys that follow him, is becoming a vehicle of political activism.

Nearly a thousand young Hindu boys with saffron headbands want to parade past a local mosque on their way to immerse the idols in the ocean. Tensions rise.

Shouting "This is not Pakistan, this is India," the Hindu Munnani, or Hindu Front, are met and diverted by 5,000 security troops. The parade proceeds without violence here, though 17 people were killed in clashes at a Ganesh festival in nearby Hyderabad on Sept. 22.

Representing one end of the political spectrum are groups like the Munnani - a developing cadre of footsoldiers and political activists, most of whom are recruited from the slums of Madras, (also known as Chennai), or from lower-caste villages in the countryside.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the political party led by acting Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and represented in international forums by the highly respected Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh. During the elections, the BJP are urging their ranks to be moderate and to forego hard-core platforms such as eliminating special laws for minorities.

Therein lies the current paradox, not only for the elections, that the BJP is leading, but for the future impact this powerful Hindu movement will have on the dominant country in South Asia. The question is: Can the Hindu national movement survive without the hard-core agenda that has made it popular, and given it energy?

During the 1990s, a "Hindu awakening" caught on quickly in North India when gangs tore down a famous mosque. What's significant today is the rise of the controversial Hindu movement in south India - a place it has never had a foothold.

A decade ago, the Ganesh festival took place with only a few idols and a smattering of Munnani in the state of Tamil Nadu, where it is based. But today, some 1,400 Ganesh idols are immersed in the salty ocean waters by 40,000 boys and young men, age 7 to 20. The festival has become a mainstream event.

Likewise, the BJP scored few seats in the south during the 1998 national elections, which it won by high vote counts in the northern Hindu heartland. Now, by forming coalitions with local parties, the BJP-led coalition may well win as many as half or more of the seats in key southern states. The BJP, once considered an extremist party, is now mainstream as well.

"To look at this simply as apolitical movement misses the point," says N. Ram, a leading publisher in India based in Madras. "This is a mobilization of aggressive sentiments that has a decades-long strategy. People used to underestimate it. Not any more."

Down on Madras's sandy beach the Ganesh procession streams in for hours. Some of the elephants are so large a crane is needed to haul them into the water.

The Munnani has given Ganesh a more militant demeanor. Last year, after India tested five nuclear devices, several "atom bomb Ganeshes" appeared in the festival. This year, following the summer fight with Pakistan in Kashmir, many Ganeshes were decorated with guns. If BJP leaders are advocating moderation, the news has not reached the Munnani.

An aggressive approach is necessary today, say Munnani leaders like co-founder M. Murcli, because Hinduism is threatened. Most Munnani leaders speak of "an onslaught" of Christian and Muslim inroads being made in India.

"There are 60 Christian countries and 35 Muslim countries, but only one country to protect Hindus," says Mr. Murcli in between cell-phone calls at a rally before the Ganesh parade. "We want the boys to march past the mosque, not because we have anything against Muslims, but because marching down any street in Chennai is their right, and we need to teach them to fight in the streets for their rights."

When questioned, most of the rank and file Munnani were more interested in saying they learned to dance by MTV, or that they joined because their friends joined.

"I don't think the average Hindu kid wants to be confrontational," says Bipendar, who uses only one name, and is a law student who has closely followed the development of the Munnani. "They aren't built that way."

"I think the whole thing stinks," says a Muslim journalist from Madras. "They are creating a breeding ground for hate by marching through this neighborhood."

The Munnani was formed in 1982, shortly after news reached Indians that an entire Tamil village - 600 people - converted overnight to Islam. The group was started by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent organization of the Sangh Parivar or "family of Hindus," the umbrella for dozens of interlinked groups, which makes up the committed ideological core of the entire Hindu awakening movement. (Mr. Vajpayee and Indian Home Minister L.K. Advani are RSS members.) The RSS has also expanded in Tamil Nadu from 200 branches in the 1970s to more than 1,500 today, according to RSS propaganda secretary for south India, V. Sharmuganathan.

The main purpose of the Munnani, along with holding the Ganesh festival, is to work among lower-caste Hindus. Members teach Hindu values, and convince rural Hindus not to be swayed by other faiths. Today, the Munnani has thousands of local committees in 120 of 150 Tamil districts, according to its legal counsel, G. Karthikeyan. Mr. Karthikeyan says the Munnani is designed to reach lower-caste Hindus and to inform them that "they are important to India's future and casteism is a relic of the past."

"It is totally disingenuous to preach that casteism is over with," says one Hindu expert in Madras. "That sounds more like a recruiting formula."

Whether the moderates or the hardliners will hold sway in the Sangh Parivar is a question that may best be answered after the current elections.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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