Editor's note: In the second 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. You can read the first part of the series here.
India's North East is no longer an unknown destination for the BJP which until a few years was almost akin to an alien in the region. With its victory in the Assam Assembly election that helped the party opened its account in the North East last year, the win in Manipur this year makes it even more ambitious to capture Christian-dominated states like Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram besides the Hindu-dominated state of Tripura.
Apart from political reasons that might work in its favour, it's the silent crusade of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, better known by its abbreviation RSS, that has given the party a ready platform to take on its rivals. However, unlike Assam and Manipur, it won't be easy for the BJP to make inroads into these states that are Christian-dominated. This piece focuses on the states in the North East, where the BJP is yet to open its account in terms of ruling the state.
The Meghalaya metamorphosis
As per Census 2011, Meghalaya has a population of 29.67 lakh with 74.59 percent following Christianity among them. Hinduism is followed by 11.53 percent while 4.4 percent of the state's population is Muslim.
Among the few Congress-led states in India as of now, Meghalaya will face election for its 60-member Assembly within the first quarter of next year. While the Congress had won 29 seats in the 2013 state poll, the BJP had won none. However, things in the political spectrum are changing fast with the first such wave generated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
The political mood in the state can be gauged when Conrad Kongkal Sangma of the National People's Party, an alliance partner of the BJP won the Tura parliamentary bye-election in May 2016 comfortably. Moreover, the BJP managed to win few seats in the 2015 election for the state's three district councils of — Garo Hills Autonomous District Council, Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council, and Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council.
The Garo Hills Autonomous District Council looks after the East Garo Hills District, West Garo Hills District and South Garo Hills District while the Jaintia Hills Autonomous District Council is responsible for the Jaintia Hills District. The Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council takes care of the East Khasi Hills District, West Khasi Hills District and the Ri Bhoi District.
"We had a few victories in the council elections. Many former MLAs and ministers have joined us from different parties. We have already made committees in 57 constituencies out of 60," said Meghalaya BJP president Shibun Lyngdoh.
The BJP is organisationally not quite so strong in the state and it is unlikely that the party will be able to come to power entirely on its own. However, the party chose not to spill the beans on the possibility of any alliances as yet.
"I won't say anything about alliances now. Anyway, that's a call to be taken by the party's central committee. As of now, we are working for the development of our own party and not for any alliances," he said.
Earlier this month, it was rumoured that Meghalaya chief minister Mukul Sangma was likely to quit the Congress and join the BJP, which was later denied by both the parties.
"There is no place for Mukul Sangma in the BJP. The North-East Democratic Alliance convener Himanta Biswa Sarma has already clarified it," Lyngdoh said.
The BJP knows it well that unless the party reaches out to the grassroots it will find it difficult to make much of an impression. This is where the RSS comes into picture although the party is reluctant to admit that it is taking any help from its ideological parent on the political front.
"RSS has its own activities. They are running community-based programmes in the Jaintia, Khasi and Garo Hills," he said.
The RSS started operations in Meghalaya when the first shakha (daily meet) was set up in 1946 under Vasantrao Oak in Shillong. The state was then a part of Assam. It attained full statehood on 21 January, 1972.
"After 1985, we started working for the Garos, Jaintias and Khasis. We also run programmes for the Hajong and Koch communities which are plain tribes. Then there are medical camps and educational aid that are being provided by the Seva Bharati. In fact, we run medical camps in 1,000 Meghalaya villages. At present, there are 50 schools in all of 11 districts of the state," RSS organising secretary, Khasi Hills Pravin Shewale told Firstpost from Shillong.
Although for their own respective organisations, it is evident that both the RSS and the BJP are seeking to build a solid foundation in the state.
"We have over 6,000 swayamsevaks (volunteers) across the state. We are concentrating on forming committee right down to the block level," Shewale said.
Given that Meghalaya is a Christian dominated state, the organisation is trying to educate people on its objectives.
"On 15 December, 2016 we conducted a 'Know RSS' programme and invited 300 teachers among which 125 were Christians. Even representatives from the clergy also turned besides a village headman who was a Catholic. The programme was organised to allay usually hold beliefs that the RSS was up to converting people from other faiths into Hinduism. Many people actually understood what RSS stands for then for the first time. We are all Indians outside no matter whatever religion we follow at home," the RSS organising secretary said.
The RSS approach has been methodical as it has carefully planned its strategy to make it inclusive of everyone. Often seen as a hardcore Hindutva organisation, it is well aware of the bottlenecks that it faces in the state.
"We have a think tank where we discuss issues pertaining to the state and the country without any religious bias. Many Christians also participate in this think tank. The image of the RSS that is normally projected is very wrong. RSS doesn't kill Muslims or Christians. People from different religions, different age groups and different income levels are gradually joining the organisation," Shewale said.
At present, there are 46 shakha, 30 milan (weekly meet) and 35 mandali (monthly meet) in Meghalaya. However, it was not an easy journey for the organisation in the state.
"There was one RSS member who was kidnapped while three-four members were killed till date," he said.
With the recent tide favouring the BJP in the North East in general, there is a growing assumption that the BJP will automatically benefit from the network that the RSS has built over the years in the state.
"BJP is a political party while the RSS is a socio-cultural organisation. However, because of the RSS, the politically inclined people are now benefitting. The RSS has made concentrated efforts to maintain the unity between the tribals and the non-tribals. Meghalaya is a tribal dominated state and due to these efforts the BJP will gain from it," the RSS organising secretary said.
With the presence of a nationalist organisation, there is usually a fear that a certain way of life might become common to all threatening the local customs, which the RSS vehemently denied.
"Local traditions have to be respected and preserved. If these disappear no diversity would be left," Shewale, who has been associated with the RSS in Shillong for the last seven years, said.
Ahead of the Assembly poll, both the RSS and the BJP are busy strengthening their network across the state without which neither will BJP's dream of ever ruling Meghalaya will get fulfilled nor will RSS do justice to its existence in the state.
The Tripura talk
Next year by this time around, India's third-smallest state Tripura in all likelihood will have a new government provided polling happens on time. The state which has a House of 60 will vote for its 12th Assembly early next year but what is pertinent will the CPM retain power or will the BJP which has been of late conquering newer territories in the northeastern region make its maiden mark?
Whether or not the threat is real for the ruling party time will decide, but there is definitely the RSS factor that the Left Front can't ignore. Even though debates are still on what kind of impact RSS had in BJP's poll victories in the neighbouring states of Assam and Manipur, it is unlikely that the Left won't note with caution.
Tripura, which shares an 839-kilometre-long international boundary with Bangladesh to its north, south and west and state boundaries with Assam and Mizoram of 53 kilometres and 109 kilometres respectively, doesn't have a single BJP legislator in the present Assembly. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has 49 members, Trinamool Congress six, Congress four while the CPI has a single seat. Given the manner things have changed in the last three years, this would hardly be a solace to the ruling dispensation.
Often known for his frugal lifestyle, Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar has successfully converted the state into a Left bastion as the CPM government has been ruling the state since 1998. Sarkar in his consecutive fourth term as chief minister would complete 20 years in office next year.
But the Left Front government won't find it easy to retain power if what the BJP in-charge of Tripura Sunil Deodhar is to be believed.
"The condition in Tripura is really pathetic. There is a 20-year-long anti-incumbency. Contrary to Sarkar's calm and composed image, the state has actually topped all records in murders, suicides, and disappearances. Cannabis trade is actually the highest in the chief minister's constituency Dhanpur. There is a huge unemployment in the state as well," said Deodhar.
The BJP was extremely critical of the Tripura chief minister saying his "thrifty" lifestyle was nothing but just fodder for the media to chew.
"Way back, people voted for the CPM to get freedom from the misrule of the Congress. But the CPM created a divide between the tribals and the non-tribals and brought in the element of hooliganism. They have ditched Karl Marx. Sarkar may be travelling by train but his annual chopper bills stand at Rs 10 crore," he said. The Tripura chief minister had raised eyebrows when he travelled nearly 3,000 km long by train from Guwahati to Bangalore to receive the Basava Krishi award in January last year.
The state government is already on a back foot after the Supreme Court on 29 March declared the appointment of 10,323 government school teachers null and void.
"All these school teachers were appointed after taking bribes. The minimum eligibility law was heavily flouted. Now the whole school education sector in the state is in a crisis. Now people who have the lost their jobs and those who didn't get the job 10 years back due to corrupt practices are also angry. The crisis of teachers has also angered the parents. This is a cruel joke by the government," the BJP leader said.
Handed on a platter the BJP is exploiting the matter to the utmost as the party is going all out to create a Prime Minister Narendra Modi wave. BJP president Amit Shah is also scheduled to visit the state next month.
"People are happy with the Modi government. Be it the Garib Kalyan Yojana, Jan Dhan Yojana or the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana people have received it well. The government has also increased the number of workdays in MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) benefitting the rural population," the BJP Tripura prabhari said.
While the BJP is striving to uproot the Left Front domination in Tripura, what role the RSS will play is worth watching despite it not being a political organisation.
"The RSS is an independent organisation. There is no help for each other. Whatever benefit is there politically it is by default and not organised. But it has to be kept in mind when the BJP was weak as an organisation in the state, the RSS network was considerably strong. People from different walks of life are actually willing to join the RSS," Deodhar said indicating how much BJP's fortunes in the state depend heavily on its ideological parent.
Although the Census 2011 puts Hinduism as the majority religion in Tripura with 83.40 percent followers, it was a thorny path for the Hindutva organisation to establish its footprint in the state. Despite its presence in the state since 1956, it is only now that the RSS is creating some impact in Tripura compelling the Left parties to take note of its presence.
"The terror outfits created a lot of problems for us. Since the state is dominated by the CPM, people were too scared to associate themselves with the RSS for fear of violent retaliation. Even the Hindus were averse to the organisation. But now things are gradually changing. Now we have around 130 shakhas (daily meets), around 30 milan (weekly meet) and around 30 mandali (monthly meet). There are 200-250 schools running in the state by RSS-affiliated organisations like Sanskar Kendras. There are hostels as well," said RSS prachar pramukh for Tripura Manoranjan Pradhan.
What perhaps works as the most potent force of the RSS are its many cadres
The uneasy relationship between the Left Front and the RSS could well be determined when two RSS workers were put behind bars two years back for organising the Vistarak programme charging them with communalism. Vistarak loosely translates to expansion.
"The action by the government angered people a lot. In response, the RSS organised a much bigger programme by taking out a huge rally on Mahalaya in October 2015," the prachar pramukh said.
There is a deeper cause why the BJP is getting an edge because of the RSS.
"People believe in the RSS. So the trust on BJP is built on the faith that people have on the RSS. Even politically the Congress and CPM are getting weaker as the election approaches. This has also created an advantage for the BJP," Pradhan said.
However, what is worrisome is the increasing differences between the tribals and non-tribals. In February this year, the state witnessed violence during a shutdown called by the All Tripura Indigenous Regional Parties Forum in the tribal autonomous areas.
"The Bengalis and the tribals are not in good terms. The RSS is trying to keep the two groups together by talking about nationalism," he said.
The Bengali Hindus dominate the state in terms of its demography allegedly sidelining the tribals. The RSS has however maintained its silence on a critical issue like the Chakmas refugees from Bangladesh in the state following oppression in the neighbouring country.
For an organisation rooted in the Hindutva ideology, what has caught the attention of the RSS is some allegedly forced conversions into Christianity of a section of tribals.
"We are aware of the developments and looking into it," Pradhan said.
For now, the larger the RSS grows in Tripura, it potentially strengthens the BJP, even more, to take on the Left Front possibly building a platform for one of the biggest news break from the country's one of the smallest states next year.
Nestling in Nagaland
Although the Naga People's Front (NPF) is an alliance partner of the BJP at the Centre, Manipur and in Nagaland, the national party is yet to make any significant progress in this northeastern state. With 88 percent of its population being Christians as per the Census 2011, it turns out to be one of the three Christian-majority states in India including Meghalaya and Mizoram.
The religious equation has made the job far tougher for the RSS in its effort to gain a strong foothold in the state.
"The organisation does not have a strong presence in Nagaland mainly because of Christianity although there are some Bharat Sevashram Sangha schools running in the state. Christian students do attend these schools," said RSS prasar pramukh for the North East, Shankar Das.
Owing to these barriers in reaching out to the people, the RSS took out a leaf from history to make their work a little easier in the state.
"We have invoked Rani Ma Guidenlu who was a freedom fighter and a Padma Bhushan winner. She was known for her opposition against religious conversions that were taking place in Nagaland then and was a staunch nationalist. The Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram made efforts to popularise her work across the country in an effort to establish a connect with the Naga people. Her followers have in fact set up the Zaliang Rang Harakka Association in her memory which is also a Hindu organisation," Das said.
The association is linked to the RSS and runs hostels for students in Dimapur, the business capital of the state.
However, the organisational weakness of the RSS in Nagaland is evident from the fact that as of today it has only two shakha running in Dimapur.
"The Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram has its presence but even it has not succeeded in making much penetration," he said.
However, another RSS member who until recently was in Dimapur felt that although there is religious difficulty the problem is not entirely insurmountable.
"All are human beings after all. Religion has come much later. There is no such thing as Christian-dominated states hate RSS. Even in Hindu-dominated states, there are difficulties. People are slowly taking interest in RSS. They want to know more about the organisation. All that RSS tries to preach is the importance of good education, good values and the need to become a good human being. No one will object to that," the RSS member said speaking on condition of anonymity.
Traditionally, the approach of the RSS has been to navigate through the local issues and come up with a solution that would largely reflect on its nationalistic ideologies. This is particularly important as Nagaland has a long history of a secessionist movement. Although the guns have fallen silent due to the ongoing ceasefire between the Naga insurgent groups and the Centre, another concern is the demand for Greater Nagaland, or Nagalim that claims huge chunks of territory from the neighbouring states of Manipur and Assam.
"In all places there are problems. There are local issues but the solution should not be beyond the national domain," the RSS member said.
The RSS, which would include the BJP for that matter, have not tried to impose the beef ban in the North East seen otherwise in the rest of the country. Beef for many tribes living in the North East forms an important part of their diet. This approach by the two organisations has helped them maintain a cordial relationship with the people of the region particularly in a state like Nagaland.
"Many people in Nagaland have turned vegetarian for one reason or the other. They have even started Yoga. Many have stopped eating pork. It is not because they have joined RSS or something. Whatever is there belongs to everybody. There is no convincing required. We simply work along with them," the RSS member said.
Even though the BJP is a constituent of the ruling Democratic Alliance of Nagaland government in Nagaland, it won't be easy either for the party or its ideological parent to get a strong footing in the state. The BJP has four members in the current 60-member Assembly in Nagaland but it has to do some real hard work if it seeks to make some real progress in the Assembly poll that is likely to be held early next year. Except for Dimapur which shares its borders with Assam and has a minuscule presence of the RSS, the party would largely be on its own in the state.
Missing in Mizoram
Mizoram has the smallest Assembly in the North East (with 40 members) but it is a terrain on which the RSS and the BJP have failed to create much impact so far. The hilly state which is one of the three Christian-dominated states in India is not very open to the nationalistic ideals of the RSS which has an intermix of subtle Hindutva flavour. In a state which has 87 percent of its population following Christianity as per the Census 2011 the challenges for both the BJP and the RSS are obvious.
The RSS has a little presence among the Mizos although it is seeking to make a mark in the state by working among the Reang and Chakma communities. The Reang community also referred to as Bru had fled Mizoram in September 1997 following ethnic violence and since then has led the life of a refugee in their own country at relief camps at Kanchanpur in neighbouring Tripura. The relationship of the community with the Mizos has not been cordial enough which has created obstacles for their return even after 30 years of exile. Although in a minor way, the presence of the RSS and its associated organisations among these communities has not impressed the Congress-led government in Mizoram much.
"We hardly have any presence in Mizoram apart from a hostel run by the Rashtra Sevika Samiti for Reangs. We have also learnt that the Christian missionaries are converting people in these tribes but we have not undertaken any ghar wapsi (homecoming) programme so far," said RSS prasar pramukh for the North East, Shankar Das.
The state faces Assembly poll towards the end of 2018 and going by their organisational strength it is unlikely that either the BJP or the RSS would be able to penetrate so deep to have any real political impact.
What future holds
Apart from the base that the RSS has developed in Meghalaya and Tripura, which in turn is likely to help the BJP in its political ambitions, the state of the two organisations in Nagaland and Mizoram need immense nurturing. Even with better prospects, it is unlikely that the BJP would be in a position to form a government on its own in Meghalaya and Tripura which would vote early next year. The attempt would be to make a mark at least as even with four MLAs in Nagaland, the BJP's growth in realistic terms is stunted. 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. Looks like a much bigger Modi wave is needed.
Published Date: Apr 21, 2017 14:12 PM | Updated Date: Apr 21, 2017 17:05 PM