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Meet one of India’s most divisive new legislators: A Hindu nun charged with terrorism

Pragya Singh Thakur (center) is welcomed during a rally before filing her nomination in the parliamentary elections in Bhopal in April. (Gagan Nayar/AFP/Getty Images)

BHOPAL, India — Pragya Singh Thakur is a Hindu ascetic who has boasted of her role in destroying a medieval mosque, valorized the man who murdered Mohandas Gandhi as a “patriot” and is facing trial on a charge of terrorist conspiracy.

Last month, she was also elected to India’s Parliament.

Thakur is the most-talked about candidate to win in the recently concluded national polls, which returned Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, to power with a massive mandate.

The 49-year-old is an unlikely legislator. She renounced family life in her 30s to become a “sadhvi,” an honorific for a Hindu nun. But later she would be charged under an anti-terrorism statute for conspiring to target Muslims in a deadly 2008 bomb blast. She denies the charges.

Her controversial candidacy and comfortable victory epitomize the growing influence of a militant brand of right-wing Hindu ideology in India, a country of more than 1.3 billion people that its founders envisioned as a secular republic.

The decision by the senior leadership of the BJP to tap Thakur to run in the party stronghold of Bhopal, the capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh, shocked even its sympathizers.

Thakur is the “worst example of poisonous, hate-infused” belief in Hindu primacy, wrote Tavleen Singh, a columnist who admires Modi, in the Indian Express newspaper. There is “no excuse” for Modi to allow people charged with terrorism to contest polls, Singh wrote.

A total of 159 newly elected Indian legislators have faced serious criminal charges, an increase of 109 percent since the 2009 elections. But experts on the country’s elections said no major party had fielded a candidate charged under a terrorism statute in decades. 

Thakur's run for office sent a "national signal," said political scientist Tariq Thachil of Vanderbilt University, who studies grass-roots politics in Bhopal. During the election campaign, Modi combined a muscular stance on national security with a pro-development agenda. At the same time, the BJP also provided a platform for fringe candidates like Thakur whose rhetoric stokes tensions between Hindus and Muslims. 

‘Why do I fear to go out in my own country?’ In Modi’s India, rising unease among Muslims.

During the campaign, she described the election as a “religious war” and asked people to dedicate their vote to religion. She received more than 860,000 votes.

According to Thakur’s brother-in-law, she is the second of five siblings and was born and raised in Bhind, a small town in central India. Her father was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, a Hindu nationalist organization that is the ideological parent of the BJP. She majored in history and spent several years working with the student wing of the RSS.

In September 2008, a bomb on a motorbike exploded outside a mosque in Malegaon, a city in western India, killing six people and injuring more than 100. The motorbike was registered in Thakur’s name. She was also accused by police of attending a meeting to plot the attack, charges she denies. Thakur spent over eight years in jail before securing bail. 

The national investigating agency that took over the probe from the police said the evidence against her was not substantiated, but the court disagreed. Her trial began in December and is ongoing.

J.P. Mishra, Thakur’s lawyer, said there is “not a single piece of evidence” against her. He said the bike had not been in her possession for two years before the blast. Avinash Rasal, the government prosecutor in the case, said that witness testimonies would be crucial to the case.

Her political career does not appear to have been damaged by the trial.

U.S.-style polarization has arrived in India. Modi is at the heart of the divide.

One recent Sunday morning, several dozen of her new constituents gathered at her rented home in Bhopal. Around 9:30 a.m., Thakur came down the stairs in flowing saffron robes. Everyone got up reverentially. She walked to a corner of the room and bowed in front of a set of framed images. Some were portraits of Hindu gods. One was a portrait of her.

Thakur declined a request for an interview, telling a Washington Post reporter that her focus was now her work. Many of the visitors prostrated themselves at her feet and then took selfies. She responded with a smile and placed her hands on their heads in a gesture of blessing.

One of those present was Anjali Chauhan, 20, a recent graduate who hoped to work with Thakur for the “upliftment of Hindus.” Chauhan said she did not know much about the terrorism case against Thakur and said it was likely she had been framed.

Other voters in Bhopal said they cast their vote for the BJP rather than for Thakur. “If the party has fielded her, then we have to go with it,” said Aditi Saxena, a psychologist in the city. “I was willing to overlook her past.”

But some of Thakur’s statements on the campaign trail did give Saxena pause. In one instance, Thakur claimed that by cursing a decorated police officer, she had caused his death. (The officer was killed in the line of duty trying to stop a terrorist attack.) Thakur had earlier accused the officer of torturing her while she was in jail, but an investigation by a human rights commission found the allegations were “not substantiated.”

Cursing an officer whom many Indians consider a hero was not Thakur’s most inflammatory remark during the campaign. That moment came when she praised Gandhi’s assassin, a Hindu extremist named Nathuram Godse who believed that the revered independence leader had betrayed Hindus in the negotiations over Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan. Godse “was, is and will remain a patriot,” Thakur said on the campaign trail.

In the ensuing furor, the BJP promised disciplinary action against Thakur, and Modi said he could never forgive the remark. But no official action has been taken. A BJP spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Five days after the election results were announced, Thakur delivered an address at a public event in a suburb of Delhi organized by a group of army veterans.

Her speech included flattering references to her life, about which little is known. She said that as a teenager, she jumped from her rooftop in the middle of the night to catch a thief, whom she beat up and handed over to the police — a story she presented as evidence of her early interest in the good of the nation.

“God gave me the strength to live for the country,” she said, exhorting the crowd to become “soldiers” for the saffron cause.

Saffron is the color worn by Hindu ascetics as well as the color of the BJP. Thakur said that saffron-wearing nationalists now inspire fear, a development she viewed with approval. 

 “I like it,” she said. “If enemies aren’t scared, we should know how to scare them.” 

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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