The following is a piece I wrote for the official blog of the Indian National Congress Party. It was originally published on the 30th of July 2018.

As the saffron brigade flaunts one more notch on its belt of shame, this time in the shape of a 79 year old Hindu monk that was guilty of the crime of tolerance, it is worth understanding how paramilitary organizations like the RSS and various Sangh off shoots provide a particularly potent weapon to their benefactors. The intimidation factor that they bring to the political arena is easy to see. But of all the weapons wielded in the battle for power, plausible deniability is perhaps the most underrated. Underrated that is, by anyone but fascists. Given how many founders of the RSS/Sangh openly flaunted their admiration of Hitler in both word and deed, it is not surprising that these organizations did learn some lessons from history. Pity it’s all the the wrong ones.

In 1945, when the defeat of Germany became all to apparent, many Nazi officials fled Europe before allied forces got to them. In their haste, they left behind sensitive documents which would have normally been destroyed. Aside from becoming a valuable resource for future historians, they also served as evidence in the Nuremberg trials. Among them was an internal document dating to the 1920s. It highlighted something reporters in Germany had been warning about for years, ie, the Nazi party had been using the SA (and later the SS) to instigate violence at their behest without actually giving out explicit orders. It stated that “In the interest of the Party, it is also in many cases the custom of the person issuing the command- precisely in cases of illegal political demonstrations- not to say everything and just to hint at what he wants to achieve with the order”.

Read that line again. “…just to hint at what he wants to achieve”. Approval was provided in other words, by a “wink and a nod”. No official orders, no paper trail, just a simple tacit message “Go get em boys, daddy’s got your back.” As far as tactics go, this was far from original. Even in ancient Rome the Gracchi brothers found out the hard way how a mob could do a rival senator’s dirty work while still keeping those white togas spotlessly clean. And as the Sangh’s own history will show, when it comes to the pursuit of power, the work can get very dirty indeed.

The worst domestic example that I can think of was an incident that occurred on Jan 22nd 1999, a day where the Sangh left a particularly dark stain on India’s history. It was then that a rabid mob set fire to a station wagon parked on the outskirts of a village in Orissa. In the vehicle were Pastor Gregory Staines and his sons Timothy and Philip (aged 6 and 10 respectively), whom these self styled patriots butchered to cries of “Jai Bajrang Bali!”. Thus did Bajrang Dal activist Ravinder Kumar Pal aka Dara Singh add to a long list of victims that he had claimed over the years.

The BJP led NDA, was in power at the time (surprise, surprise). The party was quick to distance itself from the Sangh. The Sangh itself, was quick to distance itself from Dara, an erstwhile hero that had now quickly become a liability (he had been leveraging his position as a Bajrang Dal thug to secure a political career for a while). But just as today, while the act may be condemned, the cause itself was as seen as “legit”. The common defense was something on the lines of : “Oh those poor children! The murder was a terrible thing but Graham shouldn’t have been forcibly converting Hindus!” (A charge that Staine’s widow vehemently denies to this day).

The RSS used the same distancing tactic with Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, making sure that Godse was seen as an “Ex” RSS cadre, even though the murder itself is celebrated annually by many members. The demolition of Babri, an act that is hailed as a “victory” of sorts on the BJP’s official website, was handled the same way. The same treatment was applied to the recent attack on swami Agnivesh. Or the seemingly endless spate of cow vigilantism that has become part and parcel of the present Indian experience. In all of this, they are merely following historical precedent. If there is one difference today, it lies in the fact that today, the accused can look forward to being hailed publicly as heroes and martyrs by official BJP ministers.

Just like the Nazis, the BJP is quick to publicly condemn the crime whilst ensuring the cause lies beyond contestation. Meanwhile the thugs continue their rampage unabated, secure in the knowledge that their backs are covered. With a wink and a nod.

The “cover” provided by the SS was essential to the Nazi’s success. Every act of violence that they perpetrated was approved of by the party leadership of course, just not publicly. The public message was always in the vein of “Hey, it wasn’t us. It was those SS guys. Surely, we Nazis can’t be held accountable for the actions of misguided patriots? Besides, these victims were likely traitors to begin with. Now let us focus on the communists shall we? Sieg Heil!”. This was plausible deniability at work.

Such posturing also helped assuage any guilt that Nazi supporters might harbor whilst simultaneously promoting a pro authoritarian narrative. “Surely the party can’t be held responsible for the actions of a handful of non party thugs? Crime is nothing new. This is a law and order problem. One that the fuhrer would surely fix if he only had more power.” Convenient how that works.

Yet the underlying message was clear. “Fall in line. Behave. It would be unfortunate if an unaffiliated mob would choose you as its next target. Say the right words. Use the right symbols. Wave the proper flag. Eat what is permitted and above all THINK as you are allowed. If you don’t, we won’t be held responsible. Remember, it’s not us.” German citizens either complied or faced the wrath of the Brown shirts. All a party leader had to do was “hint at what he wants to achieve”. Hints such as the Defence Minister’s recent statement that the “Congress party shall be solely responsible if any disharmony plays out between now and 2019 elections.”

Well now isn’t that convenient? Just in case you didn’t get the message, it’s this- “The lynchings will continue. Anyone that doesn’t get in line WILL be attacked. It WILL happen. And when it does, we won’t be held responsible. You will. Jai Hind.”

It’s been two decades since the day the Staines were butchered. Things have certainly changed. The frequency of communal attacks has become numbingly normal. The Prime minister himself happens to be a man who was accused of being complicit in a communal massacre. Civil servants condemning rapists are called “seditious” while party members that march in solidarity of child rapists are rewarded with promotions. And the Sangh is stronger than ever. Have to hand it to them, The BJP wasn’t kidding when they said they are “The party with a difference”. You can hear it now cant you? “If only Modiji had more power…”

Swami Agnivesh probably doesn’t feel like it,  but he got off lucky. This time.