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Will BJP’s Electoral Success In The Northeast Enhance RSS' Stature Further?

The RSS story in the Northeast is still in the making, which has, however, been accelerated by the BJP coming to power, first at the Centre in 2014 and then in several states

Will BJP’s Electoral Success In The Northeast Enhance RSS' Stature Further?
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“Go visit a stationery shop in Shillong and ask for ‘stationery’. You are likely to find nothing there. But if you ask for, say paper, pencil or a fountain pen, the shopkeeper will give you these specific items. We have stationery stores but there is no ‘stationery’ sold in them, only different items [under its fold]. In Hindustan, we are all Hindus. But ask someone ‘Who are you’, and some will say ‘I’m a Marathi’, someone else will declare, ‘I am a Vaishnav’. If you ask someone ‘Who are you,’ he might tell you [the identity derived from] his language. But Hindus do not have one definition. Hindu is a general identity”. 

This was the analogy deployed by Mohan Bhagwat, the sarsangchalak or supreme leader of Hindu nationalist socio-political organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to stress the concept of a territorial Hindu cultural identity. Bhagwat, donning traditional Khasi attire, was speaking at an RSS event at the U Soso Tham auditorium in Shillong, Meghalaya’s capital, in September 2022. The timing of Bhagwat’s Meghalaya trip, a few months before the state, along with Tripura and Nagaland, goes to the polls, was not surprising. The RSS is known for laying the foundation for its political arm the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) electoral strategy before each campaign.

This time five years ago, Bhagwat addressed a major gathering—a Luitporiya Hindu Samavesh—in Guwahati, organised by the Sangh. It was attended by several titular tribal kings from the Naga, Khasi, Karbi, Hajong, Garo, Mising and other communities, along with several Satradhikar (chiefs of old Vaishnav monastries) of Assam.

But beyond electoral exigencies and growing shows of strength through increased shakhas (branches), marches and bigger public meetings, Bhagwat’s assertion is in line with the larger RSS mission of assimilation and integration of the states in the Northeast into the Hindu cultural nationalism fold. Bhagwat’s analogy of stationery items borrows from the ideas of MS Golwalkar, the RSS’ second, and one of its most influential chiefs, who approached the question of heterogeneity of cultures, languages, sects, castes and faith under the Hindu life through the illustration of a tree.

In the context of the Northeast (NE), which is defined by a complex array of tribes, ethnicities, identities, religions and geo-political significance, Bhagwat’s note reveals the RSS’ cautious and flexible approach to the region where it has needed to look beyond the binary of a Hindu civilisation and Muslims.

With its tribal-dominated states and Christian-majority populations, the NE region provides a peculiar challenge to the RSS’ Hindu nationalist agenda. In Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur, for instance, Christians make up almost 75 percent, 87.16 percent, 87.93 percent and 41.29 percent of the state population, respectively.

To mitigate this demographic complication, the RSS has adopted a more multi-pronged approach even as it tries to appropriate local ethnic myths, tribal identities and faiths, as well as drum up a common enemy in the form of illegal Bangladeshi Muslim migrants.

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Marching Ahead: Volunteers march in Tezpur to mark the RSS foundation day Photo: PTI

Bhagwat’s speech in Shillong is telling of the RSS strategy in states with higher non-Hindu and tribal populations. While in the Hindi and Hindu mainland, the RSS maintains a staunchly Hindutva and hostile position towards Muslims and Christians—the ghar wapasi (home coming) campaign was an experiment by the Hindu right to bring Christians and Muslims back to the Hindu fold—in the NE, it has tried to allay fears of local Christians and ethnic faiths, many of which follow paganism. In Shillong, Bhagwat, while stressing the heterogeneity of Hindu life and ways of worship, asserted that to be a Hindu, one doesn’t need to change his religion. “People worry that the Sangh people will convert us to Hinduism. We don’t need to convert anyone. We belong to Bharat the way we are. There is no need to change anyone. Nobody is inferior due to their traditions and culture. We may look different but we are all sons of one Bharat Mata,” Bhagwat said.

A day after this event, Bhagwat visited the sacred mount Lum Sohpetbneng of the Hynniewtrep community and joined the Seng Khasi (indigenous tribal faith) members for a prayer.

Associating with and appropriating local icons and tribal myths has been a key part of the RSS’ expansion in the region. The case of Naga tribal icon, Rani Gaidinliu, who was an advocate for protecting indigenous faith against the onslaught of Christianity and who fought against the British, is one of the most popular examples. While she was always iconised by successive governments, with none other than Jawaharlal Nehru giving her the tag Rani, the Sangh has over the years tried to appropriate her into the Hindu nationalism fold as an anti-Christian revolutionary religious entity and Naga goddess.

Many Nagas feel it is a communal distortion of her legacy. In 2015, several local outfits opposed the Union government’s plan to inaugurate a museum dedicated to her in Kohima. In Nagaland, Christianity has come to be strongly linked to Naga nationalism. Some nationalist groups even use the slogan ‘Nagaland for Christ’.

The RSS has been criticised for incorporating local tribal faiths and iconography into the larger Hindu pantheon in its attempt to assimilate ethnic identities into Hindu cultural identities. “The people of Nagaland did not buy the RSS-BJP’s representation of Gaidinliu,” says Glenn T Thong, a professor in Nagaland. “She was not a Hindu. We have paganism here. But somehow, they changed that narrative,” he says.

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The RSS story in the NE is still in the making. It has, however, been accelerated by the BJP coming to power, first at the Centre in 2014, and then in several states.

The RSS story in the NE is still in the making. It has, however, been accelerated by the BJP coming to power, first at the Centre in 2014, and then in several states, especially Assam, where it aggressively plays out the bogey of “illegal” Bangladeshi Muslim migrants, and Tripura, where it breached the long-held Leftist bastion. However, the expansion of the RSS in the NE happened gradually, through decades of experiment.

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In 2018, senior journalist, Smita Gupta, while analysing the BJP’s electoral win in Tripura, outlined the genesis of RSS activity in the region. “Three pracharaks—Dadarao Parmarth, Vasantrao Oak and Krishna Paranjpe—arrived in Assam on October 27, 1946, and went on to establish the first RSS shakhas in Guwahati, Shillong and Dibrugarh. Since then, scores of faceless RSS cadres have worked painstakingly to make inroads into a region where ethnic diversity and large minority populations should have been a deterrent for those seeking to create a Hindu nation,” she wrote.

K.N. Govindacharya, the 79-year-old former RSS ideologue, says the RSS started activity in the NE by connecting with the traders and migrants in Assam, especially from the Marwari community and those from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. However, by the 1960s, the Sangh understood that it was important to involve the local indigenous population. The 1962 Indo-Chinese war provided them a gateway. A state-sponsored decision to promote Hindi learning among the local population in Arunachal Pradesh, then part of the North Eastern Frontier Agency, following the war with the Chinese, provided the RSS an opportunity to engage more with the region.

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“Hindi teachers, exclusively upper caste Hindus, started being sent to Arunachal Pradesh from UP and Bihar as part of the state project,” says Tarun Bhartiya, a documentary filmmaker based in Shillong. “It was these teachers who started reading local myths, icons and tribals hymns in a “Hindu way,” he says. The appropriation of the myths of Rukmini and Parshuram Kund are part of the expansion of the sacred Hindu geography, he adds.

Through stories such as the marriage of Krishna, the Hindu god, with Rukmini, an Idu Mishmi princess from Arunachal Pradesh, the Sangh not only links the NE with the rest of India, it also defines the nature of this relationship, writes retired professor Tanka Bahadur Subba from North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong, in his review of the important book The Greater India Experiment: Hindutva and the Northeast by Arkotong Longkumer.

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By linking Hindutva to local tribal religions, the Sangh is attempting to justify Hinduism as indigenous to the tribal areas of the NE. “The region is fully linked with the rest of India, since time immemorial, not just through Rukmini but several other mythical figures like the Naga princess Ulupi who was married to Lord Krishna, Chitrangada, the Manipuri princess married to Lord Arjuna, and so on,” writes Subba.

The RSS’ ‘Hinduisation’ project in the Northeast predates the BJP. It was KAA Raja, the first lieutenant general of Arunachal Pradesh, who drew the attention of Sangh leaders Eknath Ranade and Golwalkar to the issue of conversions to Christianity in the region, Govindacharya says.

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As the Sangh deputed more pracharaks (outreach workers) and tried to increase the involvement of local populations, it set up Vivekanand Kendras, Vivekananda Mission and small schools with the support of Raja in Arunachal Pradesh for their cultural expansion, says Govindacharya. 

In the mid-1960s, Govinacharya continues, the Sangh replaced its volunteers and propagandists in the NE, emphasising that the pracharaks should necessarily know the local language and should not have any intolerance towards local food habits. This philosophy continues even today with the Sangh demonstrating pragmatism and flexibility on beef consumption in the NE, while in the mainland India, it runs a strident campaign for cow protection and demonises beef-eating as against Hindu culture, especially targeting Muslims. Many communities in the region eat beef.

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In 2018, soon after the BJP won Tripura, Sunil Deodhar, the RSS-pracharak-turned BJP leader, clarified that the BJP would not implement a beef ban in the state or region to respect the demands of the majority of the people. Even during the early days of the RSS in the NE, the Sangh did not make beef-eating an issue.

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The Leader Speaks: RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat addressing a rally in Agartala Photo: PTI

As the Sangh continued to increase its activities through the 1970s, it achieved acceptance in the region after it participated in the October 2, 1983 satyagrah in Assam in which it deployed its student wing the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) in a movement led by the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) against illegal ‘aliens’. 

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The issue of the illegal Bangladeshi migrant plays out even today, especially in the form of CAA-NRC, providing the Hindu right an instrument to polarise identities on communal lines through the trope of the foreigner usurping indigenous lands.  The RSS has also worked to integrate youth from the region into the mainland Indian nationalist narrative. In 1965, the ABVP founded the Students Experience in Inter-state Living (SEIL) initiative under which it conducts annual study tours and cultural exchange programmes for students from the Northeast, accommodating them in a local host family. Then, the Sangh started the My Home India project, which helps northeastern students relocate to other parts of India by providing them information regarding education and accommodation.

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As the RSS interacted and connected with more groups, it shifted its focus to understanding local tribes such as Bodo, Chakma, Kuki, Khasi, Garo etc. And, for this, it deployed the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA), an RSS affiliate focused on tribals. While in the central India and elsewhere, the VKA’s focus in on the assimilation of tribal identities into the Hindu fold, in the NE, given the ethnic diversity of tribes and the growth of strong Christian identities in some states, it has taken a more relaxed approach. It does not change traditions or practices as long as they pay obeisance to the Hindu cultural narrative, say scholars familiar with the RSS in the region.

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In 2018, soon after the BJP won Tripura, Sunil Deodhar, the RSS-pracharak-turned BJP leader, clarified that the BJP would not implement a beef ban in the state or region to respect the demands of the majority of the people.

Atul Jog, the national organising secretary of the VKA, has worked in the NE for 20 years, including 14 in Nagaland. He claims “seva” is their main goal and lists the work done by the VKA in the NE tribal belts. This includes running free hostels, formal and informal education centres and schools, free coaching for competitive exams, medical centres and women’s health camps, along with village development and forest conservation initiatives. The VKA also spots and promotes sporting talents among tribals and conducts competitions at the district, state and national levels every year. “Our goal is the preservation, protection and promotion of the socio-cultural traditions and indigenous faiths of the tribal communities. Faith and culture are inseparable,” he says.

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Jog says the VKA runs 1,000 Ekal Vidyalayas or single-teacher schools, 70 schools and 30 hostels across the NE. They provide medical work in 800 villages. He claims that the VKA doesn’t work against Christians or Muslims. To back this up, he says that the VKA honoured the parents of Kargil War martyrs—Captain Neikezhakuo Kenguruse of Nagaland and Captain Keishing Clifford Nongrum of Meghalaya—who belong to the Christian community. To ensure local participation, he says 80 percent of their workers today are locals.

He gets defensive when asked about the allegations that the VKA is using these seva schemes to safforonise tribals and their local narratives. “I challenge you to show me one example where we have made someone a Hindu. It is easy to accuse but difficult to teach thousands of children,” he says.

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Arabindh Debnath, who worked as a secretary of the VKA in Meghalaya, says earlier Hindu organisations and RSS people faced opposition and could not work openly. “Among the main tribes like Khasi and Garo, our work did not have acceptance. But now, even among these people, we have recognition and they see our work. Many of our workers come from tribal communities,” he says.

Debnath says the thrust of his work was among the non-Christian populations (three-fourths of the population of Meghalaya is Christian, while the others are mostly Hindus and tribals) and to propagate among them the need to safeguard their faiths and organise themselves. “We try to explain to them that other than Muslims and Christians, all other panths (religions) come under the Hindu samaj,” says Debnath.

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“Those who feel that their religion does not align with either Christianity, Hinduism or Islam, we tell them that their religion is supreme but that they should be organised and protect their faith and culture,” he adds.

The Sangh also started spreading its presence in the NE through the electoral wins of the BJP. For instance, Kapindra Purkayastha was elected member of Parliament from Silchar 1991, and Bijoya Chakravarty won from Guwahati in 1999. Both are in Assam. Some observers believe with the BJP attainting political power, the discreet activities of the Sangh have also come to the surface.

“In mainland Hindu-dominated India, and even in states with substantial Christian populations like Kerala, the RSS has articulated itself through the space of Hindu religious identity. However, in the NE, where it works in a religious environment and the prominence of Christianity, it has remarkably presented itself as a secular force,” says a senior Naga scholar, who did not wish to be named. In the NE, the RSS cannot overtly present Hinduism. 

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“The RSS is keenly aware that militarisation and territorial conflict has led to the alienation of the indigenous tribal people in the area. And they also feel Christianity has come in and filled in the vacuum. In Nagaland and Mizoram, to some extent, Christianity is strongly associated with national identity. The two are inseparable,” says the scholar.

Govindacharya feels there is no contradiction in the idea of Hindu and ethnic faiths of the NE. It is not “abharatiya or ahindu” (non-Indian or non-Hindu) being nature worshippers or pagan, he says. “We are also nature worshippers and worship agni, varun … we also have kul devtas. We have 33 crore devi-devtas. What difference will it make if 10-12 more are added to it,” says Govindacharya. 

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As the three northeastern states go to the polls, all eyes are once again on the role of the RSS. Will success for the BJP enhance the RSS’ stature further in the region, which stands as the most daunting piece in its jigsaw of a Hindu Rashtra?  

(This appeared in the print edition as "The JIGSAW puzzle")

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