BJP, RSS, and the upcoming election in Nagaland

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Nagaland during the Hornbill Festival in 2014, there were side stories which raised curious questions. He was reported to have cancelled State dinner and cultural program. At Kisama, he also skipped the official lunch and instead chose to eat in the helicopter. What seemed like the result of a tight schedule of a Prime Minister is made curious by the fact that he gave audience to a little known organization called the Zeliangrong Heraka Association. Governor P.B Acharya had a similar experience when he visited Longleng. He sought the audience of people of a particular religious group who happened to be little known non-local shopkeepers. He had no time left for a grand program being elaborately prepared for him in the next village. The Governor himself had chosen to visit the village for which the villagers had been preparing for a week. This resulted in chaos after his departure as the angry villagers turned on the local administration to express their resentment. These incidents of little long term consequences which can be treated as permissible stray from protocol of VVIPs, however fit into a larger scheme of things.

BJP and RSS relation: No more in denial

It is widely spoken that BJP is the ‘political wing’ of the RSS, or that RSS is the ‘parent organization’, ‘mentor and fatherly a figure’, or ‘ideological parent’ of BJP. Both parties have acknowledged as well as denied the existence of such a relationship. Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief in 2012 denied that RSS has any relation with BJP (Rediff news). Venkaiah Naidu also in 2000 said that BJP has no ‘organic link’ with RSS which was purely a social and cultural organization. But two years later, he declared, ‘We are proud of our connections with RSS’ (cited in The Wire). Bhagwat in 2017 acknowledged that the two ‘consult and exchange notes but independent in functioning’.

There are multiple published reports highlighting the dependence of the BJP on the works of RSS for election results. The ‘single biggest beneath-the-surface-reason’ for the loss of NDA in 2004 election was attributed to the infighting within the RSS (The Quint). Vajpayee government had to deal with a group protesting against the neoliberal policies of the government and another (VHP) refusing to understand the limitations of the government on the Ram Temple issue. Eventually the RSS leadership did not show up for the election campaign. Modi was not only the choice of BJP but also of RSS as Prime Minister Candidate in 2014 and has openly supported him through the campaign trail. The relation is said to have been dynamic and evolving constantly. Wherever BJP win, there was the hand of the RSS; and it is said that ‘the party’s dependence on the RSS has always been present’ (elections.in).

The rise of BJP in Manipur has been described as a meteoric rise. While the credit for its success in this State has been attributed to party workers in the State and North East region, a news article in The Indian Express also attributed the success to the years of silent work by RSS in the valley as well as the hill districts where Christians are majority. Over a dozen affiliate organizations of RSS have been running formal and informal education units in Manipur. RSS leaders believe that success in Manipur is ‘just the beginning of the realisation of their potential in the hill states, and more is in store’.

The works of the RSS in the social sector translates to votes for BJP during elections. Although BJP retained power in Gujarat, the RSS was displeased at the narrowed margin of victory and expressed their unhappiness that their social work among tribals, fishermen and marginal farmers was not translated by the party into votes.

Under Narendra Modi’s BJP government, the earlier doubts and denials of linkage between BJP and RSS were laid to rest. There was a particular incident in point which prompted NDTV to state that the two entities ‘upgraded their relationship and will no longer be secretive about their coordination’. In September 2017, there was a three days program between RSS and BJP in South Delhi where Modi’s ministers made presentations before RSS and received feedback and inputs. This was unprecedented that union ministers would have their ministries’ performances reviewed by an organization which was claimed to be a purely cultural and social organization. Prime Minister himself attended the program and reaffirmed his stance. “I am proud to be a swayamsevak”, he said.

Adivasi or Vanvasi?

In an article in Outlook magazine called ‘Adivasi vs Vanvasi: The Hinduization of tribals in India’ the writer describes how the Sangh Parivar tries to assimilate tribals into the Hindu fold by recasting tribals who were known as ‘Adivasi’ to ‘Vanvasi’ to suit their ideological project of making India a Hindu Rashtra. ‘Adivasi’ means the ‘first inhabitant’ and these are people who are outside the caste system and therefore are not Hindus. The article stated that traditionally, tribal and indigenous people groups have always been excluded from the mainstream Indian society and have been doubly marginalized, being outside the caste structure and further alienated from their land in the name of progress and development. This created a problem for the ‘Hindu nation’ project as there are people in India who are traditionally not Hindus.

To address this problem, the term ‘Vanvasi’ which simply means ‘forest dwellers’ is used to describe such tribals and indigenous people groups. Hindustan Times quoted Rajesh Das, Sangathan Mantri (organisation secretary) of Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, which runs a growing network of schools, hostels and temples in the northeast as saying “We consider every tribe to be a part of Hindu or Sanatan Dharma. We consider all Vanvasis a part of this larger Dharma”. “We’ll see what happens to them [tribal identity] after 100 or 200 years,” he added.

On recasting tribal and indigenous groups as Vanvasis, assimilation of any indigenous belief, religion or deity into Hinduism and Hindu pantheon becomes easy, an example in point being the relation of RSS and its affiliate organizations with Heraka in Zeliangrong areas. The VHP had been working among the non-Christian Heraka Nagas since 1960s. Arkotong Longkumer writes, “The  ideology  of  the  RSS  and  VHP  has  already  seeped  into  Heraka rhetoric  and  their  talk  is  often  peppered  with  these  nation-building bumper stickers. Phrases such as ‘all religions have truth, compassion, and love and are like streams that go into the one ocean’ or ‘invasion of foreign religion  and  foreign  culture  will  bring  total  destruction  of  Naga  society. Beware of this danger’ – are all too common”. The glorification and projection of Rani Gaidinliu as a freedom fighter, and the recent investment for multiple institutes in the area by Patanjali are all a part of this wider project of cultural and social assimilation, and religious nationalism.

BJP, Ramdev and public funding of godmen

While the rise and rise of Patanjali could be attributed to wise business decisions, it would have been not as easy without help of the government of the day. Huffington Post reported that Ramdev’s company has received an estimated $46 million in discounts for land acquisitions in states controlled by the BJP since Modi came to power. The largest land acquired was in Assam measuring 1200 acres and it came free of cost. In Nagpur during a stone laying ceremony for a Patanjali food processing plant, Patanjali’s Managing Director Acharya Balkrishna asked Gadkari, Union Transport Minister for a road leading to the factory. The minister replied with a smile, “This road you’re talking about, I’ve decided to make it a national highway. Once you start your work, we’ll issue a tender.” Meera Nanda in her book ‘The God Market’ noted how during the NDA government, there was a sharp increase in the use of public money to fund religious institutions to train priests, astrologers, vedic sciences. The government gave Rs. 4000 million to Ramdev, 90 acres of land to Shri Shri Ravi Shankar to set up their centres. Rajasthan government spends Rs. 26 crores every year for temple renovations and training Hindu priests. Government of Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh gifted lands to Baba Ramdev to build 2 universities. Jharkhand gifted him another 100 acres of land. Multi-million dollar Ashram of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar near Bangalore stands on government land which was leased to him for 99 years. Orissa government gifted him 200 acres of land to build a Sri Sri University of Art of Living. Meera Nanda concludes that the government is now ‘actively seeking partnerships with private sector and Hindu establishments to run schools, universities, tourist facilities, and other social services.  As a result, public funds earmarked for creating public goods are increasingly being diverted into facilitating the work of these charitable institutions which bear a distinctly Hindu traditionalist bias.’

While it is a welcome move for any organization to invest for the common good, when an Advisor of the State government said that Patanjali’s investment in Nagaland has nothing to do with religion, he forgot that this particular investor had said that he would have beheaded lakhs of people who don’t say Bharat Mata Ki Jai, if there is no law to prevent him.

BJP in Nagaland: BJP sans RSS?

Firstpost chronicles the rise of Hindutva in the North East in a two series news report, taking each State up for analysis. It reported that despite the effort of RSS, there has not been any major success in Nagaland. BJP has been in alliance with the government for long and has 4 legislators but the party unlike elsewhere has been on its own without the influence of RSS. This is not to say that there was or is no effort of the RSS.

While it is most unlikely that any present or intending BJP candidates within the State would espouse Hindutva ideals, it is certain that on occasions, they will brush shoulders with the party’s ideological parent. BJP MPs in the parliamentary committee looking into rules regarding tobacco sales said that there is no Indian study to prove that tobacco causes cancer, and that many chain smokers do not develop cancer. Instead, cow urine can cure cancers completely. PM Modi opines that Ganesh’s head is evidence that plastic surgery was done during vedic times. BJP ministers have claimed that Aeroplane was invented in vedic age. These are not private individual beliefs but were said in their official capacities in public forums and they permeate into policies and programs of the government: beef ban, re-writing academic textbooks, yoga promotion in schools (and putting yoga under ‘charitable purpose’ thereby reducing tax associated burden) , ghar wapsi programs, observance of good governance day, etc.

While BJP in Nagaland would stand on the plank of development, anti-corruptions, good governance, etc; it would be a challenging task for the State party workers to cherry-pick issues to associate with or dissociate from their national counterparts. To try to dissociate from certain elements at the State level which are organically linked at the Central level will be a tricky task. It is for the individual (candidate or voter) to decide if what unites them is more important than what divides them.

BJP and NPF: ‘Natural ally’?

When he was the chief minister for a brief while, Shürhozelie Liezietsu said that the ruling NPF party is ‘the natural ally of the BJP’. He said the relation goes way back to 1977. The association he suggested is on the basis of a relation with a non-congress national party for the preservation of Naga identity and carrying forward the prolonged Naga political issue towards a settlement. Not long after, he was ousted by the Governor in favor of rival NPF faction. This prompted him and his NPF to comment, ‘The haste with which he (Governor) has acted favouring the RSS-friendly dispensation should be a wake-up call to the Naga people that there are elements fiercely and furiously doing the utmost to pierce the Trishul into the heart-land of Christ’. Therefore, at one level, the relationship can be said to be just a marriage of convenience. At another level, there was acknowledgement that even while being associated, there was a feeling beneath the surface that the hands of RSS have been actively at work in the State.

Present chief minister had denied allegations that he helped RSS push Hinduism in Nagaland through Heraka. While his affiliation with RSS is most unlikely in any formal terms, alliance between the NPF and BJP provides implicit approval for the RSS to take root. In NPF’s association with one, the other is tagged along as the two are inseparable entities. In Heraka, which is non-Muslim, non-Christian, indigenous religious movement, RSS found a perfect target through which to spread its wings in the region. RSS’s political arm the BJP being in alliance with the ruling NPF and its chief minister being from the same community as the Heraka followers, provide a perfect route of entry in the State.

NPF or any other regional party which associates with BJP with the hope of finding a ‘Solution’ to the Naga issue also faces one contradiction. On one side, there is a group which seeks to stand for self-determination of a people, as separate from the Indian union. On the other, there is a group whose idea of Bharat extends not only to Nagaland but even beyond to parts of Myanmar and actively seeks to integrate all these areas, not only politically but socially and culturally.  Of course, the negotiation of the Naga issue is with the government of India (whichever party is in power) and not with a particular political party (although a party may be more forthcoming than the other); and whether the demand is to stay within the Indian union or not makes a difference.

RSS in the upcoming election

Election success in Manipur has given new hope that hill areas are not impenetrable to the RSS influence. But Manipur has valley areas with substantial Hindu populations which make the work lighter. Christian dominated States of Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya are seen as the true test of the Hindu Rashtra resolve.

According to Northeast Today article called ‘Rise of RSS in Northeast’, there are three Sakhas (branches) in Dimapur with one Milan (weekly programme) and two Mondolis (monthly programme). Nagaland is covered by Uttar Assam unit of the RSS. Janjati Vikas Samiti (tribal welfare forum), a voluntary organization based in Nagaland has been active in the state for the last 40 years or so. It is also said to have opened dispensaries in Kohima and Phek districts. It has also jointly organized various social programs with Zeliangrong Heraka groups. An RSS worker said that as a result of their work, many people in Nagaland have stopped eating pork and have turned vegetarian, and have started yoga although they may not join RSS. This association opens the door for indigenous people associated with these groups to be exposed to other affiliate groups in mainland India. One such recognition of the works done by a Naga was the Vivekananda Kendra Institute Of Culture (VKIC) SANMAN award conferred on Kum. Aningiu Meriam, Vice President, Zeliangrong Mipui, Nagaland in 2011. In her acceptance speech, she said that the recognition is the collective effort of Janjati Vikas Samiti and Zeliangrong Heraka groups. She also said in the gathering, “Majority of Nagas honour the Constitution of Bharatvarsh. They wish to live within India. Those who advocate secession from Bharatvarsh are a microscopic minority. But, since this handful people from Naga society are holding sophisticated lethal weapons and they do not honour civil liberties and human rights, the righteous people fear them”. Does this represent the voice of the Nagas? Response to her statement is outside the purview of this piece but it suffices to highlight a committee report: A committee set up by the Ministry of HRD in 2005 found that communalization is rampant in the RSS affiliated schools in their textual materials and curriculum.

Will the works of the RSS translate into votes in the upcoming election in Nagaland? That remains to be seen. But with victory after victory in various State elections and with the upgraded relation between the BJP and RSS, it is likely that the later will find new courage to pursue its goal more openly and vigorously. Hindustan Times reported that ‘the campaign to saffronise the tribal belts of the northeast has gone almost unnoticed’ and the RSS had worked in a stealthy manner. Firstpost news article earlier referred to which traced the rise of BJP and Hindutva in the Northeast concluded that particularly Nagaland and Mizoram ‘need immense nurturing’ from BJP and RSS. It added, ‘BJP is a known political force now but it will require some real backing from RSS, which has to strengthen itself first, to prove its mettle in this region’. The biggest ever RSS rally in the Northeast was held on 21st January 2018 to galvanize support ahead of election in Tripura, Nagaland, and Meghalaya. The upcoming State election result therefore may have consequences far beyond the political realm.

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