Editor’s note: In the first of a two-part series Firstpost analyses the rise of the BJP in North East India and the role its ideological parent RSS might have played in this new political trend visible in the region.
Linked to the rest of India by the Chicken’s Neck, or the Siliguri Corridor in West Bengal, the rise of the BJP in India’s North East is a relatively new phenomenon. However, contrary to the newness of the BJP, the Hindutva based nationalistic organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had its presence since the pre-Independence era in the region.
Although the RSS, the better-known abbreviation of the organisation’s name, appeared way back in 1946 in Assam (which was then a huge state with Mizoram, Nagaland and Meghalaya part of it), the RSS has only now started grabbing attention due to the recent electoral success of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Assam last year followed by Manipur this year. The party has also managed to form a government in Arunachal Pradesh, but it has not tested the electoral waters in the state so far.
There is a school of thought that suggests that it is only due to the quiet and determined hard work of the RSS cadres that the BJP could make inroads in this region for the very first time after Independence even as there are many who do not conform to this notion. This piece examines how the nationalist narrative of the RSS has helped the BJP make political gains in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Manipur, the three states where it at present runs the government. While Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur falls in the Dakshin Assam division of the RSS, Assam itself is covered both by the divisions of Uttar and Dakshin Assam.
Working as a professor of Political Science at Delhi University for 10 years, Sunil Mohanty had a settled life until he chose to embrace a new way of life by joining the RSS around a decade back. The former Delhi University professor, who is also a doctorate degree holder from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, is now the pranta pracharak of the RSS in Arunachal Pradesh.
Now in his sixth year in India’s easternmost state, the pranta pracharak felt that there is a greater acceptance of the RSS.
“When RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat visited Arunachal Pradesh last December, a crowd of 10,000 turned up to listen to him. The visit evoked a good response. It was not like a political rally where 40,000 would pour in. But for a state which has a population of 14 lakh and communication is a challenge it was a good gathering. Many people from the administration came to listen to him not because things have changed politically but people wanted to know more from him about RSS,” Mohanty told Firstpost from Itanagar, the state’s capital.
On 31 December, 2016, 33 Peoples’ Party of Arunachal MLAs led by Chief Minister Pema Khandu had joined the BJP en masse to gift the saffron party its first government in the state on a platter.
With the BJP winning state polls in Assam and Manipur, the rise of the party is a new phenomenon in North East India and it has created more interest in its ideological parent — the RSS — which had started its operations in the state in 1960 under the leadership of the present Nagaland Governor Padmanabha Acharya who began a programme named Bharat Mera Ghar to spread nationalistic ideologies. Acharya also has his roots in the RSS.
“The RSS started getting some kind of attention from the 90s in the state. Gradually the people are getting familiar with the RSS. Earlier they had no clue about it and there was a lot of misconceptions. Now there is a realisation that the organisation is for the welfare of the society and hence the confidence and acceptance levels are increasing. Our aim is to make the society self-sufficient,” Mohanty said.
The pranta pracharak denied that the organisation seeks to impose anything on the local population that would affect their indigenousness.
“We believe in thinking globally and acting locally. We neither create divisions among religions as we are often accused of nor do we impose any kind of codes. We believe in unity in diversity and in cultural oneness. This, in fact, is the sanatan mulya (eternal value) of our nation,” he said.
With more than half of its population being tribals, there is a sizable population that follows locally observed religions like Donyi-Polo and Rangfraa. Very often, allegations sprung up that the RSS attempt to club together everything under the umbrella of Hinduism.
“Donyi-Polo is normally followed in western Arunachal Pradesh while Rangfraa is followed in the eastern part of the state. These people are trying to protect their own faiths and we encourage them to do that. The Arunachal Vikas Parishad is taking the lead in this case. We do not impose Hinduism. The RSS is not doing any kind of hegemony. People should know that artificial imposition won’t last long,” Mohanty said.
Arunachal Vikas Parishad, which is nomenclatured as Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram in other places of India, is an RSS-affiliated organisation.
Despite the usual opposition it faces, the growing number of shakhas (daily meet) in all important parts of Arunachal Pradesh is an indication of the increasing footprint of the RSS in the state.
“Arunachal Pradesh has 36 shakhas and 50 units each of milan (weekly meet) and mandali (monthly meet),” the pranta pracharak said. For a state which has a population density of only 17 people per square kilometre as per Census 2011, this is a significant penetration.
The RSS-affiliated organisation like Seva Bharati even run free coaching for subjects like mathematics while free orientation classes for civil services this January attracted 700 students. “There are 28 Vidya Bharati English medium schools running in the state,” Mohanty said.
Politically speaking, although the BJP has established its own government in the state by various means of persuasion and street-smart politics it is yet to prove its mettle on the poll front. The state Assembly poll will be held in 2019 as the term of its 60-member current Assembly ends on 1 June 2019. On paper, even as the BJP and RSS are independent organisations, the former being hardcore political and the latter a socio-cultural entity, the inherent connection between the two is intrinsic.
“RSS is a non-political organisation. Because of the growth of the RSS ideology, any nationalistic force will gain. It is quite obvious and largely depends on how one views it,” the pranta pracharak said while explaining what political advantage the BJP might gain from the BJP network in the state.
However, there is a clear demarcation between the two organisations which the RSS member aptly pointed out.
“The recent BJP victories in the North East has definitely brought the RSS to the limelight in the region. But it takes hard work to become a pracharak. RSS volunteers have no self-interest unlike political workers,” Mohanty said.
The RSS made its debut in Assam in 1946 when three individuals Dadarao Parmarth, Vasantrao Oak and Shri Krishna Paranjpe arrived on 27 October, 1946 to establish the first shakha in Guwahati, Shillong and Dibrugarh respectively although the first regular shakha could be started only in 1949 in Guwahati under the aegis of pranta pracharak Thakur Ram Singh as the organisation was facing the heat due to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on 30 January, 1948.
The story of RSS in Assam began when a native from Nagaon district in Assam, Radhika Mohan Goswami met Keshav Baliram Hedgewar, popularly known as ‘Doctorji’, in Varanasi and evinced interest in working for the organisation. Hedgewar had founded the RSS in Nagpur in 1925. Following that meet, other locals from Assam like Keshav Deo Baawri, Girish Kalita, Shankarlal Tiwari and Prafulla Bora got associated with the RSS.
Regardless of its existence in the state for over 70 years, it is only now when the BJP is storming newer bastions people are seriously taking the role the RSS might have played in this whole new political trend.
“We are helping the BJP either directly or indirectly. Although the BJP runs the government today at the Centre, the credit has actually indirectly gone to the RSS. In Assam, BJP had no organistaion before. Even though we have not claimed credit, it is because of the RSS, that the BJP won in the state,” Sankar Das, RSS pranta prancharak of the Assam chapter told Firstpost from Guwahati.
Comparing the results to no less than a miracle, he said, “No one ever thought that BJP could ever win elections in Assam. The result is as surprising as Donald Trump’s victory in the US or David Cameron’s defeat in the Brexit vote.”
In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP won highest the ever seats from the state winning eight out of 14. In the state election last year, the BJP had grabbed 60 seats in the House of 126.
The present organistaional network of the RSS in Assam could be well gauged from the fact there are 903 shakha running in 730 places while there are 118 milan and 47 mandali.
“The Seva Bharati have 450 projects while there are 546 services that are being done at the moment in the state. We have Arogya Mitra in 3,200 places across the state while there are Kalyan Ashram operating in 323 places. Moreover, 423 Seva are also being done in the state,” Das said.
“In all, there are 21 related organisations of the RSS including the BJP and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad that are active in Assam at present. There are 500 Vidya Bharati schools in the state and 1,40,000 students are enrolled in them. There are 8,000 Acharya (teachers) who are working in these schools while there are around 20,000 alumni from these institutions. The RSS journal also reaches 4,500 villages in the state. Apart from these, all teachers of the Ekal Vidyalaya organisation that manages non-formal one-teacher schools are all related to the RSS,” he said.
With this kind of investment in the academics, the RSS believes that it can shape up a generation according to its ideologies while binding the parents of the students also into a network. When Sarfaraz Hussain topped the state board matric examination 2016 from a Vidya Bharati affiliated school, the glee in the RSS and BJP ranks was unmissable as it involved the Muslim community as well.
While the RSS is now a much familiar organisation, there are critical issues that are ticking as a time bomb. One such key issue is the government at the Centre favouring the grant of citizenship to Hindu Bengali migrants from Bangladesh who migrated into India after the stipulated date of 24 March 1971. The All Assam Students’ Union (Aasu) which has been spearheading the protest against any such move made it clear that an attempt to Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 1955 to accommodate over 1.5 lakh Hindu refugees from the neighbouring nation would be a direct violation of the Assam Accord. The Assam Accord clearly states: “Foreigners who came to Assam on or after March 25, 1971 shall continue to be detected, deleted and expelled in accordance with law. Immediate and practical steps shall be taken to expel such foreigners.”
However, the RSS, owing to its Hindutva roots, has a completely different view of the whole situation putting them in direct confrontation with the students’organisation. Significantly, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal is a former president of the Aasu on whose petition the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act was declared null and void by the Supreme Court in 2005.
“The RSS has assured the people that the Hindu Bangladeshis will not be disturbed,” RSS pranta pracharak for Barak Valley in Assam, Manoranjan Pradhan said. The RSS made its appearance The Hindu Bengali migrants are mostly concentrated in the Barak Valley comprising the districts of Cachar, Hailakandi and Karimganj.
Das backed Pradhan explaining why a pro-Hindu decision should be taken.
“It is India’s moral right to protect the Hindus. But the RSS never said that all these Hindu migrants should stay only in Assam. The whole country should share the burden. People have to understand the basic difference between refugees and infiltrators,” he said.
Even though it has not exploded yet, a love-jihad kind of situation is brewing in southern Assam.
“The Barak Valley is increasingly seeing instances of Muslim boys marrying Hindu girls. We are looking into the matter,” Pradhan said.
Manipur is regarded as another big Congress bastion in the North East which the BJP successfully usurped in March this year. Although the Congress managed to win more seats, it was by the sheer deftness of handling a political puzzle the BJP outwitted the grand old party to form its first government in the state under Chief Minister N Biren Singh. Although the party could not manage a majority on its own, its run has been sensational given the fact that the party had failed to win a single seat in the 60-member House in 2012 Assembly election.
This is one state where a difference among members of the RSS was seen on the political role it might have played before the state election. While one individual denied outright that the RSS indeed played a role in facilitating BJP’s dream run in the state, the other did accept some kind of role but doubted its effectiveness on the ground.
“RSS is not confined to the BJP. It neither works for the BJP nor does it control the BJP. Both are independent entities. It is true that people from different walks of life have gradually started understanding and working for the RSS and are impressed by its nationalist views. That people from RSS background have become successful politically is an entirely different story. They are all working for the country,” said a RSS member who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.
The member, who shifted base to Imphal from a neighbouring state ahead of the Manipur Assembly election this year, rejects that his movement had anything to do with the poll.
“My coming to Manipur had nothing to do with the election. It was a purely organisational matter. RSS never asks people to vote for any political party. It is a national organisation. RSS only asked the people to go out and vote during the Manipur election. Didn’t the Election Commission run a campaign asking people to vote?” he asked.
However, Manipur RSS pranta pracharak pramukh Dayanand Rajkumar did say that the RSS was involved in some political activities in the state ahead of the poll.
“We formed citizen forums to work for the BJP so that the party can go towards a majority. We tried to make sure that majority of the candidates from the party win,” Rajkumar told Firstpost from Imphal.
Despite such efforts, the pranta pracharak pramukh admitted that RSS penetration in the state is relatively low particularly in the hill districts which are largely Christian dominated.
“There is no RSS representation in the hill districts, but still the BJP won. Even in the valley, we could not cover all the villages but still, the BJP won many seats. It was more because of anti-incumbency towards the Okram Ibobi Singh headed Congress government than any real impact of the RSS that the BJP actually could do well. People have changed the mandate because they thought Congress was not doing enough for them,” he said.
Although there are 107 shakha active in Manipur, Rajkumar felt that the growth of the RSS in the state has been essentially slow.
“RSS in Manipur is not progressing very fast. It is an ongoing process. Slowly people from different strata of society are showing some interest in the organisation. But the problem is some are coming in purely for political gains,” he said.
Compared to the Meitei dominated valley districts where Hindus dominate the demography, the RSS is finding it tough to establish itself among the Christians.
“Christianity dominated areas are difficult to penetrate. However, institutions like the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and Eklavya Vidyalaya are gradually earning appreciation from the Christian community for their educational work. The Eklavya Vidyalaya also conducts tutorials for students free of cost. These two institutions are also working among the tribals,” Rajkumar said. “The Akhil Bharatiya Poorva Sainik Seva Parishad and Vidya Bharati also have their presence in Manipur.”
In spite of the fact that the RSS is struggling to make some concrete impact because of its snail-paced manner in spreading its network in the state, the organisation hopes that with a BJP government in power in Manipur things might look brighter in future.
“We are hoping that the RSS will be strengthened in Manipur in the coming five years,” Rajkumar said.
What lies ahead for RSS in these three northeastern states
Whether one accepts it or not, it is obvious that both that the RSS and BJP have aided each other in establishing a firm footing in the region. Not too long ago, the Congress was the only option and it seemed unfathomable that a party like the BJP — that is so strictly based on Hindutva ideologies like its ideological parent, the RSS — would ever make inroads in this region.
It’s not only the physical distance but differences in culture, food habits also combined to create this sense of isolation at both ends. The long rule by the Congress in these states and its strong network right down to the panchayat level also made the job harder for the BJP and the RSS. What possibly turned the tide towards the BJP was the so-called Modi wave ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha election and concerted efforts by the RSS and the BJP to conflate the notions of nationalism and development.
Keep watching this space for the second part of the series that will look into the functioning of the RSS and the political prospects of the BJP in Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura and Mizoram where the BJP never had an electoral victory.