The Fringe Legal Groups That Are Fighting the Hindu Right-Wing’s Battles

Sanjeev Punalekar, a lawyer and the national secretary of the Hindu Vidhinyay Parishad, said that the origins of the right-wing legal groups can be traced to the first edition of the All India Hindu Convention, an annual convention jointly organised by the Sanatan Sanstha and its affiliate group the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS), in Goa.
19 March, 2018

On 26 November, ahead of the assembly election in Gujarat, the state’s election commission served a notice to Thomas Macwan, the archbishop of Gandhinagar, seeking an explanation for a public letter that he wrote on 21 November to the Catholic community. “Not a single day goes without an attack on our churches, faithful or institutions,” the archbishop had noted in his letter. “Nationalist forces are on the verge of taking over the country. The election results of Gujarat State Assembly can make a difference.” Two days after receiving the commission’s notice, the archbishop reportedly submitted a reply clarifying that he was referring to “pseudo-nationalists,” and that he had no mala fide intentions.

The election commission issued the notice following a complaint by the Legal Rights Observatory, or LRO, a legal collective that has been widely identified in the media as an organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. On 4 December, the LRO also sent a legal notice to Macwan, alleging that his letter was written with a “hidden agenda” to “misguide the voters on religious lines.” Macwan responded on 5 February stating that his November letter did not violate any election laws. The archbishop added that the LRO’s complaint was “broached with mala fide intent” to discourage him from “addressing issues which affect his fellow Christian community.” The election commission has not yet taken any action against the archbishop.

The complaint was not the first incident of the LRO taking issue with the church. In August 2017, the LRO received international attention after it wrote a letter to the current head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. The organisation called upon the religious leader to condemn alleged acts of religious discrimination by Christian bodies in the North East, failing which the LRO threatened to “sue the Indian leadership of the Church in a court of law.” In September, the LRO filed a complaint before the Goan state election commission alleging that an article published in a Church-run magazine Renewal had violated election laws by appealing to voters to defeat the incumbent Goan chief minister Manohar Parikkar.

The LRO is among several Hindu nationalist legal-rights groups that are headed by former RSS pracharaks or members of its legal wing, the Akhil Bhartiya Adhivakta Parishad. Another such group is the Hindu Vidhinyay Parishad (HVP), the legal wing of the Goa-based radical Hindu group Sanatan Sanstha. According to Vinay Joshi, the founder and convenor of the LRO, the organisation cannot be considered an extension of the RSS because the “RSS doesn’t believe in legal battle.” He added, “It never explored this option in its long history.” In their stead, the LRO and HVP appear to have assumed the responsibility to pursue the Hindu right-wing’s legal battles.

Sanjeev Punalekar, a lawyer and the national secretary of the HVP, told me that the origins of these legal groups can be traced to the first edition of the All India Hindu Convention, an annual convention jointly organised by the Sanatan Sanstha and its affiliate group the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti (HJS), in Goa. At the first edition of the convention, in 2012, Punalekar said the organisers called for Hindu lawyers to defend members of the community who were jailed and facing trials in various cases across the country. This demand was reiterated in the sixth edition of the convention in June last year, which was reportedly attended by 132 Hindu outfits. In a July interview with The Caravan, Charudatta Pingale, the national guide of the HJS, said that the organisation “thinks that Hindu advocates should help the suffering Hindus when injustice is done to them or they are imprisoned for no reason.”

Punalekar said that many lawyers—among them former RSS pracharaks and former members of the Sangh’s legal wing—began their “legal activism” after the first convention. He added that the lawyers assisted each other in their cases and that they were all engaged in other full-time jobs but worked for these organisations in a voluntary capacity. Punalekar further noted that the lawyers spent their own money, and not that of the concerned organisation, to pursue the cases. “Whatever he”—a lawyer—“can afford, he will do, but he can ask for help from others,” he said. Joshi, too, told me that all the financial costs of the LRO’s cases were borne by him in his personal capacity. “Mere jeb mein jitna hai woh hai sab”—What I have in my pocket is all there is.

According to Joshi, the LRO does not have any full-time workers. It consists of around 150 volunteers from across the country, all of whom are engaged in other professions as well. Joshi said he made the final decision about filing complaints or petitions, although the LRO’s volunteers worked for the organisation in different courts across the country, including the Supreme Court. Joshi filed his first legal complaint in 2011, against Aziz Burney, the editor-in-chief of the Urdu daily Rojnama Rashtriya Sahara, for publishing a compilation of his articles as a book titled RSS Ka Shadyantra—“the RSS’s conspiracy”—in which he alleged that the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai were orchestrated by the Sangh. But Joshi emphasised his independence in his decisions concerning the LRO—“I do not take order from Nagpur or ever act on behalf of the RSS or BJP.” Punalekar, too, denied any organisational link between the HVP and the Sangh.

In addition to its cases concerning the church, the LRO has also filed several petitions seeking investigations against media publications, including this one. In late November 2017, it filed a complaint against The Caravan before the Gujarat election commission, in the wake of the reports on the suspicious death of the judge BH Loya. The LRO sought an investigation into this publication’s financial transactions. In September, the news website Scroll published a report about the death of senior journalist Gauri Lankesh, in which it noted that Lankesh’s “friends and associates” suspected that her criticism of the Hindu right had been the reason for her murder. The LRO wrote to the National Investigation Agency demanding an “immediate interrogation” of the publication’s reporters to “extract the names of the ‘Friends and Associates’ of Gauri Lankesh, who could share the names of perpetrators of her murder.” In April 2017, the LRO submitted a complaint to the Press Council of India alleging that several newspapers, including the Hindustan Times, Economic Times, and DNA, had published an “unverified Maoist press release.”

Though Joshi claimed that the LRO does not have any organisational or financial ties to the RSS or the BJP, the organisation has filed several complaints in relation to posts against Adityanath, the firebrand BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. In March, Joshi filed a complaint with the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of South Asia, demanding an apology from the Washington Post and New York Times for publishing two “highly objectionable and derogatory articles about Yogi Adityanath.”

According to Joshi, the LRO focussed on cases relating to “persecution and biased media” because the BJP was a political party, which “won’t act against media as it’s problematic.” Umesh Sharma, an advocate who has filed several cases on behalf of the LRO, said he believed that more such cases were necessary because “the media has become very irresponsible.” Sharma continued, “This infection is more visible with blogs—they behave very irresponsibly.”

Both Joshi and Punalekar confirmed, however, that they subscribed to the ideological foundation of the RSS. In fact, Punalekar felt that “the RSS has digressed from its goal to establish a Hindu Rashtra.” While most leaders of the Sangh worked with an aspiration to join politics, Punalekar told me that the HVP sought to “reform RSS.” He said that lawyers who worked with these right-wing legal organisations defended the accused Hindus who did not have a “national presence” because they believed in the ideology of RSS.

Sharma echoed the same sentiment while speaking about his involvement in the LRO’s cases. “Rashtravadi vichaardhaara se toh main sehmat hun aur rastravadi vichaardhara ke tahat hi yeh kaam karta hun”—I agree with a nationalistic ideology and only do this work under that ideology. But Sharma instantly cut me short as soon as I began to ask him about the relation between this nationalistic ideology and Hindutva: “Nahi, rashtravadi hone se thoda sa Hindutva ki chhaap toh rahegi”—By being a nationalist, the stamp of Hindutva will be present, he said. “Lekin jaisa kattar Hindutva ka jo galat dushprachar kiya jata hai waisa nahi”—But the manner in which hardcore Hindutva is portrayed as an evil propaganda, it is not like that.

Punalekar is defending several accused in the case concerning the 2008 Malegaon blasts. In its aftermath, he said, several lawyers affiliated to the RSS had come forward to defend the Hindus arrested in the case. He added that these lawyers chose to come forward even though the RSS did not instruct them to do so. “While people like Advani and Uma Bharti get released within 14 days, someone like Sadhvi Pragya was left in the lurch,” he said. Pragya was released on bail in April last year, and in December, the court dropped the charges against her under the stringent Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act.

In addition to his work with the LRO, Joshi appears to have a full-time career as a businessman. His LinkedIn profile notes that he was the executive director of a “data collection and processing facility” between 2008 and 2009, before founding acompany called “Murdikar Online Advertisers Ltd”—an online advertising agency based out of Dapoli in Maharashtra. Joshi confirmed that he ran the advertising agency, and added that he became involved in “legal activism” in 2009, before which he had been an RSS pracharak for a decade.  He said he was influenced by his work as a pracharak in the North East, where, he claims, local Christian communities denied him access to many areas.

“It is this rage that is reflected in my Facebook posts,” he told me. The LRO’s Facebook page appears to reflect a communal bias against the Christian and Muslim communities—one post includes photographs of two white men, one of whom is strapped to an explosive device that appears to be photoshopped. Across the images is the text, “Stand Up To Christian Terrorists.” Joshi said he now spends two–three hours per day on his legal activism, and the rest of the time on his business.

Though the nature of their work overlaps, Joshi considered the LRO different from and superior to the HVP. Punalekar also told me that the two organisations had no tie-ups with each other, though he added that the LRO had approached the HVP several times for consultation. According to Joshi, the HVP only took up cases concerning the Sanatan Sanstha, whereas the LRO had a “clear focus on Naxals and prosecution in the North East.”

Indeed, the LRO’s focus on these issues is reflected in their complaints. In October, the organisation lodged a complaint with the Mumbai police, seeking the cancellation of the ninth Anuradha Ghandy Memorial lecture, which was to be held in the city at the Mumbai Marathi Patrakar Sangh. A public lecture is held every year in honour of Ghandhy, a founder of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) party. The 2017 lecture was titled, “50 years of Naxalbari Looking Back Looking Forward,” and the LRO had claimed that the host was providing a venue for a “notorious anti-Indian terror group.” Susan Abraham, a lawyer and member of Anuradha Ghandy Memorial committee, told me that “the general intention is to intimidate and threaten with complicity of the state machinery.” The event was finally held without any interference.

Punalekar told me that right-wing organisations such as the LRO and HVP needed the BJP to stay in power for their own benefit. “If the Congress comes to power, they will target these organisations,” he said. According to him, unlike the Congress, the BJP allowed these organisations to operate. He added that the BJP’s knowledge of this fact enabled them to argue that the legal goups depended on the party for their survival. “Ultimately we are not benefitting from the BJP, but we are being used by the BJP,” Punalekar said. “That we know very well.”