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India's "Taliban" may hurt BJP

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - An attack by Hindu hardliners on women in a pub in Mangalore is threatening to dent the reputation of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) before elections due by May.

A child is seen holding a trident during a protest by a hardline religious Hindu group in New Delhi in this December 2007 file photo. An attack by Hindu hardliners on women in a pub in Mangalore is threatening to dent the reputation of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) before elections due by May. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/Files

Police have arrested dozens of members of the Sri Ram Sena, a Hindu militant group who some Indian media are referring to as “India’s Taliban” after it assaulted women on Saturday in BJP-run Karnataka.

TV crews filmed members of the group beating women as they chased them out of the pub. The activists said they were trying to safeguard traditional Indian culture.

The BJP has condemned the attack as an “unacceptable act of hooliganism”.

But the party has struggled to distance itself from attacks that many national newspapers and television reports say could have only happened in a Hindu-nationalist governed state.

“Is this the direction that BJP governments want the country to head towards?” the Mail Today said in an editorial.

Some analysts suspect the party wants to shore up its Hindu vote base before general elections. Such a strategy has worked in the past, but may well harm its image at a national level, they added.

“It’s a calculated experiment,” said political analyst N. Bhaskara Rao. “It’s a strategy towards polarising voters.”

India’s ruling Congress party charged the BJP-run state government with complicity in the attack, saying such acts could not have happened without the government’s support.

“I think the BJP will definitely be hurt in this,” said political analyst Kuldip Nayar.

The BJP in turn has accused Congress of playing politics and rejected being tarred with the same brush as Hindu vigilantes.

The BJP’s condemnation was seen by some analysts as politically expedient.

“Before the elections the BJP want to show a more benign face,” said political analyst Amulya Ganguli.

Swapan Dasgupta, a political analyst with links to the BJP, said the party sees the Sri Ram Sena as a “damned nuisance”, and is too moderate for the Sri Ram Sena’s liking.

Various hardline Hindu groups have acted as self-appointed custodians of Indian culture and values before, especially against what they say is a polluting Western influence.

Valentine’s Day, open displays of public affection, Hindu-Muslim relationships, and the works of India’s most celebrated painter M.F. Husain, vilified for his nude depictions of Hindu deities, have sparked a violent backlash in the past.

It is an assault some ascribe to the dislocation caused by India’s recent economic boom, and the gap between an affluent, urban youth embracing Western values and the more traditional rest of society, whether older or poorer.

Dr Rao compared Saturday’s assault to some of the worst religious violence in years, mainly by Hindus on Christians, in southern and eastern India last year.

As tens of thousands of Christians fled to government relief camps in Orissa, where most of the violence was concentrated, Christian leaders at the time accused Hindu nationalists of targeting Christians for political gain.