My ancestors helped build India. Now Tejasvi Surya says we don’t belong

"The thought that in my time I would be considered the other, because of my name and associated identity, would be unthinkable," activist Leo F Saldanha writes.
Bengaluru MP Tejasvi Surya
Bengaluru MP Tejasvi Surya
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In a tweet posted by Member of Parliament (Bengaluru South) Tejasvi Surya on 27 December, he says: “At a program held in Udupi Sri Krishna Mutt two days ago, I spoke on the subject of ‘Hindu Revival in Bharat’.  Certain statement from my speech has regrettably created an avoidable controversy. I therefore unconditionally withdraw the statements.” On Christmas day in his speech on Hindu revival at Udupi Shri Krishna Mutt graced by leading seers of several south Indian Mutts, Surya exhorted Hindus all over to organise ‘ghar wapsi’ for Christians and Muslims back into the Hindu fold which he referred to as ‘mother religion’.

Tejasvi Surya’s speech was thoughtfully considered, forcefully delivered, and emphatically promotes a case for targeted conversion of Muslims and Christians to Hinduism, a project that can only be violent going by experience across India. In the speech marked by pregnant pauses and the quintessential raising of voice for maximal impact, Surya claimed demography decides democratic outcomes, and mass conversions are essential for India to be turned into a Hindu Rashtra.

Surya highlights in this speech that he is merely communicating the essence of a recent diktat issued by Mohan Bhagawat, Sarsangchalak of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organisation whose goal is to turn India into a theocratic state.  Surya’s speech, therefore, is meant to spread terror amongst Christians and Muslims. He even prescribes how every temple and Hindu Mutt must work to reach targets. On Tipu Sultan Jayanti, in particular, he calls for mass drives to convert Muslims. Withdrawing such a speech is as tactical as its delivery on X’mas Day. The tweet, in any case, does not reflect remorse of someone genuinely regretful.

From when Akhlaq was bludgeoned to death at home by Hindutva activists for allegedly eating beef (eating beef is not a crime, and in any case Akhlaq’s family had not consumed beef on that fateful day) five years ago, to recent calls for a Muslim genocide issued at an event organised by Hindu Mahasabha at Haridwar, spreading a climate of fear amongst Christians, Muslims, Adivasis, Dalits, Buddhists, etc. has been a systematic and violent process. Tejasvi Surya’s speech is part of this trend and comes days after the Karnataka Assembly passed a most controversial anti-conversion Bill which specifically targets those converting to Christianity and Islam with grave punishment. 

Anyone in the Sangh Parivar who has roused such fears amongst minorities has been elevated to key places. In the case of Anurag Thakur of the ‘Desh ki Gaddharon Ko, Goli Maro Salon ko’ (shoot down the traitors, a call he made with clear reference to those opposed to the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act) fame, he was made Union Minister of State for Finance. Surya is well known for making Udupi-like speeches. For which he was given the south Bengaluru Parliamentary seat in 2019 by BJP, which everyone expected Tejasvini Ananth Kumar to contest from following the death of her husband Ananth Kumar who held it secure for BJP over several terms.  Surya then was also elevated as President of the BJP Yuva Morcha.  Across the rank and file of the BJP, and all divisions of Sangh Parivar, such bigoted speeches are rewarded. All this is part of an overarching strategy to polarise Hindus against minorities, and build a majoritarian project intended at erasing plurality which is core to the idea and existence of India.

Actually, if anyone has a grouse with Tipu Sultan, it’s got to be my family. Our ancestors were imprisoned by Tipu Sultan and forced to make the gruelling journey from Mangaluru over the Western Ghats into prisons of Srirangapatna, to be possibly used as slave labour, perhaps even killed – all because they were suspected to be British allies. Thankfully, some of them escaped into the thick jungles of what is now Kodagu and the Gowda King who ruled the region then provided them sanctuary. Visit my dad’s village four miles south of Virajpet and you still will find the Christian colony intact, with lovely paddies embracing thickly forested hills into which coffee plantations and homesteads are built.

We don’t hate Tipu for that now, for we have made our peace with past events. We also understand the compulsions of the time, for such were the ways of the time which all kings followed. For instance, Shivaji persecuted Lingayats and razed flourishing Hubli, Karwar and Ankola during his conquest.  Shouldn’t Tejasvi Surya go after Shivaji as well, then?

As a new India was being crafted in the early 20th century, a grand uncle fought with the Allies against Nazi Germany and another battled the Japanese who had come knocking on the East of India. Post-independence, just about every other uncle and cousin served the Indian Army, some fighting the war with China, others in liberating Bangladesh. For each of them, as for my paternal grandparents who farmed, and my maternal grandfather who was a postman, the thought that in my time I would be considered the other, because of my name and associated identity, would be unthinkable.

My nonagenarian father who served Karnataka Police as an Intelligence Officer and my octogenarian mother who educated thousands in government schools, raised us to feel secure in this country for who we are.  Their idea of India was pluralistic, as was that of every neighbour of ours in Chamrajpet, who were from just about every community, religion, caste, etc., imaginable, and where I spent my initial years growing up with my siblings and neighbour’s kids.  Deeply religious, my parents worked hard to build a secure future for us. For them, the idea of an India in which now they hear Surya’s bigoted call, would constitute the very failure of the India that they and millions of others helped build.

Clearly for Surya, we are not what we are. We must be othered if the fake history he propagates has to be believed in. The problem is that such fake narratives do work, as global experience in the 20th century alone reveals. This is because most don’t bother to truly understand history, or have the necessary resources to. But what’s essential to keep focus on now is that in the building of India we chose to create a secular space in which we would live with each other happily, practicing our faith, even being agnostic or atheist.  That space which is uniquely mine, uniquely yours, an outcome of a sacred contract with the secular State we created, we must now ensure no bigoted politician, priest, mullah, seer will enter and cause discord in.

I have no doubt whatsoever that this speech constitutes a blatant attack on the very idea of India as framed by our glorious Constitution, is meant to spread terror amongst Muslims and Christians particularly for now, violates the oath Surya took to protect the sacred contract we are all bound by. For which he must be asked to step down as Member of Parliament. His tweet in apology is merely tactical like his previous apologies following past bigoted actions and must be comprehensively rejected.

Views expressed are the author's own 

Leo F Saldanha is an activist and part of the Environment Support Group, a public interest interdisciplinary legal and policy advocacy initiative.

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