RSS-BJP and Bharat Mata in the NorthEast
Dr Arkotong Longkumer
University of Edinburgh
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a prominent member of the Sangh Parivar, emerged as the single largest political party in India, winning the general election in 2014.1 One of the first things they did was to appoint a Sangh Parivar worker, Padmanabha Balakrishna Acharya, as the 18th Governor of Nagaland. The symbolic association of Acharya with Nagaland signaled an unambiguous message: The BJP are here to stay. When the Governor of Nagaland celebrated his first Republic Day in office, he published a pamphlet that was interpreted by the Christian audience as having a distinctively religious message. In the program pamphlet, there was a poster of Bharat Mata standing on a Lotus and holding the tricolor with the country’s map as the background. That this could be issued by the Governor of a majority Baptist Christian state with a strong national culture of its own, obviously raised many eyebrows, with the Nagaland Pradesh Congress Committee (NPCC) leading the charge: “…at a time when the country was faced with onslaught of the RSS-led communal forces, the “needless action” of the Governor was “perhaps an ominous sign of a greater agenda espoused by the BJP-RSS combine, being unfolded to change the secular fabric of the nation”.2
In this paper, I offer a preliminary ethnographic and media examination of the ways, and the extent to which, the BJP has been able to (and still is) negotiating its status in the region. I want to suggest that this status has been accomplished by honing a self-sufficient and dynamically structured political machine and by the adoption of an agenda that transcends religious, social and cultural boundaries.3 But an analysis of their momentary success must be tempered by realities on the ground that highlight complexities with regard to the national-regional dynamic. In order to understand these developments, I present an analysis of two aspects of the BJP’s approach: its utilization of key alliances that have emerged in reaction to the failures of regional and central governments, and its projection of itself as a secular party that encompasses but also moves beyond exclusively ‘Hindu’ sentiments. The challenges to present itself as a ‘secular’ party highlights the fascinating ironies of how the BJP seeks to remove the term ‘secular’ from the constitution, while in the Northeast it has maintained success precisely through self-presentation as a secular party. This paper highlights this doublethink—the situational/regional differences in political self-presentation that demonstrate the malleability of their ideology while at the same time managing the BJP’s complex relationship with the RSS.
BJP’s model of nationalism and the Northeast
Despite wielding power at the Center, it remains a challenge for the BJP to persuade the whole of India that this is an attractive proposition, and nowhere is this more the case than in the Northeast of India. This region has long resisted the Center-driven nation-building project, with feelings of alienation fostered by various government policies and programs since Indian Independence in 1947. Until now, the BJP, with its projection of a largely Sanskritic culture and language, and a strong desire for territorial homogeneity in the form of Bharat Mata (Mother India), has generally remained ineffective and without influence in the region. However, in recent years, and to the surprise of many, the BJP has formed governments in Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh, and developed strong alliances in Christian states such as Nagaland and Meghalaya. In just three years it has grown from a negligible presence to possessing over 80 Members of Legislative Assembly (MLA) in different states. It has managed to capture, it seems, the local imagination. How did this dramatic transformation in the party’s fortunes occur and what are its implications? In order to answer this question, first, however, it is important to understand something of the context and the ideology of the BJP.
With its traditional base in the north and northwest of the country and an ideology (inherited from its predecessor the Jana Sangh) premised upon ‘Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan’, the BJP’s poor performance in the 1996 Lok Sabha elections exposed its inability to project itself as a ‘national party’ (Gillan 2007: 31; Hansen and Jaffrelot 2001). According to Michael Gillan’s post-1996 prognosis, the BJP needed to radically refashion its ideology if it wanted to be viable in the east and the south of the country, where its presence remained limited. First it had to position itself as “the ascendant, preeminent national party political force” (Gillan 2007: 31; italics in original). In order to accomplish this it needed to articulate a strategically viable ideology of accommodating regional voices, without disowning their main Hindu nationalist base. Whether it was issues related to territory, identity, or national security, the BJP had to be ready to engage groups within a broader ambit than their previous ideological positions had allowed. Consequently, they had to think seriously about implementing a national strategy that sought to make alliances with regional parties (Gillan 2007: 31-32). This was seen as a way to harness their collective image as a “national party” and also to make inroads into regions, such as the Northeast, where their cultural and political capital was comparatively limited.
A tempestuous borderland region sharing borders with China, Burma, Bhutan and Bangladesh, and marked by armed conflict since 1947 with various indigenous movements, not to mention the disastrous Sino-Indian war in 1962 which exposed the weakness of the outlying flanks of the nation-state, making inroads in the Northeast is not easy for any new party, let alone for one largely seen to represent dominant ‘Hindu’ interests. These complexities, particularly in protecting the boundaries of India and fashioning loyal subjects first and foremost, also make it vital for the BJP to gain support within the region, if they are to succeed in their national agenda of integrating cultures, languages, and nation into one coherent entity.
The Northeast states with the strongest current BJP presence—Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh—each harbor vociferous ‘separatist’ movements and sensitive border issues, which in the words of the political scientist Sanjib Baruah, together take the form of a ‘durable disorder’ (2005). In the case of the first two states, armed conflict has been widespread since around Indian independence. Arunachal Pradesh, similarly, has seen Naga nationalist groups such as the National Socialist Council of Nagalim–Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland–Khaplang (NSCN-K) play an active role in its southern, Naga, districts, while at the same time sharing its religious and cultural orbit with Tibet and China. The BJP has been astute in recognizing that the region requires long-term and focused attention as a matter of urgency to improve not only the BJP’s fortunes but to assert the national outlook of one nation. Even Nagaland, a bastion of Baptist Christianity with a history of vibrant national movements, long suspicious of any Hinduizing force, has seen the entry of the BJP into the state political machine, where it has formed an alliance with the current ruling regional party, the Naga People’s Front (NPF).
The BJP/RSS’s activity in the region is a consequence of the Hindutva’s ideological vision of Akhand Bharat (Greater India, or undivided India). According to a political advisor to the BJP Chief Minister in Manipur, writing for NDTV, “For the nation to be culturally and nationally integrated in spirit and not just geography, the Northeast is important. For the BJP, the Northeast is not a peripheral state but the heart of India.”4 Used initially in Hindu nationalist discourse expressing discontent about the partition of the sub-continent (i.e., Pakistan and India), and advocating its restoration as one country (Jaffrelot 1996: 108), this use of Akhand Bharat in the context of the Northeast is novel in the way they visualize a region that has historically been marginal in the ‘Hindu’ imagination. Akhand Bharat encompasses regions that are culturally linked or influenced by a Sanskritic culture that forms the Indian subcontinent and extends to Southeast Asia and Central Asia. Indologist Sheldon Pollock has described this as the ‘Sanskrit Cosmopolis’ (1998). If the Northeast is seen as the connecting tissue that links parts of the Indian subcontinent with their Southeast counterparts, then, the Northeast has to be ‘reconstructed’ to establish the region as the center of this ‘Sanskrit Cosmopolis’ (see Longkumer 2017 and forthcoming). This cultural map of India, beyond the 1947 borders, must be re-established to bring about salient political influence eastward—towards China and Southeast Asia.5
Building Key Alliances
In 2016, the BJP formed its first government in Assam, which was headed by a tribal leader from the Sonowal Kachari community, Sarbananda Sonowal. The BJP General Secretary, Ram Madhav, who played a crucial role in stitching together a “dream alliance” between the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) and the Bodo People’s Front (BPF), said that victory in Assam was an important ideological win.6 Some commentators have suggested that the Assam victory opened the doors to the Northeast.7 The key idea that secured the party’s win was their focus on Assamese identity. This was seen as coming under threat by the Congress-led government who were closely associated with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) in protecting “illegal Bangladeshi” immigrants. To save Assamese culture, language and land, “The BJP has promised a khilonjia Sarkar [indigenous government],” according to the political scientist Sanjib Baruah. “Khilonjia—a non-Sanskritic word that means original inhabitant, indigenous or autochthonous” was used as a keyword to anchor the election battle very much within the ideological landscape of Assam.8 Here the “foreigner” was clearly the face of the Muslim, headed by the AIUDF leader, Badruddin Ajmal, in juxtaposition to Sonowal’s, an indigenous Kachari. The facial phenotype, or facescape (Wouters and Subba 2013), that defines national citizenship, said it all.
Although projected as a recent indigenous concern by the media, it is important to note that the BJP/RSS have been formulating this position for a while. Their earliest presence was in Assam when the RSS established a base in the state in 1946. Since then, the RSS have been involved in establishing schools, aiding in relief work (like the 1950 Assam earthquake), and organizing important events like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) conference in Guwahati in 1967 to highlight their presence and to disseminate their message of Hindu nationalism. This message was directly to counter Christian proselytization, especially in tribal areas, and to stop Muslim “illegal” immigration—or “infiltration”—from Bangladesh into Assam and the Northeast (Bhattacharjee 2016: 84-85).
Grassroots organization and mobilization with the help of various RSS-affiliated workers already present in the region was skillfully deployed to bring the BJP to power in Assam. It took careful tactical planning for nearly two years for the BJP to be able to poach a crucial competitor from the Congress, Himanta Biswa Sarma, thereby unsettling the Congress leadership in Assam.9 These tactical games were also evident in Arunachal Pradesh in 2016 that saw Pema Khandu form the government when 33 out of 43 of the People’s Party of Arunachal (PPA) MLAs merged with the BJP, effectively bringing about a BJP government. Similarly in Manipur, N. Biren Singh, a former Congressman, was heading the BJP alliance at the time of the writing of this paper; in Nagaland too, with only 1 BJP MLA, 3 joined from the National Congress Party (NCP), taking its numbers to 4 in 2014.
Switching political parties in this way could suggest a simple political strategy on the part of regional MLAs—to side with the party in power at the Center. It also supports the BJP who are effectively promulgating what they might call regional alliances with a national outlook. In other words, they use the symbols and language of the states that they are in, without abandoning the idea of the Centralized model and the ideology of a homogenous nation. An example of this is the way the BJP has represented the image of Bharat Mata in the state of Tripura. Using tribal women with customized attires in elections posters to stand in for Bharat Mata, the BJP argue that, “The idea is to make the “alienated tribes” of the North East feel part of Bharat and claim Bharat Mata.”10
This centralized model is further evident in the appointment of a leader to manage the affairs of the BJP (in Assam, Ram Madhav effectively played this role), as well as their close nexus with RSS and affiliates who provide ideological and organizational support that is very much aligned with the key aim of the BJP/RSS message in the Northeast: that of national unity and cooperation with regard to development as well as protecting the interests of the states.
While the BJP present these alliances, and themselves, as something new, there is also a sense in which it is politics as usual in these areas. I want to draw on two particular examples from Assam, where the BJP has been particularly successful. These two districts—Karbi Anglong and Dima Hasao—border with the state of Nagaland, and demonstrate the complexities of the region that the BJP must negotiate. Both districts come under the Sixth Schedule and therefore are Autonomous Councils. The Sixth Schedule11 is a special provision under the Constitution of India in the administration of tribal-dominated areas. In Assam, there are three such Autonomous Councils, demarcating “tribal areas”: Bodoland Territorial Council; Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council; and Dima Hasao Autonomous District Council. Each Council has wide-ranging legislative powers from managing land, agriculture, roads and bridges, to revenue, public health, education, and so on. The Governor is technically the overseer of the Council and has the power to appoint four unelected members to the Council from unrepresented, minority groups; though in practice, it is usually the political parties who choose, and the Governor simply ratifies their choices.
It is also these two districts which border the state of Nagaland and therefore are crucial areas within the Naga “Framework Agreement”, an agreement recently signed by the Government of India (GOI) and the NSCN-IM outlining the basis on which the talks between the two parties are happening, leading to a workable agreement concerning the Indo-Naga conflict. The Sixth Schedule in theory protects regional powers, but issues of territory, though in an important sense a regional concern, can be overruled by the national authority. These dynamics however have ramifications in an area where there are several actors contesting territorial boundaries. In one way, it is these complexities that have contributed to the BJP rise, turning acute difficulties to their advantage.
Politics as Usual?
In Dima Hasao district of Assam, a senior BJP worker told me that when the local party was formed in 1997, they only had 1 member. Since then, the numbers have grown gradually and in 2012 they had 52 members. When the then Congress Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi, visited Dima Hasao, the majority of them left to join the Congress party, leaving only 6 in the BJP. Since the BJP government formed in Dima Hasao, they have roughly a 1000 members on all levels. Although the BJP has won seats in the Dima Hasao Autonomous Council (DHAC) in previous elections, since 2013 they have not secured any seats, due to the popularity of the Congress. In 2015, oddly, the BJP formed the DHAC government, without winning any seats—but by attracting 16 members through defection in the 30-member Council, thus forming the DHAC government. At the time of the writing of this paper in February 2018, had a stable majority of 24 members, none of whom were BJP candidates when elected. So why are these members switching allegiances?
The main reason is the alignment of region-state-center—staying with the party in power. A BJP worker in Karbi Anglong told me that this alignment is crucial. For these two small Autonomous Councils this balance is vital because they need development money, largely dependent on the state exchequer, and without the right regional-state synergy, life becomes difficult for the smaller regions. Because of the pressure of development, the constituents look at the political structures in the state and center before voting. The confluence between the three levels is important, said a BJP worker in Dima Hasao, “without power, one can’t do anything”. She even said that, “if the Congress comes to power in the center and the state, the constituency will vote Congress.” I asked if she would change parties if Congress came to power. She replied, “if I’m elected in the BJP party, and if Congress comes to power, then I will join Congress because I need to bring development to my villages.” A parallel process is also happening in Karbi Anglong. A first-time BJP member said to me that he joined the BJP to represent his community due to the fact that they have no representative in the KAAC. Being a Christian, he does not fully agree with the BJP, nor does he know much about the BJP’s ideology. For him, it is important that his community’s voice is heard and the dominant party, for now the BJP, is the ideal platform. The BJP is then largely an instrument to protect community development and interests, and to voice concerns. Regardless of party affiliations—whether Congress, BJP, or the regional Autonomous State Demand Committee (ASDC)—these defections are bound to happen, he said.
In both Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong, the situation appears similar. There are no deep ideological anchors for the BJP. This suggests the BJP’s rise may be transient. While their counterparts, the RSS, are highly inventive and effective in certain regions of the Northeast, the BJP is still a nascent force in terms of accruing political capital.12 Moreover, for many local people, there are far more important issues at play such as development, territorial politics, and power. On the surface it may seem as if the BJP is on the ascendency due to the diligent mapping of their activities and pathways created by a few karyakatas (workers) to imprint the ideology of the BJP onto the landscape but local priorities offer a different explanation. This is the challenge for the BJP, as it seeks to collaborate with regional players who are characterized by intense competition and rivalry over ideologies. It may mean that the BJP will have to sacrifice maximum leverage in order to maintain regional allies. Conversely, it might push the BJP’s one-party rule, which is necessary to maintain its core ideological platform of ‘one language, one culture, one nation’, to rethink its structure and organization to build a strong regional base, at the expense of forging partnerships with local alliances (see Gillan 2007: 55-56).
Local politics: territoriality
In these regions of Assam, there are two issues that are central to any understanding of local politics. They are subject to the Sixth Schedule but the dominant concern is the territorial politics of “Greater Nagaland” that is in play at the moment between the GOI and the NSCN-IM through the “Framework Agreement”. In an interview with a local BJP activist from the Rengma Naga tribe in Karbi Anglong, it was clear that understanding territorial politics is important because it will show how the BJP understands the history of the region, and that it is not simply riding a wave of popular support. NSCN-IM has always maintained that any future solution or settlement to the Indo-Naga issue would encompass all regions that are inhabited by the Naga people, including parts of Dima Hasao and Karbi Anglong districts, forming “Greater Nagaland”.
The Assam Government, however, has clearly stated that they will not make any compromise on the territorial restructuring of state boundaries. The Assam BJP Chief Minister, Sarbananda Sonowal, in the Economic Times, stated that “not an inch of [the] state’s land will be parted with and the territorial integrity of [the] state will be protected”.13 There is considerable uncertainty over the “Framework Agreement”, with only the occasional speeches by the NSCN-IM leadership hinting at the creation of “Greater Nagaland”. However, the Assam Government’s position has been reiterated by the GOI’s interlocutor for Naga talks, RN Ravi, as recently as October 2017.14
This presents a complex problem for the BJP. In Dima Hasao district of Assam, with a sizable Zeme Naga population, who want to be included in “Greater Nagaland”, many are of the view that it is the BJP that will bring this settlement. A Zeme Naga woman activist, a senior figure in the BJP organization in Dima Hasao, told me that the people in her constituency have been discussing the news seen on TV in August 2015 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi hinted that a solution to the Indo-Naga issue might materialize in 18 months. For those in the village, they see this as good news primarily because the Nagas will have their own government “ruled by our own people” and the Zeme Nagas will not be under the majority Dimasa people in Dima Hasao district, but under “Greater Nagaland”, and it will be “like independence”. Jobs, greater access to local government, less red tape are all expected because the “people in government will be our people”, an exciting and attractive proposition to many Naga people in villages.
In Karbi Anglong, the minority Rengma Naga tribe are unable to publicly voice their support for “Greater Nagaland”, due to the dominance of the Karbi tribe in local politics. The Karbi anxiety over “Greater Nagaland”, if it comes to fruition, is that large swathes of land within Karbi Anglong will form part of the Naga homeland and the hard won “autonomous status” in 1951 with the formation of the KAAC will mean nothing, and will be folded within it. So how does the BJP’s grand design for political power fit this precarious arrangement in terms of the territorial politics of “Greater Nagaland”?
The BJP’s greatest strength is also their greatest weakness. Known for their strong party discipline, following protocols, and taking their commands from the central authority. Their political model seems unassailable. There appears to be little empowering of local authorities to approach issues intuitively. For example, a BJP worker in Dima Hasao told me that the BJP/RSS workers are often silent about issues such as the Framework Agreement, to a certain degree to maintain party discipline in order to minimize unfounded rumors, but also to maintain a specter of neutrality in dealing with each community. So the question is, will the BJP with its strong hierarchical setup, command enough respect in maintaining party order in the face of obvious contestation over the restructuring of state boundaries if the issue of “Greater Nagaland” becomes a reality? The party’s Assam unit chief Ranjit Das indicated that “the state might have to part with its land”. Furthermore, “There is a possibility that some disputed areas along the Assam-Nagaland border will enter Greater Nagaland.”15 In other words, there seems to be a division over the issue of “Greater Nagaland” with the Assam BJP Chief Minister denouncing it, while his counterpart Ranjit Das hinting towards an alternative possibility. This is where the BJP appears contradictory and its future uncertain: the BJP is centralized and yet regional; promoting national unity, yet willing to divide territory.
Appeasing the Nagas and accommodating their request will show a real commitment to solving the longstanding conflict and instability in the region. At the same time, will the BJP sideline the hard earned respect in Assam as shown recently by their electoral success by re-negotiating Assam territory? Not grasping this complexity could be another challenge for the BJP. Though slowly making inroads into regional politics, they are still driven by an ideology that might not fully materialize itself into local variations and dynamics. In Karbi Anglong, a student activist told me that the BJP are not popular due to their close relationship with the RSS. The growing RSS presence has meant that they are supporting their BJP candidates for the local elections. I have been told that out of the 26 elected members in the KAAC, around six of the candidates have backing from the RSS.16 The pressure exerted by the RSS is creating an obstacle for the BJP.
A local BJP party worker, who is a Christian, said to me that in the KAAC, aside from the 26 elected members, there is room for four nominated candidates decided by the KAAC, and ratified by the Governor of Assam. He is one of the candidates being considered for nomination by the KAAC, but his nomination has been blocked by vested interests both in the district and in the state capital. The Chief Minister has his own candidates, so too does the RSS pracharak in Karbi Anglong, who is lobbying for his “Khasi Hindu” candidate. The Christian BJP candidate even met the RSS head of Assam in Guwahati, who said that protocol has to be maintained as there is a clear line of authority—center/state/region—and that his hands were tied to intervene. In other words, the say of the regional pracharak carries more weight and the center might do his bidding and override other local equations.
The BJP want to highlight their “secular credentials” which are said to be a key driver in their success in the Northeast. But this is being challenged on the ground, as the BJP Christian candidate, he informed me, was denied the nomination purely on “communal” (religious) grounds. Furthermore, for the first time since the formation of the autonomous council of Karbi Anglong in 1951, three tickets have been issued by the BJP, with RSS backing, to non-tribals. Previous Congress governments also issued single tickets to non-tribals, but as one tribal BJP activist recounted, several was unprecedented. The Sixth Schedule, which led to the formation of the autonomous councils in the Northeast, empowered the tribal bodies to form governments and to take control of development within their regional bodies. However, due to the structure of the BJP as a political party, the Sixth Schedule safeguards are being challenged.
As a BJP worker put it to me, crudely: “It is openly acknowledged that those who have benefited from the refashioning of the Sixth Schedule are the Bengalis and the Biharis.” Even though they are of the same party, the tribals feel uncertain of how to approach this issue because, he said, “India has a democratic and secular constitution which does not help us as, if we object to the Bengali/Bihari members on tribal/non-tribal divide, then we in the BJP will be branded as communal.” The communal idea in the two instances—the candidate’s perception of being judged through a religious lens, and his inability to voice his concern publicly due to the safeguards of the constitution—is an interesting example of how there are divisions between on the ground politics, and the tactical discourse of BJP’s secular presentation, which they are keen to maintain in order to demonstrate their “neutrality”. I suspect these instances are not a one-off but will multiply. This has not only brought about the revitalization of the regional party, ASDC, to fight for the Sixth Schedule to protect tribal interests (in itself an ethno-national project) but again demonstrates the contradiction within the BJP approach. And, the backlash could have consequences for the future of the BJP in the region.
Secular politics and its malcontents
Some attribute the effectiveness of the BJP’s work in the Northeast to their avowedly “secular” credentials. This is something that is persistently maintained by the BJP leaders, despite close and continuing links with the RSS and its affiliates. After the Assam election victory in 2016 and the anxiety of Muslims in Assam over the rise of BJP/RSS nexus, the BJP General Secretary, told The Hindu that “Assam’s secular identity will be safe.”17 While this slogan has been maintained by the BJP, on the ground at least things are slightly different.
The idea of the secular provides an ideological battle over what is religious and secular. In safeguarding their secular credentials, the BJP are able to assert that theirs is solely a political party, dealing with live issues that affect ordinary people. Demonstrating the separation of the BJP and the RSS, Ram Madhav said to Indian Express, “The RSS has been actively working in the Northeast for many decades, but in social and service areas. They don’t do politics. But the RSS’s association with every section of society helped us. There were many social organizations and groups that helped us and some of these were RSS-backed.”18 The RSS has indeed worked for many years establishing schools and social centers in the Northeast (see Bhattacharjee 2016; Kanungo 2011; Longkumer 2017) but the mobilization of RSS workers, and organizations, during elections indicates more fuzzy, and arbitrary, boundaries between “politics” and the “social”, despite the claims of being untainted by each other.
Indeed, there was further debate when it was rumored that the BJP Government was planning to remove “Socialist Secular” from the Indian Constitution which describes India as a “Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic”. Whatever the intention of the BJP was, at least in Nagaland, this stirred debate on the nature of secularism and the safeguarding of Christians in India, generally. Seasoned Naga activists like Dr. Wati Aier argue that this could demonstrate a tacit support by those in power for hardliners and fringe elements (read RSS) within the BJP. Such elements, argues another scholar turned activist Professor Temsula Ao, are dangerous. She points to the fact that the omission of “Socialist Secular” indicates a larger plan because “such an important document in such a momentous occasion… sees the fringe elements coming to the forefront [and] disrupting the harmony of the nation”. Indeed, Niketu Iralu, another advocate for social justice in Nagaland, suggests that there has always been an undercurrent of Hindu national identity simmering under the surface of this “secularism”, and this climate only contributes to a sense of anxiety for minority religious groups. Even though the BJP’s language talks of development for everyone, many suspect it is motivated largely by the BJP’s idea of assimilating national identity.19
At the time of the arrival of the BJP in Nagaland in 2012, people openly questioned its religious allegiances to Hinduism, arguing that they clashed with those of Nagaland as a Christian state. Reflecting on some of these issues a few years later, Asangba Tzüdir, in an OpEd published in the local Morung Express in June 2017, wrote that the “BJP is being seen as a possible threat to the very foundation of Christianity if it comes to power in the next Nagaland General Assembly elections”. This fear is rooted, very much, Tzüdir suggests, through their use of “imagery”—through glorifying a non-Christian Naga leader, Rani Gaidinliu—and by using “Hindu rituals” in BJP functions and events. The counter-narrative of Hindutva, now formally established through the BJP, will dismantle the dominant image of Nagaland as a Christian state, argues Tzüdir.20
These claims are being countered by the face of K.J. Alphons, the Christian BJP Union Minister of Tourism from Kerala, in charge of the election battle in Meghalaya. Carefully reading the political situation by the BJP, Alphons’s appointment addresses two issues. First, appointing someone opposed to the beef ban in Kerala, is an attempt to alleviate the BJP’s image in Meghalaya as the party that imposed a nationwide beef ban in 2015. This ban was opposed by considerable numbers in the state, even organizing a “beef party” during the visit of the President of the BJP, Amit Shah, and leading to the resignation of BJP workers over “this imposition” as recently as 2017.21 Second, Alphons’s position as a Christian in charge of a Christian dominated state is significant. Appealing to Christians in the region he has argued that his Christian background has had no impact on joining the BJP, nor on his ascendency to Union Minister. In a visit to Shillong (Meghalaya; another majority Christian state) in October 2017, he said:
A lot of people asked me that being a Christian why am I joining this party? People were angry with me. They said if Modi comes to power, churches will be burnt and destroyed and Christians will be beaten up. In the three-and-a-half years since Modi became Prime Minister, has any church anywhere in India been burnt or destroyed? The answer is no. Not one church in India has been touched by the BJP government. Has any Christian anywhere in India been beaten up? The answer is no.22
Such a move highlights the BJP’s inventive and malleable character, and willingness to pay attention to the acute political sensitivities. A senior BJP party worker in Nagaland offered a different biblical refrain. He told me that for him joining the BJP is not an issue because he can separate his “religious” identity as a Christian from his “political” identity as a BJP worker. Using the story of Daniel, in the Old Testament, he noted how, like Daniel who served Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon to the best of his ability even though he was a Jew and rose through the ranks to become an important administrator, he too is serving the BJP although he is a Christian. His hope is to bring about a new kind of politics that is not based on clan, village, or tribal identity, but one that is issue based politics. And he hopes that the BJP will provide that platform. 23
In fact, with the arrival of the BJP in the Northeast, one could argue now that the emotional baggage of Hindutva, with its ideological drive to make India “Hindu” is being carefully managed, with the BJP/RSS combination interested in asking people to invest in the nation, not solely as a set of ideological categories, but as functional and practical sets of action that can tackle corruption, immigration, political and military conflict, and peace-building. This is what the Prime Minister’s visit to Nagaland in 2014 illustrated. Speaking in English and using the Naga nationalist phrase Kuknalim (literally victory to Nagaland), and not the usual ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ (victory to Mother India), Narendra Modi offered developmental packages around the idea of making the Northeast the capital of “organic agriculture” labelling this as Natural Economic Zones (NEZs) contrasting it with Special Economic Zones (SEZs) that are largely man-made (Longkumer 2015). Borrowing the economic language of Swalambhan (self-reliance), and combining it with the “Integral Humanism” of Deendayal Upadhyaya, Modi’s speech appeared to evoke the connection between humanity, nature, and life, overseen by a “spirit” regulating the culture and nation. In other words, Modi’s vision, in line with Integral Humanism, is to create an indigenous economic model, using natural resources (Hansen 2001: 294). (Modi often talks about the Naga chilli, the hottest in the world, and the Jalukie pineapple as examples of what he means by NEZ).
Similarly, the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat’s, visiting Tripura in October 2017 ahead of the 2018 assembly elections, made the statement that “anybody living in India is a Hindu”.24 He was asserting that the meaning of Hindutva is to unite all communities, regardless of religious background. Including Muslims and Christians in this fold, he noted “We have no enmity with anyone. We want welfare of all. To unite all is the meaning of Hindutva”.25 Indeed, the malleability of this kind of “new Hindutva” (Berti, Jaoul and Kanungo 2011), in contrast to the historically openly chauvinistic one, is what is making the BJP’s entry into the Northeast of such significance.
The entry of the BJP into the Northeast in the last decade and their electoral wins in Assam and Manipur have greatly enhanced their political capital in a region that has resisted the dominant model of the Indian state since independence. Many governments have tried to appease the indigenous governments through big development packages, while at the same time launching a military conflict against those not wanting to accede to this model of democracy and governance. The Congress, as a national party, has largely lost its force in the Northeast in the last elections, but it remains to be seen if they will be able to reinvent themselves amidst the shift towards the more regional power blocks. The BJP’s entrance is interesting and significant for three reasons.
First, the BJP is offering to solve the long protracted Indo-Naga issue; the Naga movement is often known as the ‘mother of all insurgencies’ (termed so by the Indian military establishment) in the Indian Union. The Prime Minister has benefitted from the work his predecessors have done since a cease-fire was signed between the GOI and the NSCN-IM in 1997 (with political talks between the two entities starting in 2001). The 2015 “Framework Agreement” is the fruit of that process. Promises and grandstanding aside, the future of the region, in terms of BJP electoral strategy is very much dependent on this Agreement. If the BJP are simply interested in short-term goals, particularly traveling the dusty road to get to where they are in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, then, they may honor their alliances in these states and keep the territorial boundaries intact. If however they decide to honor the Nagas’ demand for Greater Nagaland, then, their long-term interest in the region will be established—securing the borders of the nation, using these areas to influence the larger Southeast Asia region (the idea of Akhand Bharat, Greater India), and to build a strategic presence that counters the threat of China, their main regional competitor. Compromises would have to be made of course on both counts.
Second, the relationship between the BJP and the RSS is interesting for the future of the BJP as a “secular” political party in the Northeast. The RSS and their affiliates have had a far longer presence in the Northeast than the BJP, and provide foot soldiers to the BJP cause. Finding a compromise over ideological factors, and also over on the ground tactics is important to prevent the BJP from being seen simply as a “Hindu nationalist” party (Jaffrelot and Hansen 2001a; Mcguire and Copeland 2007).
The author’s original research can be accessed here.
1 This paper was written before the regional elections in February 2018 which saw the rise of the BJP in Tripura (forming the government), and forging alliances with regional parties that went on to form the state governments in Nagaland and Meghalaya. This paper does not take into account the post-February 2018 situation.
2 ‘NPCC irked by Governor’s program pamphlet’, Nagaland Post, 30 th January 2015
3 Fieldwork for this chapter was conducted between 2014-2016 for a larger project on Hindu nationalism in the region. Follow up interviews were conducted with the different BJP interlocuters in 2017. I do not use personal names, nor pseudynms, due to the sensitivity of their views, nor do I use specific designations. Instead I use the general term ‘BJP worker’.
4 ‘Yes, BJP Wants All Of Northeast, Will Go For The Kill’. NDTV, July 24th 2017
5 It must be noted that the formation of the VHP by S.S. Apte in 1964 was partly to strengthen the boundaries of the Indian state, due first to the Indo-China war in 1962, that threatened the flanks of the Indian state, particularly Arunachal Pradesh, and then, subsequently the foundation of the state of Nagaland, an openly Christian state, in 1963, and the Pope’s visit to Bombay in 1964. The threat of China and the activities of Christian missions in ‘denationalizing’ its citizens was seen as an obvious threat to the ‘Hindu’ family, and it was encumbent on ‘Hindu society’ to protect themselves against the Christian, Islamic and Communist forces (Jaffrelot 1996: 197-198).
6 ‘BJP’s win in Assam resulted from a consolidation, across faultlines, on the issue of citizenship’, Indian Express, http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/assam-assembly-elections-2016-resultsbjp-sarbananda-sonowal-2829474/, last accessed 31 st December 2017
7 In terms of size and electoral representation Assam is the largest state in Northeast India, having 14 Members of Parliament in the Lok Sabha, compared to the average of 2 in other states.
9 ‘Assam’s secular identity will be safe: Ram Madhav’, The Hindu, http://www.thehindu.com/elections/assam2016/assams-secular-identity-will-be-safe-rammadhav/article8622488.ece, last accessed 31 st December 2017
10 ‘What BJP posters of Bharat Mata in Tripura tribal gear say about its North East strategy’, Scroll.in, https://scroll.in/article/859755/what-posters-in-tripura-of-bharat-mata-in-tribal-gear-sayabout-the-bjps-north-east-strategy, last accessed 15 th of January 2018
11 This is article 244 of the Indian Constitution for the administration of tribal dominated areas in four states in the Northeast – Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram.
12 I do not intend to downplay the importance of grassroots Hindutva ideological work here. On the contrary, much of the BJP success has happened because of the presence of the RSS and affiliates like the VHP and the Kalyan Ashram.
13 ‘Won’t part with even an inch of Assam: Sarbananda Sonowal’, Economic Times, http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/articleshow/61343558.cms?utm_source=contentofintere st&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst, last accessed 31 st December 2017
14 ‘No change in territorial boundary of States: Ravi’, Assam Tribune, http://www.assamtribune.com/scripts/detailsnew.asp?id=oct1617/at056, last accessed 31st December 2017
15 ‘Nagaland talks tempo worries neighbours Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh’, Indian Express, http://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2017/oct/29/nagaland-talks-tempo-worriesneighbours-assam-manipur-and-arunachal-pradesh-1686436.html, last accessed 31 st December 2017
16 A local journalist in Nagaland writing about the elections in Assam relayed to me that in her presence some new BJP workers were told by senior members to ‘fall at the feet’ of RSS bigwigs if they want a Party ticket to contest elections.
17 ‘Assam’s secular identity will be safe: Ram Madhav’, The Hindu, 12th September 2016.
18 ‘We started working on Assam even before 2014 polls’, Indian Express, http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/ram-madhav-bjp-national-secretaryassam-elections-2016-results-2812864/, last accessed 15 th January 2018 19 ‘Can Secularism Survive India’s right-wing’?, Morung Express, 6 th February 2015.
20 ‘A Counter-narrative Politiking’, Morung Express, 6 th June 2017.
21 ‘Meghalaya BJP leader quits over beef party; another may be asked to resign’, Hindustan Times, http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/meghalaya-bjp-leader-quits-over-beef-partyanother-may-be-asked-to-resign/story-b0Q5zfRQECSlH88AhNIVbK.html, last accessed 15 th January 2018
22 ‘Minister: BJP is Secular’, Telegraph, https://www.telegraphindia.com/states/north-east/minister-bjp-is-secular-181216, last accessed 30 th December 2017
23 I was told that the BJP does not get into customary, clan, village, and tribal politics, which shows a particular national outlook, but circumventing this is difficult particularly in the regional politics of tribal states. More research is required to substantiate this point.
24 ‘Anybody living in India is Hindu, says RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat in Tripura’, Hindustan Times,
http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/rss-chief-mohan-bhagwat-visits-tripura-saysanybody-living-in-india-is-hindu/story-HiyoiUsDGwCMyV99DFHNfL.html, last accessed 15 th January 2018