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.”