Saturday, Jun 03, 2023

How BJP–RSS Kept Hindutva On The Back Burner In Poll-bound Northeastern States


How BJP–RSS Kept Hindutva On The Back Burner In Poll-bound Northeastern States

In their attempt to make inroads into Christian-dominated Nagaland and Meghalaya, the Saffron Brigade is deploying customised winning strategies, even invoking Rani Gaidinliu, the noted Naga freedom fighter

Hitting the Campaign Trail: BJP workers begin their poll campaign at the play ground in Tuensang town Photo: Sandipan Chatterjee

It was late Saturday evening on February 3 when the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) cadres in the eastern districts of Nagaland got the news that the Eastern Nagaland People’s Organisation (EPNO), a body representing the interest of seven tribes inhabiting the region, had called off their boycott of the upcoming assembly elections in Nagaland. The withdrawal came after ENPO and eastern Naga tribal leaders, many of whom were huddled in Guwahati for days, received ‘assurance’ from the Centre that their demand for greater autonomy for the eastern districts would be considered. Election fever finally hit the erstwhile sleepy streets of the hill towns on Monday. “Nagas don’t do anything on Sunday. It’s God’s day,” C. Pukho, a resident of Noklakh, says with a chuckle, as he points at the local church visible on the horizon.

On Monday morning, the BJP workers drove down early to the football ground in Tuensang town with flags and posters of P. Bashangmongba Chang, the BJP candidate from Tuensang Sadar-I. While distributing campaign material, Phuko tells journalists covering the event to not write ‘unfounded tales’ about the BJP spending too much money on campaigning. “The BJP is working for development in Nagaland. It has the support of the people,” Phuko says before he rushes off.

After sweeping Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Gujarat, its strongholds, last year, the BJP is battle-ready for a perception war in the Northeast, where it is contesting elections in Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland, followed by Mizoram in November. These states together send only six MPs to Lok Sabha.

The BJP’s strategy in the two Christian-dominated states of Nagaland and Meghalaya reveals a common pattern. Political analysts and commentators note that the party has employed similar strategies in both states. As part of the strategy, the BJP has toned down its hardline Hindutva politics it endorses in other states in favour of more practical pegs like development and integration. At the beginning of the month, the BJP’s central election committee convened a top-level meeting, overseen by party chief J.P. Nadda, on upcoming Meghalaya and Nagaland elections.

The BJP came to power in Nagaland by forming a coalition with the Nationalist Democratic Progressive Party (NDPP) led by Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio. The party fielded 20 candidates this year, 11 of whom had won in the 2018 elections. In Meghalaya, where the party is a minor partner in the NPP-led government, the BJP has fielded candidates in all 60 constituencies. The party, which had almost no presence in the state until the 2018 polls, is now confident of winning 15–20 seats in the Christian-dominated state, especially in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills. In 2018, the BJP fought in 48 seats and won only two.

The growing footprints of the BJP, often accused of riding on Hindu nationalism for electoral gains, in Christian-dominated states like Nagaland and Meghalaya are classic cases of customised winning strategies. One of the key aspects, where this process is quite visible, is the party’s attitude toward non-vegetarian food. While lynchings merely on suspicion of cattle smuggling and beef eating are not uncommon in the BJP-ruled states, the story is different in the Northeast.

One of the key aspects, where this process is quite visible is the party’s attitude toward non-vegetarian food.

Two years after a beef ban was imposed in many states across the country, the BJP appointed former Union minister K.J. Alphons, a Christian, as election in-charge for the 2018 Meghalaya polls.

Alphons’ appointment solved two issues. To protest the ban, a beef party was organised in Meghalaya when Amit Shah visited the state in 2017. Alphons had been opposing the ban in his home state Kerala. So, his appointment sent a message to the people that the party had no problem with their food habits. His Christian identity also helped the BJP gain confidence to a great extent.

In Nagaland, the NDPP–BJP government’s decision to prohibit import and trading in dog meat drew sharp responses from the Nagas, even as the Guwahati High Court stayed the move. Since then, the issue of meat-eating has barely made it to the BJP’s agenda in Nagaland where beef and pork are easily available across the state. Dog meat is also on display in street markets in Kohima.

According to Dipayan Chakraborty, a BJP spokesperson from Meghalaya, the five years between the 2018 and 2023 polls have changed things for the BJP for the better as tribal societies have realised that it is not entirely anti-Christian or pro-Hindu party but one which focuses on development. Speaking to Outlook, Chakraborty says, “The BJP’s presence in Meghalaya was a problem till a few years back because of the Christian domination in the state. There was a perception among the tribal Christians that the BJP stood for Hindutva only. But in eight years, the Modi government has shown the country that it is only for development and it is not about caste, community and religion. We are sure to win 15–20 seats.”

Since 2018, the BJP has been trying to mend its image by making development a poll plank in the Northeast. During the 75th Independence Day address, Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, stressed on the “new history of connectivity” that was being scripted and linked it to economic growth of the region. Modi was referring to many development projects that the Union Ministry of Road Transport and Highways has undertaken in the region since 2014.

But not all agree. Nazimuddin Siddique, a political analyst who teaches at Nagaland University, says the party’s claims are a farce. “Even after five years of the party being in power, roads in Nagaland remain in extremely poor condition. Yet in Nagaland, they are getting credit for bringing development,” he points out, adding that one needs to just visit the state once to realise how poorly it is connected. “Parties has been spending a lot of money in the Northeast, much of which is cash-starved, especially when it comes to elections,” he says.

Locals also feel that the party has been trying to fuel local political ambitions by promoting local leaders. An example is the former Congress bastion of Mokokchung where locals claim that the induction of Temjen Imna Along, who belongs to the politically influential Ao community, went a long way in cementing the BJP’s position in the district, which has a fairly sizeable Hindu migrant population.

In Nagaland, for instance, the RSS demanded that Rani Gaidinliu, the noted Naga freedom fighter, be conferred with the Padma Shri.

In Meghalaya, analysts note a similar trend. Commenting on the BJP’s growing footprint in the state, Patricia Mukhim, a Meghalaya-based journalist and political observer, opines that more than ideology, the people of Meghalaya support politicians who maintain a close relationship on a personal level with the constituents. “The BJP has studied this factor in the state that the voters in Meghalaya go by the personal attention they each get from the candidate. So, yes, the BJP is banking on this factor,” she says.

Mukhim, however, feels that the BJP’s claim of winning seats in double digits in Meghalaya is far-fetched. “I think they will not be able to get more than five seats.” she adds. Her observations come against the backdrop of cases of demolition of churches in states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and in adjoining Assam, which have left many leaders and electors in Meghalaya and Nagaland alarmed. “The church leaders should have raised their voice against the demolitions, but they are also keeping mum against the BJP,” Mukhim notes.

The response of church bodies, however, is dictated by local politics. According to Christian organisations in eastern Nagaland, for instance, which are aligned with the BJP, the party has gained the trust of locals by toning down its Hindutva rhetoric.

“Christianity came to Nagaland in the 1920s and has played an intrinsic part in the development of the state. It was the Christians who brought education and western medicine to the tribal areas, and worked for peace at a time when the Naga hills were rife with primitive warfare and headhunting,” Reverand Bear Phom of Longleng Baptist Church in eastern Nagaland tells Outlook. He adds that Hindu organisations such as the RSS, the ideological fountainhead of the BJP, have very little presence in the state.

Nevertheless, RSS activities in Nagaland and other northeastern states have grown in the past decade. In Nagaland, for instance, the RSS demanded that Rani Gaidinliu, the noted Naga freedom fighter, be conferred with the Padma Shri. Soon after that, Modi officiated as the guest of honour in Gaidinliu’s birthday celebrations. Many Nagas find this rather odd. Moses, a local reporter from Tuensang, was surprised when he heard of it. “There are very few followers of Rani Gaidinliu in Nagaland, just one village, in fact. While all major tribes in Nagaland converted to Christianity in the 19th century, Gaidinliu’s followers still practise animism,” Moses says, adding that anyone aware of Naga customs would not vouch for it.

The message underlying Gaidinliu’s promotion, however, becomes clearer when one contrasts the BJP’s strategy of appropriation in states like Gujarat, with a sizeable tribal population, where it has found relative success with its ghar wapsi (Home Coming) campaign against Christian converts among Scheduled Tribes. Much like in Gujarat, units of the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad have mushroomed across the northeastern states, including Nagaland, where the seeds of ‘Hinduisation’ have been quietly planted.

A recent case of an RSS-backed organisation in Assam launching a drive for stripping indigenous people, who undergo religious conversion, of the ST status has also made the BJP leadership in Meghalaya and Nagaland uncomfortable. Dismissing the perception that the drive is anti-Christian, Rituraj Sinha, the BJP national general secretary has told media that “the BJP is not against the church but against those who are anti-India”.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Clever Customisation")

Rakhi Bose in Nagaland and Syeda Ambia Zahan in Meghalaya