The four VHP men who made Lavanya's suicide a rallying point for the BJP in TN

“You think just sharing a video and campaigning on social media made this a big issue? No, this became an issue because of the hundreds of unnamed Sangh activists across Trichy, Thanjavur, Ariyalur.”
Ariyalur VHP men Vijayakumar, Muthuval and Ashokji (left to right) at a temple.
Ariyalur VHP men Vijayakumar, Muthuval and Ashokji (left to right) at a temple.
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“Tamil Nadu is the birthplace of Hindutva,” believes Ashokji, spiritual mentor to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in Ariyalur district, and the head priest of the Vinayaka temple on the banks of the Chetti lake in Ariyalur town. “When foreign invaders were destroying Hindu temples across north India, it was the Tamil land which preserved the faith and its texts.” Ashokji is the person who shared the first Facebook post on behalf of the VHP, alleging that pressure to convert to Christianity was the reason Lavanya, a teenaged student from the remote village of Vadagupalayam in Ariyalur, had attempted suicide.

A chance encounter with the young priest on Saturday led us to an absorbing meeting with the men who were instrumental in providing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) its first major talking point in the politics of Tamil Nadu, at a time when it is pushing an aggressive line against Christian missionaries nationally.

It also revealed that, despite what appears on the surface, the relationship between the saffron party and the larger Sangh Parivar here is somewhat strained. The VHP leaders, for instance, did not initially receive any support from the local BJP leaders on the issue and had to approach the state leadership to intervene.

The local spark to a national campaign

A good three days before the BJP got involved, Ashokji’s Facebook post, dated January 17, had a screen grab of the video of the girl circulated by the VHP. It announced that a hunger strike would be held on January 19. Lavanya incidentally died on the day and the hunger strike turned into an aggressive protest resulting in the detention of several VHP activists including Ashokji. The video of the girl was released the next day and went viral in Hindutva circles across the country. This is when the BJP plunged into the agitation and escalated it to the level of a national campaign.

Ashokji's post from January 17 announcing a hunger strike by Vishwa Hindu Parishad, demanding justice for Lavanya 

Now, with the Madras High Court showing no confidence in the Tamil Nadu police and ordering a CBI probe into the suicide, the BJP seems to have managed to sneak one past the ruling dispensation in a state where Hindutva has traditionally been outshouted by the Dravidian ideology.

“You think just sharing a video and campaigning on social media made this a big issue? No, this became an issue because of the hundreds of unnamed Sangh activists across Trichy, Thanjavur, Ariyalur,” Ashokji said when we first met outside the office of the VHP’s district president Vijayakumar where TNM was struggling to get an appointment with the leader.

Ashokji, who also happened to be there, was stoked by a friendly chat with this reporter and instantly offered to help with the appointment. “Muthuvel and Sekhar are also on the way, let’s wait a little,” he told Vijayakumar when we sat to talk. “All four of us have to be there for you to get a proper picture,” he told TNM. “Because, you see, the BJP is only a small arm of the Sangh and the larger Hindu society.”

A small but highly motivated vigilante network

Muthuvel Ariyalur, the VHP’s district secretary, is the person who shot the video of Lavanya where he can be heard encouraging the dying girl to speak about attempts to convert her to Christianity. Pon Sekhar, the owner of a hotel chain, is also the General Secretary of the VHP. He is said to be the brain behind the Sangh’s cadre expansion in the region. The four men were gathering because the BJP state president and former IPS officer K Annamalai had announced that he would be visiting Lavanya’s village that evening to offer compensation and condolences to her family.

When we checked with the police sources in the district, they said the four men have been involved, in one way or another, in a series of vigilante-style attacks in the district over the last five years.

Vijayakumar, who is the owner of many wedding halls and a wholesale trader with massive godowns, is the main funder of these activities, the sources said. Pon Sekhar and Muthuvel provide the manpower and carry out audacious operations. And the priest, police sources said, is the social media aficionado and a Sangh oracle in matters of religion and ideology.

“They can make a few hundred people gather suddenly in any part of the district,” said a state intelligence officer posted in Ariyalur. “We know only of these four and a handful of other top leaders. The rest are just ghosts,” the officer said, “They appear without warning and vanish without a trace.”

A poster for VHP Ariyalur, featuring Vijayakumar (in the background), Ashokji and Muthuvel (foreground).

Muthuvel briefing the national fact finding team sent by the BJP over Lavanya's suicide

A poster with Muthuvel and Ashokji congratulating Pon Sekhar on the second anniversary of his hotel, 'Merina Mess', on behalf of the VHP.

Ashokji's selfie with TN BJP president Annamalai

Vijayakumar with former Union Minister Pon Radhakrishnan

Pon Sekhar, who runs a hotel chain in Ariyalur and is part of the group of four vigilantes

The Ariyalur example is said to be part of a larger trend in the region. Police sources monitoring the central zone of the state, which has nine districts including Trichy, Thanjavur and Ariyalur, said that Hindutva organisations here are no longer restricted to their traditional urban pockets. “The biggest change we can perceive in the last few years is that there is a lot of organising in the rural areas,” a source said. Although they are not yet in a position to draw thousands onto the streets on a Hindutva call like their counterparts in neighbouring Karnataka, the VHP in the Delta region of Tamil Nadu have managed to put together small units of highly motivated activists in the remotest of villages.

On the day of our meeting with the VHP leaders, there was apprehension that Muthuvel could be arrested any moment as the police had accused him of not cooperating with the investigation in their submission to the high court. However, Muthuvel appeared defiant and said that if he was arrested “Hindus would not keep quiet.” As it turned out, the court not only brushed aside the contention of the police but also transferred the case to the CBI. 

“I am a witness in the case but for political reasons I am being projected as a criminal by the anti-Hindu state government,” he said. “In fact, I am running after the police to offer evidence and they are avoiding me.” Asked about the allegation that he tutored Lavanya in the video he said, “The truth will come out when the case is investigated impartially. If I had not shot the video, all we would have is the written statement she gave the police in which the conversion angle has been deliberately suppressed. Why did the police not record a video?”

He also accused the police of planting material in the media to scuttle the case. “A media outlet released the other three videos of the girl which I had shared only with the police. Shouldn't there be an investigation into how these videos were leaked?”

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The others in the meeting described Muthuvel as a ‘veeran’ or braveheart and said he was the muscle behind the Sangh’s activities in the region. But it took more than a maverick approach to build the movement Pon Sekhar pointed out. “It is because we have built a strong grassroots organization that an issue concerning the rights of a Hindu living in a remote village is immediately brought to our notice,” Pon Sekhar said, “We have been working tirelessly for the last five years.”

He says that they have not only opened several units of the VHP in the district in the last five years but also helped start other RSS affiliated organisations such as the labour union Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), the farmers’ union Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) and the students’ union Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). “Hindutva is the core issue but not the only issue. We also fight for farmers, workers and students,” he said.

Asked if there were any daily RSS Shakha meetings in the district, the priest said, “You think this is Karnataka? You know how much pressure we are under? After all this hard work, we are only able to conduct weekly Shakha meetings.” Ashokji added that the VHP barely had any influence in the region before Muthuvel and Sekhar threw themselves into organising. “Earlier it was considered unsafe to be in the Hindutva movement. We could not even hold demonstrations,” he said. To drive the point, Muthuvel brought up an incident where he and Pon Sekhar “taught a lesson” to two christian pastors who were evangelizing in public.

“We dragged them to a temple and made them do Pooja and put Vibuthi (ash) on their forehead. The police could not do anything,” said Muthuvel.

A consistent campaign against Christian evangelism

When we visited the Ariyalur police station later for details of the case, we discovered that Sekhar and Muthuvel were arrested on February 2, 2019 for assaulting the pastors. The case fell through because the pastors withdrew the complaint. “Forgiveness is the greatest virtue in Christianity. So we withdrew the case,” Aronkumar (47), one of the pastors, told TNM when contacted.

The staff at the Ariyalur police station said that they are as frustrated with VHP’s activities, as they are with the Christian missionaries who are their prime targets. “Neither of them believe in the law. There have been other attacks in Ariyalur on Christians by this same group. But they get away because we don't have a complainant,” an officer said.

Aronkumar argued that “only god can dispense justice” and said he has no regrets about forgiving Muthuvel and Sekhar. “After us, they also attacked a group of young evangelists in a village. Then they attacked an elderly Christian lady who was helping terminally ill patients in the government hospital in Ariyalur,” he said. “But all of us forgave Sekhar and Muthuvel. That is the Christian way.”

Asked why he filed the police complaint in the first place if he believed in forgiveness, Aronkumar said, “Because they shared the video of the incident on social media. We wanted them to redact the material. When they did, we forgave them.” Of his attackers, he said Muthuvel was the most aggressive. Asked how he feels about Muthuvel now with the Lavanya case becoming such a big issue, the pastor said, “I pray that he finds peace.”

Who passed on the information?

A district intelligence officer at Ariyalur said that the rise in Hindutva vigilante attacks in the district has coincided with the rise of the BJP. “In the last Ariyalur municipal elections, the BJP gave a tough fight to both the AIADMK and the DMK in half a dozen seats,” he said, and predicted an even better showing for the Hindutva party in the upcoming polls.

According to the officer, Suresh Kumar, one of the BJP candidates who performed very well in the elections is originally from Vadugapalayam, Lavanya’s village. “He is from the faction of the BJP which is close to Muthuvel’s group,” he said, and claimed that Suresh was the person responsible for bringing the case to the attention of the VHP leaders.

However, this claim was countered by Silambarasan, an aspiring actor and Left activist who also hails from Vadagupalayam. “There is a Vivekananda youth association in my village which is backed by the VHP. Two of my first cousins Ranjith and Suresh are part of it. They were the ones who first raised the issue of Lavanya in the village and got the VHP involved,” he claimed. He called Ranjith and passed the phone to this reporter. Ranjith confirmed his membership in the youth association but said he had nothing to say to the media.   

Back at the office of Vijayakumar, the VHP leaders claimed not to remember who gave them the original tip-off. “There are so many young people now in the district who are willing to take risks and sacrifice themselves on the path of Hindutva. It’s becoming difficult to keep track of everybody,” Ashokji said.

Our discussion eventually veered toward the topic of the complicated relationship between the Sangh and the BJP. “Do you know that Muthuvel was in the BJP when we caught the pastors in 2019? He was made to resign over the incident and that’s when he put all his energies into the VHP. Good for us,” said Ashokji.

Opposing forces fight for dominance

As the time for the arrival of the BJP leaders neared, the priest suggested that we go to the Vinayaka temple to offer prayers before heading out to Lavanya’s village. At the temple, however, there was a problem. They could not start the prayers because right outside, activists of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) were a holding a memorial event for the journalist K Muthukumar who set himself on fire on January 29, 2009 protesting against the atrocities against Tamils in Sri Lanka during the war.

“They are just terrorists pretending to be Tamil activists and Dalit activists,” said Pon Sekhar casting a distasteful glance at the black-uniformed activists of the VCK, a party inspired by the Dalit Panthers of Maharashtra and the Black Panther Party of the US. Ashokji who was trying  to negotiate with them to reduce the loudspeaker volume, came back looking unhappy: “Terrorists, you think they will listen?”

It turned out that the spot outside the temple was designated for public demonstrations by the district administration and the VCK activists had police permission for the event. In fact, the temple could not have been located at a stranger place. Right behind it is a massive statue of E V Ramaswamy Naicker or Periyar, the Dravidian movement’s tallest icon who destroyed Vinayaka statues to protest against Brahminism in 1953. Next to him is a statue of his contemporary and the face of the anti-caste movement, B R Ambedkar. And in front of the temple, an even bigger statue of Periyar’s protege and Tamil Nadu’s first Chief Minister C N Annadurai occupies the junction of the roads.

Statues of Periyar and Ambedkar behind the Vinayaka temple

Anna's statue in front of the Vinayaka temple

As we waited for the VCK to conclude their demonstration, the scene surrounding the temple gave us a chance to raise the only real question that mattered. Does Hindutva stand a chance in a land that has been dominated by a completely different brand of politics for the last century?

“There are more temples in this land than all the Periyar, Ambedkar and Anna statues put together; More than all the mosques and churches put together,” the priest said. Pon Sekhar said, “You see that metal cage around the Anna statue? If the Dravidian movement is so strong, why do they need to have a protective cage around one of their biggest icons?”

Sudipto Mondal is the Executive Editor of The News Minute. A journalist with over 15 years of experience, Sudipto has reported on caste, communalism, and corruption.

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