The Legitimization of Saffron Terror: What does Sadhvi Pragya’s Lok Sabha Candidature Mean for India?

The BJP is openly signalling that not only will those accused of Hindu terror walk free, they will very much be part of policy decision making and crafting the future of the country.

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This post is the 8th Installment to Law School Policy Review’s Election Series, 2019.

The election season is upon us. Which means everyone and their grandmother is a political expert for the time being. The 2019 elections have bought about a change in the political dynamics of the country. This change is as subtle as the ‘b’ in subtle. The Hindu majority country is openly embracing the Hindutva identity, at the cost of secularism. BJP – the ruling party has changed its war cry from ‘development’ in the 2014 elections to that of ‘nationalism’ and ‘pro Hindutva’ in the current elections. It is still poised to win the elections and will at worse be able to form a coalition government at the centre. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity has not dipped significantly. Not even the criticism of the demonetization scheme, GST, or farmer suicides seems to be an impediment for the Modi Government. However, this article does not deal with the policy implementation or failures of the Modi Government. This piece examines the choice of candidature of the Modi Government for the Bhopal Lok Sabha seat and the message that it sends to the country.

Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur – the BJP candidate for the Lok Sabha seat is also the prime accused in the 2008 Malegaon case. The Malegaon terror attacks caused the deaths of six people and eighty more were injured. However, this is not the first time a political party has fielded a candidate with criminal cases pending against her. About a third of the Indian MPs have criminal cases pending against them. In fact, a candidate logjammed in a criminal trial has a much better chance of winning the election as compared to a candidate with a clean record. In such a scenario fielding a candidate with a criminal case pending against them may seem as a strategic move.[1] So, what is the unique selling point of the Sadhvi, when any politician with a murder or rape case could have fit the bill for the candidate?

Sadhvi Pragya has been charged with sections of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (‘UAPA’). The charges have been framed under Sec. 16 (committing terrorist acts) and Sec. 18 (conspiring to commit terrorist act). This is in addition to other serious charges under the Indian Penal Code (‘IPC’) and the Explosive Substances Act.[2] The UAPA is an anti-terror legislation. This effectively makes Sadhvi the only person accused of terrorism to receive a ticket from a major political party – and the ruling party at that, to contest the Lok Sabha election.[3] One might ask why would anybody have a problem with an “accused” in a terror case. After all Prime Minister Modi was implicated in the 2002 Gujarat riots, but has been an efficient leader of the country. The difference between the two cases is that Modi received a clean chit under the SIT probe. Pragya Sadhvi, is still very much an accused in the Malegaon terror attack and is currently out on bail. This means, assuming she wins, and if she is convicted of the charges, she will have to vacate the office, pending her appeals.[4]

The Malegaon terror attack is also a case of saffron terror. Saffron terror also known as Hindu terror is a term used for attacks by Hindu extremist groups against other minorities in India. The use of the term is contentious in itself and many critics call it as a bogeyman created by the Opposition to undermine the Hindutva ideology. Regardless of this debate, fielding a candidate who has been accused of such serious crimes against minorities is spitting in the faces of those very minorities. Declaring her innocent – which the BJP heavyweight Amit Shah has done,[5] is undermining the current investigation, the investigating agency and the judiciary. It is important to keep in mind that the investigation in the Malegaon terror attacks has not just faced metaphorical undermining, but also has faced actual impediments.

Special Public Prosecutor Rohini Salian who was handing the Malegaon terror attacks has spoken out about how the National Investigation Agency (‘NIA’) had asked her to go soft on the terror accused in the Malegaon attacks.[6] When she refused to abide, she was unceremoniously removed from the case. Rohini Salian is an experienced prosecutor. She has been involved in the prosecution of multiple underworld cases. She also had immense experience prosecuting under the Maharashtra Control of the Organized Crime Act (MCOCA), the legislation under which the charges against the Malegaon terror accused were initially framed. This is not the first time that the NIA has mismanaged a case against Hindu terrorists.[7]  However, this is the first time that a terror accused is running for a Lok Sabha seat. The BJP is openly signalling that not only will those accused of Hindu terror walk free, they will very much be part of policy decision making and crafting the future of the country.

The ongoing terror case, the removal of a seasoned public prosecutor or the ideological leanings of Sadhvi Pragya are not my only issues with her candidature. The Election Commission has warned political parties from using soldiers and martyrs as bait for votes in their political campaigns. Sadhvi Pragya has chosen the road less taken. She insulted the slain IPS officer Hemant Karkare, an Ashok Chakra recipient, who sacrificed his life during the 26/11 attacks.[8] The Ashoka Chakra is the highest peacetime decoration awarded for valour, courageous action or self-sacrifice away from the battlefield in India. She has since taken back the statement, as it was “strengthening BJP’s rivals”.[9] She did not apologize for making it. Choosing to insult a man who laid down his life in service of the nation is not just uncouth, but also cannot be sound political strategy for any political candidate. Of course, Sadhvi is not an ordinary political candidate. Backed by Amit Shah, she could possibly win the coming elections.

It is not illegal for Sadhvi to contest the elections. An axiom of criminal law is that one is innocent until proven guilty. And we must stick to this even when we are uncomfortable with it. However, the fact that the BJP is choosing to give a ticket to a terror accused speaks volumes about the intentions of the ruling party. She could have run as an independent candidate. But by making her the face of the Bhopal Lok Sabha seat, the BJP is sending a clear message to the masses, the minorities and the various institutions in the country. The message is that as long as one espouses the extreme right-wing Hindutva ideology, the party will be willing to shield them. By backing her, the BJP is legitimizing her ideology. Sadhvi herself believes that a victory for her will mean that Saffron terror was never a reality,[10] but just a fabrication of the media and the Opposition.

Her candidature sends another signal. One that says that the BJP has long forsaken its pro-development mantra. It has now openly embraced the fringe and extreme elements of Hindutva and has bought them into the mainstream. The party no longer is hiding the fact that it will catapult India into a Hindutva era. It means that the sins of the right-wing extremist Hindus will be purged as long as it is in power. This is a cause for concern, for any true nationalist. It is a cause for concern for any person who believes that the national flag should be respected, that the memories of Indian martyrs cannot be desecrated. It is a cause of concern for anyone who believes that the idea of India supersedes the ideology of Hindutva.

This candidature has to be a wakeup call for anyone who embraces the idea of nationalism and not blind patriotism. The BJP has made its stance clear regarding its vision for the country and it is now upto the voters, whether they want to give them the platform required to crystallize it.

[1] Tushar Kaushik, One in 3 MPs Have Pending Criminal Cases, Economic Times (April 1, 2019) available at https://m.economictimes.com/news/elections/lok-sabha/india/one-in-3-mps-have-pending-criminal-cases/articleshow/68666530.cms.

[2] Deeptiman Tiwary, Explained: The Case Against BJP Candidate Sadhvi Pragya Thakur The Indian Express (April 20, 2019), available at https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/sadhvi-pragya-thakur-digvijaya-singh-bjp-bhopal-lok-sabha-elections-malegaon-case-ajmer-dargah-blast-5681180/.

[3] Deeptiman Tiwary, Explained: The case Against BJP Candidate Sadhvi Pragya Thakur The Indian Express (April 20, 2019), available at https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/sadhvi-pragya-thakur-digvijaya-singh-bjp-bhopal-lok-sabha-elections-malegaon-case-ajmer-dargah-blast-5681180/.

[4] Liz Matthew, Anuja, MPs, MLAs Must Quit immediately if Convicted: Supreme Court, LiveMint (July 10, 2013), available at https://www.livemint.com/Politics/R5FCrQyAKYgNtMWlUEHoHI/Convicted-MPs-and-MLAs-have-to-step-down-immediately-says-S.html.

[5] Nominating Sadhvi Pragya Absolutely Right Decision – BJP Chief Amit Shah, Times of India (April 22. 2019), available at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/elections/news/nominating-sadhvi-pragya-absolutely-right-decision-bjp-chief-amit-shah/articleshow/68985967.cms.

[6] Sukanya Shantha, I Am Waiting for the Right Moment to Strike. I Will Speak Up: Rohini Salian, The Wire (April 23, 2018), available at https://thewire.in/law/i-am-waiting-for-the-right-moment-to-strike-i-will-speak-up-rohini-salian.

[7] Sukanya Shantha, I Am Waiting for the Right Moment to Strike. I Will Speak Up: Rohini Salian, The Wire (April 23, 2018), available at https://thewire.in/law/i-am-waiting-for-the-right-moment-to-strike-i-will-speak-up-rohini-salian.

[8] Rahul Kanval, EC Notice Aside, Sadhvi Pragya Targets Hemant Karkare Again, India Today (April 22, 2019), available at https://www.indiatoday.in/elections/lok-sabha-2019/story/sadhvi-pragya-bhopal-interview-hemant-karkare-1507733-2019-04-22.

[9] India Today Web Desk, Sadhvi Pragya Apologises, Says She’s Taking her Statement on Hemant Karkare back as it’s Strengthening Rivals, India Today (April 19, 2019) available at https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/sadhvi-pragya-ats-hemant-karkare-death-karma-apology-statement-1505961-2019-04-19.

[10] Rahul Kanval, EC Notice Aside, Sadhvi Pragya Targets Hemant Karkare Again, India Today (April 22, 2019), available at https://www.indiatoday.in/elections/lok-sabha-2019/story/sadhvi-pragya-bhopal-interview-hemant-karkare-1507733-2019-04-22.


The Author is a 5th year Student at the National Law School of India University.


The views expressed in this post are personal. LSPR does not associate with the author’s views. We invite replies and comments from anyone who wishes to support/refute the claims made through this post.

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