With elections ahead in Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura, the direction that the Northeast takes may prove decisive. The unexpected success of the BJP in the 2016 elections in Assam had rescued their karyakartas and policy-makers from depression after their debacles in the Delhi and Bihar elections. It gave them a new lease of life for some time. In the same way, what happens in a few days in the Northeast may point to what awaits them in the near future at least for a while.
Most people do not know what really happened in Assam. The BJP success did not come with an unforeseen Modi-wave or a sudden outburst of enthusiasm for their ideology. It reflected rather for a society’s tiredness with an old order, but even more, the restlessness of the second level leadership under Himanta Biswas Sharma to take over in some manner or the other. In fairness to the former Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, it must be admitted that he had brought down militancy and set the state firmly on the way to development. But ordinary people always believe that a change will bring some unforeseen good. So, this time the luck went to the BJP.
The trump card that the BJP played was to fan the fear that the Assamese had of “uncontrolled” Bangladeshi immigration into their state, and pose as their staunch defenders. Though BJP credibility was very low in many other respects, their well known anti-Muslim stance gave them some measure of dependability at least on this specific issue. Some of the over-confident statements of Badruddin Ajmal, the Muslim leader, must have caused anxiety in many people in Assam too.
The BJP leaders astutely sought to compare 2016 elections to the decisive victory that the famous Assamese general Lachit Borphukan had won against the Delhi Mughals (Aurangzeb’s armies) in 1671 in the “Battle of Saraighat.” The Assamese society had always been proud of that event and used to attribute to it the reason for the preservation of their identity and culture. The BJP shrewdly changed a case of Assamese self-assertion against outsiders, (in history, against Aurangazeb’s aggressive designs on Assam) into a Hindu self-assertion against Muslim aggrandisement. As the Mughal self-imposition on Assam was frustrated four centuries earlier, the BJP spokespersons swore, the Muslim Bangladeshi infiltration into their land would be definitively stopped if their Party came to power. They called it the “Last Battle of Saraighat” against the Muslims. They won.
The politics of identity had dominated Assam public discussions for decades. The Assamese society, not constituting a very large population, is seriously afraid of being outnumbered by later settlers. Indigenous tribal communities like the Bodos, Rabhas, Tiwas, and Mishings form a sizable number. The Adivasis who came in during the British period too constitute a significant number. Further, growing Muslim migrations from East Bengal (today’s Bangladesh) were already causing anxiety to the Assamese, when the Partition caused an exodus into the Brahmaputra and Barak Valleys from across the borders. The Assamese felt that the demographic pattern in society had greatly changed. A perception remains still that a quiet, low-profile immigration continues.
Northeasterners have several grievances. There is no reference to their area in India’s national Anthem. None of their heroes have been placed among the nation’s great men. No work of art or literature of theirs has been given the recognition they deserve. As long as their leaders remained loyal Congress men, their points of view and concerns were ignored, as though these had no importance at the national level. It was from these convictions that the Assam Students’ Movement and the AGP Party of young leaders derived their strength. The Assamese felt marginalized, forgotten and of being under threat of being outnumbered by “outsiders.” Not seeing any other rescuers, they surrendered to the BJP in despair.
Rajat Sethi and Shubhrastha in their “The Last Battle of Saraighat” (Penguin) make a detailed study of issues, and identify the RSS as the force that effected the recent big change, a force that had been at work in the region during the last few decades. They point out that social thinkers and media men usually concentrate on poll strategies; they hardly notice quiet mind-shapers like the RSS pracharaks. While ‘vote banks’ play a big role, ‘thought banks’ play a bigger role. That is the role that the RSS have played in building a new mentality in Assam during the last one generation and more.
It was not easy to build up a favourable image for the BJP, much less for the RSS, among the Northeastern people. In many people’s eyes, they are too closely associated with the ‘cow-belt,’ ‘North Indian exclusivism,’ and demeaning obscurantism. Assamese consider themselves open and secular-minded, and have a progressive outlook. The greatest anxiety they have is the fear of being reduced to a minority in their own land, with porous borders separating them from a populous Bangladesh. It is on that fear that the RSS built their strength.
According to Sethi and Shubhrastha, the first three RSS pracharaks came to Assam in 1946 to help the victims of the Partition riots, on the request of a Marwari businessman, Keshav Dev Bawri. One was placed at Guwahati, one was sent to Shillong and one to Dibrugarh. Over the years they grew in numbers; by 1975 every district in Assam had a sakha. They took it as their mission to emotionally integrate an alienated region with the Indian nation by cultivating devotion to Bharat Mata. They traced back Assam’s history to the glories of Kamrupa and Pragjyotishpur as recorded in the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Kalikha Purana.
Sethi and Shubhrastha have nothing but admiration for the dedicated RSS pracharaks from Kerala, Tamilnadu, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh (not so much from the cowbelt), who gradually acquired local rootedness, learnt the language, got used to the local culture and cuisine, promoted Krishna Bhakti according to Sankardev tradition as a medium for passing on their ideology... until gradually they built up the local leadership by 2014. Some of them lost their lives in politically troubled times. Today the RSS have more than 800 shakhas in Assam and are planning to have 1200 by next year.
Intellectuals and media men cannot understand the RSS sacrifice, argue the authors. They contend that the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement came to reverse the trend created by subnational movements in Kashmir, Punjab and Assam in the 1970s, bringing respectability to Hindutva self-assertion. They chose such symbols and programmes as would silence and marginalize internal divisions within the Hindu community along lines of caste, region, language, or party. Similar themes keep coming up again and again: Ram temple, statues to Hindutva heroes, cow-slaughter, conversion, surgical strike against Pakistan, sham postures against the Chinese, self-deceptive statistics, unhistorical glorification of Hindu heroes, maligning of Muslim rulers, proud predictions by venal social scientists about India’s imminent greatness.
But the cleverest game that the RSS mentors played was to transform the Assamese fear of being outnumbered by ‘outsiders’ into a dread of Bangladeshi Muslims, of ‘foreigners’ as they called them. An anxiety that had originally no communal content, the RSS wizards turned into a horror for the Bangladeshis. In concrete reality, it made little difference to the Assamese whether their soil was going to poor landless men from the neighbourhood or insensitive investors from the ‘cowbelt’ who would care little about the concerns of the local “Aam Admis.” For example, the 1200 acres that have reportedly gone to the Patanjalis, holding indigenous leaders to ransom, will render thousands of Bodo tribesmen landless in their own land.
“ There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know” (Harry Truman). Critical historians draw a comparison between recent events and what happened in India down the centuries from the time of the Aryan migrations. These immigrants from Central Asia, having acquired a firm foothold in the Gangetic valley, knew how to send their Rishis and Munis ahead of them into forests and undeveloped areas occupied by indigenous people to domesticate them where it was possible, and prepare the ground for Kshatriya armed-action in due course. Vaisya agricultural investment would follow a little later making skilful use of the conquered people as their labour-force.
Brahmin myth-makers would take over next, tracing back the ancestry of the more successful Kshatriyas to epic heroes and ancient deities. Puranas would gradually emerge telling the tales of the defeat of Asuras by Devas, crushing of Rakshasas by Rajas, befriending of Vanaras by the Aryan elite. The defeated men themselves, now reduced to the status of Shudras, would appropriate the tales, little realizing that the humiliated Asuras and Rakshasas were their own ancient leaders.
This pattern of elitist expansion continued up to the Medieval times when a new situation demanded another approach. Jobless Brahmins would offer their services to clueless fighting men who had just built up a fiefdom by force of arms and who were in search of pliant men with a minimum of administrative skills. Brahmin colonies thus came up in Eastern India and Agraharams in the South. They took it as their mission to introduce society to the advantages of the caste-system and the blessing that came from surrendering to the Brahmins. And of late, Gurus and godmen have come up seeking total compliance from people in exchange for interpreting their ancient writings and aphorisms and their secret meanings, of which they claim to have the monopoly of knowledge.
And in our own days, there are the RSS pracharaks who have moved into pre-poll Tripura, Nagaland and Meghalaya, and who are the harbingers of political and economic muscle that will follow closely behind: ‘thought banks’ first, ‘vote banks’ next, ‘note banks’ last. You can guess who will appropriate the last. As cultural bridges have been built between mainland Shaivism and Bodo traditions, Vaishnavism and Sankardev’s heritage, bridges are being built between (Arunachal) Donyi-Polo and Puranic deities, (Meghalaya) Jaintia practices and Epic narratives. Myths and genealogies are in creation, eulogies for winners are in preparation, natural resources of the region will soon be in depredation.
The Modi-government is pressurising every mind-shaping agency to be propagators of the RSS ideology: teachers, professors, research scholars, election-candidate screeners, fund-distributors, media barons. Shridhar Damle says “By 2024, they (RSS) would have raised a new generation of educated Indians who understand and believe in the philosophy of Hindutva.” All Vice-Chancellors of major universities are partners in this project. Further, the one-time low-profile gurus are moving into decision-making positions: Army Generals, State Governors, Judges. The semi-literate, irresponsible statement-makers too play their part when they ‘sleep-talk’ about changing the Constitutions, rejecting Evolution, condemning the Taj Mahal and the Muslim heritage, and re-writing history. Every royal court had someone who could elicit a laugh when matters became too serious, but who also could innocently probe the future!
The trouble is that the “unreasoned type of religious loyalty” that the Hindutva propagators seek to impose is linked with obscurantisms and fanaticisms of all sorts. Shivraj Chouhan will fund a ‘Bharat Mata Mandir’ in Bhopal. He has assigned 5 hectares near the airport for the purpose. Mohan Bhagwat of the RSS had unveiled a 16-ft statute of Bharat Mata at Ujjain a little earlier. The way Bharat Mata is worshipped ultimately amounts to the “self-worship” of the dominant community, which no enlightened person can accept. It does not differ from the emperor-worship in Nero’s times and the deification of the Roman empire, resisting which whole hosts of Christians laid down their lives.
If the Northeast opts for the BJP in the coming elections under the discipleship of the RSS Bhagavans, we can look forward to three possible tragedies. The first: the land of the indigenous people and their natural resources will stand under severe threat of alienation. Jharkhand is a rich country, but the tribals whose land it was remain poor. Their Chief Minister compared them to cows. That is what can happen to Meghalaya or Nagaland.
Similarly, if loyalty to a party, an ideology or to social values is decided solely on calculations of the money transferred, one can look forward in utmost anxiety to what can happen to the nation if bigger sums are transferred this side across the borders. Undermining values and disrupting healthy social bonds, particularly in border states, are suicidal.
The last tragedy will be that the Northeastern states are opting for the BJP just when the Party is about to breathe its last, with its allies in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Punjab seriously upset, voters in Rajasthan opting for the Congress, economy weakening despite the high-sounding budget rhetoric... but most of all, with the resources of ‘Aam Admi’ steadily sinking under communal threats, cow-terror, and loss of demonetized cash. In a new order of things, the people of the Northeast may feel that they opted for the wrong Party just at the wrong time.
(Published on 12th February 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 07)