Last week, a crude ammonium-nitrate based improvised explosive device detonated across the road from the Grace Church in Margao, tearing apart Goa’s festive-season cheer.

Sanatan Sanstha operatives Malgondi Patil was killed and Yogesh Nai critically injured while transporting the bomb -- one of the two the men are thought to have fabricated to target Hindu religious gatherings held by a rival group.

Many see the Sanstha is a harmless -- if quixotic -- cult: followers are assigned grades for their levels of spiritual awareness and encouraged to engage in arcane discussions, like the differing merits of lamps using ghee and oil.

Despite credible allegations that the Sanstha has coerced and harassed followers seeking to leave its ranks, branches have sprung up across Maharashtra, in several major cities nationwide, and even in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.

Behind the outfit’s idiosyncratic facade, though, is an ugly militarist face. Last year, Sanstha-linked Dharmashakti Sena chief Vinay Palwalkar proclaimed a coming apocalyptic war: “the war of the future will be a Dharamyudh, and the Dharamshakti Sena will be its guiding force.”

Were Patil and Nai fighting his war?

Inflammatory polemic

Inflammatory -- and often inventive -- polemic characterises the Sanstha’s propaganda.

Discussing September’s riots in the town of Miraj, the organisation’s house-magazine Sanatan Prabhat’s October issue described the violence as “a well-planned attack on Hindus by Afzal Khan’s [a 17th century Bijapur warlord] Muslim descendants.” “Now,” it continued, “Hindus need to become warriors of Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj to repel such attacks.”

Police in Miraj say Sanatan Sanstha activists in fact precipitated the violence, by distributing magazines with aggressively communal content and forcing shopkeepers to down shutters. Three Sanatan Sanstha activists were arrested for distributing the inflammatory literature.

“Fed up of Muslim innocence,” the magazine reports, “Hindus [gave] a fitting reply.” “As a result of the riots in Miraj,” the article reads, “Muslims in villages were getting inspired to become insolent. Hindus, however, had enough of their insolence and started retaliating. A mob pelted stones and damaged mosques at 7 places. Thereafter, saffron flags were hoisted on these mosques.”

Much of the reporting in Sanatan Prabhat appears to have no great concern for the distinction between fact and fiction.

“Police,” one report claims, “have now discovered a kidnapping racket to provide recruits to Pakistani terror outfits through ‘Love Jihad.’ Investigations have revealed that all over India some 4,000 young women have been recruited in this manner to be trained against their will as terrorists and suicide bombers. In Kerala alone, the police suspect that over 500 women have fallen victim.”

Terrorist actions

Images like these have long been known to have incited members of the organisation to engage in acts of terrorism.

Last summer, bombs went off at the Vishnudas Bhave Auditorium in Vashi, and the Gadkari Rangayatan in Thane. Both theatre managements had disregarded Hindu chauvinist protests against the play ‘Amhi Pachpute,’ a wry reworking of the Mahabarat by Santosh Pawar which is set around the travails of two middle-class Maharashtrian families locked in a dispute over a paan store.

Maharashtra police investigators arrested Ramesh Gadkari, Mangesh Nikam, Santosh Angre and Vikram Bhave for the terrorist attacks. All four men were activists of the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, an ultra-right Hindutva political group which the Sanstha lists, on its website, as a sister organisation. The men were, at the time of their arrests, reported to be living in retreats run by the Sanstha.

Investigators found that the men had earlier attempted to set off an improvised explosive device targeting a mosque on the Pen highway. Nikam, for his part, was found to be on bail facing trial for having set off a low-grade bomb in the home of a Ratnagiri-based Hindu family that had converted to Christianity.

Police also found gelatine sticks, electronic circuits and detonators that had been buried in a storage dump dug by the four arrested men along a riverbed outside Pen. Similar recoveries were made near Satara.

Dangerous future?

Sanstha leaders deny their organisation has any role in terrorist acts conducted by individual members.

But Maharashtra police investigators are less than persuaded by these claims, and have opened investigation of the organisation’s possible linkages with Akhand Bharat — the Hindutva terror group responsible for the murderous 2006 bombing of a mosque in Malegaon.

In a cartoon published in the Sanatan Prabhat, a police officer and a Muslim are shown kicking a Hindu. “Hindus,” its caption reads, “unite and become strong to end this brute rule.”

Akhand Bharat cadre had planned to do just that. In audio-tape recovered by Maharashtra police investigators, alleged Akhand Bharat operatives Prasad Shrikant Purohit, R.P. Singh and Dayanand Pandey discussed plans for displacing the Indian government, authoring an alternative constitution, setting up of a government in exile in Israel, and instituting a criminal procedure code which would include public corporal punishment.

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