Pragya Thakur, who has been fielded by the ruling BJP, stirred another controversy when she called the right-wing Hindu, Nathuram Godse, who killed Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, a patriot.
“Those who call him a terrorist should look within. This election will deliver a fitting reply to such people,” she said. The BJP quickly distanced itself from the comments and Thakur later apologised.
“Whatever has been said about Gandhiji or Godse (Nathuram Godse), it’s terrible,” Modi said in a television interview on Friday. “In a civilised society, this kind of language and thinking does not work […] I cannot forgive her.”
Last month, Pragya Thakur was fielded as a candidate by BJP in the current general election, in which Modi is seeking a second term. Overnight, Thakur, who has been out on bail since 2017, emerged as a symbol of a Hindu nationalist movement that is showing increasing intolerance towards Muslims in the Hindu-dominated nation.
The five years of Modi’s rule have seen an increasing number of attacks on Muslims by right-wing groups. But the brazenness of Thakur’s candidacy has still stunned many. It’s the first time a leading political party in India has fielded a candidate accused of terrorism in an election.
“They are addressing a very extreme form of the Hindutva fold,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a New Delhi-based biographer of Modi, referring to the BJP’s Hindu-first ideology.
Thakur says she had nothing to do with the 2008 explosion near several mosques in the Muslim-majority town of Malegaon in western India. Six Muslims were killed and more than a hundred people injured. According to court filings, the motorcycle on which the explosives were strapped was Thakur’s, and she was among those who planned the attack to avenge “jihadi activities”.
Indian law allows candidates charged with crimes to contest elections, but not convicts. The trial against Thakur started in December but a final verdict is not expected anytime soon.
Modi and BJP leaders have come out strongly in defence of her candidature. BJP President Amit Shah told a television channel last month that Thakur was given a ticket to contest “so that the whole world can know that these accusations against her were fabricated”.
The BJP argues there is no such thing as a Hindu terrorist and portrays charges against her as an affront to all Hindus. “You are saying that a saffron-clad person is a terrorist? What is this?” said Prabhat Jha, the BJP’s national vice president in central India’s Bhopal city, where Thakur is contesting. He was referring to the robes worn by Hindu ascetics.
Torture Claims By Pragya Thakur
Thakur, whose family says she is a cancer survivor, has often wept while describing the torture she claims she endured in custody. But the Supreme Court said in 2011 it found no merit in her allegations. The National Human Rights Commission said in 2015 her claims “were not substantiated by facts”. Her media relations head, Hitesh Bajpai, said there was proof she was tortured, but declined to elaborate.
Thakur’s supporters expressed deep empathy.
“A woman who has suffered such torture, she will understand our issues more than anyone else,” said Saumya Srivastava, a 46-year-old housewife, at a recent rally. About 500 km (300 miles) west of Bhopal, in Malegaon, there was anger among families of blast victims about Thakur’s candidacy.
The Supreme Court rejected a petition to bar her from contesting the election that was filed by Nisar Ahmed, whose 20-year-old son Syed Azhar was killed in the blast. “My son was killed in the attack, and today a prime accused in that is standing in an election,” said Ahmed. “Is this how they give us justice?”
In Bhopal, Thakur folded her hands to greet supporters one evening before heading out for a roadshow, a traditional vermillion mark fresh on her forehead. A devotee fed her sweets and lowered her head to seek blessings — to which Thakur warmly responded by placing a hand on the woman’s head.
Chants of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” (Long Live Mother India) filled the air, as her cavalcade disappeared around a street corner.